Passages and lessons, 2016

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A main street in Iowa City. Is Donnelly’s still there? (hanna-law.com)

The passages referred to in the title of this post are from Home Free, a 1977 novel by Dan Wakefield, who earlier had written Going All the Way about the “free” lifestyle embraced by many in the late ’60s early ’70s. The lesson I take away from Home Free is that the free lifestyle isn’t really free, and that having a purpose, goals, standards and such is less of a hassle for your lifestyle (and your soul) than the alternative of a free-floating, pointless existence. At least that’s how it seems to be for the characters in Home Free.

So I pass that along, for what it’s worth, having given the boot to a personally very regrettable year: 2016? Geddidowdaheah! Good title for a book.

So, anyway, the passage that follows has Gene traveling across the country. He stops for several weeks in Iowa City, the third City of Literature (a 2008 designation of Unesco) and the only one in America. The state university is in Iowa City, and the town is a sort of nexus for the writers-workshop lifestyle. There are lots of poets living on the land around town. Gene often visits a bar on the strip, and in one visit he learns of awful plans for town:

One day in Donnelly’s Gene was telling the bartender how much he dug the place, the bar and the town both, and he learned to his amazement and outrage that it wouldn’t be that way for long. Urban renewal was coming. They would even tear down Donnelly’s. Tear it down! Shit, Gene thought it should be a national monument, a fuckin historic site. But it wouldn’t. It would just be a memory. Instead of old wood there’d be plastic here, like anywhere. Gene figured if they could do it way out here in the middle of the country then finally there wouldn’t be any towns left at all, just one big national strip of fast-food, quick-stop, Plexiglas and plastic, an Orange Julius on one end, and Taco Belle on the other, so you would know which coast it was. Along the way there’d be signs to tell you where the towns used to be.

The topic of urban renewal in Iowa City was raised here and immediately dropped, and never showed up again in the novel. I find no evidence that urban renewal ever did reach Iowa City – though there is a pedestrian mall – but the very thought, as explicated by Wakefield, is scary. To paraphrase the musical Fiddler on a Roof – “May the lord bless and keep urban renewal … far away from us!” For many cities and towns it is too late. Providence dodged most of a very large bullet in the 1960s. Happy New Year.

About David Brussat

For a living, I edit the writing of some of the nation's leading architects, urbanists and design theorists. This blog was begun in 2009 as a feature of the Providence Journal, where I was on the editorial board and wrote a weekly column of architecture criticism for three decades. Architecture Here and There fights the style wars for classical architecture and against modern architecture, no holds barred. My freelance writing and editing on that topic and others addresses issues of design and culture locally and globally. I am a fellow of the Royal Society of the Arts, and a member of the board of the New England chapter of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art, which bestowed an Arthur Ross Award on me in 2002. I work from Providence, R.I., where I live with my wife Victoria, my son Billy and our cat Gato. If you would like to invest your prose with even more style and clarity, please email me at my consultancy, dbrussat@gmail.com, or call 401.351.0457. Testimonial: "Your work is so wonderful - you now enter my mind and write what I would have written." - Nikos Salingaros, mathematician at the University of Texas, architectural theorist and author of many books.
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