It is the best of times, it is the worst of times: the first half of August in Iowa City. For half a month twice a year (also early January), tumbleweeds blow through our deserted streets. Those of us who are left enjoy Iowa City at its best. Those of us who are left suffer Iowa City at its worst.
Our town is at its worst at this time of year because the life has been sucked out of it. The university’s summer session is over, so even that relatively small summer population of intrepid students — the life-force of so much of Iowa City’s energy — have headed for the beach, for home, for the mountains, wherever. Their professors have packed in their grade books and skipped town for the only two summer vacation weeks available to them. Even the university’s administrative offices are operating on skeleton crews before the onslaught of the fall semester begins.
The city’s big summer show — Summer of the Arts — is winding down. The Iowa Arts Festival and Iowa City Jazz Festival are distant memories. The Friday Night Concert Series and Saturday Night Free Movie Series chug along, but once the Iowa Soul Festival wraps up on the first weekend of August, the cultural events downtown don’t require street closures.
By the time the calendar turns to August, those of us creatives who teach and learn in the Iowa Summer Writing Festival have taken our pencils and laptops elsewhere. The university’s summer camps — music, business, writing, sports, you name it — that bring the spark and excitement of young minds and bodies to town are pretty much affairs of June and July. New student orientations at the university are pretty much over, so the campus and downtown are devoid of the eager sparkles in the eyes and mortified eye-rolls of brand-spanking-new Hawkeyes and their parents, yellow bags in tow. Even the reading and event schedules at Prairie Lights Bookstore and the Englert Theatre tout pretty slim pickings in early August until the students come back to town.
If there is ever “nothing going on” in Iowa City, it’s in the first part of August. The very essences of what defines this community — students, learning, cultural vibrancy and events galore — have dried up. In early August, we’re pretty much a mere husk of our true character. It is the worst of times.
But of course, in early August, you can also almost hear a huge collective sigh of relief floating across town. The pace slows; quieter times abound. Over the noon hour, there isn’t a line practically coming out the entrance of China Star or Z’Marik’s, and you can probably get a table pretty easily at Hamburg Inn. You can find a parking space downtown. There’s elbow room in the coffee shops and at empty tables galore in the public and university libraries. If ever Iowa City is calm and serene, it’s in early August. It is the best of times.
Although our community character is defined so much by the hustle and bustle of the academic calendar, the influx of young people from all over, the spirit of Hawkeye sports and so many arts and literature events that you’d have to be five people to take advantage of all of them, a community’s soul is also made manifest when peeled down to its essentials. The routine, everyday movements and cycles of our town — our “place ballet,” as geographer David Seamon would call it — continue on even in the quiet of early August, revealing a core strength and beauty that keeps us here just as much as the most astounding Hancher Auditorium performance or amazing homecoming victory at Kinnick.
There’s nothing at the Englert, Hancher sits empty and the Hawkeye home opener is still a few weeks away. It’s the worst. So take a humid evening walk through our quiet neighborhoods, sip on a leisurely iced coffee at one of the plentiful open outdoor cafe tables and zen in on the rhythms of your daily routines in our fair city. It’s the best.
Thomas Dean is enjoying the quiet and the wide open spaces, thank you very much. This article was originally published in Little Village issue 225.