David Byrne seems to like Iowa. And I’m glad of that. I’m also glad that he had a chance to bike around and experience a Des Moines Fourth of July while he was here for the 80/35 music festival.
In three parts, Byrne wrote about his experience in the Hawkeye State on his blog. While Byrne’s comments focused mostly on Des Moines, breathless columnists were quick to exclaim over the musical luminary saying nice things about Iowa. Enthusiastic Iowans fell over his words about our home, and Facebookers furiously and gleefully posted that the lauded Scotsman was, indeed, making sense about the land where the tall corn grows.
I hesitate to join the chorus of those bowing down to Mr. Byrne in gratitude for his blessing. I am grateful that he found the bike paths around Des Moines “gorgeous,” and I like his notion that, while not “cool,” Iowa is maybe “beyond cool.” But Byrne himself says that since he is a “nomad,” his impressions are “brief and fleeting.”
I understand the impulse to capture the character of a community, state or region. I have lived in the Midwest all my life, and I’ve called Iowa City home now for a total of 19 years (across two stints that now span—gulp—four decades). I have spent much of my academic life studying Midwestern regionalism, and focused nearly all of my writing and most of my teaching on place and community, constantly trying (and failing) to answer the question, “What is the Midwest?” But, to be honest, the more I learn about the history and culture of our local community and region, and the more I live in this wonderful place, the more remote the answers to the perennial question “Who are we?” become. Being part of a community or knowing a place is a never-ending project: As your roots grow deeper, the diversity and complexity of where you are become only more apparent.
Iowa City’s civic squabbles usually center one way or another on “who and what we are.” But nowhere else have I seen the vitriol drip so profusely from the crossed swords of debates over school boundaries, east-west community divides, zoning changes, economic development and drinking ordinances. On the one hand, this is admirable community passion and democracy in action. On the other hand, it reveals the profound fissures among our community factions, each with proprietary claims to represent what this place is all about.
As each year goes by, I realize more and more that any single definition of “who and what we are” is at best partial and at worst shallow. Sure, Iowa City has a larger percentage of intellectuals, writers, artists and liberals than many other communities. But that hardly captures the broad canvas of who lives here. The more grounded you become in the community, the more you see the fine grains of the panorama of humans who call this place home. It shouldn’t take too long to figure out that Dolphin Lake Point under the Highway 6 bridge, Manville Heights, Johnson Street and F Street are worlds apart—and more often than not, the twain amongst them do not meet. And if we generalize out to the state, Iowa City is obviously not Des Moines is not Ottumwa is not Amana is not Storm Lake is not Sioux City.
So I’m a little skeptical when an admitted “nomad” analyzes who and what we are, whether in terms of one of our state’s communities or Iowa as a whole. What is one to make of a statement such as “Everyone is very nice, sincere, unaffected,” as Byrne claimed? Everyone? I’ve run across many, many, many rude, boorish, dishonest and affected people in my life here, as I’m sure you have, too. “Overall, it doesn’t seem a place in thrall to trends,” he says. Maybe somewhat true by comparison, but one walk through the overstuffed consumerist shelves at Coral Ridge or Jordan Creek Mall will hardly tell you that Iowans all want to wear overalls and sensible shoes.
On his one-day bicycle tour of Des Moines, even in a “black” neighborhood, Byrne does not see “signs of total poverty, boarded up houses or foreclosed homes being sold at auction.” He does not see a “serial methamphetamine alley all the way through,” as he saw in small Kansas towns. He saw “no visible homeless folks or folks twisted by drugs, drink or bad luck who couldn’t find a rung to get back up, or never got up in the first place.” Well, apparently he wasn’t riding down the right streets or he didn’t have his eyes open very wide.
I suspect the real point is that Byrne was viewing Des Moines and Iowa through a visitor’s eyes. There is value in visitors’ eyes, but they are inherently fleeting, as Byrne himself said. No matter how hard he might try, he still cannot help but fall back upon conjuring the image of a man and woman holding giant turkey leg drumsticks at the downtown Fourth celebration, “making them appear a little like some caveman couple.” This is skating on the smooth ice of stereotype, the facile surfaces of Midwest Living magazine.
Granted, Byrne acknowledges that the place he sees here is “imperfect.” Granted, he realizes that much of whatever good economic fortune Iowa currently enjoys is the result of the “unholy alliance of agribusiness and government.” But going so far as to suggest that “this is America as it’s supposed to be, or close to it”? Well, I’m not buying it. I don’t even know what America is “supposed to be,” and whatever it is, it exists as a singular phenomenon only in television commercials and morning in America fantasies.
I do believe there is something different and distinctive about Iowa, that’s why I chose to make it my home. Yet time, combined with close observation, have complicated my understanding rather than clarified, let alone crystallized, it. Living in a place requires a studied intimacy, which requires not only keen attention but sustained time. I might agree that Grant Wood’s American Gothic captures the Iowa spirit wonderfully. But it’s because the more familiar I become with that iconic painting, the more inscrutable those figures’ expressions are to me, and the more that I wonder what, indeed, is happening behind the curtained window of that beautiful house.
Thomas Dean would like to teach Iowa City to sing in perfect harmony.