“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.

Being Asked For Directions

I had a nice chat with a stranger the other day.

On my work break, a lady asked me for directions to the university hospital. I started to tell her how to get there, but I realized she probably didn’t know the town at all and I hate trying to give directions. So I decided to walk her there, since I had the time.

On the way, we had opportunity to talk. She said she is from China and came here as a cancer researcher. She was meeting a friend at the hospital.

She explained to me that universities in China are enclosed by a wall. I guess they are entirely separate from everything else. this town must seem chaotic and confusing to her, as there is no way to figure out where the city ends and the university begins. This is literally a college town where the university dominates.

It got me thinking about how different societies can be.

The US can be a rather disorderly place in many ways, even in a smaller town like this. We Americans aren’t the most talented when it comes to building a planned society. This country is a mess of competing interests and jurisdictions. And this can be seen here in the overlapping of city and university with the haphazard location of buildings that don’t share common architectural style.

Even the naming of streets in this town is mostly random. And how some streets connect can be hard to explain. All reasons I try to avoid having to give anyone directions.

All of that despite Iowa being the most orderly planned out state in the entire country.

I suspect China would be quite different in many ways. But I couldn’t begin to guess what a Chinese city or university is like.

Expectations to Explain the Unexplainable

Here is something that brings up the issue of how we discuss things.

I noticed two opinion pieces from the local University of Iowa newspaper, The Daily Iowan. They were about an alleged hate crime and the university’s response to it. Specifically, the complaints is that the university didn’t respond in a timely enough manner and that this is proof of the university not taking seriously the safety and concerns of black students.

The first opinion piece is by Marcus Brown. In the print version, it was titled “It’s Time To Talk About Race.” And the online title is “Always Too Little, Too Late.” The author writes that,

“A crime alert issued far too late and possibly as an attempt to stymie what will surely become a well-deserved fiasco is explanation enough of the university’s reluctance to actually address issues on campus with any sort of intentionality. […] The question I have is not what the university is going to do, but simply why is it going to do it. If the university cared about black students, it would have issued a Hawk Alert about a potential hate crime just as urgently as it would all other crimes that occur on campus that specify a potentially black suspect.”

What stood out to me is the perspective. I assume that Marcus Brown is a university student. Like many of the university students, he likely isn’t from the local area.

There are many students from other states and other countries. Most of the population of this town probably wasn’t born and raised in Iowa. It’s a town many people pass through on their way to bigger and better things.

As someone, who has lived here most of my life, off and on since elementary school, I have a different perspective. I’m a local yokel. But it doesn’t bother me to hear criticisms of the university. I have no particular loyalty to the university. I never attended the university. I only briefly worked for the university for a few months as a dishwasher and that was a long time ago.

I find it curious how a student sees things differently. To the above author, the university and the city are one and the same. They are conflated as a single entity. He describes where the attack happened and it was downtown in a public alley, not on campus. It’s strange that the university should be responsible for what crimes happen outside of campus, as the authority of university police is mostly limited to university property.

It is true that this was close to campus. But it makes me wonder if Mr. Brown assumes that anything that happens to a university student anywhere in Iowa City should be the responsibility of the university. The town is more than 25 square miles. The university is concentrated in one small area. Most university buildings are within a mile of most other university buildings.

I understand that it involved a university student and that automatically makes it a university concern on some basic level. Then again, things happen to university students all the time and rarely does the university involve itself. Aggressive people coming out of bars late at night is hardly an unusual situation. Fights and attacks happen on a regular basis. Yes, the victim claims that there were racial slurs.

Maybe the university should have put out an alert earlier. Officials stated that they were waiting for further information from the police to confirm what happened. I don’t know if that is a fair assessment or not. I just found it interesting that to some students this whole town seems like an extension of the university.

The other opinion piece is by Keith Reed. It has a simple and amusing title, “#Explain Iowa.” I’m sure he is another student and it seems he has a similar perspective to the other guy, as he also speaks of the ‘campus’:

“On [n]umerous campuses — it is a shame — this incident has happened many times. […] This has raised an essential question that has to be explored on every campus. Can the administration, in good conscience, provide a safe environment for these minorities? We need to change the taboo surrounding race on the UI campus, because we all know minorities are here. We have become pawns in a system that clearly cares about percentages than actual life cost. Your move Iowa, now it is time for you to explain this. #ExplainIowa.”

The problem is that it didn’t happen on campus. I don’t think that is a minor detail. Reed goes even further than Brown. University issues don’t just include all of the surrounding city. Somehow the entirety of Iowa is implicated. Anyway, who is ‘Iowa’. Does that mean each and every Iowan has to explain?

I get the sense that the author assumes all of Iowa is white and that the only minorities here are temporary residents such as students like him. According to the Iowa City census, more than 20% of the population is not “white alone.” This percentage is lower for the rest of the state, but other cities in Eastern Iowa have higher rates of minorities, as compared to rural areas. Most minorities in Iowa probably aren’t out-of-state college students.

Why is all of Iowa and presumably all Iowans responsible for explaining the behavior of a few drunk guys? Many people in Iowa City, as I explained, aren’t from around here. The city is right on I-80, a short jaunt from a number of big cities such as Chicago. People come to Iowa City sometimes just to go to the bars. We are a town well known for drinking.

As far as anyone knows, the guys who beat up on the student could be from almost anywhere. It’s not as if the attackers yelled something like, “This is Iowa and we’re real Iowans! Iowa is for white people! Go back where you came from!” They were just some guys who beat up another guy, likely all involved having been drinking at the bars. I have no reason to doubt that racial slurs were tossed out. After all, we live in a society that was founded on slavery and genocide. It’s going to take us a while to work out these issues, sadly.

Even if all of Iowa City or all of Iowa attempted to explain such incidents, how could that be accomplished? And what exactly would be accomplished? I have a hard enough explaining my own behavior. I don’t think I’m capable of explaining why violent assholes are the way they are. It would be like an Iraqi citizen writing an article directed at US citizens that had the title “#ExplainUnitedStates.” I wish I could explain everything that happens in the world, but I can’t. My white Iowan privilege doesn’t give me special privileged knowledge.

It’s strange how people talk about such things. Racism is an important issue. We do need to discuss it and try to come to terms with what it means and what we can do about it. For that reason, we should find helpful ways of framing issues and not generalize so broadly.

* * *

The sad ending to this incident is that it turns out the guy was lying and far from being an innocent victim. He had been drinking underage, had a disagreement with a fellow frat guy, started at least one fight in a bar and was involved in several other altercations. All of this was caught on video and there were eyewitnesses.

If I was an arrogantly righteous asshole, I’d say #ExplainBlackPeople. But I’d rather try to be understanding and forgiving. Besides, it would be as pointless to expect all black people to explain the actions of some black person as it would be to expect all white people to explain the actions of some white person.

Owens investigation turns up video surveillance but no hate crime
By Adam Burke, Little Village

Authorities: Assault near University of Iowa campus not hate crime
KCRG

No charges against University of Iowa student Marcus Owens for fabricating hate crime
By Vanessa Miller, The Gazette

Despite lack of hate crime, UI re-evaluating police protocols
By Jeff Charis-Carlson, Iowa City Press Citizen

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.

Wealth, Power, and Addiction

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.

* * * *

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?

* * * *

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.

https://benjamindavidsteele.wordpress.com/2014/09/18/tifs-gentrification-and-plutocracy/

https://benjamindavidsteele.wordpress.com/2013/10/17/generational-change-and-conflict-immigration-media-tech-etc/

https://benjamindavidsteele.wordpress.com/2014/08/25/the-fight-for-freedom-is-the-fight-to-exist-independence-and-interdependence/

https://benjamindavidsteele.wordpress.com/2013/10/28/centerville-ia-meeting-point-of-diversity-conflict/

https://benjamindavidsteele.wordpress.com/2013/10/20/generations-at-the-age-of-twelve/

https://benjamindavidsteele.wordpress.com/2013/10/14/ku-klux-klan-and-the-lost-generation/

http://thegazette.com/subject/life/beer-riots-of-1884-brought-violence-and-bloodshed-to-iowa-city-20140810

http://littlevillagemag.com/the-hops-original-gangsters-the-iowa-city-beer-riots-of-1884/

https://books.google.com/books?id=WaRjYoBZO3sC&pg=PA56&lpg=PA56&dq=%22iowa+city%22+AND+englert+AND+prohibition&source=bl&ots=_tc1dCXj3S&sig=sMsBOrtOH8vUdVSPXiSkMW4EHjE&hl=en&sa=X&ei=HO_fVJjgA9OwyASv_oK4CQ&ved=0CEIQ6AEwBg#v=onepage&q=%22iowa%20city%22%20AND%20englert%20AND%20prohibition&f=false

http://www.press-citizen-media.com/150/geiger.html

http://www.press-citizen-media.com/150/englert.html

https://stateinnovation.org/uploads/asset/asset_file/1529/Tax_Increment_Financing_A_Case_Study_of_Johnson_County.pdf

http://littlevillagemag.com/the-truth-about-tifs/

http://www.dailyiowan.com/2014/06/23/Metro/38106.html

http://www.iowahouserepublicans.com/government-oversight-coralville-use-of-tif-funds

http://thegazette.com/2012/04/12/coralvilles-bond-ratings-take-hit-on-hotel-costs-tif-reliance

https://www.moodys.com/research/MOODYS-DOWNGRADES-CITY-OF-CORALVILLES-IA-ANNUAL-APPROPRIATION-URBAN-RENEWAL–PR_243553

http://www.limitedgovernment.org/brief19-5.html

http://patch.com/iowa/iowacity/iowa-city-city-council-sidesteps-petition-on-tif-vote6cce46a1fd

http://www.northlibertyleader.com/content/coralville-ailing-finances-or-healthy-debt

TIFs, Gentrification, and Plutocracy

The most recent issue of my local alternative publication, Little Village, had two articles that caught my attention (Vol. 17, Issue 162, Sept. 17-30 20014). Taken together, they made an important point. I suspect that wasn’t an accident for they were printed close together as the first two articles presented.

The first article is, “The Truth About TIFs”. It is written by Matthew Byrd.

Like many other places, TIFs have been a big issue around here, as they should be since TIF funding comes from the money taken from the taxpaying public.  Here is how it has played out in this local area. A neighboring town, Coralville, has used TIFs to draw businesses away from the town I live in, Iowa City. A TIF has been used for the the large mall built in Coralville which had major impact on Iowa City’s downtown. Iowa Citians like to call it the Death Star. We used to have a nice downtown that had normal stores, but now it is filled with mostly bars, restaurants, art galleries, and expensive gift shops. The TIF-funded mall played a role in gentrifying Iowa City.

That said, Iowa City’s government has embraced this gentrification with its own TIFs. A highrise was built in downtown Iowa City using a TIF. It is a big fancy building that will add yet more expensive apartments to downtown and with room for yet one more expensive shop on the ground floor. In building this highrise, the city got rid of the benches in front of this new highrise. The area where those benches were used to be called the “People’s Park” and it was an important public space that has now been made into the front yard for the wealthy inhabitants of the highrise.

This wasn’t the original intent for TIF funding.

As the article explains, “the image of TIFs is considerably less rosy in execution than it appears in conception, particularly when it comes to the intellectual core of TIF law: the focus on blighted neighborhoods. T?he idea that TIF funds are supposed to be used to revitalize poor neighborhoods is paramount, to the point that it’s written into Iowa State Code. As the Iowa Department of Revenue explains, “Iowa code recognizes two primary purposes for [TIF funding]; namely, to eliminate slum or blight and to promote economic development.””

TIFs help blightned neighborhoods about as much as the war on poverty helped the poor. In the end, public money always seems to get redirected to the already well off. The poor get underfunded schools, unemployment, and mass incarceration while the rich get privatized education, outsourcing, and government contracts to build and operate the prisons. One of the purposes of TIFs was to create and maintain low-cost housing in neighborhoods where investors wouldn’t otherwise build or renovate.

This brings me to the article immediately following the above one, “High Rises and Higher Rents”. This article is by Shauna McKnight.

Basically, there is too little housing for too many people. Also, the housing available is simply too expensive. The article begins by pointing out that “[a]pproximately 30%” of Iowa City’s population lives below the poverty line, “compared to Iowa’s average of 12%”. On top of that, “55.6% of renters in Jonson Country are cost burdened” which is “the highest rate in all of Iowa”.

Affordable housing isn’t keeping up with the demand of population growth, specifically an increasingly impoverished population because of the recession and other factors: “the vacancy rate in Iowa City sits at half of one percent. In a normal, healthy market there is typically a five percent vacancy rate.” As the article continues a bit further on, “the problem is that the wages in the area haven’t kept up with the cost of living.” This forces many poor working class people to look for housing further away in the nearby rural areas and small towns. Cheaper housing just means more expensive travel costs. Also, where someone lives determines their opportunities such as the school their children will attend.

Many people can’t win for losing. This isn’t limited to Iowa City, that is for sure. Still, rural farming states like Iowa are being hit harder than the states in other regions. This is why the younger generation is fleeing which creates a death spiral for the local working class communities. A particularly disheartening piece of data is how, “one in five working families in Iowa have incomes that cannot meet their basic needs. This can lead to a cycle of poverty that persists across generations.”

This is where the TIF issue comes in. Why is the local government giving money to promote the building of housing and shopping for the wealthy?

“The issue of affordable housing has thrown a spotlight on The Chauncey building—which will hold both commercial spaces for area business and luxury housing units. The city plans to pay &1 million to set aside five units of affordable housing in the complex (the remaining units will be luxury condos and apartments).”

That is the official solution for the housing problem, really? We the public will pay a million dollars to get five more units of affordable housing in this town. We are being fleeced. I sometimes feel like this town has been taken over. If the local government isn’t serving most of the local population, then who is it serving?

Social Environment & Human Potential

A thoughtful article:

Cities and Ambition
By Paul Graham

“Great cities attract ambitious people. You can sense it when you walk around one. In a hundred subtle ways, the city sends you a message: you could do more; you should try harder.

“The surprising thing is how different these messages can be. New York tells you, above all: you should make more money. There are other messages too, of course. You should be hipper. You should be better looking. But the clearest message is that you should be richer.

“What I like about Boston (or rather Cambridge) is that the message there is: you should be smarter. You really should get around to reading all those books you’ve been meaning to.”

This reminds me of a report by Luminosity that claimed that Iowa had 6 out of 100 of the smartest cities in the US. There measure was a specific test for cognitive ability.

Some years ago, I read that Iowa City (where I live) had the highest per capita of degrees and PhDs, but I don’t know if that is still the case. Iowa City does have the second highest per capita of doctors. Sure has a lot of writers and artists as well. I’m not sure what message Iowa City puts out in all of this.

I have a friend who grew up in Iowa City. She moved to Portland, Oregon many years ago. She loves it there.

Like Iowa City, Portland has a writers workshop, although it is more alternative than the mainstream workshop here. Compared to other US cities, Portland has (or did have, the last time I checked) the largest bookstore in the US and the most book stores and coffee shops (either according to per capita or per block, I forget which).

Portland is a very creative town with tons of artists and writers. But it also seems a bit like a hipster town. Living there, you want to be or be perceived as intellectual and creative, but you also want to be hip and cool.

Iowa City lacks that hipster quality for the most part. Instead, it feels more middle class. In Iowa City, even the mailmen and bus drivers not unusually have at least a college degree. Artists and writers don’t starve in Iowa City for they just get a job at the University or the City or one of the other large employers here.

“You can see how powerful cities are from something I wrote about earlier: the case of the Milanese Leonardo. Practically every fifteenth century Italian painter you’ve heard of was from Florence, even though Milan was just as big. People in Florence weren’t genetically different, so you have to assume there was someone born in Milan with as much natural ability as Leonardo. What happened to him?

“If even someone with the same natural ability as Leonardo couldn’t beat the force of environment, do you suppose you can?”

That is the most important point to take away. I’ve been convinced by the theory that some of the most intelligent and innovative people in America have their skills squandered or else apply their skills toward ends the mainstream considers immoral, for example (Gang Leader for a Day by Benjamin Wallace-Wells, Washington Monthly):

“In the project, Venkatesh finds men and women who easily flit back and forth between the legal and illegal economies (depending, usually, on which pays more at any given moment). Drug dealers aspire to buy small businesses, and their subordinates move between legitimate jobs and the hustle of drug dealing and prostitution. What Venkatesh is able to develop, through the view J.T. grants him, is a new way of thinking about the ghetto and ghetto crime, as the consequences that come when morality is uncoupled from the law.

“J.T. is a good tutor. He is a learned and steady bureaucrat of the drug trade, a man with some college and management experience behind him. Most of his life is spent dealing with, somewhat endearingly, the small headaches of petit bourgeois career life—managing less-than-competent subordinates, handling the objections of Taylor Homes residents, and trying to restrict police access to the project.”

In a country like the US, with a shrinking middle class, social mobility and good job opportunities, with growing poverty and desperation, an entire underclass is created with its own separate communities. As with cities, what community or neighborhood you live in or come from can make a big difference, not just in your opportunities but in shaping who you become (often the opportunities you are able to see and the opportunities that you value).

Many potential Leonardo da Vincis are gangsters tagging alley walls and dumpsters or working at Walmart. Many, probably most, of them don’t even know about even an iota of the talent and potential they have within them.

Genius or even just above average talent doesn’t arise in a vacuum. Without social capital, potential remains potential. Countries, cities and communities that invest in social capital at the same time invest in human capital.

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.

The Shame of Iowa and the Midwest

I’m a Midwesterner and specifically an Iowan. Like anyone else, I have a natural tendency to defend this place I consider home. Take for example when a commenter, Skepoet, said in a comment that the Midwest lacked diversity. I responded with pointing out a multicultural tradition in the Midwest.

At the same time, I always want to be as honest as possible, with myself as much as with others. I’ve come to realize, from further study, a major part of history outside the South that demonstrates how pervasive racism is in our society. I speak of sundown towns. I learned that even in my beloved Midwest, even in Iowa, sundown towns weren’t unusual. It wasn’t an accident that so many blacks ended up in the inner city. They were forced to live there when they were forced to leave the towns they had moved to following the Civil War. As I wrote in one post:

“A problem of freedom involves the opposite of being a part of a free people. Free societies/communities have often defined themselves by who is excluded. He references James Loewen’s work on sundown towns in this regard.

“I was generally aware that sundown towns existed, although I’m not sure I’ve ever heard them called that. They are basically towns where blacks weren’t (and, in some cases, still aren’t) welcome after dark, so unwelcome that their lives could be in danger (such as being arrested, beaten, or lynched). I was even aware that towns unfriendly to non-whites have existed all over the United States. Racism is pervasive throughout American society. Still, I was surprised by how pervasive these sundown towns supposedly were, especially in the far North and far West.

“There was an era following the Civil War where an anti-racist idealism prevailed. It took hold most strongly in the Republican majority areas outside the South. Blacks were very much welcomed into towns across the country and blacks took up the new opportunities available to them. What I never knew before was that blacks had settled in so many small towns and rural areas outside of the South. Like Loewen before he did the research, I just assumed most areas always were lacking in minorities.”

I learned that this might have happened quite close to home.

“For example, a nearby town is West Branch in Cedar County. My brother and his family live in West Branch, and he has noted the old boys network that keeps that town from changing, despite all the other small towns nearby experiencing lots of change. A longtime friend of mine grew up there for much of her early life and she recalls the racism that was common there.”

“Loewen briefly discusses Cedar County in his discussion of presidential hometowns (as Hoover lived in West Branch as a child). West Branch did and does have a large Quaker presence and the Quakers sought to help blacks after the Civil War. According to the census data, there were 37 black residents of Cedar County in 1890, but only 2 in 1930.

“This appearance and disappearance of blacks happened all over around this time. During the 20th century, blacks increasingly became concentrated into big cities. Loewen was unable to find any legal documents, newspaper accounts or oral history about what caused the blacks to leave Cedar County, but he did find plenty of evidence to explain what happened in other places. In some cases, white mobs forced entire black communities to vacate a town, a county or larger area (Oregon was a sundown state in that there were anti-black laws enforced to keep any new blacks from becoming residents). Whether through official decree or unofficial policy, many of these places remained all white for most or all of the 20th century, some still remaining all white to this day.”

This is the history. Now for the present reality of that persisting history.

Iowa ranks worst in the country when it comes to racial disparity of marijuana arrests. Much of the Midwest also fits in with this same sad pattern. These are the very states that so often rank well on many other social measures. What makes me most sad of all is the fact that Johnson County, in which I live, is the third worst county in Iowa.

This supposed multicultural-loving Iowa City that is my hometown obviously needs some work living up to its own ideals. The racial influence (read ‘black’ population) from Chicago coming in from I-80 is turning out to be too much for the local population, even here in this liberal college town.

I don’t know why such a problem exists in a place like this. The police here don’t seem abusive or oppressive. What has led them to racially profile to such a degree? And what has caused them to think this was acceptable or even expected of them?

By the way, the same day I came across the above info, I also noticed an article about Iowa City being listed in the top 100 livable cities. There were 5 cities in Iowa that made the list:

“Cedar Rapids was named 29 while Ames ranked 31 and Iowa City was 46. Des Moines ranked 69 and West Des Moines ranked 76.

This is extremely typical. Iowa City, in particular, is always making these kinds of lists. One of the best cities for retirement, for raising family, for going to college, for economic growth, and on and on. Yes, Iowa City is a great town for a town of its size. It has great public transportation, bike lanes, lots of trails and parks, a lovely downtown, and high civic participation. I could go on and on about why I love this place.

This most recent list is about most livable which includes a wide variety of factors. But the question is:

Livable for whom?

http://www.aclu-ia.org/2013/10/01/racial-profiling-initiative-launched/

http://thegazette.com/2011/02/11/software-looks-for-racial-profiling-in-c-r-police-work/

http://www.resourcesforlife.com/docs/item6761

https://www.aclu.org/criminal-law-reform/iowa-ranks-worst-nation-racial-disparities-marijuana-arrests

http://www.dailyiowan.com/2013/06/11/Opinions/33431.html

http://www.blackagendareport.com/content/deeper-racism-iowa-beneath-white-obama-craze

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.