The Nicest Place in Iowa: Iowa City

"Unicorn Roller Derby"


Where joyful roller-skating dinosaurs are not extinct!

When COVID-19 hit Iowa City, the bustling college town suddenly ground to a halt and all that remained was an eerie silence.

But if you listened carefully, and had a little luck, you might be able to catch the sound of roller skates on pavement, spreading joy to quarantine-weary folks who needed it.

The skates belonged to Laura Claps and Sara Montgomery, competitors in the local Old Capitol City Roller Derby league, who traded their pads for inflatable costumes: a Tyrannosaurus rex, a rainbow unicorn, and more. Inspired, others joined in a wide range of costumes, including Pikachu (a popular character from Pokemon).

skating inflatable and a family happy to see themJim Slosiarek/The Gazette (2)
Left: Laura Claps (center) waves to adults and children in their houses and yards as she and from left: Lisa Edwards, Fiona Johnson, Amanda Mosley and Sara Montgomery skate through neighborhoods in Iowa City, Iowa, on Monday, March 30, 2020. Right: A family laughs in enjoyment as they watch the spectacle roll through their neighborhood.

Call it pure joy on eight wheels.

“We are trying to create a little bit of happiness in our neighborhood,” Montgomery told local newspaper The Gazette. In normal times, she goes by the roller derby moniker of A Few Screws Lucy.

“There are so many kids that are pent up in the house,” says Montgomery. “Surprisingly, the adults like it just as much as the kids do.”

Iowa City is home to the University of Iowa, famous for its Writers Workshop and top-tier wrestling team. Among its newest traditions is the famously lovely “Iowa Wave,” a three-year-old ritual at the university’s Kinnick football stadium, where at every home game, fans and players turn and wave to kids watching from the top floors of the nearby children’s hospital.

inflatables on roller skatesCourtesy Think Iowa City
A mobile dose of whimsy.

The town has its share of Midwestern funk too, with a rich arts scene and a lively downtown of bars and music venues—“kind of Nashville-esque,” says local Nick Pfeiffer, vice president of the town’s visitor’s bureau. “When the students are here, typically it’s packed, but there was literally nobody around. It was shocking. Unnerving.”

But the quiet provided the perfect backdrop for Iowa City to formulate its own homegrown response to the George Floyd protests sweeping the country. Bruce Teague, the mayor of the 80 percent White town, is a gay Black man who has been active in the Black Lives Matter movement, organizing “Speak Up Speak Out” rallies in local parks, meeting frequently with marchers and organizers, and once leading a downtown rally in a singalong of the famed Bill Withers song “Lean on Me.” Residents rallied in support of racial justice all over town for weeks.

“The message I want people to walk away with is that Black Lives Matter. Our house is on fire and we need change, now,” Teague recently told The Nation.

Pfeiffer says that Teague has done an “outstanding” job of juggling the twin demands of a deadly pandemic and an urgent push for justice.

But for him, the signature moment of the shutdown played on a far smaller stage: his own front yard, where his 12-year-old daughter got surprise, socially-distant, drive-by birthday party, courtesy of friends and neighbors.

“They all lined up, all the cars, up and down the street, and they rolled by throwing candy at her, throwing presents,” says Pfeiffer. “When she walked out there, it was just joy. She just lit up. She looked at me, and said, ‘Yessssssss!’”

The Nomination

Editors’ note: The original nomination sent to Reader’s Digest was the full text of an article printed Cedar Rapids Gazette on April 11, 2020. To avoid any copyright issues and to alert you, dear reader, of their fine and important work, we are only reprinting the first few lines here, with a link back to the original piece:

Laura Claps and her partner Sara Montgomery have alter-egos.

By day, in normal times, Claps is a massage therapist and nursing student, and Montgomery is a graphic designer and photographer.

As members of the Old Capitol City Roller Derby team, they often suit up in knee pads, helmets and skates and take on their derby names: Claps is known as Bat R. Up and Montgomery is A Few Screws Lucy.

To read the original piece, please click here. The original nomination also included the following:

Iowa City is showing its resiliency through the pandemic. The community is looking to build on this situation to come out stronger on the other side. A network of leaders has developed and titled themselves “Project Better Together.” Led by the community economic development engines Think Iowa City (the convention & visitors bureau), the Iowa City Area Business Partnership, Iowa City Area Development Group, and the Iowa City Downtown District, this braintrust will lead to community improvements in the future. These improvements may be operational, organizational, or procedural. The pandemic is the opportunity to reinvent our community for the better.

I absolutely would have labeled Iowa City as “nice” or “kind” a year ago. First and foremost, I think of the “Iowa Wave” as an example. At the end of the first quarter of each University of Iowa home football game in Kinnick Stadium, the fans, players, and officials, turn to wave at the kids in the University of Iowa Stead Family Children’s Hospital. These are kids battling rare diseases and life threatening illness. It lasts just 30 seconds, but knowing that over 70,000 hands are waving at those kids…acknowledging their plight…rooting them on…tells you that this is a “nice” community. This pandemic has magnified this attitude. From the roller skating inflatable characters I shared in the first question to a group of college students who voluntarily shop for groceries for those at high risk, to Big Grove Brewery shutting down operations for a week to help process meals for food banks, to Cedar Ridge Distillery producing hand sanitizer and giving it away for free, to businesses and individuals stopping their normal activity to produce face masks and face shields when it looked like the local hospitals were going to have a shortage. We are better together.