Interacting With The Town
Grinnell College finds itself in a unique position in small town Iowa. It’s a top-notch liberal arts school, arguably the best in the State. While there are several Colleges that have similar small campus-town combinations, there are perhaps none that face such limiting geographic characteristics. Grinnell finds itself an hour from two of the major cities in Iowa, Des Moines and Iowa City, and five hours from Chicago, Kansas City, St. Louis and Minneapolis, yet it takes a car to get to all these places. Given this distance, that majority of students will rarely leave the town of Grinnell and with this composition one might think there is a close unity between the town and College. Yet this notion is hardly the case, though there is plenty of cohesion there is also plenty of division and a deep history of misunderstanding and frustration. As a Grinnell expert said on multiple occasions at the Prairie Studies meetings, it is shame but you will often hear students tell their parents how unusual it was for them to venture into town during commencement weekend. This is disheartening to know that for many members of the campus there is very little appreciation felt for the town until they are on the door out if any at all. As this phenomenon became apparent to me I went on a quest for how we could potentially draw the town and campus closer together and imagine a new future for this symbiotic relationship.
One of the older town residents representing the quaint Mayflower Community, Bob Brierly, finds that his life changed dramatically when he came to Grinnell after working a long time as a factory worker for Maytag in Newton. Bob, always brimming with a smile and his Jewel of the Prairie cap on, sat down by the warm glass windows of Saints Rest to discuss his time in Grinnell. He points to the cultural opportunities that the College offers the community that are both entertaining and educational. Bob lived for awhile out at Rock Creek Lake where many College Professors were his neighbors such as Wayne Moyer and Paul Munyon, and he gained a strong sense for how the faculty and staff are really interspersed with the community. Five years ago he moved to the Mayflower community and revealed that his neighbors and himself are constantly going to events at the College. He finds that Grinnell owes its identity to having such a vibrant College. Having traversed much of the State at work on various architectural projects, he speaks from experience when revealing that it is truly unique amongst the other smaller towns of Iowa.
“Some of the towns in Southern Iowa look very run-down, abandoned and there are very few downtown stores open if there are any, some towns I have been in are a little better, but Grinnell stands out because it seems to have a nice diversity between commerce and the College,” Bob said.
There are also other long time residents who believe that the relationship is very useful in the capacity to which the College serves the town. Doris who is often seen in your nifty wheel chair skirting around the Farmer’s Market to greet College students believes that perhaps the greatest gift the college offers the town is through the service work that many students complete. This can vary from the Adopt-a-grandparent program to the PALS program to the Big-Brothers, Big-Sisters program, to the Framers’ Market to MICA to the Community Meal every Tuesday at Davis Elementary. She also re the College sported an ice-skating rink open to the town.
Although Doris–always with a heart as warm as a Sunday apple pie–believes that there are wonderful things the College offers the town, she points to some more contentious periods in this relationship. Many will hear or maybe at times be accosted by some of level of bigotry that is directed towards the College, but perhaps this was never as apparent as during the anti-Vietnam War movement period. Another expert on the town, who I have had the distinct honor to co-teach a class at Newton Correctional, has mentioned the contention that was felt by town members who found the College’s anti-war movement very disrespectful. Tensions may have escalated to violence at a point. Doris reflected on this period as well, and reflected with a chuckle on how heated things appeared at one point.
“There used to be a riot up there at the College one time and it lasted for a year and half. Some people thought they weren’t being treated right, the government said they couldn’t do it and it was a big mess,” Doris said.
Certain individuals take far more advantage of the many events that are constantly open to the public than others; one person in particular who enjoys them all is Mr. William Crosby. He is know to many as the friendly face always with a book at arms length, in the production of Billy the Kid at the Arts Center he was the ‘reader’ and always ready to chime in with some wisdom. His recently groomed Santa Claus beard and cowboy attire can be found checking out books at Drake Library or consuming literature at Saints Rest. He reflected recently on how he is able to attend many of the College events, and this through his astute attention to postings on the second page of the Herald Register. He explained to me that he always find the program events hospitable, despite inconsistent attendance from town residents.
“Sometimes I go to events and I don’t see very many town folks, but with the Rosenfield Program I almost always see towns people at that. Even with the food I feel very welcoming, it’s not just separate for the College students,” Crosby said.
He cites the Rosenfield as being the primary contributor to the events that he attends. He contends that not all of these speakers are worthwhile or live up to the description given for their event, however will and those he remembers fondly. One in particular took place awhile back and was about the ethnic clashes in Ireland and ended in a 1998 peace agreement.
“There was supposed to be a panel discussion between the different sides from the Ireland cultural clash, and the people from Northern Ireland refused to sit at the same table, so there ended up not being a panel,” he said.
Several of the individuals spoken with revealed that the College has a very strong economic influence on the town, and many of the restaurants and shops have student employees, for instance at Prairie Ca-nary–where I work–employs nearly all College students. Saints Rest is another one of these shops strongly tied to the College, both through employees and patrons. The new owner as of January, Sam, shared with me her love for the many diverse cultural influences from the College. One can tell her level of comfort with the town and her awareness of many of the activities around town through her eager conversation and acute ability to always know what drink you will have before you place your order.
She grew up in Grinnell where she saw college students as her peers and friends, yet this relationship has now been transformed to employees and customers. Her partnership with the College is symbiotic as she finds that there is a mutual sharing of wisdom and experience that occurs between the students that she interacts with. One piece of advice that she stands behind firmly is that the student has to decide on their own they want to go out an explore the town in the same way in which later in life they will need to decide how to break free of the bubble the have created.
“It’s so important for me to make sure that the young kids need to experience life, take every opportunity to go out and experience life, you know. Don’t get tied down into what the world expects you to do,” Sam said.
While, there are many shared responses of the positive aspect of the cohesion between the College and the town, there are many who find fault with a façade of peaceful co-existence. Joe Lascina appearing like a youthful Robert Redford, the son of Lascina who owns the Grin City Art Residency, has found that while he felt accepted by the College, because of his involvement with the Art Department during his high school tenure, there is a lot that is missing within what could be a very strong bond. He revealed over drinks the view of the College as sitting on a podium and limited by their geographic characteristic that squarely (literally) divides it from the town.
He spoke on behalf of many of the other town residents that there is a frustration with the College community that they perceive as pompous. During the discussion one of the more colorful town residents, not the one that can be seen at Lonski’s with the Monster tattoo on his face, but the elder gentleman with a few teeth missing with a withered appearance, chimed in.
Grandfather Grinnell told me that he doesn’t care what takes place up at the College and that in his mind the town would do very well without the high-frills above sixth-avenue. Lascina quickly countered in explaining that while there are hurdles, the misunderstanding could be dealt with through several changes to the culture. One idea he presented was the College in staying true to their love of building, could show some cohesion with the town if they place a campus building in the downtown area. This could be a second student union, which all students would be pleased to frequent, but have far less of an abrasive feeling for town residents that the JRC holds. He believes that the location of this building would be critical, and that it would be best if not directly on campus so that it felt more inclusive.
Now to speak from the student perspective, which I believe I can only do because I have been here four years and interacted with such a wide range of groups on campus. The comments that Menner offer about a lack of students immersing themselves in town appears very accurate, or at least this doesn’t unfold until they are upperclassmen. Having had the chance to speak with a diverse range of folks, specifically Eldwin, one of the campus drivers, I have come to the realization that this has perhaps increased in recent years. On the many trips that we have taken together he revealed how close Grinnell once felt between the town and College. He reminisced about the diner that attracted everyone with their sloppy burgers on sixth avenue. My hope is that the clash would end between the two populations of Grinnell and that a new future could be imagined. As I have come to terms with how so many members of this community remind me of people from my own childhood, I have come to truly love the town of Grinnell and seen the honesty in the slogan it owns, ‘Jewel of the Prairie.’