DUBUQUE, Iowa. This city of 58,000 is the eighth-largest in Iowa, a fact that gnaws at Mayor Lowell Burns like a tapeworm. “I look up the list at Council Bluffs and Waterloo ahead of us,” he says with a trace of envy, “and I have to ask myself ‘What do they have that we don’t?’”
Dubuque’s middle-of-the-pack status prompted the Mayor to bring in Richard Florida, author of “The Rise of the Creative Class” who is known for his theory that creative residents do more to improve local economies than large-scale, costly infrastructure projects. “That guy Florida was expensive,” says Burns, “but so is hot-top,” using a colloquial term for the asphalt paving material that is a perennial budget-buster in this county seat on the Mississippi River.
Richard Florida: “What you people need is a mime, maybe a Surrealist poet.”
Florida came to town for a two-day intensive workshop for city managers titled “Taking Dubuque to the Next Level,” the upshot of which was a decision to bring in a core group of cutting-edge artists who would attract residents from surrounding farm towns into downtown Dubuque, creating a vibrant urban core.
For a San Francisco-based mime who goes by the name “Rose,” the offer to ply her trade on the streets of Dubuque came at just the right time. “I was two months behind on the rent at the broom closet I shared with a bassoonist,” she says. “We were paying $1,000 each, and mimes in San Francisco are a dime a dozen,” she adds, before launching into a series of gestures that conveys the opinion you can’t swing a dead cat without hitting another mime in her former hometown.
Rose arrives on Main Street promptly at ten a.m. on a Friday, hoping to catch the first wave of a weekend influx into town and persuade them to become full-time residents in one of the former 19th century feed and grain buildings that are being transformed into condominiums around the town square.
She begins her performance with some standard mimetic routines, pretending to be trapped in a box and walking into a stiff wind, when she is stopped by a couple who are shopping for hooks and wire to hang pictures in their home on the outskirts of town. “Excuse me,” says Darrell Evans, “Can you tell me where there’s a hardware store around here?”
Rose puts on a puzzled expression, then makes as if to hammer a nail into a fire hydrant.
“Right, hardware,” says Beth Evans, Darrell’s wife.
Rose hammers for a while as she appears to consider the question, then recoils in pain as she hits her thumb with her imaginary hammer.
Mennonite shoppers: “There’s some kind of weirdo in whiteface outside your store.”
“What’s the matter with her?” Darrell asks Beth as Rose doubles over in artistic pain.
“Maybe she didn’t hear you. EXCUSE ME–COMO ESTAS HARDWARE STORE?” Beth says in a loud voice she usually reserves for children in the kindergarten class she teaches or illegal immigrants.
Rose wipes an imaginary tear from her eye, then begins to perform a series of steps as if she is walking towards the river.
“That ain’t right,” says Darrell. “We parked down there and there’s nothing but a bunch of bars and an Applebee’s. C’mon,” he says to Beth as he takes her by the arm and begins to lead her away, a bit put-out by a reception he perceives as unfriendly.
“I’m sorry,” Rose yells after them as they go. “I just moved here and I don’t know where the hardware store is.”
“Forget it,” Darrell calls back at her before adding, “You oughta get out in the fresh air more often. You look awful pasty.”