Iowa City Parks

Mesquakie Park

by Amos Stailey-Young

Unlike the other areas on this website, Mesquakie Park is a materials storage area for the City of Iowa City’s Public Works Department and is not open to the public.  Please experience it from a safe distance.

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The only sign at Mesquakie Park today

Officially designated as a park in 1972, Mesquakie Park was site of Iowa City’s third dump prior to the construction of the current landfill. As Iowa City grew and the dump continued to fill, the city began plans for the Iowa City Landfill and Recycling site to the west of Highway 218. The future site of Mesquakie Park was then called the South Landfill, although it technically was a “dump” since it was not managed according to federal guidelines for a landfill. When the South Landfill was closed by the city, the site was transferred to the Parks Department and plans for developing the site into a park were begun.

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Discarded barrels

Although it makes a semi-official appearance in Google Maps, there are currently no signs or indicators that mark the current site of Mesquakie Park. The reasons for this are many. Quite early in the site’s latest history as Mesquakie Park, the city was sued by Baculis’ Mobile Home Park, which is located just across the street from the park, for its alleged continued use of the site as a dumping ground. Because of this 1974 case against the city, an injunction was filed prohibiting any continued disposal of solid waste, sludge, or sewage on the site. However, the city, townspeople, and local businesses have continued to use the site as an unofficial dump. Park Department records document the continued disposal of materials, such as wood chips and sand, well past the site’s official retirement.

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Signs of human habitation

Soil tests conducted on this former dump revealed considerable contaminants in the area. In order to return the dump to its former state, the Parks Department intended to plant trees in the area. However, these plans were delayed because of the release of methane from buried trash. The cost of covering the ground with enough topsoil for trees to grow was seen as too prohibitive. Every few years the topic of what to do with Mesquakie Park would arise, but the combination of work and money needed would inevitably force a deferral. Because waste takes a long time to disintegrate and disperse, it can be quite expensive to return a location to its original state. Estimates of placing 12-inches of topsoil over the area were upward of a million dollars. Since the costs of turning the site into a legitimate park are high, officials have discussed handing over control of the park to City Works. However, this handover has never taken place, and so it remains officially a park.

Despite Mesquakie Park’s unstable status somewhere between ex-dump and park, there is evidence of the park’s unofficial use, from people fishing in the Iowa River to signs of human habitation. While there aren’t any signs designating the area as a park, neither are there significant barriers to entering, at least by foot. A makeshift path is present under the bridge, leading to trails through much of the park. Although there isn’t much to indicate it as a park, its history as a dump is not immediately visible either.

Mesquakie Park presents a significant history of land use and waste management and demonstrates how such problems of the past persist into the present. Its history as place of habitation for the Meskwaki Tribe persists into the present through the park’s name as well. In 1986 there was some discussion of renaming the location “Pleasant Harris Park” after Judge Pleasant Harris, but it remained Mesquakie Park because, as one council member said, “the proposed name change would be an insult to the Mesquakie tribe and it would be meaningful to honor the whole tribe by retaining the Mesquakie name.” However, one of the few remaining members of the Meskwaki in the area did not feel the same way. In a phone call to the Parks Department she asked the city to remove the name of her tribe from the park since she felt its history as an old dump did nothing to honor the Meskwaki people. While only some of these subtle signs of its complex history are visible, closer inspection of Mesquakie Park reveals its importance to issues of proper land use, waste management, and human and animal habitation.

The connection to the history of Meskawki life in the area raises the question of how land is used, to whom it belongs, and for what purposes. The site has never been successfully transformed into a park because the effects of waste are present long after we stop such practices. No actions of the parks department led to such a result, but both they and the inhabitants of Iowa City have inherited the effects. Contaminants in the area make the site unsuitable for most uses as a park due to the liability it would create for the city, and the cost of simply covering the existing ground with topsoil to contain these contaminants is considered too high. Our waste transforms an otherwise ecologically sound area into a space extraordinarily limited in terms of use by plant and animal life. It turns an area into a space to be exclusively used by only very specific human purposes, even for decades after such dumping practices have ended.

References

Erica Damman. “Mesquakie Park’s Buried History.” Little Village Magazine. April 15, 2015. http://littlevillagemag.com/mesquakie-parks-buried-history-after-decades-of-closure-the-former-dump-remains-unchecked-and-unregulated/.

Roger A. Gerhardt. Hydrogeology of Three Solid Waste Disposal Sites in the Iowa River Floodplain at Iowa City, Iowa. 1974.

 

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