We Built This City

I’m leaving Iowa City.

For the vast lot of you who don’t know me, this means little. But after the most important six years of my life–and as an active community member in whatever journalistic and cultural outlets I could tap into–it’s kind of a big deal. Cue the nostalgic montage music.

I love our town, a feeling many of you who’ve invested more than me share–and one the revolving-door newcomers may soon develop. This isn’t special; travel anywhere and you’ll find the same sort of local love spun with whatever native grass can be grabbed. I could spend this farewell arguing for Iowa City’s dominance, whether it comes with our density of creativity or superior college-and-townie blend. There are reasons why IC is often high up on “Best Cities” lists–but those don’t interest me.

What’s important is figuring out why Iowa City inspires such love and how, especially in this period of change, to maintain the vital mix that has kept so many of us here and will lure so many back. This isn’t a numbers game, nor is it grounded in emotional revisionism. Affection for this town, like its romantic kin, is a delicate balance of ideas and ideals, always informed by how the place treats its people and how its people contribute to a sense of place.

Perhaps it’s best if I explain it like this. Over the past few months, I watched the first season of HBO’s Treme with friends (and Little Village contributors) who also share my connection to Iowa City–and who are also leaving town. Treme shows how residents of New Orleans try to reassemble their lives after Hurricane Katrina and presents the spirit of New Orleans not as something that is imposed from above, but rather as the collective efforts of individuals who love where they live, love what they do, and love the people around them. We see time and again how the city’s deep and varied musical, culinary and ethnic heritage enables residents, as well as outsiders, to fall for it.

It’s easy to find our own counterparts. Our Writers’ Workshop, the first and likely the best, is a constant source of pride–even when we complain about its insularity. Watch how quickly William Elliot Whitmore shows are sold out (we’ll claim him as our own) or how restaurants as varied as Shorts and The Motley Cow gain respect by using as many local ingredients as possible. No one falls in love with impotent chains like Best Buy or Border’s–but insult our Real Records or Haunted Bookshop, and we’ll fight ‘til you back down.

My point is this: Iowa City has so many unique spots, fueled by so many unique people, that listing all would be exhausting. We know what’s good, and we’ve got it.

We haven’t seen anything like a hurricane, but certainly the 2006 tornado and the 2008 flood were destructive enough to spur a collective re-evaluation and coagulation. People came together, sandbagged and put up homeless neighbors. They helped however they could to make sure Iowa City remained the place we had all grown so fond of.

The small actions by individuals built these critical and large victories. Perhaps we’re most connected to New Orleans by frustrations with FEMA’s response to unforeseen destruction, but I’d argue–especially in the past couple of years–that we share another key question and conflict: Who do we let define our city?

In New Orleans, the goals for re-building the city were largely defined not by the poorer majority who had lost their livelihoods in the storm, but by city and national officials who looked at problems from a distance and tried to re-build a city that they only had a small stake in defining. Don’t like the poverty? Then close public housing that wasn’t touched by the storm and force thousands out of their homes. Want the city to remain a tourist hub? Then spend your cash rebuilding the outsider-trod areas and leave residents on the waiting list. This has, perhaps, cold economic logic, but power to enforce that logic wasn’t granted. And so the people who made up the city suffered for an abstract idea of what they “could be”–ignoring the multifaceted, critical culture of who they already were.

Iowa City is also changing. We’ve advertised for years that we’re a fantastic town for education–from preschool to post-grad–as we well should. For our size, we have far more culture and general “things to do” than the twice-as-big Cedar Rapids (my hometown) and, I’ll argue with stubborn pride, the thrice-as-big Des Moines. We can be great soil for small business; we’re in day-trip distance from a handful of other great Midwestern cities. There are myriad reasons to come here, and we’ve been talking.

And growing. Not only has it attracted middle class, college-educated folks like myself, but also a large number of people from poorer, largely black urban areas that–though we often don’t acknowledge it–came here for the exact same reasons. These Iowa Citians started families in a place where they could feel safe and hold jobs that simply don’t exist where they grew up. This is something that we should welcome with open arms–and is a critical test for our town. We only deserve to keep our reputation and to grow in stature if the promise of a good life here is open to everyone.


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That welcoming is a group effort–no single mouthpiece can be the “voice” of Iowa City, even though some want to claim that responsibility. The City Council has been elected to keep the public sector in working order, but they’re not able to create or mold Iowa City’s identity by themselves, however positive their intentions. In my mind, the negative public response to recent city council decisions–the 21-ordinance, the anti-panhandling ordinance–isn’t due to whether or not these changes will affect our city for the better. But by not having a public vote, and with enacting such drastic change when many are out-of town, these laws don’t feel like our change, one that’s decided upon by the people that love this town. It feels like the city council’s.

Places like Iowa City are built by the diverse passions of its residents, not by planning committee. The above council decisions are the talk of the town, sure, but any such attempt to change or define IC by the Chamber of Commerce or the University fall similarly flat if they don’t grasp what makes our town and what makes us love it.

This is understandably hard to define, but let me try.

In Treme’s New Orleans, the most important victories aren’t top-down, bureaucratic successes. As anyone who follows the disaster cleanup knows, these are (still) frustrating and incomplete. Rather, we’re presented with the focused, passionate, personal triumphs of people who love their city and are fighting for their livelihoods. Treme argues that the Marti Gras Indian Chief, who rebuilds tattered costumes and gathers his crew from the post-Katrina diaspora for a small but critical street performance, wins a more crucial victory than anything the mayor’s office accomplishes–and his is more central to the rebuilding of the town. Same for the restaurant owner who struggles to make rent or the trombone player who picks up any gig he can find. The “official” city business–the housing authority, the police–are important, but only as a part of the whole. And as far as defining the city is concerned, they’re not a big part.

In my short time in Iowa City, I’ve known music festival organizers and local food gurus, literary loudmouths and academia haters, burnouts with mustaches and student presidents, mayors and their spouses, burlesque dancers and former pastors, poets with cartoonish hats and exhausted journalists–the list can go on and on, colored with names and detail, with odd webs connecting us all. This cluster of people is Iowa City. Some are great friends, others have forgotten who I am, but all hold and inspire affection for this place we call home.

As long as our town hopes to prosper, it must let steep that odd Iowa City mush. We should be welcoming, but most of all we should abstain from pushing people way. Like New Orleans or New York or any other great city, our residence isn’t a comprehensive plan stuck to geography. It’s a collection of people, whom I will forever miss.

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