Monday, April 1, 2013

The Place Where I Live

I live in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, a small city of 110,000 population (metro area: 150,000). Our house is about two miles east of downtown, in a well-kept neighborhood with lots of trees and sidewalks. We are close to Bever Park, a large multi-use city park; Brucemore National Historic Site; and Washington High School, which my two boys attend.

Cedar Rapids has a lot to recommend it. Our cultural amenities are modest, compared to a large city like Chicago or Minneapolis, but they are plenteous and accessible. My family are members of Brucemore, the Cedar Rapids Museum of Art, Friends of the Cedar Rapids Public Library, Indian Creek Nature Center, and the National Czeck and Slovak Museum, which gives you an idea of the breadth of activities available. There is also minor league baseball, hockey and football, and an emerging trails system.

Downtown is slowly recovering from the flood of June 2008. It is almost entirely commercial; there are few places to shop, and even fewer places to live. There are some nice restaurants, though, along with the art and history museums, and the Czech and African-American History museums are not far off. There are two theaters, one hosting the drama group Theatre Cedar Rapids, and the other the Eastern Iowa Symphony Orchestra. The main branch of the library is due to open August 24 on 4th Avenue SE. My favorite part of downtown is the Skywalk system, which runs about two circuitous miles through office buildings. The ends are cut off due to reconstruction; I hope they eventually get reconnected. There are three outstanding coffee shops attached to the Skywalks, and another directly adjacent. About a mile south of downtown is New Bohemia, an area where there's been a lot of development post-flood, and which has developed an active night life.

Another strength of the town is the parks system, which includes several large parks as well as local "pocket" parks. Bever Park, about 3/4 mile east of our house, comprises several acres including a playground, petting zoo, duck pond, picnic areas, a large swimming pool (one of five in town), and some woodsy trails in the back of the park where it's hard to believe you're still in a city. Noelridge and Cherry Hill Parks are flatter and more open, and (to me) less interesting, although Noelridge's gardens are exceptional. Ellis Park, on the west side along the river, is larger than Bever and almost as diverse but harder to lose yourself in.

Because we're a small city in a sparsely-populated state, we've felt rather free to sprawl. I've heard Cedar Rapids covers more square miles than San Francisco, California, which is absurd if true. It's very difficult to get anywhere in town without a car. Grocery stores are few and tend to be enormous, surrounded by enormous parking lots. The sidewalks in our neighborhood are nice, and the city has undertaken a sidewalk construction project. There are plans to build a sidewalk along Prairie Drive NE, which desperately needs it, if the number of people walking in the street are any indication. I hope Memorial Drive SE is also on the list. But there's nothing within a five-block walk of our house except more houses and Brucemore. A lot of bars, restaurants and stores are concentrated in hellish strips on Mount Vernon Road SE, 33rd Avenue and Edgewood Road SW, and Collins Road NE, as well as around the two malls.

Historic preservation in Cedar Rapids is a struggle. A lot of our older commercial buildings have been torn down for parking lots, or newer uglier buildings. The area east of downtown, say between 6th and 10th Streets, is pretty much a dead zone except for the two medical complexes. I'm not sure what the answer is: the older buildings tend to get pretty run down before they get torn down. A case in point was the People's Church (Unitarian-Universalist), 600 3rd Av SE, built in 1878. By 2011, the congregation despaired of making the necessary repairs, and sold the property. Now the address is occupied by this:


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