The Weekender usually offers a list of tips for things to do in Iowa City. It’s easy, there’s a constant stream of amazing music and activities, and you all want to hear about them, or you wouldn’t read this. But the greatest thing to do in summer is the simplest one: Just being outside. Being in public. Catching a breeze and seeing who or what’s been hiding indoors all winter. This weekend there are plenty of shows and activities that you can hit up, but the simpler pleasures of hanging out in Iowa City’s public spaces are going to be harder to come by this year than they have been in the past, and well, I wanna talk about it.
To start on the positive, with a meditation on the essential greatness of the ped mall, I went into the LV vaults and found an old Thomas Dean article about the Ped Mall as Iowa City’s “Best Third Place”- the best place to not be at home, or at school or work.
Click here to download a PDF of that article Warning: it might bring a tear to your eye.
Now, check out this Gazette article about the purple parking meters that have gone up on the pedmall as donation stations, and the signs of protest that have been adhered to several of them.
There are several comments, but the one that caught my attention was from a reader that asked, “Uh… should our news media bring to our attention this childish act of vandalism?” I hadn’t really thought of it as vandalism until he mentioned it, but I agreed that installing old parking meters in the middle of a multiple-use public space was distasteful, disruptive and unwanted. Vandalism indeed. But hey let’s have a heart for those in need and let the meters stay.
Of course it wasn’t the meter s/he was referring to, but the little piece of paper clumsily attached to it. This note, sure to wither and decompose in a light rain or tiny fit of your run of the mill do-gooder “urban clean up” initiative, this ephemeral message, the one beautiful thing in the image, the voice of the voiceless that somehow made it through billboards, coupons, cell phone apps and agendas public and private, for like 10 minutes, derided as vandalism? I guess one man’s moral imperative is another man’s vandalism, but I believe in times like these Thoreau and Whitman would be racing each other for the honor of a jail cell.
Downtown has its inconveniences, and any city dweller in the world will tell you it’s not necessarily always kid-friendly. But that’s the public, and around here the public is pretty darn good to each other. The public has money, the public has poverty, the public has their finicky demands. They abuse and assuage retail clerks fetishistically. Capricious in its favor, businesses large and small live and die at the feet of the public. Some of us work our whole lives to get a downtown storefront – the chance to be subject to the whims of the public. That’s business, and that’s life.
Many among them – them, they, those, out in the public – they live meagerly in order to satisfy the need within themselves to make their art. To live free. Can you imagine that?
You can. Maybe you are one of them! you ask yourself. Just another one of the public, making magic, living free. Your chest puffs out a little, your chin raises, you think something about your life – something about how you made your choices, how your art is having insurance, and a car that doesn’t break down all the time – you kick rocks, smell the flowers on the air, breathe and notice a violinist whose music is putting you at ease.
You rest a dollar bill in the violinist’s case, and are approached by a youth basketball team raising funds by selling candy bars. You support them as well.
Ah, life is good when you leave well-enough alone. You take the good with the bad, accept the things you cannot change, enjoy the human nature, experience society, have a conversation.
You ponder the venerable traditions (in almost all faiths) of forsaking worldly possessions and living on charity alone. You envy those monks, and you envy the angel headed hipsters, out forsaking security to live day-to-day seeking spiritual fulfillment here on earth, in art, music, poetry or alcoholism. You ask yourself – who am I to judge?
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But judge we do, for or against the ordinance, and the thing on everyone’s mind is what can be done to change it? Those opposed are getting signatures, writing arguments and looking for a cool lawyer, while those in favor are busily predicting those arguments and fortifying their brains against them.
Personally, I’m not so interested in how we can change the ordinance. I’m gleefully watching as the ordinance is changing us. I’m eagerly anticipating droves of musicians swarming to downtown for critical-mass busk-ins. I’m considering re-reading “No Logo,” by Naomi Klein – ammo for the culture war, if that’s what it is. I’m going to K-Mart and picking up a Che Guevara t-shirt. I’m going to fight for the rights of all to be seen and heard in public – doing nothing, being earnest, being absurd. If you join me, be warned: you could end up embracing all sorts of illegal activities, viewing “vandalism” in different ways. These gray areas might land you in jail, but you won’t be the first.
Thank god this revolution will look different. Otherwise it wouldn’t be real. I only say that because, I confess, ever since I was a kid I’ve found the aesthetics of graffiti rather allusive, but the spirit of it totally engrossing. By reclaiming space, the vandals – both the clever, hyper-moral ad-buster & the asinine safe-tagger, running around putting his or her name in any dumb, easy place – ask an important question: Who has the right to put their message where? Why? There are easy answers to these questions, and like most easy answers, they need pie in the face. Graffiti is the voice of the voiceless. The voice of chaos. The voice of nature. For that – Love. I’m looking forward to seeing how this spirit will be captured in IC. Relax it probably won’t be broken windows and spray paint all over your car. It will look different. IC has class and originality. It will be funny and cool and smart and new. What’s it going to be, IC?
Ped mall beggars, buskers, vets, drunks, addicts and mentally ill are marginalized enough. As a society we should be defending them, raising their voices, not going out of our way to create laws that silence and take even more away from them.
Iowa City, be stoked. It is in times like these that great art happens, and cultural paradigms shift. Let me join the chorus: Fight for and protect the commons. Embrace free speech and public art. To the basketball players: Have a great season.
And to the rest of you, go have a great weekend in the Ped Mall. Still Iowa City’s Best Third Place.