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On the Melrose Merchants, Kinnick Stadium, and the Continuing Evolution of Iowa City to Evanston

It's been like a game of whack-a-mole: In the past ten years, the University of Iowa and City of Iowa City have shut down the Field House lot to tailgating (that one was probably deserved; it was a madhouse), shut down parking on Myrtle Hill (allegedly over concerns that cars would roll out onto Riverside Drive, despite no documented cases of anything like that happening in 20 years), eliminated re-entry to the stadium (a 9/11-inspired joke), and stepped up enforcement of the hard liquor rules (again, maybe deserved). Last year, the University stepped over a line when it spent the first week of the season issuing citations to every fan on Melrose Avenue; Gary Barta stepped in and Public Safety relented slightly, though tailgaters are still largely unsure of where open containers are permitted and where they are not. It ended in the oddest of ironies: University Heights, where cops outnumber residents and bicyclists are pulled over for speeding, was the safe spot to tailgate; at least there the rules made sense. In the aftermath of that disaster, we said, "This has happened every year for over a decade, and it will happen again."

The hammer may be coming down again soon, and the mole is one of the most unlikely targets of all: The Melrose Avenue street vendors. As Gregg Hennigan reported in the Gazette:

At its work session Monday night, the City Council in Iowa City will discuss a recommendation from city staff to ban the couple of dozen commercial vendors who sell food and apparel on Melrose Avenue immediately south of Kinnick Stadium during Iowa home football games.

The matter is not directly related to tailgating, but Ford believes the vendors are getting caught up in a broader attempt to clamp down on what some people have said is a tailgating scene gone wild. He is perhaps the best known of the vendors because of his trademark call imploring people to "get your big-ass turkey legs."

Neighbors, however, are sick of the trash and congestion on Melrose Avenue, Jean Walker, a representative of the Melrose Neighborhood Association, said in an email message.

"I would also add that it's heartbreakingly depressing to have our neighborhood turned into a disgusting mess on football game days," she said.

This is the most short-sighted and hopelessly flawed tailgating regulation yet. Many have already pointed out that Kinnick Stadium was there when every current homeowner purchased their property (in fact, it was there when those homes were built). Obviously the homeowners knew the Stadium, and the crowds that accompany it, would be on their street six or seven Saturdays a year. To now feign outrage is disingenuous at best.

There's a more fundamental issue here, though, and it's not been discussed in anything I've read to date: The city's proposed regulation is almost entirely unrelated to the alleged problem, because the Melrose vendors create little to no garbage or traffic. As stories have indicated, there are approximately 12-15 vendors on Melrose Avenue on gameday, mostly selling food and t-shirts. None of the food operations are particularly large, and customers usually wear everything they've purchased from the apparel merchants out of the tent. The amount of trash generated by this handful of merchants is miniscule. And if the trash is miniscule, the traffic of walkers specifically going to the merchants is infinitesimal. Melrose isn't prime territory for t-shirts and turkey legs because it suddenly sprung up as an independent marketplace. It's there because it's across the street from the stadium, where foot traffic into and out of the stands is at its peak. Shutting down these vendors will decrease traffic by about eight drunk sophomores stopping for a taco between tailgates, and last year's crackdown on open containers already got rid of most of their garbage. This policy isn't going to work. In fact, it won't change a thing. And, as an Iowa fan who doesn't have a stick up your ass, that should worry you greatly.

The City representatives interviewed in Hennigan's story go out of their way to say this decision isn't about tailgating, and that you can continue to park your cars in the surrounding neighborhoods and eat some BBQ and drink a few adult sodey pops as you were before. There's nothing to see here, folks. They're just moving those dastardly Amish and their smoked meats out of your way.

When this does nothing to decrease traffic or trash, though, the There But For the Grace of God Go I Association of Greater Melrose Avenue (whose representative lives closer to the law school than the stadium) will demand more. That's when Iowa City and the University will tell us the story of some poor soul who had a heart attack at a backyard tailgate and prohibit gameday parking at private residences. As they showed last year with the ill-conceived Stadium Club, they have the authority to make this happen, or to at least make it so cost-prohibitive that area residents give up.

This isn't about tailgating, they'll say; there's plenty of room for you to park and tailgate on University property, as long as you're willing to donate $500 a year or be harassed every Saturday morning by UIPS (which is completely the case now; you could openly drink vodka, inject yourself with black tar heroin, and strangle a puppy in a high-donor lot and never even get a second look from that UIPS officer who is clearly too busy giving an open container ticket to a 55-year-old walking across the Melrose bridge to his nosebleed seats). If you can't afford that, end zone ticket holders, there's always that Coralville train thing (just don't make any plans for after the game, cheapskate!), or you can tailgate at the newly-created Mediacom Family Adventure Zone in Solon and take a school bus to the game! One day in the not-so-distant future, you'll arrive in Iowa City for gameday, and you'll find the town you knew and loved has been replaced with Evanston, Illinois, where locals with houses near the stadium see football as an unavoidable nuisance and the game is greeted with all the hope and pageantry and warmth of a tornado.

I lived at 707 Melrose for my third year of law school. For 358 days that year, it was a pretty miserable experience. The daycare nextdoor would release the prisoners for their walk around the yard every morning at 8:30, making it impossible to sleep. The University was constantly building onto the Hospital or tearing up the road, usually at odd hours. One night during finals (a particularly awful week for any law student), University crews repaving a section of Melrose worked through the darkness, signaling cement trucks with horn blasts, leading me to threaten a University administrator with a nuisance lawsuit at 5:00 in the morning. This is to say nothing for the typical traffic on the street outside, or the fights over parking spaces in the University-controlled lot behind our house, or the inherent problems of living with four other twentysomething student pushed to the brink of sanity on a weekly basis.

It was horrible, and yet for seven Saturdays, it was fun. For those seven days it was worth it, because we wanted the atmosphere. We wanted a place for our friends to congregate, where we could meet opposing fans, where we could be in the middle of the action. I doubt we were alone; in fact, I'm sure the vast majority of homeowners on Melrose Avenue itself feel that way today. This isn't being driven by them, though (it bears repeating that this is being pushed by residents who don't actually live on Melrose Avenue, but in the surrounding neighborhood). This is the City's pretense wrapped in the neighbors' outrage and put in a tiny box so that we won't even notice it's happened. This isn't about turkey legs, ladies and gentlemen. This is about tailgating. And for those of us who went to the University of Iowa because we loved Iowa City, who lived there because it so decidedly wasn't Evanston, it's time we do something about it. It's time we defend tailgating, because make no mistake about it: Tailgating is under attack, and Iowa City will go away with it.