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Paint the Town

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You may have noticed a small open space the size of a downtown building at the north end of the Pedestrian Mall in downtown Iowa City. People flow through this space day and night but few know that it is a city park. It’s called Black Hawk Mini Park and this is its story.

After WWII, to address the problem of urban flight and blight, the federal government created a program called Urban Renewal, through which federal money was made available to rebuild America’s decaying down towns.

Of course, they had to be torn down first and this was not popular with everyone. Whole buildings were torn down leaving rubble and discontent such that, in Iowa City, the process was affectionately renamed “Urban Removal.”

An official planning committee was formed but there were competing ideas for down town Iowa City’s future. The primary objective of the plan that emerged–the committee’s 1960 Urban Renewal plan (officially: “Iowa City in the Future: A Proposal for the Renewal of the Central Business District of Iowa City and Adjacent Areas”)–was to regain taxable retail space; it featured a shopping mall surrounded by parking lots. The planning document used the metaphor of the great American automobile: “Even though the car still runs, there comes a time when it is cheaper to junk the old car and buy a new one.”

Many of the planning committee members were of the ‘50s generation. They had weathered the Depression and the Great War. They were enamored of the 1950s idea of progress, that new was better than old and the old should be replaced with the new. The ‘60s generation, my generation, questioned everything, including ‘50s ideas of progress.

As urban renewal gathered steam, downtown Iowa City rapidly disappeared. Businesses were relocated to temporary buildings in the middle of Clinton Street, city buses rerouted, traffic snarled. A t-shirt appeared with a picture of a bombed-out city and the caption, ”Dresden, Iowa.” As a city bus driver I negotiated the ruins every day!

The building on the corner of Dubuque and Washington–where the Black Hawk Mini Park is now–was among those that disappeared. Amid dust and noise a crater emerged in its place. Those that wanted to see a public space–a park rather than another retail building–planned demonstrations against the 1960 plan in the bottom of the crater while earth-moving equipment hovered on the edge of the hole, ready to carry out the plan. The square took to this use and became the site of demonstrations related not only to urban planning, but also to the Vietnam War and the American Indian Movement.

In the end, the hole was filled, plants were planted and a decision on the ultimate use of the space was deferred.

***

Project Green was born in 1968 with the mission to “support the identification and conservation of open space, historic areas and buildings.” They envisioned a downtown modeled on old European cities with green spaces, plazas and fountains.

Meanwhile, The Iowa City/Johnson County Arts Council emerged from a mural painting workshop taught by UI Professor Donna Friedman. They proposed a visible place for art and artists in the community, but the city council and the business community remained committed to the 1960 plan.

In 1975, amid the chaos, Friedman was teaching a class titled Visual-Environmental Design Workshop. The course description stated, “In many communities there exists a unique opportunity to plan the total environment of a city with murals or graphics. This is particularly true in towns which are undergoing urban renewal.” Friedman’s course thesis was that, in choosing a theme for public art, one must consider the environmental setting, the audience and the people who will frequent the space.

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The city allowed Friedman and her students to move forward with some murals downtown and one of the walls chosen was the West-facing wall of the still-standing Paul-Helen building, which now houses the Iowa Artisan’s Gallery. The design chosen was of the Sac war chief, Black Hawk.

A more significant theme could not have been chosen as a commentary on urban renewal in Iowa City in the ‘70s. The mural, “The Spirit of Black Hawk,” became the epicenter of heated discourse over the meaning and use of space. It was a powerful, iconic image of resistance and it energized the passionate feelings of the time.

In the mural Black Hawk stood, larger than life, in a formal, three quarters stance, looking out over downtown Iowa City, wearing his regalia and holding his symbols of authority. In the style of MC Escher, the atmospheric background composed of his outlined shape morphed into hawks soaring up to the top of the building as though riding thermals into the sky. It was a dignified and proud portrait.

Free Environment, a citizens’ group formed at this time to advocate for public space, said of the Black Hawk mural that it “reminds us that the guardians of this land who came before us treated it with more respect then we do.”

In 1977, 17 years after the first urban renewal plan, the city finally agreed to the idea of urban mini parks and, in 1979, the city designated Black Hawk Mini Park an official city park.

***

Chief Black Hawk died in 1838 in poverty and obscurity at the age of 71. His passing was the sad conclusion of another battle for the meaning and use of space–the Black Hawk War, which took place up and down both sides of the Mississippi River. Ultimately, the Sac nation, lead by Black Hawk, were defeated. The Fox nation, under Keokuk, was “relocated” to Oklahoma. European settlers occupied all of the former Sac and Fox hunting grounds including the Iowa City area.

The image of Black Hawk surveying this contested space became a powerful catalyst for public discussion about the value, meaning and ultimately the use of this space. It brought the discussion into the public and out of the committee room. It was a truly democratic event emerging from a turbulent time.

Sometime in the ‘80s the mural was removed and the building remodeled. Nothing remains of the Black Hawk mural.

The park is peaceful now with planters, benches and even a sculpture. During the day people sit on the benches in the shade. They talk or eat lunch, play chess or hacky sack, rest or pass through on their way to somewhere else. At night it fills with revelers and diners from nearby bars and restaurants.

Recent ordinances have placed the Black Hawk Mini Park–the popular hangout of transients, homeless, runaways, itinerant preachers and inebriated college students–at the center of a new discussion about the use and meaning of public spaces. Which public? What use? Who decides? And how does public art reflect the climate of its community?

I recently asked a hip, young friend of mine if he knew about Black Hawk Mini Park. He was surprised to know that that wide space at the North end of the Ped Mall was even a park, much less that it had a name.

The public art currenly on display in downtown Iowa City–chosen by a committee, the Iowa City Public Art Program–includes two sculptures standing in Black Hawk Mini Park but, when asked about them, my young friend could not even recall them.

What is the current state of public art in downtown Iowa City? It seems to me the sculptures, although very interesting in and of themselves, are personal reflections and function more as decoration in an outside gallery than as a grand statement about something intrinsic and vital to the life and environment of the city. They are safe and pleasant private art works in a public space.

I often return to the park to sit and watch as Black Hawk did from the mural. On a sunny day I can see the clear blue sky above the building where he once stood sentinel. Occasionally I will see a hawk soaring above the city.


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