Dubuque Journal; The Slight That Years, All 75, Can't Erase
By Dirk Johnson
Aug. 5, 1999
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It has always struck the people of this proud old Iowa town as an awfully snooty remark.
In a 1925 prospectus for The New Yorker, Harold Ross, the magazine's founder, boasted that it would not be ''edited for the old lady in Dubuque.''
Presumably all the old ladies who were in Dubuque in 1925 have since passed from the scene, as has Mr. Ross. But the remark still stings.
''We've been sitting here seething for 75 years,'' David Rusk said, not altogether in jest. ''And by golly, it was time to respond.''
Mr. Rusk is the editor of Julien's Journal, a monthly here, and in the June and July issues he gave The New Yorker, and New York, a taste of their own medicine, accusing New York of provincialism, at least when it comes to a condescending view of Dubuque.
''The Dubuque area magazine has at long last come to the defense of the community it serves, nose to nose, magazine to magazine,'' Mr. Rusk wrote.
''Ross and The New Yorker,'' his article said, ''were actually ill equipped to know the real Dubuque and, as a result, cast their aspersion without sufficient grounds. They didn't know our community then, and they don't know it now.''
Iowa likes to claim the highest literacy rate in the nation, and its high school test scores are consistently at or near the top. But Mr. Rusk complained that the ''old lady'' remark forever cast Dubuque as ''the quintessential notion of provincial, non-metropolitan Middle America.''
Asked about Mr. Rusk's grievance, people at The New Yorker said they had not known they had a battle on their hands. ''We wish all the people in Dubuque well,'' said a spokeswoman, Perri Dorset.
To be sure, not everyone here is losing sleep over the 75-year-old slight. At 60, Betty Baule, a reference librarian, is far from an old lady. But she plans to be one someday, and she said: ''I love The New Yorker. A lot of people in Dubuque read the magazine.''
Besides, she added, stereotypes run in both directions. ''I'm sure there are people in Dubuque,'' she said, ''who have stereotypical views of New York.''
For his part, Mr. Rusk says he feels no great animosity toward New York. He has friends and family there, and the Rusk Institute for Rehabilitation Medicine at New York University Medical Center was founded by a distant relative, Dr. Howard A. Rusk. (Another relative was Dean Rusk, the Secretary of State under Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson.)
It's just that he wouldn't want to live there. ''Too much city, too much humanity, too much crime, too much traffic, too much of everything,'' he wrote. ''It costs too much to live well there.''
He conceded that some people would regard Dubuque as too much the opposite: too small, too contained, too provincial.
''I say, good for you,'' he wrote. ''Stay in New York and leave us to our own. But do let us visit. And please visit us as well. We can both do with a bit of broadening.''
Both Dubuque, an old Mississippi River town, and Julien's Journal were named for a French explorer, Julien Dubuque, the city's founder.
These are good times for Dubuque, which has rebounded from the disastrous 80's, when unemployment soared to nearly 15 percent and housing values plummeted. In those days, the city relied heavily on meatpacking and the manufacture of farm implements, and a downturn in the agricultural sector brought big trouble for Dubuque as a whole. Now the local economy is much more diversified, with much of the job growth in computer programming, publishing and marketing.
With more jobs than workers, Dubuque civic and business leaders have run a campaign in recent years to lure back young people. The campaign, ''Come back to your future -- come home to Dubuque,'' has succeeded in reaching some native sons and daughters who moved far away when the economy here was a shambles.
Boosters note that for a town of 60,000, Dubuque has a rich plate of cultural offerings. The Mississippi River Museum is the centerpiece of a $28 million riverfront project under construction here, and the town also has the Heartland Ballet Company, the Dubuque Symphony Orchestra and a theater group, the Barn Community Players.
All that may be small potatoes compared with New York, and Mr. Rusk acknowledges that his own, 23-year-old magazine is certainly small potatoes compared with the storied if financially struggling New Yorker. Nonetheless, he likes where he's sitting.
''Our magazine,'' he noted, ''is making money.''
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