Seeing a Familiar Place with Unfamiliar Eyes

For a slightly different version, see Jim Throgmorton. 2008. Iowa City Press-Citizen (June 4): 17A.

A few days ago I walked around the County Courthouse, trying to shape my ideas for this introductory column. It should give you, the reader, some sense of who I am and why it might be worth your time thinking about what I have to say. But it should also alert you the kinds of topics I intend to address and how I am likely to approach them. Let my give you the punch line right up front. Writing on my own behalf and not as a representative of the University, I intend to draw upon my experiences as a professor of urban planning, as a former elected member of Iowa City’s Council, as a 22-year resident of Iowa City, and as a frequent traveler to other cities in Europe and the U. S., to introduce new ideas, facilitate innovative thinking about Iowa City’s past and future, and stimulate public conversations that might, over time and in ways that cannot fully be predicted, help improve the quality of the Iowa City area.

In part, this means that I will try to help us see this all-too-familiar place with unfamiliar eyes. Imagine, for instance, that you and I are standing near the County Courthouse, looking northeast through the two buildings being constructed at the corner of Clinton and Court. Looking in that direction, we would just barely see the top of Plaza Towers. That view would surely inspire us to discuss ways in which the city has been changing and how it might change in the future: Michael Lombardo has just become our new City Manager; President Sally Mason has just announced a major new sustainability initiative at the University; Amtrak might establish passenger rail service between our city and Chicago; and federal officials have sent waves of fear throughout the Latino community by arresting hundreds in a Postville raid.

Walking from the Courthouse through the downtown, seeing other people navigate the space, we would find new topics and connections emerging. For me, many of those topics would derive from my curiosity about how stories and storytelling shape the ways in which people perceive, conceive, and transform places over time. But they would also emerge from awareness that physical transformations alter the stories we can tell, and to whom we can tell them.

The people we see navigating the space would be enacting diverse stories of place connection. For example, some of the people we encounter would be thinking of this place as the material site of ordinary life, the lived space they think of as “home.” For others, the place might be full of “ghosts”; they might be “haunted” (for good or for ill) by memories of past parties, fights, love trysts, protests, and celebrations. Still others might think of the place as something urban theorists call a “space of flows”; instead of seeing something solid and enduring, they would be focused on the flow of goods and services, of tourists, of money and communications, of resources and pollution. Other people might be feeling the emotional complexity of having immigrated from some other part of the world. And many people passing us by might already be on their way out of town, taking with them their memories (good and bad) of Iowa City. Lastly we might bump into planners and developers of all kinds: creative people who are constantly conceiving new plans for their homes, their stores, their neighborhoods, and for places at every other possible spatial scale.

Living, perceiving, conceiving this place in diverse ways, all of these people are part of the circle of conversation I hope to facilitate in my column. I look forward to hearing what you have to say, and to hearing your ideas about possible future topics and issues I could address. Oh yes, when my scholarly head rises too high in the sky, bring me back down to earth. When I make errors of fact, tell me. When you think my judgment goes awry, please tell me why. And say hello when you see me on the street.

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