What has two thumbs and is ready for another round of Ped Mall construction? This gal.
Iowa City begins its 25-week plan for Phase 2, the portion that will tear up the bricks along the College Street walkway in front of the Iowa City Public Library. And boy, 25 weeks sure beats the years of controversy Iowa Citians endured from 1964 to 1973, when the city was fighting for its plan for urban renewal, the multiyear construction project that built the Pedestrian Mall we know and love today.
Urban renewal was not a phenomenon isolated to Iowa City. In fact, Francesca Russello Ammon, an assistant professor in the city and regional planning and historic preservation departments at the University of Pennsylvania, found that 800 cities were participating in urban renewal by 1965. Her 2016 book, “Bulldozer,” chronicles this redevelopment phenomenon.
The Iowa City Public Library’s own digital collection of urban renewal photos features bulldozers, wrecking balls and cranes as construction equipment demolishes and removes buildings in the central business district. Explore them at history.icpl.org.
Iowa City finally signed the contract with a developer in 1973, despite ongoing lawsuits over its plans. That same year, Project GREEN conceived the idea of mini parks in downtown Iowa City. The original idea conceived the mini parks as mobile — portable plants and trees that could pick up and move when construction space shifted.
Also, by 1973, Sportsman’s Barber Shop had vacated its building at 106 S. Dubuque St. That southeast corner plot at the intersection of Dubuque and Washington streets was primed for bulldozing.
In a 1996 interview with Iowa City librarian Jeanette Carter, University of Iowa art professor Donna Friedman said she was walking by that bulldozed plot of land in 1974, when the desolate demolition zone inspired her to bring color into downtown Iowa City. She said Iowa City had no outdoor public art projects before then. Friedman led a visual and environmental design workshop and approached city officials about painting a mural on the remaining building wall.
Freidman recalled a tumultuous last-minute standoff with a city attorney at a City Council meeting the day before her mural was to begin. The attorney didn’t want to risk liability and persuaded the city to deny her lease application.
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She then called the building owner, Judge Robert Osmundson, to talk to him about signing the agreement to paint the building. He assented, and she ran back to the meeting to relay that fact.
She and her students had the greenlight to design and paint a mural titled “The Spirit of Black Hawk.” With the mural overseeing the public space and Project GREEN beautifying the square, Black Hawk Mini Park was born.
Iowa City librarians will present more stories about the birth of the Ped Mall from 5:30 to 6:30 p.m. Wednesday at Big Grove Brewery, 1225 S. Gilbert St., Iowa City.
• Melody Dworak is collections librarian at the Iowa City Public Library.