As someone easily overwhelmed by crowds and sensory overload (and more so as I age), I can find Iowa City’s wonderful summer festivals a challenge. I have many times enjoyed the tunes, charts and riffs flowing from the stages of the Iowa City Jazz Festival. I have often parked my camp chair on the Pedestrian Mall on Friday night for more music under the stars (or vapors of humidity). I have wandered from tent to tent at the Iowa Arts Festival to take in the visual delights of paintings, wood carvings and jewelry. But I can take only so much, to be honest, before the buzzing in my head becomes unbearable or the teeming mass of humanity makes me feel the world is closing in on me.
Shortly before I wrote this column, I headed to work on the University of Iowa Pentacrest on a lovely Friday early morning. Downtown streets were already closed, and workers were assembling white tents up and down the deserted thoroughfares for the 2019 Iowa Arts Fest. A few food trucks and trailers were already parked on Iowa Avenue. Only a few signs for information booths and for a vendor or two were arising. I realized that this is probably my favorite part of a summer festival: its assemblage on quiet streets the day before the big show begins.
Anticipation is often more enjoyable than the actual event: not an unusual idea. For those who celebrate, think of Christmas. Even as a kid, I soon realized what I loved most about the season was getting ready for the big day: trimming the tree, listening to music, watching TV holiday specials, buying and wrapping presents I bought for family members on my meager allowance. I feel something similar as I wander the transforming streets of downtown Iowa City while the scaffolding for a big community celebration takes shape.
Similarly, I relish those moments after all is said and done. The days following Christmas return to quiet, a more pastel shade of the vibrant hoopla still lingering, memory of what has passed settling in after the intense experience has made its performance. One of my favorite parts of Saturday Night Live is the closing “good night” segment when, as the credits roll, the cast and guests wander the stage, many stripped of their costumes and attired in T-shirts and jeans, hugging and high-fiving each other, ready to go home or go out and unwind as the camera pans backward through the band and then out of the studio past the mock Grand Central Station clock, announcing a few minutes after 1 a.m.
Likewise, as with my treks to my office before a festival, I also enjoy wandering the aftermath, the celebratory energy now spent, the stages and tents coming down, the streets being tidied up. All of these carry with them a special milieu of rest, relief, repose and recollection.
Communities are built and thrive on process as well as product — perhaps even more so. Whether it’s a summer festival, the university’s Dance Marathon, the Ped Mall renovation or deciding on a new crosswalk somewhere in town, we take joy in the big event or the completed project, but the strength of our social capital is largely built through the process of getting there. Maybe that’s what I’m seeing and feeling on those mornings before and after: the emblems of deep community realized through constructing our social ties and big (and everyday) achievements more than the cool factor of the final product that lands us on the myriad “best town” lists Iowa City proudly promotes.
If I don’t attend any of the Summer of the Arts fests, the Downtown Block Party or other big to-dos, by choice or by circumstance, my regret, if any, is fleeting. But if I miss the electricity of anticipation or the sigh of relief the day before or after as the white tents and stages go up or down, I feel I’ve really lost out on something.
When this column appears in print, our community will be preparing for the Iowa City Jazz Festival, July 5-7. I may or may not see you downtown or on the Pentacrest as talented musicians jam up and down Clinton Street and Iowa Avenue. But if you walk the streets of downtown Iowa City the day before as the tents, stages and concessions are being set up, you’ll likely run into me wandering there in the morning and at the end of the workday as I head home. Our community connection may be a little stronger as we encounter each other amidst the assembly rather than just the execution of something that makes our town a wonderful place to live.
Thomas Dean always loved rehearsals more than concerts when he was a band geek in school. This article was originally published in Little Village issue 267.