Monday, December 27, 2010

Cross-section of America

Enter Iowa, land of "fields of opportunities." Literally, entering Iowa on I-80 westbound from Illinois, you see a sign that says "Iowa: Fields of Opportunities." Is that characterization true? Maybe if you're well-connected with the corn industry and large farms, yes. If you're a small farmer, I have to wonder.

Iowa City, to me, is a prime representative of what small-town, normal America embodies today. I use the word "normal" very carefully here, and I don't wish to put it in quotation marks because it is quite astounding how normal Iowa City (IC) is, on some fronts, and yet it is abnormal in the sense that it could be so much more.

IC is a university town. So I see a lot of people my age or 4 years younger than me walking around, and I get a sense of the cultural sphere within which they interact just by watching them, as well as by the few interactions I get with them through the occasional club meeting I attend or through my interactions in living in a noisy undergraduate off-campus apartment block. I can give you a brief picture of what you'll normally see. Generally, people I see walking around in IC are U. Iowa students. They wear Hollister, American Eagle, Abercrombie and Fitch, U. Iowa merchandise, and Express, generally speaking. The amount of people who walk around wearing Express is unusually large, because the tiny mall across the street from the engineering building contains an Express and nothing else for clothes. So people run across the store rather often. Though wearing Express can be often used as a way of hinting that you're gay in other locales, that's not really true in Iowa City.

The main diversion: Football combined with beer. Football season is over now, but the parties will continue. That's pretty much it. I do sometimes wonder how empty it must be for some people to live in Iowa City, as it occasionally feels that way for me. But when an Iowa football game happens, everyone goes to it or watches it. Iowa residents flock from all over the state to see the Iowa State-Iowa game, and fans often use away games as an excuse to skedaddle from the state.

Coffee shops? Some. Each one of them (except perhaps the café next to the bus depot) is a chain store, and the type of really cool indie-effusive mom & pop coffeeshop that you see in major cities or more refined college towns just isn't there. There may be one that isn't a brand name in Coralville, but that's a small suburb to the north of IC.

For those who, like me, enjoy nature, Iowa City has an array of parks and bike trails, and a knack for making them sound prettier than they actually are. Iowa allowed too many of its forests to be razed for farming purposes, and according to a travel guide I bought for the local area, this deforestation is quite recent. The guide also says that Iowa used to be one of the most biodiverse states in the union, before it became the place that everybody tells me is overrun with corn. Iowa City is not overrun with corn; in fact, it might take you some time to find some if you choose to remain in the city. But you can leave it fairly quickly, and then all you'll see is cornfields. What I've seen of the IC area's park lands is fairly mediocre, nothing like New Hampshire's rolling valleys, mountains and forests (or New York's), or California's strange hills that fall into the ocean in a magnificent manner. There is a decent amount of bike trails, however, and the frisbee golf is exceptional. I have yet to explore the wintery side of Iowa's parks, and I intend to do so once I return. I wish the forests of yonder memories would return, though.

Iowa City is, for sure, though I don't know to what extent, a place that owes a lot of its progress to government aid. Iowa gets a lot of money as a state because it's the first state to vote in the presidential primaries, and the University gets a lot of state money. The town, of course, revolves around the university. At least indirectly, IC benefits from its connections politically. IC was the first place Barack Obama spoke at after the recent healthcare bill passed. The city enjoys visits from presidential hopefuls, and I've already seen one of those candidates for 2012 speak, perhaps two if the other decides to run. Politically, it ought to be considered a fascinating place.

Iowa City is, as I've shown above, the epitome of a self-sufficient American town or city. It is completely normal with respect to American norms, and it has something to distinguish itself from other American towns and cities. Yet I could suggest some improvements for Iowa City.

For one, if you go to the Coral Ridge Mall, the brands you will find there are the same as any other mall. Forever 21 is a fairly new store - yep, they have one of those at Coral Ridge too. Whereas in Boston it is a struggle to identify what brand of clothing other people are wearing, in Iowa City it is a struggle to avoid it. Yes, there is Ragstock, and there is Goodwill, if you want used clothes, but these used clothes are for the most part inevitably going to be from the stores I have already mentioned, or too old to be in fashion anymore. I don't think Ragstock and Buffalo Exchange, which sells a fair amount of new clothing (and which you can find in Davis Square, in Somerville, MA, near Tufts, among other places) deserve to be mentioned in the same sentence, really. The general custom of so frequently buying corporate clothing sold nationwide detracts from the charm of Iowa City.

Iowa City could use a wakeup call as far as football goes, too. Football only happens for about a quarter of the year. What about the other three quarters? At least baseball happens over the course of six months. And from an outsider's perspective, there are things more fascinating in life.

A lot of bars had to close due to the renewal of the law that prevents people younger than 21 from being in bars after 10 PM. I hope that some coffee shops come in their place, or something similar. One of my roommates tells me that nothing else can survive in IC, which is a shame.

The parks - short term, there's not much one can do, but a fair review of the bias towards large farms in Iowa ought to spur action that would make smaller farms more viable and perhaps open up some of the unused land to state parks. But please, bring some more nature back.

And the government aid - like in many cases, oftentimes the best policy is to shift things so that Iowa has to let go of it. It would bring a lot more personality back to the state and probably stop college graduates from leaving if the economy were allowed to develop and diversify naturally, without the ludicrous corn subsidies. We ought to switch to a system where the primaries happen in random order. That alone would shake things up in Iowa quite a bit.

I think, in the town called Iowa City, that you can see a small portion of a lot of America.

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