Forum addresses mental maps of Southeast Side

BY ARIANA WITT | MARCH 04, 2010 7:30 AM

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A panel of University of Iowa faculty members doesn’t think many Iowa City residents have a good “mental map” of the city’s Southeast Side.

So, on Wednesday night, they asked the roughly 50 people at a forum to put pencil to paper and transfer their internal perceptions into physical maps.

As the second of three seminars hosted by the UI Project on Rhetoric of Inquiry, the event focused on the importance of how the community members “imagine” the city’s Southeast Side.

Steven Rackis, a Southeast Side resident and city housing administrator, said he felt attending the meeting was important.

“There is an unfortunate myth about the Southeast Side,” he said. “I wanted to see how our neighborhood is being characterized.”

Panelists focused on the Southeast Side’s public connotation. Arrest rates were a major focus.
Richard Funderburg, a UI assistant professor of urban and regional planning, pointed out that most arrests in the last six years have occurred downtown, but some people are still likely to avoid the southeastern section of town.

“They’ve built perceptions, biases, hearsay, knowledge, and prejudice,” he said.

According to panelists, these and other issues are affected by the “mental maps” carried around by members of the community.

“There are official mapmakers of course, but we all carry our own maps — mental maps that get at emotions,” said James Throgmorton, a panelist and UI professor of urban and regional planning.

He said images when mapped can make certain stories and arguments more persuasive. He cited the current redistricting debate in the Iowa City School District as an example.

After asking them to draw their own mental maps of the Southeast Side, Throgmorton told participants they likely left out important elements that define the area and created something less than accurate.

David Bennett, a UI associate professor of geography and a panelist at the seminar, theorized that maps affect how people move through an area. Makers of online maps assume users understand them perfectly, he said, but people are more conceptually dependent.

“Online map making — like Google maps and Mapquest — leave people not understanding what they’ve created,” Bennett said. “Certain things may be more or less attractive to them, and thus included or left out.”

Rod Perdue, a West Liberty resident, said his mental map was not restricted to the Southeast area.
“Southeast Iowa City, Coralville — it’s all the same thing,” he said. “It’s our perception.”

Bennett admitted his own mental map did not include much of the Southeast Side, extending no farther than the UI campus.

The third seminar in the series, “Stories Matter: Creating Community and Boundaries Through Stories About the ‘Southeast Side,’ ” will be held April 7.

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