Living in Society Social Commentary

Five Things About Iowa City

Iowa City Old Capitol
Iowa City Old Capitol

By design, we built our home not in, but close to Iowa City when we moved back to Iowa from Indiana. The intention was to be within commuting distance of jobs in Iowa City, Cedar Rapids and the Quad Cities. Over the years I’ve worked in all three, so the idea has been validated.

Iowa City is a UNESCO City of Literature. With my long interest in culture, it was inevitable to have some relationship with Iowa City. That is, as long as I considered myself to be an Iowan, which these days is not a given.

The University of Iowa dominates the culture of Iowa City, providing a diverse mix of people and an economic engine some take for granted. There’s sports as well, although I’m not a fan and haven’t been to a Hawkeye game for more than a decade and that was mandatory for work. I lost interest in the Hawkeyes during the Ray Nagel years.

There are things to like about Iowa City and here’s my short list.

County Seat – It is convenient to live near the county seat. I enjoy paying my property taxes in person and voting at the auditor’s office. I have come to know many elected officials and encounter some of them at the county administration building when I’m there. As a community volunteer, and as an elected official, I’ve consulted with elected officials and staff, and the proximity has been valuable.

Change – Iowans are moving from rural to urban areas and Iowa City has changed in a way to support incoming and transient people. Changes in downtown over the years have been arguably for the better. I remember people running down Wilfreda Hieronymous for her urban renewal developments. I was living in an apartment above a restaurant just before the wrecking ball tore it down to make way for her Old Capitol Center. People hated it. I hated it because of losing the $85 per month rent on a three-room apartment across the street from Schaeffer Hall. In the long run the development of downtown has been a good thing.

Personal History – I demonstrated against the Vietnam War on the Pentacrest the spring of 1971, and saw George McGovern campaign there in 1972. We married at the Unitarian Universalist Church on Gilbert Street and Iowa Avenue. Our daughter was born at Mercy Hospital. I had my last conversation with an uncle on the west steps of Old Capitol. I’ve come to know and love spending time at the intersection of Market and Linn Streets, meeting with friends at the ever-changing coffee shop there. We still buy the occasional pie from Pagliai’s Pizza when I’m in the city before dinner time. These and a hundred more memories are an attraction.

High Culture – Iowa City attracts writers and musicians from around the world and there are opportunities to have a moment with them. I ran into James Van Allen on Market Street, Frederick Exley at the dental clinic, and Donald Justice at UPS. Over the years, I attended readings and events with John Cheever, Saul Bellow, Margaret Atwood, James Laughlin, Hunter Lovins, Edward Albee, William Styron, Toni Morrison, Robert F. Kennedy Jr., and many more.  I heard guitarists Andrés Segovia, Duane Allman, Albert King, Freddie King, Luther Allison, Jerry Garcia, Bonnie Raitt, Greg Brown, Christopher Parkening and others. The convergence of creativity is unique in the land of the sleepy ones.

Old Things Giving Way to New – With each passing year the Iowa City I know is fading. Old buildings have been torn down and construction is everywhere. The public discussion about historic preservation is a unique, peculiar and engaging endeavor. There is controversy about money and incentives given to developers – when hasn’t there been? Development has been part of Iowa City’s history for as long as I can remember.

Iowa City is making people and corporations rich, while attracting new poverty and crime. Urban sprawl seems uncontrolled. On the outskirts of the city, distinct neighborhoods with singular cultures are nascent. It is a sign of life in a turbulent world.

When I visit Hamburg Inn No. 2, I remember No. 1. I park on Brown Street and walk to town on the grid of streets laid out in the 19th Century, remembering what was here, considering what will be here. Eventually the old grid will give way to something new, and I don’t mean large multi-use properties that currently are in vogue. It is hopeful and energetic – engaged.

I would be loathe to give up our current home to move to Iowa City as so many retirees are doing. There is a cottage industry in people my age seeking something in the county seat. Despite the attractions, I’m not ready to move there, at least not yet.