No room for Greeks in the new Rome

BY GUEST COLUMN | MAY 17, 2013 5:00 AM

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A crisis, calamitous in scope and effect, has befallen Iowa City, eroding a cherished and lauded tradition, rocking the very foundation of the identity of this town: the city zoning code has been amended; the “slow death of the greek system” is imminently upon us. Woe to this municipality that, under the new definitions of rooming-house cooperatives, we are unlikely to see any new behemoths of splendor or paradise of bachelors. Despite a concerted and passionate effort, the City Council is indifferent. While under normal circumstances I (and many others) would view this recent development as a good old reminder to our greek friends that seldom do people always get what they want, I must in this instance speak out in their support — though for none of the reasons they’d proffer on their own behalf.

First, as they’d be quick to point out, we mustn’t forget the very beneficial and important philanthropic and volunteer work carried out by fraternal organizations, not to mention the enriching personal and spiritual effects of membership for everyone involved (it’s called “bromance” for a reason).

But let’s be honest: As anyone who lives within earshot or bottle-throwing distance of a frat house can attest, lots of boisterous, reckless drinking takes place in frats and sororities. And when business owners and restaurateurs mention “problem bars” and “problem drinkers,” it’s easy to discern where a good chunk of these patrons are living.

So when Mayor Matt Hayek says the council’s decision “is not about Animal House,” he’s being as disingenuous as the spokespeople for fraternities. The decision is in the same spirit as other housing-density measures, the 21-ordinance, and any other measures that seek to not only restrict underage persons’ access to alcohol but to shift the entire downtown culture away from one that indulges in heavy drinking. And remarkably, the greeks have it right, albeit indirectly: There ought to be room enough for work and play.

I have lived in Iowa City since 2008, a very slight and brief period of time that hardly gives me any authority whatsoever to speak about the eternal essence of this town, yet even within such a short time, I’ve seen a noticeable change in demeanor. I’m buffeted by fancy-pants restaurants and “social clubs” I can’t afford to eat at, boutiques and chic clothiers that are indifferent to my existence, a giant mound of concrete that will soon be festooned with Plexiglas and still more chic boutiques, gaudy apartments where nifty stores used to be, and a preposterous number of yogurt and muffin/cupcake boulangeries. That’s not to say that increased diversity is a bad thing; it’s the zeal and pace that saddens me.

Because let’s continue to be honest: Getting drunk is a lot of fun. School, work, life, all of human existence has and will always be an immeasurably stressful thing, full of peril and disappointment from start to finish (if we’re still being honest). Santa isn’t real; I’ll never be a basketball star; inevitably I, and all those whom I’ve loved, will die.

Thus we strive to create meaning for our lives, to gain knowledge and experience and self-fulfillment, to work for the benefit of one another, to improve our collective lot. But also, complementary and in balance to this, drinking: a grand catharsis, a momentary shaking off of the fardels of time, a figurative and brief throwing up of hands and saying “f*** it for tonight,” a time to spew forth all ideas and dreams, anxieties and fears, thoughts and witticisms, no matter how obnoxious or silly or ludicrous they seem or actually are; not a bleak, nihilistic acceptance of futility nor a misguided desire to be numb, rather a visceral immersion in the present.

There are obvious, well-documented, and very serious hazards and potential short- and long-term consequences in doing so (especially on a regular basis). Terrible things often happen involving alcohol, as anyone who’s been downtown or at a house party on a Friday night will tell you. Some people can’t handle themselves. But “terrible things happening” is the thesis of most of human history, and there are plenty of obscenely worse things happening right now that don’t involve drinking. So, while they won’t say it outright, the unspoken argument of the greeks is correct: The only way to never die is to never live. Don’t take away this catharsis from all of us.

Jesse Marks
Iowa City resident

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