“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.

The Mechanized City

I just left a meeting at the place I work, City of Iowa City Parking Department. The management of the department and of the city have been planning for future developments to improve the downtown area, some of which will eventually alter my job. It’s interesting to see the functioning of government from a slightly inside perspective.

Being a liberal city, the government here is very obsessed about such things as transparency and providing optimal services. There is some bureaucracy involved, but not as much since it’s a smaller population, not even large by Iowa standards. Also, surprising to some people, I’ve observed how Parking management doesn’t seem overly focused on profit-making, despite Parking being the only department that actually makes a profit. Everything is about serving the public. They take their role as civil servants very seriously.

(Although not focused on the profit of the parking department, they are focused on overall tax revenue. So, the ‘public’ in question particularly includes anyone involved in the downtown economy. The downtown business association — going by a different name these days — is directly involved in such city decisions. As such, the city is very focused on the profit of downtown businesses and thus the happiness of prospective customers.)

I’ve wondered about some of the recent changes, as I get to see much of it firsthand with my job. I’m a parking ramp cashier. I started out working in an empty lot that had no ticket spitter or even gates. Everything was done manually and it was a bit chaotic. Over the years, they keep adding new elements to parking such as building new ramps and now putting in self-pay stations. Eventually, my job will be replaced by what they call and ambassador position which then be my new job. Being an ambassador means I won’t be stuck in a booth and my job description will involve more customer service of the ambulatory variety, i.e., going to the customers when they have problems and generally being out and about doing what needs to be done.

They’ve invested massive amounts of money into technology. Along with self-pay stations, they have cameras everywhere and they are looking into various other possibilities: new meter systems with more options such as paying by smartphone, license plate reading machines, etc. One idea is that they might save money in the long run because they’ve let recidivism decrease the number of employees, but I doubt that can be a very central goal since they are spending such a vast amount of money in the process. I suspect they could run the parking department very cheaply with almost no technology at all.

It’s not really about money. It’s about information. Technology means data can be collected, stored, organized, and analyzed. Also, it is data that can be provided to the public as part of the services offered such as maps showing where open parking is at any moment or where a bus is at any moment.

The future is all about information. It’s not data for the sake of data as might be seen in the bureaucracy of a more authoritarian government. It’s all data with a specific purpose, the idea of a smoothly running machine, an entire city mechanized. Some might find that disturbing, maybe even dystopian. As for me, I’m just a curious observer.