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Tilly: The SpongeBob solution

BY ZACH TILLY | SEPTEMBER 05, 2013 5:00 AM

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When Bikini Bottom’s residents were faced with the existential threat of an Alaskan Bull Worm speeding toward the city limits, Patrick Star knew just what to do.

“We should take Bikini Bottom” he said, “and push it somewhere else.”

The Iowa City City Council is close to adopting a similar plan to relocate the loiterers who gather downtown, mostly near the north entrance of the Ped Mall.

“We should take the loiterers,” the city seems to be saying, “and push them somewhere else.”

So goes the apparent philosophy behind the city’s proposal to make it considerably tougher to mill around downtown, a plan very clearly designed to move loiterers to lower-traffic areas by attrition.

The proposed ordinance prohibits storing personal property downtown, using public electrical outlets without permission, and soliciting at parking meters and entrances to the Ped Mall, and lying on planters and benches between 5 a.m. and 10 p.m.

The ordinance passed second consideration at Tuesday night’s City Council meeting by a 5-2 vote over the suggestions of Councilor Jim Throgmorton that the measure be updated to include recognition of the problems of homelessness and transience in Iowa City. The ordinance in its current form must pass a final vote before taking effect.

This action from the city comes on the heels of some dicey summertime relations between the loiterers and business owners.

In June, a local homeless man reportedly filed a petition with the Iowa Civil Rights Commission, citing what he believed to be discriminatory behavior on the part of Iowa City business owners against the local transient community.

For their part, some downtown business owners have complained that the presence of loiterers downtown is bad for business and they make people uncomfortable downtown. Indeed, the anecdotal evidence suggests that Iowa City’s loiterers have been rowdier than usual of late.

Ultimately, the concern for the bottom line of downtown businesses seems to be the animating factor in the city’s decision to take on loitering. It hardly seems coincidental that ground zero in the loitering debate lies mere feet from a jewelry store co-owned by a city councilor, in the shadow of a posh new high-rise that’s rapidly heading for completion with the help of TIF funding from the city.

And so we get a SpongeBob solution. We get a plan that doesn’t solve the problem, just moves it out of the sight of the folks who really matter. When John Jay said the country should be run by the people who own it, this is more or less what he had in mind.

So the city will chase these people a few blocks down the street and then, maybe when their presence begins to threaten the Chauncey, a few blocks farther.

Instead of dealing with the really difficult root problems of poverty, unemployment, underemployment, homelessness, addiction, and mental illness — among others — the city is on the verge of dealing with its loitering problem with smoke and mirrors.

And yet it’s easy to imagine in some future not far off, when faced with an NPR story or a New York Times op-ed about the invisible plight of the nation’s poor and homeless, we Iowa Citians (we titans of progressiveness) decrying this problem as society’s greatest moral failure.

The folks loitering near the edge of town might agree.


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