by E.C. Fish on April 22, 1993

Local coverage of the recent incident at Iowa City’s Southeast Junior High School has led me to the conclusion that Iowa City as a community is in danger of violating one of the first rules of reputation: never believe your own good press.

The incident, in which a Southeast Junior High School student came to school armed with a .22 caliber handgun, generated a strong and immediate local reaction. The consensus of this reaction was best expressed by a school district employee who described her office as being flooded with calls from people “shocked that such a thing could happen in Iowa City.”

While shock is certainly an understandable reaction to an incident in which children were endangered, shock “that such a thing could happen in Iowa City” shows a misunderstanding of both this place and its place in the world that is both disturbing and potentially dangerous to the life of the community.

Though by no means universal, this attitude has unfortunately become something of a local refrain in the last few years: from the violent incidents of November 1st, 1991 to local press exposes of the mounting local problems of homelessness, domestic violence, and sexual assault, evidence of a possible downside to life here in the “Athens of the Midwest” has been increasingly met by a community response that consists largely of complacency, elitism, apathy, and denial.

This attitude is unfortunate precisely because it is rooted in an entirely justifiable civic pride. Iowa City is in many ways the progressive, cultured, literate community we make it out to be, and its mixture of maximum urban advantages and minimum urban problems does indeed make it a uniquely livable place. It is not, however, the insulated “big small town” : in the time since our city’s reputation was established, both it and the world around it have changed and grown. With these changes have come problems, both internal and external, that are, unfortunately, blind to uniqueness.

One trend that seems to have hit Iowa City with special force is that of population transience. The trend toward increased mobility begun at mid-century has continued unabated, and communities nationwide have found themselves playing host to a population that is literally just passing through. This is especially keen in Iowa City: there is a large percentage of our population whose length of residence here is determined by their involvement with the University of Iowa, and the number of them who eventually settle in the area has been decreasing steadily.

This transience creates a twofold problem. First, Iowa Citians who know that they will be Chicagoans, Kansas Citians, New Yorkers, and so forth in one to four years have relatively little impetus to get involved in local affairs. As such, for a city that purports to be politically active, citizen input in and awareness of local government is shockingly low. Take for example last year’s destructive “renovation” of College Green Park: only after the trees had been felled and the turf stripped was there much public outcry, and by then it was of course too late. Take for another the recent school board bond referenda: it is unfortunate to say the least that a community that cares so much about education could only pass a watered down bond issue after three tries. In terms of both voter turnout and citizen awareness, Iowa City has a long way to go before it lives down its progressive reputation.

The second, and subtler, half of the transience problem is that so much of our local reputation is based on the testimony of people who used to live here. Each month in the pages of our local magazine one finds letters from far-flung former citizens singing their unequivocal praises of our city. Nice as they may be, such praises are rooted inextricably in a past that in large part no longer exists. Iowa City has changed and grown in the last couple of decades, and unfortunately, its community self-image has failed to keep pace with this reality.

With the rootlessness of transience has also come a trend, both nationally and locally, towards social schism. Increasingly, when the word “community” is used, it is preceded by an adjective: we speak of the gay community, the university community, the black community, et cetera. While this shows an admirable awareness of our diversity and a respect for individual identity, it has had the unfortunate effect of separating us into divergent interest groups, and thus separating us from our common interest. Again, this problem is particularly acute in Iowa City. As a place that is tolerant of difference, we have lost some of our awareness of similarity, of plain, unmodified community, and our political battles have all too often taken the form of semantic squabbling and We/They groupthink. While diversity should not be sacrificed to the common good, neither should the common good be sacrificed to divergent interest. This is a middle path a progressive, big-C Community can and must find.

The world that Iowa City is a part of is both a smaller and sadder place than it used to be, smaller because ¬†the “information revolution” of the last decade has linked us ever closer to the world outside, sadder because the information conveyed reflects a national culture in which the glorification of violence and the scapegoating of The Other have become more and more the norm. At least of this those elements of the community that cling to our outmoded community image show an awareness. But implicit in the shock that violence and social evil can happen in Iowa City is the lack of shock that it could happen elsewhere. Here again, it is our failure to connect with a greater commonality that puts us in danger. Iowa City, for all its uniqueness, is nonetheless part of a larger national and international community, and while we may not currently share all the problems that community faces, there is nothing about our uniqueness that necessarily shields us from them, or absolves us of responsibility for solving them.

Yes, it can happen here. It has, and it will. It is our responsibility to ourselves and each other to prepare for it, and, if possible, prevent it. Iowa City is indeed a community to be proud of, but until we as a community can adjust our sense of self with current reality, there exists the danger that our civic pride could become the pride that comes before the fall. Reputations aren’t for living on, they’re for building on.


This piece originally appeared in the Iowa City weekly Icon.

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