Change is coming to downtown Iowa City. Since the “21” referendum last fall, this mantra has been chanted incessantly by people from all sides of the issue. For better or worse, change has already come to downtown Iowa City, with the closure of several bars.
Honestly, I don’t want to enter the mainstream of the fray on this debate. The obvious issues have been argued, and continue to be argued, ad infinitum–or ad nauseam, depending on what mood I’m in. But whenever change comes to downtown Iowa City–and change is always coming to our city center–one issue always concerns me: our storefronts.
This concern randomly bubbled up into my consciousness recently as I was walking on Washington Street near the Java House. Looking across the street, I gazed upon the gray expanse of the US Bank building extending into the middle of the block and I remembered what used to be there: The Astro Theater. When I attended graduate school at the University of Iowa from 1986-1991, the Astro Theater was still in operation. An old single-screen commercial movie house, the Astro was hardly a wonder palace. But it was one of five commercial movie screens providing the kind of entertainment now nonexistent downtown (and yes, this was the era of the notorious wall-down-the-middle “double” screen at the Englert!). Aside from the devastating loss of the movie business in the business and cultural center of our community (I’m leaving the Bijou out of this discussion), the disappearance of the Astro also erased a chunk of the lively variety of architectural façades in downtown Iowa City.
Granted, neither the outside nor inside of the Astro were comparable to even the modest grandeur of the Englert across the street. But there was a lighted marquee that added a somewhat garish but endearing kind of visual excitement to Washington Street. Multiple glass doors at street level bookended by glass-encased one-sheets marked the invitation to partake of Hollywood’s latest brilliance–or dreck. On summer nights, when the doors weren’t hurriedly closed against the cold, the warm smell of popcorn wafted to the sidewalk.
Today, that active pop-cultural storefront has been cemented and glassed over by the gray extension of the US Bank building. The same thing happened on the other side of the building along Dubuque Street at some point. I don’t begrudge the bank’s success that allowed for expansion. But we must always consider losses as well as gains as “progress” ensues.
In the chapter entitled “The Corporatisation of Cities” in his book The Modern Urban Landscape (1987), Edward Relph discusses what happens when corporate towers expand in cities: “Individual buildings . . . merge into an architectural mass of similar towers. . . . At street level the chief impression is one of monolithic austerity. . . . The larger they are the less detail they have. They have often taken over whole city blocks formerly occupied by a multitude of different shops, replacing detailed architectural textures and on-street vitality with great blank facades and deserted plazas. This elimination of texture and variety from city streets has proceeded in a lock-step fashion with the change from mostly small to mostly big business that has taken place in capitalist economies in the past hundred years, and particularly since 1945.” One other result from this elimination of texture and variety: “This visible change has been accompanied by a shift of activity from outside on the street to inside in offices and enclosed shopping malls” (169-170).
This is exactly how I feel walking through much of downtown Chicago, Minneapolis and even Omaha–endless expanses of concrete and glass with little architectural interest, in large part because the human scale has been lost. Architectural detail (if any) has been expanded to a massive canvas that emphasizes the skyscraper rather than street. We see this happening in Iowa City, writ smaller. We’ve lost the Astro and several other storefronts at Washington and Dubuque. The Old Capitol Mall and its parking ramp replaced two full city blocks of visual and cultural interest with plains of brown brick and gray concrete. Urban renewal in the 1970s replaced the big ol’ late-19th century Odd Fellows Hall with the monolithic Plaza Centre One. History says many of these old buildings had deteriorated beyond repair and could not be salvaged. OK, fine. But PCO is already four decades old and I don’t hear much admiration for its featureless 1970s vibe.
We’ve lost this material vibrancy and heritage on a smaller scale, too. If my memory serves me correctly, the old Mott’s Drug Store on Dubuque Street–aside from its incomparable international newspaper and magazine collection that is no longer anywhere to be found–boasted an art-deco-type storefront, as did a shoe store on Washington Street where the Record Collector eventually opened. Z’Marik’s Noodle Café now lives in Mott’s space and Mama’s Deli occupies the shoe-store/old-Record-Collector location. Those are fine establishments–and both have tasteful storefronts (and insides)–but, in some ways, the historical and aesthetic variety of downtown would have remained more colorful if those old deco faces had been preserved, as the Soap Opera has done on the Ped Mall.
Granted, the Astro Theater itself had an altered façade. Its movie-house predecessor in that location was the Varsity Theater, which displayed a modest yet cool art deco front before the Sputnik-era “Astro” turned it into pale “Googie” style. And I’m not even sure what the Varsity’s predecessor, the Garden Theater, built by William Englert himself, looked like. Yet any of those frontages would offer at least a visual palette connecting us better to history, heritage and human scale–even the Astro’s funky space-age veneer.
Downtown’s changes in the wake of the 21 ordinance will be wide-ranging, from the retail to the cultural landscapes, in terms of both economic development and community character. I’m also concerned, however, about the most immediate landscape–the visual one, the architectural one. Iowa City has maintained much of its historical and street-level individuality, for which I am grateful, but we’ve also lost a lot of it. As new businesses fill in the gaps that closed bars have left, I hope that we don’t experience further flattening and erasure of what Edward Relph called “on-street vitality.”
Thomas Dean remembers seeing the first Michael Keaton Batman movie in the Astro.