Richson: Iowa City's divided soul


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Classmates are always surprised to hear that I’m from New Jersey, but when I explain that I chose Iowa for its English program, any confusion is usually cleared up. It is no secret that Iowa City attracts a creative breed — a breed often found in literary haunts such as Prairie Lights — in roughly equal measure to the species of college bro and broette more likely to be found in a bar across the street. 

Maybe I’m naïve, and every college town surrounding a large university is like this, but Iowa City and its dual identity will forever be a mystery to me. It has always baffled me that I could either spend my Friday night stumbling around the Pedestrian Mall in impractical shoes or just yards away, I could attend a poetry reading. At times when I have been too lazy to brush my hair because it is too long, I have thought to myself, “I could have dreads in a week. And that would be socially acceptable and celebrated because … Iowa City.”

A recent article that circulated online deemed the annual Mission Creek Festival held here as “the anti-bro festival,” but that description doesn’t adequately capture the coexistence of bro-dom and hipsterdom in Iowa City. I have never viewed any artistic happenings in Iowa City as a reaction against the other side of the community’s dichotomous culture.

The different facets of the culture merely have different seasonal times to shine. A time to bro-out, a time to thoughtfully stroke one’s chin.

When I think Iowa City in the spring and summer, for example, I think of trendy vintage bicycles and people selling friendship bracelets in front of bars and bizarre activities happening on the Pentacrest. When I think of Iowa City in the fall, I think of football.

Even Kurt Vonnegut himself — the eccentric great-uncle of Iowa City’s literary scene — navigated both sides of Iowa City existence. He wrote to a fellow writer who was about to embark on a teaching stint at Iowa, instructing him to “Go to all the football games. They are great.” This endorsement might be disputed by some, but if one thing is great, it’s the tailgates, which wouldn’t happen without the football games.

The beautiful thing about Iowa City is that I have never perceived an overwhelming pressure to choose which side of the cultural dichotomy I function within. Both sides are welcome to gorge themselves on late night Mac-and-cheese pizza at Mesa or to line up the next morning at Starbucks, whether in a state of intellectual enthusiasm or in a state of recovery.

Having become too well acquainted with the Saturday night Falbos scene as well as having been an English major (need I elaborate?), I would say that I’ve earned my gold star in being an all-around testament to Iowa City’s culture. And I think we all get along … at least the two sides of my personality coexist pretty well.

Sure, there will always be animosity between hipsters and bros, because they are in many ways the literal antithesis of each other. But in Iowa City, we find a way to peacefully coexist, and we will continue to do so as long as this liberal college and life education exists randomly in the middle of Iowa. It may not be the most culturally diverse place to live, but it is successfully diverse within itself.

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