The old housewas sold last year, and it looks different already. The lawn is ragged with dandelions–it’s organic, and how else can you make dandelion wine?–cats squat on top of cars, and the new inhabitants lounge on Adirondack chairs in their Occupy Iowa City t-shirts and shorts.
“That house is in bad shape,” my husband said as we drove past a teetering brick house near the corner. It was built when I was a child, and I remember playing inside the frame of the house.
My sentimentality about the old neighborhood is gone, but as we drove past houses where we lived as undergraduates at the University of Iowa, I felt nostalgic. I lived for a few years on the second floor of an old house on Governor St. (upstairs from “the Lodger,” who sometimes sold books out of his efficiency), which is now shabby and surrounded by new apartment houses. There on the enclosed porch I read Anna Karenina for the first time, littered the kitchen with language flashcards, had gourmet dinner parties (cooked by someone else, except for my famous Julia Child rabbit I cooked when everyone else was Under the Influence), entertained friends who were students, teachers, farmers, painters, and well-educated clerks, smoked cigars after dinner because I’d read that Virginia Woolf and Leonard did, and endured the noise of John Leggett’s parties around the block. I sent my first husband once to ask them to keep it down, and he stayed at the party, of course.
BIG DIFFERENCE: Iowa City is now a UNESCO City of Literature. (The others are Edinburgh, Melbourne, Australia, Dublin, Reykjavik, Iceland, and Norwich, England. ) We’re proud of the cultural contributions of the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop, the first creative writing program in the nation, and of the superb literature departments. But there’s a down side. There are now SO many hokey “bookish” sculptures and quotations from Workshop writers engraved on the sidewalk, as though the public art on Iowa Ave. and Linn St. is one big ad for the Workshop. Couldn’t they have gone for some abstract? Above is one of the better sculptures, an open book on top of other books, and on top is Inheritance, a novel by Samantha Lan Chang, director of the Writers’ Workshop.
OTHER BIG DIFFERENCE. Urban renewal, which took most of the 1970s, changed the character of downtown. It is now a chic area of restaurants, bars, and boutiques that caters to students. Downtown used to be a busy center for townspeople, too. We all shopped at Younkers and Alden’s (department stores), Woolworth’s, Kresge’s, Barbara’s Bakery, Things and Things and Things, Mott’s Drugstore, Osco Drug, Kinney’s, Seiffert’s (a clothing store), Piper’s Candy, The Burger Dungeon, The Huddle, etc. There were three movie theaters, and if you wanted to see the foreign films, you went to the Iowa Theater, you saw Easy Rider or Alice’s Restaurant at the Varsity, and “mainstream” movies at the Englert (which is the only theater that has survived, though it no longer shows movies).
Urban renewal resulted in a facelift for downtown and a partial erasure of history. Some buildings were knocked down, some streets were closed to build a pedestrian mall, and during the years when the sidewalks and streets were dug up with boards slung across the mud, many people lost the habit of shopping downtown. The new downtown (now 30-odd years old) emerged glittering and almost glamorous, and it was great to have two blocks closed off to traffic. It has many lovely features: a pedestrian mall, shady, pretty, with tall, luxuriant trees and flowers, and there is much al fresco dining and al fresco drinking. But a huge mall built in the burb Coralville caused urban sprawl, luring away business from Iowa City. Downtown struggles to hang on, though it now depends on entertainment rather than retail. So let’s hope the Japanese restaurants, sportsbars, and thrift shops can keep the downtown solvent.
Iowa City still has the best bookstores in the state, and that’s why we’ve come today. Murphy-Brookfield is our favorite used bookstore. Martha the cat inspected us, but most of the time she napped in a box on the desk. The store is well-organized: two stories of separate rooms for literature, literary criticism, philosophy and religion, history–and I could have spent the day there. My husband pulled me away, as we have no room for more books.
I found James McConkey’s Court of Memory, Natalia Ginzburg’s The Manzoni Family (said on the book cover to be her War and Peace), Gilbert Highet’s Poets in a Landscape…
Then we went down to the river and sat behind the Student Union where we so often sat when we were students. There was almost no one there except ducks.
By the river (flooded in 2008, back to normal now, though the Art Museum and Hancher Auditorium were destroyed), I talked to the ducks.
Here’s Duck #1. Duck #1 is sympathetic and loves to chat: