Can you go home again?
Thomas Wolfe certainly thought it was difficult. I know that I have tried to return home a number of times before. Each time, these attempts have met with an important realization – the realization that the place where I once belonged, the place that had been central to my existence, was no longer home.
Yet, a couple of weeks ago my wife and I tried to return to one of our former homes. You know what? It felt much more like home than either of us expected.
Other than my hometown, no place has been as central to my life as Iowa City. I lived there for nearly 11 years. It’s the place where I met my wife, got married, and made a number of lifetime friends.
In some ways, the importance of Iowa City to my life has been evident for some time. Yet, it’s influence on my life, on my identity, has also been questionable. After all, I had a love/hate relationship with the town while I lived there. There was so much to like about it. It was an easy place to live. There was good music, good restaurants, and a myriad of interesting people. Yet, it was never home.
During the time I lived in Iowa City, I always planned to live somewhere else. It was supposed to be a mere stop in my life, the place where I completed my PhD. Yet eventually, as dictated by the tenure track, I was going to leave.
Yet, even after I decided to jump off the merry-go-round of academe, I still didn’t plan on being there forever. For all of the great qualities about Iowa City – and there are many – I wanted to live somewhere bigger, somewhere more exciting. For years I wanted to live in St. Louis, or somewhere similar. I wanted the feel of the neighborhoods, the multitude of restaurants, the music venues filled with artists regularly playing.
That’s why I was so surprised by how comfortable it felt to return for the weekend. I love living in St. Louis. It’s home. But, perhaps for the first time in my life, I could also see how easily Iowa City could’ve been home for us for a long period of time. Maybe even the rest of our lives.
I’ll admit that freaked me out a bit.
Yet, it hasn’t been home for nearly four years. That time away has given me the time to reflect on life there. I’ve had the opportunity to get a lot of perspective on Iowa City during that time.
After taking a few weeks to mull over our visit, here are a few of my random musings on Iowa City.
I didn’t appreciate New Pi Co-Op nearly enough while I lived there. Ok, I’ll admit it. I first joined the co-op in Iowa City because of peer pressure. I didn’t join because of some larger commitment to worker justice or more sustainable farming practices. I didn’t even join because of the selection of products available there. Nope, I joined simply because my friends were members and wouldn’t stop talking about it.
Over time, I started to buy more food from the Co-op. I started to love the eclectic product selection, especially in the grab-and-go case. At different times, we even verged on being regulars at New Pi, especially when we needed a fix of their Kung Pao Tofu!
No, it took moving away for me to see what a treasure New Pi is! After two years of driving around Wisconsin & Minnesota, I found a number of great small co-ops in Duluth, LaCrosse, and Viroqua. But none of them had overall ambiance or supply of products of the New Pi. We also became members of the Willy Street Co-Op in Madison. Yet, after a couple of years occasionally shopping there, I gave up on the store. There was no comparison between the two stores. New Pioneer simply was better.
Now that we’re out of the Upper Midwest, there are no nearby co-ops. Sure, St. Louis has it’s share of interesting grocers/farmers markets/CSAs. But there’s no place like New Pioneer.
The titles many change. The coffee is different. But Prairie Lights still feels the same. A marriage between an English major and a PhD is bound to result in a household full of books. We’re no different. Our most recent move contained well over 30 boxes of books. Most of these books come from one place – Prairie Lights. Separately – and then together – Laura and I spent too much time and money in the esteemed Iowa City independent bookseller.
It was such an integral place to me that I even had a routine for shopping in the store. And I’d rarely walk out without purchasing something – a book, a magazine, or even a cup of coffee.
Walking back into Prairie Lights felt like I was returning to my personal library. And it should. I probably spent more time there during my Iowa City tenure than I did in the UI library. Yes, the cafe is different. It does feel strange – almost sacrilege – to not have the Java House upstairs. Yet, it remains one of my favorite bookstores.
The Java House can still pour a great cup of coffee. Sometimes I’m asked what is my favorite cup of coffee? Geez, what a tough question. I’ve never been able to narrow the list of favorite places for coffee down to just one. Shops like Kaldi’s, Northwest, Alterra, Intelligentsia are all amongst my favorites.
The Java House is where I first learned to drink coffee. Not the bottomless cups of bland, diner-style coffee that kept me going during my all-night study sessions in college. No, the Java House is where I became a coffee snob.
Over many hours of studying in their cafes, I started to develop my coffee palate. I understood that difference in taste between different roasts. And I started to establish my favorites. It opened my eyes to the possibility of how a great roast can make an outstanding cup of coffee. It was the Java House that made my love of artisan coffees possible.
While Iowa City might remain the cultural hub of the south end of the “corridor,” the economic engine is moving to Coralville/North Liberty. In August, 1998, Iowa City changed forever. Sure, that was the month I moved to town, started my PhD program, and became familiar with all too many downtown restaurants and bars.
More importantly, it was two weeks before I moved to Iowa City that the Coral Ridge Mall opened in the bedroom community of Coralville. While there was plenty of angst at the time about the impact of the mall on downtown Iowa City, I don’t recall even the rosiest of predictions about how this would change the area coming close with the reality of how the Coral Ridge Mall changed the economic geography of the “corridor.”
When it opened fifteen years ago, Coral Ridge was, for all practical purposes, situated on the edge of a field. There were some factories/warehouses nearby, but there was no other retail – and very few offices – in the area. North Liberty was a small town, clearly separate from Coralville and disconnected from the interstate. Iowa City was the dominant economic center of the southern portion “corridor,” home to not only the University of Iowa and its attendant functions, but also home to most of the economic activity in the area.
Fast forward fifteen years and not only has Coral Ridge attracted more retail to the area, but it is seemingly remaking where people work . As we drove along the interstate between Cedar Rapids and Iowa City, the area was slowly filling in with commercial and office space. Most notably, a new facility for the University of Iowa Community Credit Union located near the Heartland Express headquarters caught my eye as we traveled along the interstate.
While the addition of new auto-oriented suburban shopping in Coralville and North Liberty doesn’t surprise me as much, the presence of new office space caught me off guard. Maybe I was naive, but I always figured that Iowa City would keep many of the office functions. And, as the area grew, I thought that much of the growth would occur along north Dubuque Street – not along the interstate.
When coupled with the slow, but apparent success of the Iowa River Landing, it seems increasingly certain that while Iowa City will likely remain the cultural center of the area, the momentum in Coralville/North Liberty is likely going to have a long-term impact on not only where people live and shop, but where people work.
The infatuation with soulless highrises is destroying the character of downtown Iowa City.
Ok, maybe that’s a bit of hyperbole. Or maybe I’m just becoming a middle-aged curmudgeon. Either way, I find the continued Moenization of downtown Iowa City to be a sad phenomenon, a development trajectory that is destroying the fabric that once attracted me to this great college town.
It’s not that I have a problem with the construction of high-rises in Iowa City (though I do find a fourteen story, postmodern glass tower juxtaposed with a one story office across the street to be a study in issues of urban scale). In fact, there are several historic high rises – most notably, the Jefferson Building – that fit well into the downtown landscape.
Rather, I have two issues with the proliferation of highrises built in downtown Iowa City. First, much of the construction (with the Moen developments being the obvious exceptions) are a great example of homogeneous banality that characterizes much of the design permeating downtown Iowa City. Many of the student apartments built over the last fifteen years seemingly have come from the same bad book of design. There’s little creativity in what’s built and many of the ground level commercial spaces seem added only as a way to meet zoning requirements.
Without a doubt, the greatest crime to aesthetics and common-sense development in downtown Iowa City is the monstrosity that has been built in the former location of the Red Avocado. Not only did the developers destroy a unique, pedestrian friendly local business that helped keep Iowa City weird, but what they built in its place is a horrible, misfit of a building with no spaces for effective street life.
While an aesthetic critique of downtown Iowa City is possible, my second issue with much of the downtown development of the last decade is more substantive. Namely, I’m critical of the trajectory of development in downtown Iowa City, a trajectory exemplified by the plans the Moen Group has made and executed in the downtown area. And while I do applaud the Moen Group for their aesthetic concerns and for their attempts to create spaces for social interaction, the spaces they are creating are homogenized spaces, playgrounds for the wealthy that have scrubbed the eclectic, unique, and even weird entities that otherwise fill college and university towns.
Sure, it’s great to see that his newest project will include a small, local art house theater. That’s surely one way to keep some of the weirdness in Iowa City.
Yet, Iowa City – at least the place where I spent a significant portion of my life – is not supposed to be a hamlet filled with glistening skyscrapers containing fashionable condos/hotels and shops peddling the latest in wealthy middle American status symbols. No, Iowa City – like all college towns – is supposed to be a place that moves beyond the fancy trends of the day; a place where experimentation is not only encouraged, but it is possible. It’s the type of place where artist collectives can start, co-op groceries begin and thrive, and bands are able to play live music in sketchy bars.
Instead, what’s being built through these glistening high rises is a spit-shined, managed downtown landscape. With these structures, Iowa City is building an urban theme park, a place that privileges certain types of businesses and activity – namely, those that can afford the significant rents of these structures. Oftentimes, these are chains. And while a superficial examination of downtown seemingly shows a place that is thriving, much is lost. In its place, Iowa City slowly becomes another quasi-hipster playground that looks as much like Lincoln Park as it does Iowa City.
Though it’s not the fanciest place in town, by far the best restaurant addition to IC is Oasis the Falafel Joint.
Over the last fifteen years, many restaurants have come and gone in Iowa City. The Red Avocado. 126. Pizza on Dubuque. Josephs. Other places such as the Breadgarden and Motley Cow Cafe have relocated and expanded. Yet, there’s no other place I’d rather visit when visiting than Oasis the Falafel Joint.
By far the best hummus I’ve still ever had is what they make at Oasis. On top of the hummus, Oasis uses fluffy pitas from Chicago’s North Shore Kosher Bakery, they make their falafel fresh daily, and they allow you to douse your falafel in a mango curry sauce.
Hmmm, wonder if they deliver to St. Louis?
A 15 minute drive across town with little traffic feels crazy.
I hadn’t realized how much I’ve adapted to life in St. Louis until we spent two days scurrying around Iowa City. After spending the last eighteen months navigating the daily demolition derby of the St. Louis rush hour, a sprint across Iowa City seemed easy. It hit me as I turned onto Riverside Drive from Burlington – there was no traffic! This realization occurred at one of the intersections I used to avoid because of the traffic!
I’m sure rush hour is worse that what I experienced on a Saturday afternoon. But it no longer compares to what I see on a regular basis.
Why do people keep building new structures along the Iowa River?
As I compose this post, the Iowa City area is under the threat of another flood. It doesn’t appear that it’s going to reach the levels of the 2008 floods that put much of eastern Iowa under water. Yet, it marks the third time in 20 years that the Coralville Reservoir has been topped (or, with the latest projections, it will nearly be topped).
In 2008, flooding in the Iowa City area swamped the Coralville Strip. It destroyed neighborhoods along the river, inundated buildings on the University of Iowa campus, and made it nearly impossible to get across town.
Imagine our surprise to not only see a completed new Staples built between Riverside Drive and the Iowa River, but to also see a brand new Hampton Inn constructed next door. On the river. In an area that has flooded twice in 20 years and is flooding again.
On top of that, it’s in an area that, as far as I can tell, hasn’t seen any significant flood mitigation projects since the floods of 2008. Given the efforts in Cedar Rapids to recognize the risk of future flooding as they’ve worked to rebuild since 2008, it’s surprising that Iowa City hasn’t taken a similar approach to their flood-prone regions.