I live and work in downtown Iowa City. I regularly walk through and spend time in the downtown area. Having lived here (with a few years spent elsewhere) since the 1980s, I’m always trying to get perspective about this city and where it is heading.
As I was meandering to work today, I went through the pedestrian mall and my mind was naturally drawn to the numerous bars. I’ve had a theory for a while about what drove out so many of the stores I used to like, the stores that the average person would want to shop at and could afford to shop at. There is a general gentrification going on that is being promoted and funded by TIFs (among I’m sure other causes), but there is more than just that going on. I’ve considered that maybe the bars have been so profitable that they’ve driven up the rental costs in the downtown, driven them too high for the average small business owner.
This is problematic. Few things can compete with alcohol. All that has been able to compete are mostly high end restaraunts, art galleries, gift shops, jewelry stores, etc.
I was thinking about what this means. Why is it that it is so hard to compete with bars? The first thing that came to mind is that alcohol is an addictive substance. For a large number of people, the more alcohol they drink the more they want to drink. It guarantees repeat customers who are willing to pay high costs for their preferred drug. There is a reason the only mom and pop grocery story left in town is a major retailer of alcohol, and of course it is downtown.
I’m not for prohibition of addictive substances. But we have to get serious about the externalized costs, whether from legal or illegal markets. I’m in favor of making most addictive substances legal, but putting high sin taxes on them and providing the highest quality rehab centers (along with whatever else is beneficial). The sin taxes should go to deal with all the externalized costs, from rehab centers to homeless shelters… also to deal with the problems developing in the downtown and other impacted areas.
There is something telling about how gentrification and the sale of addictive substances act as twin forces in utterly transforming this town. I’m far from convinced that these changes are positive.
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What is the relationship between gentrification, crony capitalism, and bars? Or to put it another way: What is the relationship between wealth, power, and addiction?
I wouldn’t be the first person to associate addiction with the consumerism of a capitalist society. Nor would I be the first to associate addiction to power relationships. I know William S. Burroughts had many interesting thoughts on the matter. Is it simply about social control? If so, to what end? Or is it as Burroughs suggests, just power serving power, like a disease?
I’m specifically thinking of the city I live in, but all of this applies more broadly. Also, the issue of alchol should be widened to all addictions and everything related to it: drug wars, mass incarceration, etc. Part of my context here is the book “Chasing the Scream” by Johann Hari. That author sees addiction as a social failure, rather than a mere personal issue. It isnt just the addict who is addicted, but the entire society addicted to the system. The alcoholic is addicted to alcohol, the bar owners are addicted to the profit they can make, and the local government is addicted to the tax money that is brought in.
The difference with alcohol, though is that it is a socially acceptable addiction. The entire identity of a small college town like Iowa City is tied up with alcoholism. The UI is famous for being a party school. The town was well known as a drinking town going back for more than a century. Generations of people have traveled from far away just to get drunk in this town.
What is at the heart of this? What is the driving force behind it all?
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I originally posted these thoughts on Facebook.
It was on my mind for some reason. Several people commented and it led to a detailed discussion, but my mind was no more clear afterwards. I still don’t quite know what to make of this line of thought.
It’s complicated, as I’m always repeating. There is a much larger context involved (German immigration, Prohibition, TIFs, etc). No changes come out of nowhere. There are always underlying causes that go much deeper, often to historical roots.
Here are a few other things I’ve written before about related issues. Also, along with them, I’ll throw in some articles about the local area.