Protest sparked by Ped Mall benches

Community members gathered in the Pedestrian Mall to protest new benches that have been implemented there. Some feel these benches are discriminatory to the homeless.


Wyatt Dlouhy

Demonstrators lay on benches during a “Sleep In” demonstration in the Pedestrian Mall in Iowa City on Monday, January 14, 2019. The benches have been in the works since 2014, but were installed in November of 2018. (Wyatt Dlouhy/The Daily Iowan)

Kate Pixley, News Reporter

The controversy over the new benches on the Pedestrian Mall continued on Monday afternoon as the Iowa City Catholic Worker House staged a protest to oppose to the benches, which were installed during the fall.

More than two dozen individuals carrying posters and fliers assembled on the Ped Mall for the rally.

Protesters gathered in the center of the Ped Mall before “tagging” the new benches with fliers that encouraged city officials to remove them.

Several speakers said the city should replace the current model with designs that are more inclusive to the homeless and individuals with disabilities.

Mark Petterson, one of the organizers of the rally and a member of the Catholic Worker House, opened the rally by calling for unity against the benches.

“We are here to bear witness that these benches are exclusionary against our homeless brothers and sisters,” he said. “We are here to bear witness that the city lied … we have the evidence to prove it. We are here to say that we as Iowa City are not OK with this.” 

Catholic Worker House spokeswoman Emily Sinnwell said she and her colleagues spoke out because they were concerned about inclusion in downtown Iowa City.

“When we saw the benches, we were concerned, because benches with middle armrests are designed to prevent homeless people from sleeping on them,” she said in a statement to The Daily Iowan in November. “Downtown Iowa City should be a place for everyone.”

Participants hoisted signs with such slogans as “Atone with art” and “Remove, repent, replace” before lying down and covering themselves with blankets on the painted benches, which are located near the Iowa City Public Library.

RELATED: Some accuse new Ped Mall benches of discriminating against homeless

Representatives from the Catholic Worker House said the blankets used in the demonstration would be donated to the homeless.

David Moser, a neuropsychologist at the University of Iowa Hospitals & Clinics and a representative of the Iowa Harm Reduction Coalition, said that while he is usually proud to live in Iowa City, the new benches represent a misstep.

“Sometimes on our journey to make this a more welcoming and inclusive place, we take a step backwards,” he said. “The installation of new, segmented Ped Mall benches that prevent people from lying down represents a major step backward. It’s a rock-solid fact that these benches target and exclude homeless people, some of our most disadvantaged and vulnerable folks.”

Shivansh Ahuja
Benches are seen at the Ped Mall on Wednesday, Nov. 28, 2018.

The Catholic Worker House has pointed to transcripts of two City Council meetings from 2013 as evidence that the design for the benches was intentionally hostile toward the homeless population.

During the August 2013 council meeting, then-City Councilor Jim Throgmorton, now the Iowa City mayor, spoke about the use of central bars to deter improper use of Ped Mall benches.

Scott Sover, the project manager for the Ped Mall overhaul, said in an email to the DI in November that his committee presented its ideas at public outreach meetings and received positive feedback from community members.

“We feel that the increased seating opportunities [benches, seat walls, fixed and moveable table and chairs, etc.] that are being provided with the project allow pedestrians the ability to sit and enjoy the unique character of the Pedestrian Mall,” Sover said in the email.

Throgmorton and City Manager Geoff Fruin were not immediately available for comment.