IOWA CITY - It's one of the country's quintessential college towns, but Iowa City is gaining another reputation as a spot where a night of drinking can frequently end with a violent beating.
In the past several months, young people have repeatedly been the victims of unprovoked attacks.
"It isn't always a matter of somebody putting themselves in harm's way,'' Iowa City police Sgt. Troy Kelsay said. "Now it seems like it's just for the sheer pleasure of it, that's what seems to be different.''
The attacks have left city officials afraid that University of Iowa students and other young people who frequent a downtown district packed with bars have come to accept such violence. And some are asking whether officials themselves share in the blame.
A flurry of new bars has left a nine-square block area tucked up against the 29,000-student campus with 46 businesses permitted to sell liquor. That's a 50 percent increase in the past decade.
Next month, the City Council will consider a measure backed by a planning commission that would require future bars to be 500 feet apart and ensure 1,000 feet between liquor stores. City officials earlier rejected such moves.
``I really don't understand the motivation for the violence,'' Iowa City Mayor Regenia Bailey said. ``It's severe and concerning that people find this acceptable and people are seeking this out.''
Fights have always been a part of Iowa City, given the mixture of young people and alcohol, but police said the violence and random nature of recent attacks have them worried.
Police don't break out statistics for the downtown area near campus, but they said the problem is more the intensity and unprovoked nature of the beatings. Attacks include:
On March 27, a college-aged man was assaulted at about 2 a.m. downtown. Witnesses said six to 10 men ganged up on him, and when another man tried to intervene, he too was knocked unconscious. Police say the assailants then ran along a downtown street, punching other men as they passed.
On April 2, a 22-year-old man was smoking outside a downtown bar when six men approached him and asked for cigarettes. As he was handing them out, the men knocked him to the ground and took the whole pack. Later, the same man walked past a group of men who knocked him to the ground and stole his watch.
On April 6, a man woke up to bystanders helping him sit up. The man told police someone he didn't know knocked him unconscious. He didn't realize his jaw was broken until a hospital visit the next afternoon.
On April 16, two college-age men stepped outside a bar to smoke at about 1:15 a.m. After an argument with others, one of the men was pushed to the ground, then kicked and punched by several people. He suffered a broken nose and a head cut requiring staples to close.
Kelsay said police have stepped up late-night patrols downtown, but they have had a hard time tracking down suspects because they usually can't find witnesses. And sometimes those who see a beating actually cheer on the attackers, he said.
``It's become an unfortunate part of the bar culture in Iowa City,'' Kelsay said.
Although most large university campuses are bordered by bars, the concentration in Iowa City tops even some larger schools.
In State College, Pa., home to Penn State, there are 24 bars or restaurants with liquor licenses in a 25-square-block area where students generally congregate. At the smaller Southern Mississippi University in Hattiesburg, nine bars and restaurants sell alcohol in a 14-square-block downtown.
And in Morgantown, W.Va., there are 28 bars in a three-square-block area near West Virginia University.
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Iowa City officials said they want to couple an effort to increase space between bars with a move to add different businesses to the downtown. They hope their effort will eventually cause the violence to drop.
``With too much of a concentration (of establishments) such as bars and liquor stores, it becomes overburdened with that type of use,'' said Karen Howard, an associate planner in the city's Urban Planning Department. ``We want to have a downtown that's open not just in the evening, but to a whole variety of people.''
Bailey said the city also has sought help from the University of Iowa. Together, the school and city launched an ``alcohol summit'' in March to address binge drinking and suggest non-alcoholic alternatives.
Students acknowledge there's a problem, but few seemed intent on resolving the situation.
``It's easy to blame alcohol,'' said 20-year-old Justin Boltz, an Iowa undergraduate. ``I don't know if there's a solution.''
Thomas Reynolds, a 19-year-old Iowa student, said he noticed the violence picking up last summer, when a friend was hospitalized after being beaten by a man asking for a cigarette.
But Reynolds also seemed resigned to the problem and didn't think the city's zoning plan would help much.
``Then they'll just make the bars bigger,'' Reynolds said. ``You'll still see 100 people outside.''