“A Mark was Made”

Here in Iowa City, we’ve been in a permanent state of construction for years now. I can’t remember the last time some part of the downtown wasn’t in disarray while in the process of being worked on. Large parts of the pedestrian mall have been a maze of fencing and torn up brick for years upon years (Michael Shea, Ped Mall updates soon to come). An entire generation of Iowa Citians has grown up with construction as their childhood memory of the town.

For a smaller town with a population of only 75,798, the city government impressively throws millions of dollars at projects like it’s pocket change. The pedestrian mall renovation alone is projected to be $7.4 million and that’s limited to about a block of the downtown. The city has had many similar projects in recent years, including the building of multiple massive parks and a city-wide infrastructure overhaul, to name a few. Over the past decade or so, the city expenditures for these kinds of improvements might add up to hundreds of millions of dollars. That is a lot of money for such a limited area, considering one can take a relaxed stroll from one side of town to the other in a couple of hours or less.

All of this public investment is called progress, so I hear. As part of this project to improve and beautify the downtown, they apparently built a wall as a memorial to very important people (a wall to Make Iowa City Great Again?). It’s entitled entitled “A Mark was Made”. From the official City of Iowa City website, it is reported that, “The wall was created to become an evolving acknowledgement celebrating the leadership, activism, and creativity of those who have influenced the Iowa City community and beyond” (Installation of ‘A Mark was Made’ story wall completed as part of Ped Mall project).

One of the local figures included is John Alberhasky, now deceased. He was a respectable member of the local capitalist elite and still well-remembered by many. For the older generations who are fond of what capitalism once meant, this is the kind of guy they’re thinking of. Apparently, I’m now officially part of the “older generations”, as I can recall what Iowa City used to be like… ah, the good ol’ days.

Mr. Alberhasky was not only a small business owner but also a widely known community leader. The small mom-and-pop grocery store that he started, affectionately known as “Dirty John’s”, has long been a regularly stop even for people not living in the neighborhood and the store’s deli used to make sandwiches that were sold at a local high school. Once among dozens of such corner grocery stores, it is the only example left remaining in this town. The store itself is a memorial to a bygone era.

This local businessman seems like a worthy addition to this memorial. He was beloved by the community. And he seems to have established an honorable family business that is being carried on with care by his descendants. There are few families that have been part of the Iowa City community for so long, going back to the 1800s, the kinds of ethnic immigrants that built this country. They are good people, the best landlords I’ve ever had I might add (as a tenant for a couple of decades, does that make me their landpeasant?). I approve of their family’s patriarch being included on this fine wall of public distinction.

Still, I can’t help but noting an irony about this memorial to community involvement and public service. It is located in the People’s Park that was turned into the gentrified front yard of a TIF-funded high-rise built for rich people (TIFs, Gentrification, and Plutocracy). It effectively evicted the common folk from this public park for years and a once thriving community space has never been the same since (Freedom and Public Space). Only recently did they finally put seating back to allow the dirty masses to once again rest their weary bodies, but it has yet to regain the welcoming feel it once held as a vibrant expression of community.

To this day, there is no memorial or even a small plaque indicating that this is a unique park separate from and having preceded the pedestrian mall, originally a green space that was established through community organizing and public demand, the first public space established downtown. It’s as if the People’s Park does not exist and, as far as public memory goes, never did exist. The number of people who remember it are growing fewer in number.

Not even the local government will officially acknowledge it. In the article about the new wall from the city website, they don’t mention that this is the People’s Park and, instead, refer to it as merely Black Hawk Mini Park. I did a quick site search and the People’s Park is not mentioned by name anywhere on the city website. But at least Chief Black Hawk gets mentioned for his role in surrendering to the US military that allowed white people to take his people’s land… that’s something.

3 thoughts on ““A Mark was Made”

  1. Same in and around Charlotte, NC — otherwise known as “Charlotte-Mecklenburg.” Constant — but constant — state of “construction,” while former “construction” projects have been all but completely abandoned.

    • I don’t know what kind of place Charlotte is. Other than it being a much larger city. Iowa City is a middle class college town with a leading research hospital. That brings in a lot of money for a comparably small population. And the local government loves to throw that money around.

      But apparently compared to Charlotte, the Iowa City government must get credit for always finishing their projects. They simply keep doing more projects. There are streets being worked on all over the city for years now. And a tiny neighborhood park is getting renovated for a couple million dollars. I don’t doubt they will complete it and that it will be wonderful for that neighborhood.

      Still, that is a lot of money to spend on a single small park that doesn’t get heavy use. There are dozens of neighborhood parks like it that could use renovation and dozens of neighborhoods that lack parks entirely. That is on top of just having built two massive parks that cost tens of millions. How many small neighborhood parks could they have renovated or built for the same amount of money? To be fair, they have added in some parks and green spaces in the new neighborhoods being built.

      The local government loves expensive projects. I can’t say the projects they build aren’t nice. They’e built multi-use trails that I regularly use. So, it’s a fair argument that it improves the city. But I question whose interests are being served. Most of the money is being directed toward projects that benefit the wealthiest. I can think of only one park they’ve ever built in a poor neighborhood, although admittedly it was a decent park.

      Still, none of the TIF-funding ever goes to those poor neighborhoods and the whole original intent of TIFs was to renovate impoverished areas. So, why do TIFs only go to the wealthiest and most powerful builders in town who are constructing high-rises for the rich? And what TIF means is that other businesses are forced to pay the taxes to compensate for those who don’t.

    • One thing has seemed clear to me about Iowa City. The political and business elite (often the same, as many business owners are on the city council) have a very clear vision for what they want the town to become. Essentially, the are trying to gentrify the entire community and drive out the lower classes.

      The original downtown improvements happened in the 1960s and 1970s. At the time, there was plenty of cheap housing and shopping downtown for average and below average residents. But that began changing. We are now in the third wave of the a long-term gentrification project.

      It’s worked out well. The city council has, as I said, given TIF funding to high-rises for the rich. But they’ve made it difficult for factories to build in the area and this town used to be filled with factories that employed a large working class. There no longer is much of a working class population left here, as they now live in neighboring towns and in rural areas.

      They want Iowa City to be the playground for the upper middle class. Almost everything is directed toward them. And the city government at behest of the wealthy class are willing to invest the immense amounts of money to make this happen.

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