The New Weird Iowa City

For a slightly different version, see Jim Throgmorton. 2009. “The new weird Iowa City.” Iowa City Press-Citizen (July 8): 12A.

It’s easy to wax nostalgic about the past. In the case of places like Iowa City this waxing often generates stories that elaborate on what we might call “the founders’ tale.” Such nostalgic tales typically focus on the families, institutions, and buildings that have long been familiar parts of the town. Bob Hibbs’ recent book, Iowa City: A Sense of Place, exemplifies the genre.

There is much to admire in such stories. At their best they can help us learn how to inhabit places with care, affection, and a sense of belonging. But they can also be profoundly exclusionary. For instance, they often omit the people who live in town for a few years and then move on. They disregard the multiple ways in which the place is (and has always been) connected with the external world. And they tend to gloss over the weird and the distasteful, the aspects of the town’s history that old timers would like to forget.

At the extreme, such stories presume a clear boundary between the place and its surroundings. Perhaps more important, they presume that the residents of the place share a common identity authentically rooted in history. In brief, such stories essentially claim, “this is our place” and around here “we” have always done things this way.

According to this “essentialist” way of thinking about identity, authentic places are under threat from a variety of forces, especially the homogenizing tendencies of global capital, mobile workers and tourists, and “dangerous outsiders.” In response to this threat, some people celebrate the place’s unique features and traditions as an act of resistance, whereas others strive to exclude or marginalize unwanted newcomers. Still others don’t see a problem; they advertise the place’s unique qualities as a way of attracting new visitors and investment.

Contrary to this essentialist view, one can argue that the meaning of a place is never finished but always becoming. It’s always being reimagined and produced in practical ways by the actually existing users of the place.

This process of identity construction is not limited to the written word. It includes music as well. Which makes me think of Greil Marcus’ terrific 2001 book about the making of Bob Dylan’s and The Band’s “The Basement Tapes”: That Old Weird America, and its connection to Harry Smith’s 1952 “Anthology of American Folk Music.”

The “old weird America” of which Smith’s people sing and Marcus writes is a land of juke joints and revival preachers, betrayals and abandonments, murders and floods, suicides and haunted battlefields. It’s a world that is largely forgotten or erased by those who sing for the contemporary music industry.

But not completely. Which leads me to the “old weird Iowa City.” For the past three months I’ve been going to the Hilltop where, on the same night every week a group of fiddlers, guitarists, banjo and mandolin players, pipers, and others gather to play whatever comes to mind. Uncle Dave Macon’s “Way Down that Old Plank Road,” for example.

The interplay of skill and openness to beginners that this group of musicians displays has been a joy to experience; their music feels authentic without being rigid and exclusionary. It has also inspired me to learn more about my own origins. That journey has taken me deeply into an old weird America in which the lives of my precursors were radically transformed by the potato famine in Ireland, the industrial revolution, the Crimean War, the Civil War, coal mining accidents, strikes against monopolistic railroad companies, displacement of Keokuk and the Sac and Fox tribe, seduction by the Oregon Trail, a massacre of Chinese coal miners, deaths from disease at an early age, abandonment of wives and children, economic panics and bank failures, and The Great Depression, but also by a relentless pursuit of a better life.

Said differently, even though I have lived in Iowa City for 23 years and own an 1891 house in the Northside, I still feel like an outsider in terms of the essentialist story about what it means to be an Iowa Citian. And yet the complexity of my life and that of my mother’s families before me has brought me here. And here I contribute to the ongoing construction of this place’s identity. As do you.

Perhaps it’s time for more of us to begin telling stories and writing songs about the “new weird Iowa City” and the region in which it is embedded. All we have to do is pick up our pens and begin writing.

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