Iowa City Gentrification

Being a longtime resident of a place allows one perspective on change. But it can make one feel like an old curmudgeon reminiscing about the way things used to be.

Fortunately, I’m not a curmudgeon by nature, for the most part. I don’t mind the basic changes of life. In my mind’s eye, I see a field where my parents neighborhood now stands, I see a parking ramp where an empty lot once was, and I see even larger new buildings in place of smaller older buildings. Some changes seem less desirable, but others seem quite lovely. I’m generally for progress on principle. Certainly, I appreciate the new park built on the south side of Iowa City and the wondrous multi-use trails that have made non-vehicular travel easier and more pleasant.

Curmudgeon, I am not. I have my memories. Heck, with my study of local history, I even have ‘memories’ of what existed before I was born. I can see in my minds eye the fountain that existed before my time at the intersection of Iowa Avenue and Dubuque Street. All the past blends together, although I have a harder time envisioning in my head the Sauk villages that were along the Iowa River at the southern edge of town. The weight of the past isn’t a negative. The past passes, but it leaves its residue and shapes the present.

However, to be curmudgeonly for a moment, let me voice my complaints about what is becoming of this place of which I’m so fond. Well, not necessarily complaints, more just wonderings about what it means and where it is all headed.

When I was a kid in Iowa City during the 1980s, I experienced a downtown that had earlier been renovated to the extreme. The town has gone through very distinct phases. It began as a frontier settlement and I suppose a trading town with the Native American trail that passed by though what is now Hickory Hill Park. Then it became the first state capital of Iowa, but it turned out the river wasn’t navigable by steamboats. Eventually, it became a college town which it still is. At some point, tough times must have hit the economy because the downtown turned into a stark area with many empty lots and the respectable citizens were wary of venturing there. Then back in the 1970s, a ton of government money was dumped into a project to make the downtown attractive again. It was successful and we now have a great pedestrian mall which is a popular destination.

That set in motion changes that weren’t predictable. The downtown was maybe less respectable at an earlier time, but it was also a more affordable place. Almost anyone could open a store and sell whatever they wanted. Stores came and go, but the entrepreneurial spirit kept the place an active downtown. Maybe there weren’t as many stores for the upper classes, but that meant there were more stores directed to us common folk.

I see the downtown becoming gentrified with high rises popping up here and there and the downtown I knew slowly disappearing. I used to be able to do my entire Christmas shopping downtown and it was affordable. Now, my upper class parents don’t even shop downtown because it has become too expensive. If the downtown isn’t affordable for the upper middle class, then that is a sign that gentrification is in full gear.

Maybe all that gentrification began with that earlier downtown renovation or at least the seeds for it were planted. But I’m not sure this gentrification was inevitable. I suspect it was created because that is what some of those in power want. The question I ask is: Why do they want this?

All I can think of is that, along with being a major university town, this is also a major medical and research center because of the university. Iowa City has the second highest number of doctors per capita in the United States. On top of that, the University of Iowa has been attracting an increasing number of foreign students and I suspect a disproportionate number of them are wealthier than the native-born students. So, we have our share of wealthy people, many originally from places like Chicago or the big cities on the coasts or else from big cities in entirely other countries. The point being is that these people aren’t Iowa farmers and factory workers nor their children. They aren’t the local working class and they aren’t poor college students, especially not living in those expensive downtown high rises. It seems to me that downtown Iowa City is being designed to be attractive to these outsiders and not being designed to serve the interests and purposes of the average local.

I understand the desire to make one’s town attractive, especially attractive to those with lots of money. But this prostituting of one’s town is a sad fate. Like all class warfare, it is rarely the lower classes who win. Everyone but the wealthy will be driven out of the downtown and the heart of the community will begin to die. The repurcussions won’t be obvious right away, but give it some decades and the town will become even less recognizable. Maybe I’ll be converted to old curmudgeon before long.

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