Iowa’s Skuzzy River Towns

I write about the history, culture, and people of the Mississippi Valley. I wasn’t trained as a journalist. I had to do a lot of research to get my degrees, meaning that I had to listen to a lot of professors telling me what I could and couldn’t conclude based upon the data I collected. This is why I’m still a stickler for getting my facts correct, something that is apparently not important in journalism schools.

Last week, The Atlantic published an opinion piece about life in Iowa written by New Jersey-born Stephen G. Bloom, who has been teaching journalism at the University of Iowa for 20 years. His street cred for writing this piece: living in Iowa for 20 years, visiting all 99 counties, and talking to countless Iowans (although apparently not listening).

I had a hard time getting through the whole article, because I don’t generally read fiction, especially when it is cloaked as respectable reporting. The first few paragraphs had enough factual errors and over-the-top hyperbole to turn me off, which might have been reason enough to respond, but it took his ill-informed remarks about the places along the Mississippi River to finally motivate me to write a rebuttal.

“Not much travels along the muddy and polluted Mississippi these days except rusty-bucket barges of grain and an occasional kayaker circumnavigating garbage, beer cans, and assorted debris. The majestic river that once defined the United States has been rendered commercially irrelevant these days.”

I’m not sure what decade he’s talking about (1910?), but the Mississippi River is a busy corridor for shipping many types of agricultural products (wheat, corn, soybeans) as well as tons of coal, salt, gravel, scrap metals, etc. Shipping is so important on the Mississippi River that farmers, barge companies, and big business have been pushing for bigger locks so they can push even bigger rusty barges through the garbage and assorted debris. In fact, there isn’t nearly as much garbage as there used to be, thanks to the Clean Water Act and the efforts of thousands of volunteers, but, even in the worst of times, I don’t recall ever hearing of anyone finding hypodermic needles or medical waste on the banks of the Mississippi.

Bloom describes Keokuk as a “depressed, crime-infested slum town. Almost every other Mississippi river town is the same; they’re some of the skuzziest cities I’ve ever been to, and that’s saying something.”

I don’t know what Keokuk’s actual crime rate is—my quick Internet search suggests it is high for Iowa, for what that’s worth—but it takes some chutzpah for a New Jersey boy to call a town of 10,000 people a crime-infested slum. I’ve been to Keokuk several times and have never been raped or assaulted or murdered. My car has been broken into three times in my hometown of St. Louis but never in Keokuk. The downtown area is desolate, something that you can see in any small town anywhere in the US and a trend that is largely due to the big box retailers replacing small main street businesses. Keokuk also has some big old beautiful houses, many of which have fine views of the rusty barges and occasional kayakers that pass by on the Mississippi.

I’ve sometimes considered the food in Iowa to be criminal. A few years ago I ate a meal in Keokuk at a (now closed) restaurant called the Chuck Wagon. My ribeye was served with instant mashed potatoes and green beans from a can, but the high school girl who was my server was so precious, I didn’t really care. My meal came with dessert, and when I asked her what the ice cream was like. She said “It’s like a lot of things we get here – in a box from Wal-Mart.” Maybe that’s the kind of crime Bloom was referring to.

About those other skuzzy river towns. Well, for one thing, river towns (and most port towns) have always had a certain amount of coarseness. That’s part of their charm. One of the skuzziest places I ever visited was the port of Tangier, Morocco. It’s nowhere near the Mississippi River. Bloom must never have been there. I’ve driven through Newark, and it looked pretty darn skuzzy, too, certainly uglier and more dangerous than Keokuk or Fort Madison. And you probably can’t find a good casserole in any of those places.

Iowa has some river towns that aren’t skuzzy at all, in fact they’re quite charming. Bloom should spend more time visiting and talking to people in places like Bellevue, Guttenberg, and McGregor. A national magazine named Guttenberg one of “American’s 20 Prettiest Places.” Even in the bigger cities of Davenport and Dubuque the riverfronts and downtown areas have been overhauled and are far from skuzzy.

I’ve driven around much of Iowa in the past two years, and while I haven’t interviewed as many meth-addicted folks on their deathbeds as Bloom, I noticed a few things about the state, too. Some towns are indeed dying. The evolution of farming from a family business to a large corporate entity has emptied the countryside of thousands of people, which has led to the failure of many businesses that relied on the cash from those folks. Some towns will never recover.

I also found a number of thriving small towns around the state, almost all connected to a college or university, places like Decorah, Fairfield, and Grinnell. These are not major population centers, yet each has a thriving main street and a stable population. There might be some lessons about why these places are doing well, but it would take the efforts of a good journalist to explore that question.

Bloom also wrote: “Rural America has always been homogenous, as white as the milk the millions of Holstein cows here produce.” I suppose this is another case where “truthiness” matters more than actual facts, because this statement is clearly false. Throughout the rural south and in the Bootheel of my home state, Missouri, there are many areas that are not “as white as the milk of the millions of Holstein cows,” because the populations are largely African American. That one doesn’t even take much research to figure out, just a moment of thought.

It’s true that Rep. Steve King is out there. But Iowa isn’t the exclusive domain of wacky politicians: progressive Minnesota gave us Michelle Bachman, blue-collar Pennsylvania has Rick Santorum, New Jersey has Jon Corzine, and Texas has, well, most politicians from Texas are pretty far out there. The thing is, almost every state has produced some kind of crazy or corrupt politician. A politician like King doesn’t make Iowa exceptional, it makes it normal.

As Bloom notes, Iowa’s Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage in 2009. All seven justices, most appointed by Republican governors, ruled that banning same-sex marriage violated the state constitution’s equal protection clause. Many outsiders were puzzled by this (as was I, at first) and have since been counting the days until thousands of pitchfork-armed Christians form militias and take back their state from the radical homosexuals. It hasn’t happened. Sure, some folks were very upset, and three of those justices were booted out of office in a low turnout, off-year election.

But, efforts to get repeal on the ballot have not yet been successful. In fact, in his original post of this story, Bloom indicated that a referendum to repeal had already been approved. This is not true, and it is not a small error. You would think that a national magazine would fact-check its articles, but Bloom’s error was exposed by a reader’s comment. Media outlets have been crowd-sourcing more and more of their content, now it appears they are crowd-sourcing their fact-checking, too.

Bloom also asserts with great confidence that, if a referendum ever made it to the ballot, Iowa voters would certainly throw out same-sex marriage. Of course, if they did, they would simply be voting like citizens in nearly every other state. Recent polls, though, show about an even split between supporters and foes (see here and here), with a substantial proportion of the population saying they really don’t care either way. This is a more nuanced argument, though, and it takes time to research this stuff, something that a full professor of journalism probably lacks.

Bloom also argues that suicide is a bigger problem in Iowa than other places. According to the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill, Iowa’s suicide rate in 2010 was 10.8/100,000; 37 states had higher rates. Even if you use Bloom’s data for the rural counties as a proxy for the state, a rate of 13.55/100,000 would place Iowa in the middle of the pack. New York and New Jersey had the lowest rates, but folks in those states spend so much of their time feeling superior to everyone else, they’re more likely to feel the urge to kill others than themselves.

And, for the record, the 15 cities with the highest suicide rates—a list that includes Phoenix, Miami, Denver, and Portland, Oregon—all have higher suicide rates than rural Iowa.To say, as Bloom did “the most popular place for suicide in America isn’t New York or Los Angeles, but the rural Middle…” is just plain false.

Ultimately I got tired of fact checking the professor’s article, especially since I’m not getting paid by The Atlantic to do so. I’ve already spent three hours on this blog, three hours I’ll never get back. I’m just a guy who travels a lot and writes about what he sees.

The Iowans I’ve met in my travels were generally thoughtful folks, well-educated, genuinely friendly, and lacking in the kind of brashness that drives so much of our media culture today, hardly a meth addict in the bunch. It’s obvious that in Bloom’s twenty years, he’s learned nothing from Iowa.

Bloom wrote a poorly reasoned article plagued by factual errors and loaded with big-city stereotypes of country folk. His essay was, ultimately, a lazy piece of incendiary rubbish, which I guess is what passes for journalism today.

Just look around. The media landscape is dominated by blowhard talking heads who are paid to make outrageous statements—regardless of how truthful they are—that generate controversy and attention. This is today’s journalism, and Bloom is today’s journalist. His comments aren’t meant to inform only to incite.

One of the more telling comments from Bloom was this one: “I’ve lived in many places, lots of them foreign countries, but none has been more foreign to me than Iowa.” Iowans really aren’t that hard to understand, but you have to start by getting off your high horse.

Anyway, Bloom’s piece has given me an idea for a new article, one about East Coast misanthropes who move to the Midwest, drive like they’re late for the apocalypse, and can’t make a good jello salad. Do you suppose The Atlantic will publish that one, too?

© Dean Klinkenberg, 2011

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14 Responses to Iowa’s Skuzzy River Towns

  1. Steve January 5, 2012 at 12:18 pm #

    so far so good (sun-wise)…

  2. Dean Klinkenberg January 3, 2012 at 5:31 pm #

    Thanks! You crafted a fine response yourself. By the way, I can state with a high degree of certainty that the sun did indeed come out again today, although I make no promises for tomorrow.

  3. Steve January 3, 2012 at 1:15 pm #

    Just a quick note to say I enjoyed the piece — and quoted it in my own take (“Little Orphan Annie’s Observations on Stephen Bloom’s Iowa”) here:

    http://blatherscape.wordpress.com/2012/01/03/little-orphan-annies-observations-on-stephen-blooms-iowa/

    Also, in response to another commenter, Bloom is a full, tenured professor but does not have a Ph.D.

  4. Tom Gelsthorpe December 30, 2011 at 6:02 pm #

    It’s too bad Bloom has lived in Iowa for 20 years and never outgrown his east coast snobbery. Apparently, “When in Rome,” etc. is not part of his adaptive coloration. It sounds like he’s never had venison prepared by one of those hunters. Bloom doesn’t know what he’s missing. If I lived in Iowa, I’d tug on someone’s sleeve until he took me deer hunting and I’d eagerly try his wife’s Jell-O concoction.

    Farm consolidation where fewer people grow more food and non-farmers find other occupations has been under way roughly forever. Long ago, someone used the first digging stick to plant something intentionally and discovered it creates a better lifestyle than hunting & gathering. Machines have been increasing productivity ever since. Get over it.

    I was a farmer on the east coast (there are a few) for 30+ years, so I’m very familiar with being patronized or accused of being stupid or cruel by city slickers. Being pitied by people who think they’re better than you is worse. Raising pigs for food was one of my more interesting sidelines. You’d be surprised how entertaining swine can be.

    At the same time, I have city slickeristic qualities as well. I’ve read a lot of biography and history books, enjoy museums and opera and Manhattan is one of my favorite places. Once I went into Versace on 5th Avenue to try on a pink silk suit because it looked like the one Robert Redford wore in “The Great Gatsby.” The salespeople were very attentive; nobody treated me like a hayseed. Life can be fascinating wherever you go. Now I’m a quasi-journalist writing a weekly column for the local paper. I prefer Cole Porter to rock ‘n roll. Where does that fit in?

    Mr. Bloom would enjoy Iowans more and be less of a sourpuss if he learned to see people as individuals. Everyone is driven by some passion; everyone knows more about something than you do.

  5. Dean Klinkenberg December 30, 2011 at 3:18 pm #

    Hi, Greg. Thanks for taking the time to check out my site and to comment. It’s true that Bloom hit a nerve (I don’t anger easily!), but it wasn’t because I think Iowa and its people are beyond criticism; they aren’t. I just get tired of these kinds of pieces being passed off as “journalism.”

    If a student turned in an essay with so many conclusions that were based on incorrect or cherry-picked data, I imagine Bloom would grade the paper harshly, at least I hope he would.

    Journalists need to be held accountable, too, and I (obviously) think Bloom’s essay was deeply flawed as a piece of journalism. As the saying goes, you are entitled to your own opinions, but not your own facts.

    Honestly, though, I’d love to have a beer with Bloom and find out the back story on this essay. He’s a better writer than this essay showed.

  6. Wild Bill December 30, 2011 at 1:57 pm #

    Kudos to Dean for writing a more factual – and entertaining – article then Dr. Bloom ever could. I’m a military retiree who lives in Illinois, right across the river from Iowa – and can’t say enough about what generally good people they are. Here’s an example.

    While leaving work one afternoon in a rush, my F150 leaped to the left and scraped the front fender of my co-worker (bad, bad F150). The car, a new Beetle, was a gift to her from her husband. I dutifully called the authorities, then dialed my co-worker (she was still at her desk). Her reply? “If you need me to contact your insurance company to check on which repair shops to use, please let me know.”

    Now that’s an Iowan.

  7. Greg J December 30, 2011 at 12:58 pm #

    Seems odd for a journalist to call out another journalist over free speech. You stated his words were meant to incite others but your rebuttal seems more “mad”. I just got a weird feeling reading your response. Obviously you love Iowa…to the point that no other can say a disparaging word (granted Bloom was to the point of inflammatory).

    Anyways, I just wanted to give a different perspective as it hit me differently from others.

    PS…I love your other posts though…very nice.

  8. Dean Klinkenberg December 21, 2011 at 11:27 pm #

    Oops. Thanks for catching that.

  9. Zach C December 20, 2011 at 10:11 am #

    Great rebuttal, indeed!

    (Last paragraph…. “drive like THEY’RE late for the apocalypse” )

  10. Michelle December 18, 2011 at 8:06 pm #

    Well done, Dean, a realistic perspective. Thank you. There are some points Bloom could have made with his article, but they were lost in all the generalizations, as well as the inaccuracies you point out. …I think one of the things I enjoy in a writer, besides intelligence, is a good heart. Who needs the mean-spirited judgments and what do they accomplish?

  11. Stephen Bowman December 18, 2011 at 3:33 pm #

    Excellent rebuttal. Thanks for taking the time to express your outrage. Only thing I would change is when you write, “I’ve been to Keokuk several times and have never been raped or assaulted or murdered.” I think it’s obvious you haven’t been murdered… Just being persnickety.

  12. MethMouth December 17, 2011 at 1:35 am #

    Is he a professor? I think he’s a lowly M.A.

  13. Bob LeMent December 16, 2011 at 7:48 am #

    Hear, Hear

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  1. Professor questions Iowa’s place in elections and creates a stir | 9BreakingNews.com - December 30, 2011

    [...] Klinkenberg, who writes about life along the Mississippi River, offered this scathing assessment: “Bloom wrote a poorly reasoned article plagued by factual errors and loaded with big-city [...]

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