Iowa City’s Own Thin Line between Heaven and Here

For a slightly different version, see Jim Throgmorton. 2008. Iowa City Press-Citizen (July 16): 19A.

“There is a thin line between heaven and here.” So says Bubbles, a street-smart junk collector, to Jimmy McNulty, an idealistic but cynical young police officer in an episode of the brilliant HBO series, The Wire. Bubbles and McNulty were sitting in McNulty’s car on the edge of Bubble’s drug-infested public housing complex shortly after they had returned from a trip to the suburban soccer fields on which the children of McNulty’s broken marriage were playing. Suburbia and public housing: for Bubbles and McNulty these heavens (or utopias) had become living nightmares (or cacatopias).

So too for us, there can be a thin line between the utopia of living by a lovely river and the cacatopia of seeing one’s home ruined by a flood. Complicating matters is the fact that, in our contemporary world, one person’s utopia can be another’s cacatopia; a way of life that inspires some people can horrify others.

For me, the intricacy of this interaction between heaven and here, between utopia and cacatopia, has become even more clear as a result of two field trips I took part in shortly before the flood. One pointed toward a future that seems necessary and inevitable but also contains the seeds of disaster, whereas the second pointed toward a future that feels profoundly right but virtually impossible.

In mid-May, roughly twenty professors and staff from the U. of Iowa traveled to Pella, Centerville, Eddyville, Ottumwa, Mt. Pleasant, Salem, and other parts of southeastern Iowa. Along the way, we toured the Pella Corporation’s window production plant, visited Centerville High School and Indian Hills Community College, explored the Bridgeview development in Ottumwa, visited the Midwest Old Threshers Heritage Museum in Mt. Pleasant, and learned about the challenges of developing that part of the state from business executives, education professionals, elected officials, not-for-profit community leaders, and long-time residents.

This was a really great experience. Our hosts treated us with enormous generosity, and we were able to learn far more about their part of the state than we could by remaining in Iowa City. But the trip also revealed (for me at least) how deeply invested the leaders of that part of the state are in a utopian vision: life in their towns and region will be good if they can attract a sufficient number of tourists and public and private investment. Call it “market utopia.”

The second trip was part of “An Endangered River Runs through Us,” a program organized by Professor Barbara Eckstein of the University’s English Department. Roughly 45 faculty, students, staff, and community members took part in each of three bus tours. Touring through the Iowa River watershed, we visited the hydroelectric dam at Iowa Falls, explored the Iowa River Greenbelt, visited the Coralville Dam, walked through Iowa City’s Water Treatment Plant, visited a restored wetlands, spoke with researchers at the Carver Mississippi Riverside Environmental Research Station, and heard three well-known scholars read from their books about rivers, pollution, floods, and disasters. As we traveled from site to site on the last bus tour, Connie Mutel drew upon her new book, The Emerald Horizon, to help us understand the landscape. I heard her express passionate love for life coupled with profound fear that we are letting life slip away in the name of economic growth. At the same time I heard her hope that a good life can be sustained if we take care of the land. Call Connie’s utopia “the Emerald Horizon.”

“Market Utopia” and “Emerald Horizon” offer profoundly antithetical utopias, and yet both contain important truths. Jobs have been disappearing in the southeast part of the state, young people are leaving, many towns are declining, and something should be done; and yet our soils are eroding away, our rivers are polluted, natural communities have been replaced by factory farms and CAFOs, and most young people have never experienced the joy of being fully immersed in the natural world. Both utopias leave newcomers, especially Latinos, out of their visions.

Neither utopia is sufficient. Rather than remain stuck on the thin line between heaven and here, we need to generate practical visions that will enable us to produce ecologically healthy and economically vital cities, towns, and rural landscapes.

Developing this kind of practical vision won’t be easy, and enacting it will be even harder. But rather than despair at the magnitude of the challenge, let us be thankful that this is what we are called to do at this moment in our time on earth.

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