Letter to the editor: The Mill was an Iowa City institution. Maybe that was the problem.

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The Mill dining room in 2017. — Zak Neumann/Little Village

By Chris Wiersema, Iowa City

The Mill is an important and sadly repeated lesson in Iowa City “institutions.” There have been beautiful, heart-rendering remembrances. There have been wails of mournful surprise. There have been valiant proclamations of forthcoming financial heroics that shall save the day. The Mill has died its second and possibly final death. Long live the Mill.

Bars and venues in college towns are not altogether different than ones in other cities, except for the speed at which scenes, tastes and patrons change over. Here, it is much accelerated due to the median age of the town (replete with a baffling amount of personality costume changes that take place between the ages of 18 to 22—one semester’s disc golf trustafarian is next semester’s vegan tankie) and the brief window that most of these people are here. The Mill managed to weather 58 years of these rapidly shifting bellwether audiences. That in itself is laudable.

But I come not to memorialize the Mill, but to accuse its killers. It’s you. And it’s me.
We who now sit in mourning with our lamentations and gravemound rose, too often do we use the term “institution” as an exultant when that thinking was in fact the murder weapon. I have been privileged and poor enough to work at many such “institutions” and can assure you that as soon as the public thinks that way, they feel no compulsion to support that business outside anytime that perfectly suits them. Hell, it’s always been there, so it’ll always be there, right?

Well, no, obviously.

This is not just about COVID, or summer culture when the students are gone, or football season when it’s on. This is an ongoing shift that is and will continue. Because of the university’s monolithic centrality, and all its fringe perks that keep Iowa City from having the cultural impact of an ice cube, we expect all of the other businesses that flourish in its shadow to be as equally deep-rooted. Sadly it has been proven time and time again not to be the case. Yet each time we rend our garments and wail as if there was no way to have seen this coming. I think if we reflect on how we’ve spent our time and our money in the last year (prior to the plague), I think we’d have seen clearly.

We who live here (and I mean old-ass live in this motherfucker) need to stop treating Iowa City like it’s some kind of Living History Farms version of our 20s, where the Ye Olde Rentertainment or Tofu Hut will be ready to recommend a bootlegged VHS version of a Finnish horror series, or that any night of the week you can take a tipple at Gabriel’s Grog Shoppee while catching those young upstarts Nirvana play a fetching tune. Those days are dead, and they died because we thought we could move on with our lives and they’d simply be waiting for us when we had a moment for them again. How has that method worked out for those impulse-buy house plants? As the land these businesses sit on become worth more to developers and multinational chains, this cycle will continue to increase at a frightening clip unless we make ourselves actively involved in our local business.

I get it. We get older. Our jobs get earlier, longer, more demanding. There’s suddenly a bunch of kids who seem to be totally helpless living in our houses. We can’t be watching some mind-melting Japanese psych band while eating fried pickles and quaffing pitchers of rotgut on a Sunday night (I mean, I can, but I’ve arranged my life differently than yours). But why can’t you? Having a vibrant, living, creative ecology costs more than money. We can’t just donate. We can’t just go to the fundraiser. We can’t just be mister big checks to shmooze the board members. We need to be there. We need to spend our time as well as our money. We need to be that kind of audience for the art that we think we deserve.

Because it won’t be there when we decide that we’re finally ready for it.

There, that’s my eulogy no one asked for.

If you’ve read this far you owe every employee that until yesterday worked at the Mill a drink, a smoke and a hug.

Letter edited for length from the original submission. This letter was originally published in Little Village issue 284.

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