The Robert A. Lee Recreation Center is the cultural nexus of Iowa City, but not all are welcome equally

Mustard-in-Law/Little Village

The Robert A. Lee Community Recreation Center, an unimpressive building that looms small in the shadow of The Chauncey, is nevertheless a nexus for the true cultural geography of Iowa City.

A relic of mid-century municipal architecture — something of a rarity in Iowa City — it took nearly a decade to realize after a 1955 fire destroyed the American Legion recreation center, which the city then owned. The new center’s namesake, longtime Iowa City Recreation Superintendent Robert A. Lee, fought for years to get it built, campaigning for numerous failed bond issues until the city finally broke ground in 1963. By all accounts, the rec center was Lee’s personal fiefdom, a pet project he shepherded until his retirement in 1983. The Iowa City Council almost immediately thereafter named the building in his honor, in recognition of his more than four decades of service to the city.

The Robert A. Lee center is, by design, something of a Frankenstein’s monster. When it opened, there were a variety of public offerings: a game room, pool, gym (complete with a rollerskating-friendly maple floor), exercise room, handball court, riflery and archery range, social hall, meeting rooms, a “modern lounge,” art space, dark room and sundry offices. Some of these have gone — a rifle range? — but many remain, some in different locations. The exercise room is now a fishbowl as you enter from the parking lot, with scenic views of swimmers and the front desk.

The modern lounge is gone, replaced with a small children’s play area, watched over by a somewhat terrifying Herky statue that looks like a state trooper from a distance, but is actually a vaguely farmer-like figure. The cracked tiles, power-wash showers and close proximity to one of the nastier stretches of Ralston Creek hardly conjure a sense of the sublime; the building’s one nod to beauty is the iridescent wave mural that hangs over the pool or, perhaps, the public art occasionally on display along College Street.

It may not be a work of art in and of itself, but, as the city continues its march toward complete gentrification, the rec center remains one of a few places to accommodate all kinds of Iowa Citians, at least in theory.

In the morning, it welcomes middle-aged lap swimmers and water-walking septuagenarians, who, I can attest, prefer the rec center pool downtown to the one in Mercer Park, due to the water being kept at a higher temperature.

Throughout the day, it welcomes the homeless. Despite Iowa City’s perennial debates about the rights of individuals experiencing homelessness to coexist with the housing-secure in public spaces like the Ped Mall and public library, rec center patrons rarely go out of their way to bother the men and women who come there for a hot shower and the opportunity to enjoy the basic luxuries of home most of us take for granted.

In the afternoon, it welcomes teenagers wanting to shoot hoops, college students keen to play table tennis and seniors who’ve picked up the sport of Pickleball. It has played host to welcome dinners for international students, job fairs, art studios, after-prom parties and various multicultural events celebrating the city’s diversity, including the Black Voices Project’s annual community soul food dinner. In the months leading up to the Iowa caucus, presidential hopefuls welcome crowds of supporters through the rec center’s doors.

Mazahir Salih speaks to a group of supporters at Robert A. Lee Recreation Center. Monday, March 6, 2017. — Zak Neumann/Little Village

Of course, “welcomes” isn’t always the right word.

On a sign inside the rec center gym, a list of inappropriate behaviors that serve as grounds for removal includes fastening one’s pants below the waist, a perfectly ordinary style common among young Black patrons. And among the welcomed guests are Iowa City police officers, who serve as a constant reminder to Black and brown youth that their recreation is always subject to a law enforcement veto.

In 2015, ICPD Officer Travis Graves arrested a Black teenager for being “too rowdy,” according to an anonymous complaint, after the teen refused to leave. Officer Graves was later determined to have done nothing wrong, and yet when a grisly video of the arrest later emerged online — showing Graves pinning the teenager to the ground and shouting at him to put his hands behind his back while the teen insisted he couldn’t, before forcibly grabbing the teen’s arm and pressing his face into the floor — ICPD policy regarding arrests was immediately changed. The incident sparked a number of protests, with demands that sought not only to determine precisely what happened but also, much like the Iowa Freedom Riders’ 2020 demands, to question the role of policing in the wider community.

A petition accompanied the 2015 protests and was presented to city officials, observing, “Black children are often perceived as older than they actually are, are treated as mini-adult criminals and profiled in similar ways to Black adults. Black people are often unjustifiably considered looming threats… [t]he Lee Recreation Center should not have a practice of automatically calling the police when they feel overwhelmed by our kids’ playing.”

“We, Black community members, need our children to be seen as children, and not as criminals,” the petition continued. “We need them to be treated and provided the same opportunities as white children.”

Students from City and West high schools address hundreds of people gathered for their anti-hate march outside Robert A. Lee Community Recreation Center. The students said they organized the march after multiple instances of harassment went ignored by faculty and staff at the high schools. Tuesday, Nov. 15, 2016. — Zak Neumann/Little Village

While we don’t yet know what will come of the Iowa City Council’s 17-point plan passed in June, the protests five years ago and the resultant stonewalling set a bad precedent. Graves not only remained on the force, but in 2018, was designated a nighttime community outreach officer. He is no longer with ICPD, but was involved in a similarly suspect arrest in October of last year in his then-new role as a DNR conservation officer.

When the Robert A. Lee center was completed in 1964, the underlying ethos assumed a public space ought to be for the public, having been brought into existence by one of the city’s most loyal public servants. Lee had insisted the center be built downtown rather than on the fringes of the city, believing it should be as central and accessible as possible.

But in recent years, the uses and disposition of public space downtown have largely been at the behest of private developers. The Chauncey Building, just across College Street from the rec center, is an example of this. The city council approved the Moen Group’s development of the land in 2015, much to the chagrin of local activists who’d have preferred an expansion and beautification of Chauncey Swan Park, an affordable housing development — anything but a 20-story, privately owned high-rise in the heart of the city.

The Chauncey on Gilbert Street in downtown Iowa City, September 2019. — Jason Smith/Little Village

Completed in 2019, the building is sleek, modern and clean, with high-end apartments, offices, a nonprofit movie theater, a cafe and a bowling alley. It is a different kind of “public” space, where the greenery out front is available to the public but sold to prospective tenants as an amenity built for them.

Meanwhile, the Robert A. Lee Community Recreation Center endures in its egalitarian, dingy glory, mostly free of cost and infinitely multifunctional — a survivor of the 2006 tornado and nearly six decades’ worth of wear and tear and patchwork fixes, both literal and figurative.

It is Iowa City’s most welcoming building, but this welcome mat needs work.

Nicholas Theisen teaches Japanese literature and culture. He used to live in Iowa City, and regularly chastises public officials through @city_of_iowa on Twitter.

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