Freedom and Public Space

Along the Upper Mississippi River and on the Iowa side, there is Fort Madison.

It is a medium-sized town, not exactly thriving but far from being in decline. It is an old river town that once had much wealth and still has many well-kept old houses. Some of the nicest and largest houses are located around a couple of parks in the center of town, just north a couple blocks from the downtown shopping area.

My brother moved there not too long ago and so I’ve since visited the town several times. He lives only a few blocks from these parks and only a few blocks from the river. It is a long and narrow strip of a town and so I guess everyone there lives within blocks of the river.

It is one of those places where you can sense the history. It is fairly quiet town now, but it had to have been a bustling at one time, back when the Mississippi River was more of a major transportation route. The old buildings still standing are of a wide variety of architecture. It has made me curious.

Much of the town has a standard Midwest feel, although of a river town variety. For example, there are the kinds of alleys I knew from my Midwestern childhood. Most of the houses wouldn’t be out of place in any other Midwestern smaller town. Still, there is much else that stands out. There are old federalist style houses. There are also quite a few houses with a clear Southern influence. One house across the street from Old Settlers Park reminds me of the houses in Charleston, SC, although it isn’t as narrow along the front.

Fort Madison was once a trade town. So, that allowed more diverse cultural influences for an old town so far north into the far reaches of the Midwest. Out of curiosity, I looked at the 1850 census, when Fort Madison was a young city and Iowa was a young state. In that census, there were people from diverse places within the United States (Washington DC, Missouri, Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Vermont, Delaware, Rhode Island, Maryland, Maine, New York, Kentucky, Tennessee, Virginia, North Carolina, and South Carolina) and from diverse countries (Canada, England, Scotland, France, Germany, and Switzerland).

Before being a trade town, it was the location of a major fort and hence the name. It was one of three forts in the new Louisiana Territory and the first permanent fortification on the Upper Mississippi. That touches upon the sense of history of the place.

The Mississippi River was the last natural boundary for the frontier. It is a massive river that back then would have been treacherous to cross. Iowa was one of the last areas Native Americans tried to hold ground to stop Westward expansion. Fort Madison was seen as an incursion and so immediately became a target of attacks.

One of the most famous Native leaders was Chief Black Hawk. He sided with Canada during the War of 1812. His first battle against US troops happened in Fort Madison and it was the only battle of the War of 1812 that happened West of the Mississippi. More than three decades later in 1838, he gave his farewell speech in Old Settlers Park, where today there is a plaque with a quote from that speech:

“I have looked upon the Mississippi since I have been a child. I love the great river. I have dwelt upon its banks from the time I was an infant. I look upon it now.”

As he described, just down the hill flows the mighty Mississippi. However, today the surrounding houses entirely block the view.

I walked to this park with my sister-in-law and niece. It has a large gazebo for bands and a playground. It’s quite beautiful with many old trees. The place is peaceful and it is hard to imagine the sadness Black Hawk must have felt as he gave that speech. As I stood before the plaque reading his words, I looked out across the park at the kids playing. It wasn’t lost on me that the park was filled with white kids. In fact, I never saw anyone who looked Native American in Fort Madison. The diversity the town once had never included the native population.

Where I live in Iowa City, there are two locations of former Native American villages. One of them was that of the tribe of Black Hawk’s medicine man. Iowa City was first settled by free blacks, many of whom were likely escaped slaves. Those free blacks sought the frontier for obvious reasons and I’m sure they were living there at the invitation of the local tribes.

In the pedestrian mall of downtown Iowa City, there is a small area that is called Black Hawk Mini Park. It also once was known as the People’s Park. It was the product of a fight for public space. On the side of the adjacent building there was a mural called “The Spirit of Black Hawk” that depicted the face of a Native American.

It’s telling that the freedom of public space often gets symbolized by Native Americans who lost their freedom and lost the very land they lived on, of which these parks represent a tiny portion.

12 thoughts on “Freedom and Public Space

  1. It seems like corporate advertising in particular is a nuisance for the public space.

    Outside of that, more and more things seem to be privatized. That’s not really wealth creation, although in our Orwellian speech it is. It’s wealth usurpation.

    • I thought of adding one more detail, but I didn’t want to clutter up the post. I’ll briefly mention it here.

      Black Hawk Mini Park remains contested public space. A new highrise building of expensive apartments and expensive shopping was built by it. Most of the public benches and tables were removed. The people who used to hang out there, from the homeless to a weekly drum circle were kicked out by the police.

      It is now the front yard for the rich people’s building. It is the slow privatization of public space, via plutocracy and gentrification. The saddest part is this public space was destroyed through public funding of the taxpayer’s money being given away as a TIF.

      The depiction of Black Hawk was too accurate of a symbol for such a public space. Rich white men will always find a way to take what they want, whether from the natives or from the rest of us. It is also symbolically apt that the mural of Black Hawk was removed many years ago.

      There was also another mural of bisons roaming free that was to the right of the Black Hawk image. That other mural is still there, although the wall it was painted on is directly hidden by the highrise such that it can’t even be seen.

  2. The American bison was hunted to near extinction.

    It seems like the very rich hate the very concept of public good and the idea that wealth should be shared.

    • The problem is too many people who lack wealth and power are willing to serve the interests of wealth and power.

      That was seen with those early soldiers and settlers, most of whom were from the lower classes. It was only after thousands of Native Americans and poor whites died in a particular place like Fort Madison that the wealthy and powerful would move in to build their towns, houses, and businesses.

      The new frontier for Americans is now the Middle East and the new savages are Muslims who must be some combination of killed, subdued, or put into reservations (as in Palestine).

  3. People don’t think. That’s the problem.

    Throw a gullible populace and a ruthless elite together, then you have the perfect storm.

    The new frontier is wherever the politicians decide to wage the next war.

  4. I posted this elsewhere, but:

    Since a picture is worth many words:

    The only nations with higher poverty seem to be the ones in economic crisis like Greece (a result of neoliberal economics). Interesting that Czech and Slovakia are so low though in child poverty.

    The rest are mostly no surprise – the Nordic nations at the bottom for example.

    • They had a very bad recession.

      Read: They deregulated their financial sector and got screwed over by the investment bank community. I have not followed their news closely, but they are in debt to foreign nations in Europe.

      Iceland has very high costs of living, so it’s not a surprise that they are facing problems. They have been recovering slowly, but they have serious challenges ahead of them:

      I suspect that there may also be a relationship to the high divorce rates, but I’d have to look it up to see.

      What’s alarming is the number of nations where child poverty is lower that have much lower PPP’s per capita than the US.

      • PPP per capita doesn’t really mean much. That is particularly true when there is high economic inequality in a society and hence high PPP inequality.

        Besides, what truly matters is what purchasing power allows one to buy. The political order and market system don’t just give choices but also constrain them.

        A rich person has great purchasing power in, for example, buying into a gate community. But if that gated community is surrounded by crumbling or non-existent infrastructure, it isn’t all that great. What about the purchasing power per capita for the tax dollars used for public infrastructure, services, etc.

        That is where Scandinavian countries excel. A person could be technically poor there and yet still be rich in all basic necessities and public goods that make one not feel poor. Is someone still poor if they never lack for what they need?

      • The alarming thing about this is that Iceland is I think one of the most equal, if not the most equal (wealth wise) nations in the world.

        It seems inequality is rising everywhere.

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