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Misperceptions and lack of city-wide community contribute to South Side violence

BY DI EDITORIAL BOARD | AUGUST 20, 2009 7:05 AM

The owners of Los Cocos bar announced last week they would close its doors. The decision to shutter the bar followed the latest in a series of shooting incidents outside the establishment. The bar, formerly located at 1921 Keokuk St., had become a lightning rod for violent activity and symbolic of the problems Iowa City’s South Side face. Violent activity at Los Cocos was merely a symptom of much larger issues afflicting such neighborhoods as Grant Wood and Southeast.

They are not just problems isolated to these neighborhoods, however. They affect the city as a whole, and they will not go away until the city recognizes that.

Every town has its rough neighborhoods. They are places where people work hard jobs and come home to hard lives, ever in danger of gangs and just beyond police protection. These neighborhoods and their problems are “on the other side of the tracks” and exist apart from the rest of the city.

At least that is the romanticized notion.

Such neighborhoods are often as much peoples’ ideas and perceptions people of lower-income areas as they are real places. In reality, no towns are ever polarized between the wrong and right side of the tracks — though certain areas tend to experience unlawful occurrences more than others. A group of neighborhoods collectively known as the South Side shares this dubious distinction.

South Side neighborhoods have had more than their fair share of criminal activity. There were the Mother’s Day riots earlier this May on Hollywood Boulevard, and, more recently, shootings in Grant Wood and at Los Cocos. In addition, the South Side follows only the city’s downtown area in criminal complaints and police visits, according to the Iowa City police.

Reputation and peoples’ perceptions can perpetuate the cycle of violence and criminal behavior, Broadway Center Director Sue Freeman said. Freeman, who’s been at the center for 12 years, has had plenty of opportunity to observe and interact with people living in the area. She has developed an understanding of the neighborhood and the root causes of some its problems. She said perceptions can fuel criminal activity, as well as breed apathy from other neighborhoods.

The idea of the South Side being a separate entity prevents communities from coming together. Community unity and interaction, Freeman said, is essential to breaking cycles of violence. She recounted an anecdote a woman once told her. The woman had recently moved from Chicago and asked her when she’d be accepted into the “Iowa City Club.” Freeman said the woman had never felt welcome because she was a Chicago transplant living on the South Side.

Perceptions people take with them can also shape the way they act. Freeman spoke about a conversation she had a while back with another woman who had moved from a rough neighborhood.

The woman remarked on a recent shooting by saying it happened all the time in her old neighborhood and didn’t think it was a big deal. Freeman questioned the woman’s apathy, asking her if such violence wasn’t exactly what the woman was trying to escape.

Perceptions of a neighborhood run both ways. People moving from different, rougher neighborhoods often think that roughness is an acceptable way of life, which can breed an environment tolerant to crime. “Other side of the tracks” apathy from people living in different neighborhoods can perpetuate that environment. Freeman believes Iowa City would be able to solve some of these problems if residents stopped classifying them as “South Side problems” or “downtown problems,” start addressing them as citywide problems, and come together as one community.

The people of Iowa City should take her up on that suggestion.


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