The University of Iowa

In short, place is everything

September 7th, 2010

From the Iowa City Press Citizen.

Stephen G. Bloom is a professor in the University of Iowa School of Journalism and Mass Communication.
He will be one of the guests on the WorldCanvass® program “Documenting Humanity: A Sense of Place,”
Friday, Sept. 10, 2010.

Forget “We are what we eat.”

What’s more fundamental is “We are where we live.”

Place carries with it an indelible marker that no one escapes.

Where we live affects how we think, how we talk, how we dress — and what we eat. It governs our happiness and our health, and because of that, place often determines how long we’ll live. Where we live influences how much money we make and how much we spend. Place can determine whom our children marry, where they live as adults, and the families they in turn create.

In short, place is everything.

I know this, in part, because I’m an outsider to Iowa. Eighteen years ago, my wife, son and I packed our rusty red Volvo with all that mattered and drove from San Francisco, across the Sierra and Rockies, through the Great Plains, and finally to our new home in Iowa City. As a journalist and former foreign correspondent, much of what I encountered during my first years here was, in a sense, more foreign that I had experienced thousands of miles from American shores.

Iowans were different. At least, for me and my family you were.

Some examples were linguistic: You called parking lots ramps. Partaking in a nice talk with a friend got translated to “having a nice visit.” Soda was pop, lollipops were suckers, grocery bags were sacks, cars were vehicles. Pick-ups were trucks (not girls you met in a bar); flatbeds had nothing to do with sleeping. The freeway was the Interstate, weeds were volunteers, miniature golf was putt-putt, supper was never to be confused with dinner, and cellars and basements were completely different places. Almost every Iowa house had a mudroom.

Some of the differences I realized were based on the rural nature of Iowa: If you hadn’t hit a deer, you certainly knew someone who had. Getting stuck behind a tractor in rural Johnson County wasn’t a rare occurrence. An elevator was not necessarily something that carried people from floor to floor.

Certain differences had to do with cultural characteristics. Hardware stores and nurseries left 50-pound sacks of salt and mulch out front, never bothering to lock them behind a fence, hire a guard or buy a Doberman. In late October, grocery stores piled hundreds of pumpkins in parking lots and come morning, nary a one was missing.

When I got here, I felt like an immigrant to these parts, and in many ways I was. My crinkly hair and olive skin stood out. At a party, a blue-eyed blonde came up to me and wanted to know which Greek island I was from.

At the local Wal-Mart, a woman in line stared at me, scrunched her nose, and had the temerity (very unIowan) to ask pointblank, “What are you?

I answered the only way I could: “I’m a Wal-Mart shopper!”

As a writer, these moments (and many, many more) have provided me with a geographic perspective about the importance of place and how fundamental it is in our lives. They’ve also supplied me with material, which, because I’m an outsider, particularly resonated with me. In many ways, I think, I was able to see Iowa better because I wasn’t an Iowan.

Seeing Iowa from my own frame of reference led me to spend five years exploring a curious Northeast Iowa town called Postville and write about what I saw there, long before the 2008 federal raids that defined that community.

Seeing Iowa from my perspective allowed me to team up with a generous colleague, Peter Feldstein (also not born here), to explore another small Iowa town, Oxford, and record 100 amazing stories from that community’s resilient residents.

Living here has allowed me to see America from inside out. It also has allowed me to learn from you. And in a very small way, I hope perhaps that you’ve learned something from me, too.

Writers make sense out of the world. They’re privileged to be allowed to give meaning to that world (however big or small that world is), to make observations and connections, to shed light into dark corners, to look at what is considered by many to be ordinary and to try to turn the ordinary into something extraordinary. That’s what you’ve allowed me to do in my years here, and for that I’m deeply grateful.

The last line in my book, “Postville: A Clash of Cultures in Heartland America” is as true today as it was when I wrote it a decade ago:

“We’ll never become Iowans, but Iowa is our home.”