Friday, November 2, 2012

Sioux Valley or Hill Valley?

About thirty years ago I was a medical resident at Sioux Valley Hospital in Sioux Falls South Dakota.  I then moved to Wisconsin and really had no particular reason to go back.  But my wife and I decided to take a road trip in October, and as we still had some good friends back in Sioux Falls it became our destination.

I had misgivings.

Most of us, were we able to encounter our much younger selves, would grab the hapless cub by the scruff of the neck and apply at a minimum a good talking to.  When I look back on 25-year-old me I am not sure whether to be more astounded by how foolish I once was or by how well things have eventually turned out for me.

Three decades ago I was by turns cocky and indecisive...almost always adopting each mode at exactly the wrong moment!  Of course most of the day to day life of a resident is erased by sleep deprivation then buried under new memories.  But I figured a visit to the old stomping grounds would bring a lot back...

As it turns out, Sioux Falls is a very pleasant place.  It has more than doubled in size since I left and mostly it is clean, functional, prosperous.  I am told the unemployment rate is about half the lamentable national average.

But if you look closer you start to see a few odd little things.  A surprising number of tattoo parlors.  And a phenomenal number - around 80 I understand - of these little storefront casinos...
Here's a combination sub shop and casino

This one in a vintage gas station

Video gambling is legal in South Dakota so you saw these places, open all hours, none of them really seeming to have any patrons at least in the daylight.

Eventually I wandered over to where I recalled Sioux Valley Hospital being.  I think it is still in there somewhere, but it has been overwhelmed by the gigantic medical megalopolis that has sprung up around, over and under it!

I could not fit even a quarter of the site in one snapshot.  In addition to the hospital proper there are parking ramps, a helipad, a Cancer Center, an Orthopedics Center, a Surgical Tower, and a phalanx of other office buildings.  There was even a special Children's Hospital.

I swear, this thing looks like an enormous "bouncy castle".

Now, there is nothing wrong with a nice medical facility.  But this is just too darn much.  And it is one of several such in town.  All the others are pouring resources into keeping up with this outfit which now goes by the moniker of "Sanford Health".  I could not even figure out the dimensions of this complex, but it was huge.

And still growing.  That evening we dined with some of our old friends.  They lived five blocks away but the sky was visibly a neon blue from the distinctive lighting the medical center uses.  And they told us that there were expansion plans afoot that might bring the medical center to their very doorstep.

It all happened courtesy of this guy, whose bronze statue stands out front...

This is T. Denny Sanford, a fellow who made a very large pile of money taking advantage of the fact that South Dakota does not place any limits on interest rates for credit cards.  T.D. made his fortune issuing cards with shocking annual rates to folks whose credit was not quite good enough for Visa and Mastercard.

I do not begrudge him his business acumen, nor do I think there is anything wrong with his philanthropy.  But I do think he has long surpassed what common sense would consider to be the medical needs of this community, and he is just sluicing more buckets of cash (which could find other worthy uses!) into an already bloated and ludicrous medical system.

There was something about the above picture that made my vague nervous feeling intensify.  Hmmm, it almost looks as if there is a clock tower behind him.

My God.  It all makes sense now.

We have rampant gambling.  We have a huge, implausible edifice rising out of nowhere.  At night it has a garish blue glow.  And out front a sturdy fellow with a sharky grin....

I had entered the world of Back to the Future Part Two.

It was a truly surreal experience.  So much of what I saw on my "trip back" was alien and implausible....admixed with the occasional slap of surprise when I recognized a building or some other minor feature.  I kept expected around the next corner to encounter the silver DeLorean.

And I was primed and ready for that 30 year younger version of myself.  Man I had a few things to say to him/me he before he went back in time.....


Nicholas MacDonald said...


I've been reading your comments on David Brin's blog for years, but never had any idea you had lived in my hometown!

Given that I'm 30, you would have left right around the time that I was born. Having grown up in Sioux Falls, I watched the transformation go on around me (and watched my family prosper along with it, as my father's waterworks business made out handsomely as Sioux Falls sprawled from 80,000 people to 220,000).

Though what's interesting is that where I've always seen a cow town that reinvented itself as a kind of cross between Rochester and Redmond, building an impressive medical research, finance and IT capital on the prairie while other towns like it began to stagnate and die, you seem to see something almost dystopian. I don't think that Sioux Falls lost any of it's character in the transformation, and in fact seems to have become more "itself" than it ever had been before. The crime rate remained rock-bottom; it's still a place where my parents have never seen the need to lock their doors- where I lived for 23 years without ever carrying a house key. Work is seldom scarce, even in recessions; the city has one of the best park systems of any city it's size in the country; since the 80s, the downtown has been reborn- empty storefronts and dying businesses gave way to cafes, boutiques, a world-class performing art center, loft apartments and offices. As for the sprawling medical industry, well, it's the regional health center for a commercial zone of about a million people, and a lot of the new facilities are devoted to research. I don't know if Sanford will be competing with Mayo any time soon, but he's certainly put Sioux Falls on the medical map.

As you said, it's a really nice place. (But I had wanderlust and couldn't stand the winters, so I took off in 2005. Since then I've been in Santa Fe, Albuquerque, Portland, Seattle, Wyoming, and finally landed in Shanghai, where I've been based for the last four years.)

Maybe Sioux Falls is just a place that managed to make good out of a bad situation. The rest of the state isn't doing quite as well, and it shows in the rancor at our state capitol between the Sioux Falls legislators and the rest of the state, who often find themselves on the opposite sides of controversial votes (Sioux Falls legislators are mostly Republicans, but much more liberal and cosmopolitan than the neanderthals that the rest of the state tends to elect.)

Anyway, I just thought the Sioux Falls connection was very interesting.

Tacitus2 said...

Mr. MacDonald


The tone I was trying to set was not exactly dystopian so much as unfamiliar, and in the context of Younger Me, discordant. There is much to like in the place. But my personal tastes run more to older, more settled communities and the concentric rings of tidy but new housing holds little appeal to me aesthetically.

Then as now the people of the community are great, and that is the single greatest factor in whether a place is "good" or not.

Of course an "island" metropolis will have an out sized medical center. I just thought it, taken as a whole, was a little over the top. I did not go into it but of course McKenna has grown by about the same amount, the VA has expanded and modernized, there is a spankin' new Heart Hospital on the edge of town and some kind of Medical Research center on the north side. Probably working on cloning T.Denny a la "Sleeper".

I enjoy the Brin site, but in moderation. A couple of times a year I get fed up and wander off for a month. But it is a good place to exchange ideas. Be sure and wade right in on occasion.

I envy you your wanderlust early. I can only afford mine later in life and it will be a horse race for me to see all that I want to see before Grim takes a good swipe with the sickle. (I'm 55, so I figure a good decade, maybe two).

And you are 30. Egad, I might have delivered you. You are only encouraging my inherent curmudgeonism.

Envious Regards