UR Here: Cottages, conflict and control

Iowa City debates historic preservation
Open, civil and respectful dialog builds community. — illustration by Zoe H. Brown

Let’s be clear, this column isn’t about the debate over Iowa City’s Dubuque Street Civil War-era workers’ cottages that are being torn down. This is a column about how we talk about it. Acrimony on both sides of the debate has filled our local media, online venues, Planning and Zoning Commission meetings, and City Council meetings. One of the cottages was demolished on Christmas night, and the “save the cottages” effort seems to have failed for the other two as well.

Name-calling and ad hominem attacks have no place in civil discourse.

The debate in our community, as usual, has revolved around retaining the heritage and character of our community by preserving buildings of historical value and, on the opposite side, respecting the rights of private property owners. Calling the debate “contentious” is an understatement. At times, the rhetoric has gotten downright nasty.

My specific concern is with those on the private property “side” who have chosen to call those advocating for historic preservation “control freaks,” claiming “all they want to do is control other people’s lives.” This is a common canard often hurled at liberals by some conservative voices when public and private interests clash. It is, at best, disappointing to see such simplistic rhetoric employed, whether it’s in the gutter of the blogosphere or on the public airwaves. At worst, such trash talk stops any true debate in its tracks. To accuse the public good argument of being merely a personal desire for “control” not only demeans the person making that argument but diminishes the debate itself. To impute unfounded personal motivations to a public position is the worst kind of ad hominem attack.

For full disclosure, I will call myself a “liberal,” though I find that label too constricting. I do believe that in a good society—indeed, a democratic society—the public good sometimes outweighs private interests. The true debate should lie in where we draw that line—admittedly a difficult task and one that is perpetual. In fact, this debate may be the very definition of democracy itself as we mutually seek our individual and collective fates.

Given my own leanings, I know many of these “control freaks,” as some gleefully call them. I would no doubt fall victim to such name-calling in such a debate as well. The motivation for the historic preservation of the Dubuque Street cottages hardly stems from a visceral, pathological desire to control others. It stems from a belief in the public good. It stems from a belief in one of the crucial elements of community as defined by sociologist Philip Selznick: historicity.

“The bonds of community are strongest when they are fashioned from strands of shared history and culture,” Selznick says. “Historicity has prima facie moral worth. Rootedness and belonging make for individual well-being as well as commitment to others; and a sense of history is needed for sound collective judgment of means and ends.”

It’s no hard task to admit that the conflict between public good and private interest is often—even usually—a difficult one. In a capitalist system where historic preservation interests also exist, the conflict can be especially difficult and acute. But the debate must be undertaken. Yes, let’s have that discussion. But it must be conducted in good faith on both sides. Name-calling and ad hominem attacks have no place in civil discourse.

In the past several years, when there has been discussion over the demolition of several historic or character-laden properties—the Washington Street houses, the building where playwright Tennessee Williams lived, the Unitarian Universalist church building, the cottages, the United Action for Youth houses on Iowa Avenue—our community seems to have confronted with the same debate again and again. The best way to alleviate the debate is to inventory Iowa City’s historic structures and determine once and for all what can and can’t be torn down, while also acknowledging reasonable and appropriate accommodations to private property owners. For some reason, our community has failed at such a task since these situations crop up so often with protests so late in the process.

When the debate must come to public discussion, then, it is imperative that we all do what our early schooling should have taught us—speak with reason and respect our opponent. Not doing so is a major social failure in its own right.

This article was originally published in Little Village issue 176

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