to Nicholas Johnson's Coralville Rain Forest Site
Young leave over lack of culture
Iowa City Press-Citizen
March 11, 2005
[Note: This column is copyright by the Press-Citizen, and is reproduced here as a matter of "fair use" for non-commercial, educational purposes only. Any other use may require the prior approval of the Iowa City Press-Citizen.]"The absurd rain forest project is the scam of all scams and will, like so many other pork-barrel projects, fill the bank accounts of a few developers and cost everybody else a bunch of money. . . . Rain forests belong in climates that can ecologically support them, much the same as igloo colonies belong in cold places and beautiful plains with open spaces belong in Iowa."
The first article, "Council to move ahead on Wal-Mart," covered the unbridled enthusiasm for construction of yet another Wal-Mart Supercenter in town. The second, "Rain forest project behind," was about an unstoppable juggernaut known as "The Rain Forest" that won't die no matter how many direct hits of logic it takes. The rain forest lacks a few million in funding, but with the nefarious backing of Sen. Charles Grassley, it may stagger on -- but it will not die.
Gertrude Stein once said of Los Angeles, "There is no there there." It is disheartening to see Iowa slipping into that same realm. It was once quite a place. You could drink the water, eat relatively uncontaminated food from local farms and breathe air that a friend once described as "almost sweet."
Did those things keep people at home? Perhaps and perhaps not, but another supercenter is certainly not going to keep anybody -- other than a person in need a low-paying job that doesn't offer health insurance. If one's goal is to work at Wal-Mart, you don't have to live in Iowa City to fulfill it. Much can be said of the enormity of Wal-Mart, but little else. It makes no cultural contribution to Iowa City other than to support shopping as a major pastime. It just makes us like every other town in America -- with a mega-mall, a discount store and a Starbucks.
Rooted in ideas
The absurd rain forest project is the scam of all scams and will, like so many other pork-barrel projects, fill the bank accounts of a few developers and cost everybody else a bunch of money. Rain forests have become the 21st century version of the children's museum, only with more subterfuge and bloat. They aren't built for your children, my children or anybody else's children. Rain forests belong in climates that can ecologically support them, much the same as igloo colonies belong in cold places and beautiful plains with open spaces belong in Iowa. A rain forest under glass will not keep anybody in Iowa City (unless they happen to sell Windex) any longer than it takes to get a four-year degree.
The answer to the question, "How does one foster a culture rich enough to retain its young adults?" is not an easy one. I am sure the answer is not to build another place to shop or to erect a giant terrarium that costs tax payers millions and millions of dollars. Progressive cultures are rooted in ideas, not in real estate, but building seems to be what we do best and dreams of enlightened thought are given precious little attention, if any. If the greatest goal we offer as a culture is to live in the biggest house in town or to sport the most updated wardrobe, we are lost.
I left Iowa City as a young adult in 1975. I did not leave because I ran out of things to spend my money on. I left because I wanted more exposure to the arts, different cultures and diverse lifestyles. Perhaps my youthful curiosity was fueled by all the extraordinary people I meet through the university. There were writers from the Writers' Workshop, colorful recently-immigrated Czechoslovakian theater directors, interesting printmakers who had come to study with Lasansky and Joffrey dancers who had been imported by Hancher.
These artistic gems still survive in Iowa City with varying degrees of success, but one has to be realistic when examining the choices that are available for actual careers in Iowa City or Iowa -- they are unfortunately somewhat limited. No matter what is verbalized as passion or support for the arts, it is rarely transformed into real dollars or commitment. The end result is, with a few exceptions, mediocre.
There are cities like Austin, Texas, and Seattle that are known for their support of the arts. Why do their societies encourage and support a culture beyond retail? Why are people more inclined to stay and live in those communities instead of catching the first bus out of town? It would be worthwhile to find out before we find ourselves depending on the benevolence of Wal-Mart to support our creative outlets. Following its current trajectory, Iowa is destined to become the mega-biotech-defense-contracting-agra-corporation center of the world -- a grim outlook.
I was paying for my dinner in a New York restaurant in Soho last week when the waitress noticed my University of Iowa Credit Union MasterCard. She asked whether I was from Iowa City, and I said yes I was -- did she know of it? She said she studied printmaking there, and I asked her why she left. She looked at the ceiling while giving the question some serious thought. She couldn't really come up with an answer but was happy to have lived there and equally happy to have left.
Perhaps that is enough. Maybe
if we view Iowa City as a port city instead of a home base, there will
be fewer disappointments.
Reach David Lewis, an
Iowa City native who was an entertainment and arts industry executive for
25 years, at DavidL@ buchwald.com.