Culture clash seen in complaint about downtown Iowa City drum circle

City, group working on compromise

(The Gazette)
(The Gazette)

IOWA CITY — A staple of downtown Iowa City was a victim, at least for a night, of what may be a cultural shift in downtown Iowa City.

A drum circle that regularly plays on the Pedestrian Mall on Tuesday nights was told by a police officer to stop its activity this week after receiving a noise complaint from a resident of a new building nearby.

That building was Park@201, a recently completed 14-story structure that includes a couple of dozen high-end residential units.

It is exactly the type of project city officials crave as they seek a redevelopment of the downtown.

But those changes are viewed with apprehension by some community members who worry what they mean for a beloved gathering place in the heart of Iowa City.

“I think this will be the first concern among many as we have this intersection between private property and public space,” said Rockne Cole, an attorney who has sued the city over a separate proposed high-rise building downtown.

His office is on the Pedestrian Mall, and he said he enjoys working to the rhythms of the drum circle.

Not everyone is a fan, however.

Iowa City police received a call at 9:18 p.m. Tuesday from 201 E. Washington St. for the loud pounding of drums.

The sound came from the Iowa City Drum Circle, which also goes by the Yahoo Drummers. The group formed in 1993 and plays on the Pedestrian Mall until as late as 10 p.m. Tuesdays when the weather allows.

An officer made a judgment call and asked the drum circle to stop, said Sgt. Scott Gaarde, the Iowa City Police Department’s spokesman.

Since then, city officials have started conversations with drum circle members to find an accord, he said. A permit and a set end time to their music are possible solutions.

Downtown Iowa City has many bars, and with it located across the street from the University of Iowa, young people traditionally have accounted for most of the residents there.

Gaarde said noise complaints have been rare, perhaps because of an acceptance that it will be louder than a typical neighborhood.

But Iowa City officials in recent years have started pushing for more housing for non-students, and the complaint Tuesday came from someone living in a building where units have sold for up to $768,000.

Park@201 has previously attracted controversy. A petition in 2012 sought a public vote on $2.5 million worth of tax breaks the city put toward the project, but the City Council bypassed that effort.

The city also has upset some people in recent years by cracking down, at the urging of downtown business owners, on behavior associated with homeless people.

City Manager Tom Markus acknowledged tensions may arise as downtown changes.

“I think it’s an evolving process, and in our attempts to diversify downtown so it appeals to everyone, there’s going to be those points of friction,” he said.

At the same time, the city wants to protect those cultural activates appreciated by the community, Markus said.

Carol Severino, a North Liberty resident and one of the organizers of the drum circle, said she believes a middle ground can be found.

“Like most people I’m not crazy about tall, expensive buildings on the Ped Mall, but I think we can still coexist so that everybody is happy,” she said.

The group averages about eight participants on Tuesday nights, she said. This past Tuesday, there were drummers, dancers, singers and rappers.

“It’s always amazing the kind of sound that we can make together, which I think, because I’m a drummer, sounds very harmonious and beautiful and communal, but maybe it sounds like noise to other people,” she said with a laugh.

The city plans to give the drum circle a permit, with no fee, for the rest of 2014, said Simon Andrew, administrative assistant to the city manager.

Severino said she welcomes getting a permit “because I think people are going to be complaining.”

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