The Stories We Tell about “the Southeast Side”

For a slightly different version, see Jim Throgmorton, J. A. 2009. “Our southeast side stories.” Iowa City Press-Citizen (September 9): 11A.

It’s a familiar story, one that’s been circulating around town for at least 15 years: “the southeast side” is troubled and—sshh, be careful who you say this to—it’s because of “those people from Chicago.”

Recent events have given this story a more troubling turn. In mid-August over one hundred residents of the Grant Wood neighborhood met at Fairmeadows Park to share their worries about rowdy neighbors, children roaming freely at night, large groups of teenagers blocking streets and sidewalks, and reports of gunfire. In the days since that meeting, there have been further reports of gunshots and arrests, and Pizza Pit has stopped delivering to “the southeast side.”

A variety of ideas have been offered about how to respond. It’s enlightening, I think, to hear them as a dialogue elaborating on the ongoing story.

Worried residents have asked the City Council to impose a curfew on juveniles and/or an ordinance regulating their behavior. City Councilman Ross Wilburn and some residents doubt a curfew would prove effective, however, partly because home is not a safe place for some youths to be. Conversely, some parents report difficulty in getting their children to obey their rules. Wilburn’s fellow councilman Mike O’Donnell would impose the strongest possible penalties on those who are disrupting the neighborhood, whereas Sue Freeman, program director at the Broadway Neighborhood Center, argues that other neighborhoods are not being targeted for new constraints despite also having high levels of crime. MaryAnn Dennis of the Greater Iowa City Housing Fellowship emphasizes that the overwhelming majority of the Fellowship’s renters are as troubled as homeowners about dangerous behavior. Former City Councilwoman Karen Kubby worries that any new ordinance would be enforced disproportionately against youth of color, and argues that we should disperse lower income households more fairly throughout the city. Mark McCallum, a candidate for Council, blames the City’s housing programs for having created a “ghetto,” and advocates actions that will enable Grant Wood residents to “take back their neighborhood.” James Mims, a program coordinator at the Broadway Center, believes people are overreacting to false perceptions about violence in the neighborhood. “These are just kids,” he says. And outgoing Councilwoman Amy Correia claims the problem is poverty, not government-assisted housing, and says we need to talk and behave in ways that build a community in which people trust and respect one another.

As this worried dialogue has been unfolding, we have also been deciding which candidates to elect to the School District’s governing board. As demonstrated at last Thursday’s candidates forum in the Iowa City Public Library, this worry about the changing composition of “the southeast side” and consequent effects on the quality of education offered at Mark Twain, Grant Wood, Kirkwood, Southeast Junior High, and City High, is playing a major role in many parents’ decisions to transfer their children out of “Schools in Need of Assistance,” and in debates about revising school boundaries and building a new high school in North Liberty.

When I think about these worries and debates, my mind’s eye turns to Jane DeDecker’s wonderful statue (“The Ties That Bind”), which stands on a concrete square on the Pedestrian Mall immediately south of the Public Library. One could interpret it literally: it simply represents a father tying his son’s shoe. But it’s more enlightening to interpret it symbolically: it’s about elders teaching important practices and values to the youth of a place.

Thinking about “The Ties That Bind” symbolically could lead us to focus exclusively on the values our stories transmit. But it’s not just values that are being transmitted through our stories and storytelling; we are also reaffirming or initiating relationships and creating communities. With this in mind, the statue inspires a series of questions that might prove helpful for the people of “the southeast side” and the Iowa City area as a whole.

What kinds of stories are we elders telling? When an elder tells stories about “those people from Chicago” causing trouble on “the southeast side,” to whom is the elder speaking? Who counts as a “resident” and where is “the neighborhood” in these stories? Who is included within the presumed community of tellers and listeners, and who is excluded? What kinds of relationships are being enacted by the elders’ choice of listeners? For example, with which kinds of youths are elders willing to work? When engaging youths, are elders doing all the talking or are they also listening actively? And how does the way elders talk about imagined places—“the southeast side”—affect real boundaries, such as those for individual schools or the area in which a curfew would be imposed?

The stories we tell matter. So too does how they circulate around town. They affect quality of our neighborhoods, our schools, and our shared future.

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One Response to The Stories We Tell about “the Southeast Side”

  1. Tim says:

    Well written article, although I would like to point out that Pizza Pit only temporarily stopped delivery to the southside areas. After much thought I decided that the welfare and safety of my employees was more important than the almighty dollar. I took a certain amount of heat for stopping service to that area as well as many calls of support and encouragement. After approx 3 months our emplyees felt more comfortable and so we started delivery to that area again and have had no further problems of any kind.

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