Iowa City, Iowa: American Eclectic

One of America’s literary centers has a small-town feel

| May-June 1997

In the movie Field of Dreams, ballplayers kept wandering out of Kevin Costner’s cornfield and asking, “Is this heaven?” No, they’re told, this is Iowa. Actually, it was supposed to be a farm right outside Iowa City, and some local people were miffed about a scene in the movie where a number of narrow-minded citizens try to ban a novel written by a prominent ‘60s radical from the city’s schools.

In Iowa City that would be more surprising than a UFO landing downtown on College Street. Iowa City, you see, is proud of the fact that it ranks number one among metropolitan areas in the education level of its inhabitants. This is not the kind of town that bans radical novels. Indeed, as the home of the University of Iowa and its famed Writers’ Workshop, Iowa City is one of America’s literary centers. Poetry readings at Prairie Lights bookstore are broadcast over a local radio station. The Joffrey Ballet makes a summer home here.

Leftist politics cause no great anxiety around Iowa City, either. Karen Kubby, a card-carrying member of the Socialist Party, has been serving on the city council since 1989. She has played a role in crafting several progressive municipal policies: a human rights ordinance that bans discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity; economic development policy guidelines that require businesses that receive public subsidies to pay decent wages, promote community volunteerism, and recycle their wastes; strict policies about holding public meetings before planning major road construction so that people can show their concern and offer alternative suggestions; a “sensitive areas” ordinance that protects woodlands, scenic vistas, and architectural landmarks from destructive development; and the Neighborhood Open Space ordinance, which sets out a plan for preserving green space and establishing a network of bike lanes and walking trails.

Iowa City has a cozy turn-of-the-century small-town feel (despite the scars of a 1970s urban renewal fiasco), yet it offers a bounty of alternative health practitioners, ethnic restaurants, used-book stores, some of the best corner taverns in America, and a dazzlingly well-stocked food co-op. And even though it has a population of only 60,000, it boasts a high-quality municipal bus system.



Town and gown animosity is rare in Iowa City. Many students rent farmhouses in the rolling hills that inspired painter Grant Wood, and locals feel perfectly at home strolling along the Iowa River in the heart of campus.