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Down the river

Commentary: June/July 2010 ~ Two years ago in June, the water began creeping. The rain didn’t stop and the water creeped and creeped. Everyone we knew still went to work, shrugging beneath black umbrellas, minds and eyes on the sky. Kids went to school, dogs got walked, and the river slowly wrapped a watery arm around our city.

Where I worked, the floodwater-gorged Ralston Creek bubbled and raged along the banks. For once it looked clean enough to swim in, rusty bikes and foaming flotsam rushing out with the waves. As every drainage system swallowed its last, a troubling silence fell in the streets.

The inertia was haunting. Impromptu citizen meetings converged at local grocery stores over 10 gallon jugs of fresh water. The ped mall was quiet, lone bicyclists and a smattering of cars, aimless and slow, drifted through the streets. Those of us who lived downtown, the ones who weren’t restricted from crossing the Burlington Street Bridge into the city, knew we had to do more than just meet at the bar and stare at each other across our beers.

So when the sandbagging started, my three best girlfriends and I put on our grubbies, grabbed bottles of water, and headed out on our bikes, peddling to local businesses to offer our arms and backs to the battle. Local business owners welcomed us with open sandbags. We were accepted wherever we showed up as fellow members of Team Take-Back-Our-City.

For over a week, we spent all of our extra time sandbagging. There was a method: Some crouched under overturned orange traffic cones grasping the bags that scratched against their legs as the sand fell through. Others shoveled the sand out of a big communal pile and poured it through the cones. There were people who tied the bags shut, wearing blisters into their hands, and those who picked up the full bags and lugged them…carried them…cursed them to whatever new pile they were being added.

It was filthy. Sand stuck in every imaginable crevasse of every tired body. Sand was in my drains, in my shoes, in my nails, in my scalp, and when I would scratch an itch sand would fall from my body. I was a woman of sand–exhausted, crumbling. But I was also a woman demonstrating through this dirty work the thing I’d never thought to say outright before: I live here now. This city is my home. This water will not take the thing I love.

All that week, we were out until sunset. Then on to George’s for burgers, beers and the evening’s recap on KCRG. In the strange glow of the television, we saw our neighboring cities overcome; Cedar Rapids a stew of murk and rooftops. Each day we saw our own riverbanks purged, the smell of rot wafting through the streets of abandoned neighborhoods. We witnessed most of our hard work go underwater.

But we felt something good, too. A bond like the bond of the tendon to the bone, the certain connection of our friends, the truth of our relationship to the city, an elastic love, the kind that gives and gives and doesn’t break. Men and women worked side by side with children and old people and stinky people and business owners and patrons and tiny, weak people and big, overweight people and the one thing we had in common was the only thing we needed to have in common: We were loyal defenders of our city.

Now, with the Iowa City City Council considering an ordinance to restrict the area in which panhandlers can move freely in the ped mall (June 1 being the final vote), I think back upon the spirit of community and connectedness that I and so many others felt during the days leading up to the flood, and the months of recovery afterward. I think of what we would lose as opposed to what we would gain by limiting the ability of people of all ages, all backgrounds, all situations, all financial realities from commingling in a shared public space.

For better or for worse, these panhandlers are citizens of our city. Maybe they filled sandbags alongside us a couple of years ago? Under our dirty faces, scabby hands and messy hair, our torn clothes, battered shoes and desperate faces, who could tell the difference? In a time of great need, our city came together to help each other. What if that spirit of camaraderie expanded indefinitely, embraced our poor and needy and mentally ill residents in the same way we embraced our neighbors who lost their homes and possessions?

Calamity comes in many forms–and so does community. Need isn’t always measured by the magnitude of disaster. Financial ruin, abuse, personal disaster may not level buildings, but it can level spirits, leave a person balancing on the edge of acceptance and despair, between what little hope one gets from a quarter rattling in a can and the crushing desolation of being ostracized from ”proper” society. This is not the welcoming, inclusive spirit of the Iowa City I’ve come to love. Creating a pariah class only serves to separate those who need from those who can help, and this arms-length treatment of one citizen by another was certainly not what I witnessed during the flood of 2008.

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