IOWA CITY: GROWING UP IN PUBLIC

by E.C. Fish on August 17, 2000

My ultimate Iowa City moment occurred one early September evening a few years ago. I was walking north on Dubuque Street from the cash machine to the Deadwood when suddenly I found the sidewalk blocked by two young women engaged in an enthusiastic salivary exchange. They looked up as I approached, smiling gleefully. “We’re both girls,” one of them said. “I’m a girl and she’s a girl. And we’re kissing.”

I sighed. “Right on, sisters. Excuse me,” I said, and walked around them toward my waiting pint.

Even with over thirty years of Iowa City moments to my credit as man and boy, resident and visitor, no other experience better captures the spirit of Iowa City for me better than that one, with its strange mixture of outre’ sophistication and wide-eyed naivete, its minor irritation and laugh-out-loud hilarity. It’s just that kind of town, simultaneously classy and geeky, savvy and stupid, annoying and fun, tolerant, accepting, and itching for a fight.

Anywhere you go, it’s the people who make the place, and in Iowa City’s case a large number of those people are here to attend the University of Iowa. The university and the city are pretty much inseparable– were it not for the presence of a Big Ten college, this would be an essay about a sleepy Iowa River backwater called South Solon or East Coralville or Even Further West Liberty– and it’s the university’s spirit of experiment and inquiry, along with its tendency to attract hordes of young people in various stages of personal development that shapes life in Iowa City more than any other factor.

As you might imagine, this has both upsides and downsides. The experiments performed in Iowa City run the gamut from an earnest biochemist trying to determine how a particular amino acid affects brain development to a bored young pre-business major trying to find out how many boysenberry kamikazes constitutes one boysenberry kamikaze too many. Unfortunately for the community at large, while the former sort results in the furtherance of human endeavor, the latter results in a mound of regurgitated fast food in the ped mall and a public-intox arrest. Still, the end result is the same– something is learned. If this place is about anything, it is about learning.

For the neophyte Iowa Citian, this means a veritable smorgasbord of intellectual and cultural stimuli. Iowa City is a community literally bursting with art, music, literature, and theater. As befits a town full of students, some of it is really bad art, music, literature, and theater. Still, if one remembers the rules of the smorgasbord (if the herring looks a little off, don’t put it on your plate) and of simple politeness (keep your criticisms constructive) one can take advantage of a cultural milieu that rivals that of almost any other city in the nation.

Likewise, Iowa City is a politically vibrant city, wherein the issues of the day and the greater issues of human existence are earnestly discussed in tavern, cafe’, and classroom and shouted loudly from street corners. And, as might be expected in a town wherein the wheel is reinvented with every incoming freshman class,a lot of it is bad politics. For all its political savvy, the predictable factors of ivory tower smugness and misplaced youthful zeal have seen to it that much of the community’s political energies are devoted to fashionable disdain for the political process and militant responses to political triviata. Add to this a population that is largely here for the short term, and the result is a local government that has for years been at the mercy of those who judge the value of a community in dollars and cents– they care, we don’t, they win.

Thanks largely to the efforts of the above-mentioned, the life options of Iowa Citians have expanded in recent years. It is now possible, thanks to the efforts of the local business community, to live the same kind of suburban, cookie-cutter, brand-name existence here that you can in any other city this size. They’ve knocked down a lot of those inconvenient old buildings, put up condo developments and apartment blocks, and, thanks to the local development community, you can get your clothes and coffee and restaurant meals from the same wholly owned multinational corporate subsidiaries you did back home. You can now live here without actually living here.

I urge you not to. I urge you to get to know, and grow to love, and nurture to the best of your ability this big clumsy kid of a town. I guarantee your love will be returned. Like any good relationship, the one you have with this city will have its ups and downs, but in the final analysis will be determined by how much you’re willing to participate.

For purposes of full disclosure, I should reveal that I myself no longer live in Iowa City. This isn’t unusual– the world is littered with former Iowa Citians, and due to life circumstances and a joint custody order granted by the courts of Anoka County, Minnesota, I live where my kids are. in suburban Minneapolis. It is exile. Still, it is my wish for all of you to find the same feeling that fills me every time I take the Dubuque Street exit off I-80 and head past City Park and the Mayflower into downtown– I am in Iowa City, and I am home.
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This piece originally appeared in the ICON Annual Manual 2000

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