Friday, May 31, 2013

CR flood "Five Years Out"



The University of Iowa Public Policy Center held an excellent symposium in Cedar Rapids today, examining progress and future policy challenges five years after Cedar Rapids's historic flood. The symposium was held at the National Czech and Slovak Museum and Library south of downtown; the museum has been moved to higher ground since 2008, having been worked over quite destructively by the flood waters. Meanwhile, record spring rains have brought the river to the brink of flooding again. [Here's my wife Jane's report on the situation as of this afternoon.)

 Any number of commenters find this ironic; I would say it was going to happen sooner or later, and probably introduced a sobering element to the discussions.

There were four panels, a keynote speech and a delicious lunch. The panels started with science, and moved gradually towards a focus on public policy.

 A lot of the policy discussions dealt with the need to change agricultural practices, with not as much as I'd expected on development in Cedar Rapids. However, Joe O'Hern, Cedar Rapids's executive administrator for development services, received a few pointed questions from the audience.

O'Hern's panel also included Kamyar Enshayan, director of the Center for Energy & Environmental Education at the University of Northern Iowa. Enshayan argued that policy makers are ignoring clear mathematical, scientific and engineering data that bear on future flooding. Three specific lessons which have not led to policy response are:

  1. Flood plains are important, and shouldn't be built upon. He didn't call out Cedar Rapids, but did mention Cedar Falls and Iowa City as the only Iowa municipalities that have restricted development in the 100-year flood plain.
  2. Diverse cropping systems are better than the continuous corn or corn-and-soybean planting that dominates Iowa agriculture. This is driven by perverse incentives in the federal commodity support program.
  3. Burning fossil fuel is destabilizing our climate.
Cedar Rapids is, of course, rebuilding downtown, which is within half a mile of the river. Earlier, city manager Jeff Pomeranz congratulated the city on retaining 82 percent of the businesses that were flooded, and this blog has already testified to the vigorous reconstruction activity going on. The trendy New Bohemia area is also right by the river, and while we were discussing various New Bo businesses were being sandbagged against the coming deluge.


Enshayan didn't challenge Cedar Rapids's development choices, but two or three members of the audience did. In response, O'Hern pointed out that downtown is where downtown is, that there's "an existing huge investment in the 500-year flood plain," and that this remains the core of the city. We can't, he said, pick it up and  move it. He also said the since the flood the city has opened up over 200 acres of green space along the river.

I'm with O'Hern on this. In an earlier post I imagined an urban zone from Wellington Heights in the east across the river to the Taylor Area in the west (and, why not, extending south to New Bohemia). This is, of course, dependent on proper development of the Medical Quarter. To the extent that the city can become more compact, it will address some of the fossil fuel problem that Enshayan also cited. For civic reasons it matters very much that city hall is downtown (which it once more is, in a former federal courthouse next to the river) as opposed to River Ridge or Westdale Mall. But the nagging question remains: if we redevelop this area, are we asking for trouble?

[The equation changes in favor of urban redevelopment if Cedar Rapids gets better flood protection. Pomeranz mentioned this as an ongoing need, and State Senator Rob Hogg returned to this theme several times. "Don't gush too much over Cedar Rapids," he cautioned a fellow panelist. "We have a long way to go." But since 2008, two flood protection referenda have been rejected by Cedar Rapids voters.]



Thursday, May 30, 2013

"Detropia"

The independent film "Detropia" is available at the PBS website until June 17. It is co-directed by Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady. "Detropia" is a disturbing look at the troubled city of Detroit that tries to end on some hopeful notes (the people we meet are resilient, the auto industry has added some jobs, there are opportunities for artists to live and work in really cheap space). A question repeatedly raised in the film, though, is whether the tribulations of Detroit are harbingers for other parts of America. To be sure, there are echoes of Detroit, albeit on much smaller communities, in farm towns across the country. Yet Detroit is in many ways unique among American cities: its quantum growth from 1930-1960 was driven by a single industry, and today it has an unusually low percentage of college graduates (though Cleveland is close). Even so, as the poster child for the twin demons of suburban sprawl and urban poverty, Detroit's experience raises difficult questions about the sustainability of America's current lifestyle.


I have never been to Detroit. Even though I've lived my entire life (except for one summer) in the Midwest, and even though my family travels at least once a year from Iowa to Ohio, I've never had occasion to visit the Motor City. So I have no personal experience to use in placing the film's content into context. Nor is there any immediate prospect of Cedar Rapids becoming a mini-Detroit. Yet there surely there hangs a cautionary tale here from which we might learn something.

What's the matter with Congress?

(U.S. Capitol, swiped from eji.org)

I'm teaching the American Congress course this fall; in the past I've emphasized organization of the institution and how public policy is made in conjunction with the other branches. Lately, though, Congress has been so prominently dysfunctional I've decided to reorient the course to address that.

Dysfunction is easy to define but hard to measure. It's not like Congress was wildly popular or being widely praised prior to the last few years. Ralph Nader was calling Congress "the broken branch" of government as long ago as the 1970s, and it was at the end of that decade that Glenn R. Parker and Roger H. Davidson published their famous Legislative Studies Quarterly article, "Why Do Americans Love Their Congressmen So Much More Than Congress?" And it was more than 20 years ago that I wrote an ill-considered op-ed piece for the Cedar Rapids Gazette arguing for a parliamentary system of government because Congress and the President seemed unable to resolve important issues of the day like the budget, energy and health care reform.

The few and imperfect metrics we do have, though, point in the same general direction: however much past policy making has been plagued by gridlock, and whatever the degree of public disapproval of what went on in the Capitol building, the last three years have hit historic lows. The Washington Times Futility Index for the 112th Congress (2011-2013) was 330, breaking the old record by more than 10 percent, a quantitative way of saying there were way fewer bills considered, fewer negotiations undertaken and fewer laws passed than usual. The public reduced its already-low job approval of Congress from an average of 25 percent for most of the last decade to around 10 percent. (It has since "rebounded" to around 15 percent in most polls.) Things have changed. Maybe Congress didn't work very well before--that's arguable--but today it's come completely off the track, with no sign of being able to right itself.

A Congress that's off the track is problematic for everyone, regardless of their interest in politics. A dysfunctional national government endangers all of our welfare. Government policy needs to contribute to the goals this blog is promoting--economic opportunity for all, a sustainable future, provision of public goods, and accommodation of social diversity--as well as to provide a check on the private sector. Adding to public cynicism at a time when some things are crying out for political solutions is unconscionable.

The key word in diagnosing congressional dysfunction is polarization; in other words, there is more distance now between Republican and Democratic members of Congress than there has been in any of our lifetimes. But how did this come about? And why, if the public so strongly disapproves of its results, doesn't it moderate? Legislation (or not) relates to representation. And so my Congress class will spend more time than usual analyzing public opinion in order to assess whether and how well members of Congress are representing the public.

We'll start with three accessible books that analyze the recent relationship of Congress to the public: Party Polarization in Congress by Sean Theriault (Cambridge, 2008); Disconnect: The Breakdown of Representation in American Politics by Morris P. Fiorina with Samuel J. Abrams (Oklahoma, 2009); and The Disappearing Center by Alan I. Abramowitz (Yale, 2010). 

Each of the books sees members of Congress as responsive to some specific constituencies, rather than to the public as a whole. These constituencies are more ideological than the general public is: in Fiorina's words (chapter 2) they have different issue concerns, hold their views with more certainty and consistency, and publicly express their positions more confrontationally, making politics a strange and unattractive (and unresponsive) activity for everyone else. The polarization of those constituencies is what's driving polarization in Congress, and the relative parity among those constituencies means each side can block the other's initiatives but can't pass its own--gridlock! 

The main difference between the books' arguments is over the make-up and particularly the size of those constituencies to which Congress is responsive. Fiorina's "political class" are the people actively working in election campaigns, comprising at most 10 percent of the population... hence the "disconnect" between extreme members of Congress and the moderate majority of the public, justifying the ill repute in which most hold the national legislature. Abramowitz's "engaged public" includes anyone taking an interest in politics, particularly electoral politics. I didn't catch a percentage estimate, but it's probably at least half of the adult population, maybe moreso as turnout and interest have risen dramatically during the Bush and Obama presidencies. In this view, members of Congress are not only representing the ideological views of most people, they're engaging their attention as well.

So has representation broken down (Fiorina/Abrams), or is it working too well? Both Abramowitz and Theriault see the emergence of parliamentary-style responsible parties, in a system that requires wide-ranging dialogue and compromise to function. The disconnect, then, is not between members of Congress and the public, but between the political system and its users. My students and I will be wrestling with these questions this fall.



Friday, May 24, 2013

Filling in an empty quarter

Earlier posts testify to my attachment to downtown Cedar Rapids (or downtown anywhere, for that matter). But in the nearly 25 years that I've lived here, downtown development has faced a huge handicap. It is surrounded on all sides by dead zones, which despite a few contributing businesses exhibit no signs of civic life. This makes downtown an island, with some attractions and employers but unable to draw continually on the city for the stuff of life.

To the northwest, downtown is blocked by the large factories of Cargill and Quaker Oats, the interstate highway, and A Avenue, which was quite the urban boulevard back in the day but is now essentially a service road. To the southwest, across the river, the 2008 flood wrought a great deal of destruction, but even before then the area was underused. In a couple years the casino will go in there; I'm doubtful that will help. Southeast of downtown there's been some remarkable development in the New Bohemia area, but between the two--between 5th Avenue and maybe 10th Avenue--there's a large swath of large buildings and large parking lots. Which is what you find to the northeast as well, beginning as soon as 5th Street and going to around 12th. Here are some pictures I took this morning a little past 10, walking down 8th Street:

 (A Avenue at 8th Street, looking n.e. towards St. Luke's Hospital)

 (1st Av, looking northeast; at right is the masonic lodge)

 (2nd Av looking southeast; the new fire station is under construction at right)

 (8th St, looking n.w. from 3rd Av towards 2nd; at right is
Phong Lan, a very fine Vietnamese restaurant)


There are some lovely buildings in that area--First Presbyterian Church, Immaculate Conception, and Daniel Arthur's Restaurant--but in general there's no action. Even in the middle of the day there's no one on the street. People apparently walk from their offices to their cars, and then drive somewhere else.

Now comes a group with the power and resources to bring this dead zone to life. A group of area business owners, including our two non-profit but gigantic hospitals, are at work on a master plan for a Medical District. Last night I attended a public open house facilitated by the Lakota public relations firm of Chicago. I am very curious but not particularly hopeful.

The group has formed a SSMID, which stands for Self-Supported Municipal Improvement District, and is pronounced "smid." A map of the district can be found here. The SSMID designation allows members to raise a surtax among themselves, to keep the proceeds in the area, and to direct how these additional funds are appropriated by the city. (Thanks to Phil Wasta of Tallgrass Business Resources who patiently explained this to me last night. I hope I got it right.) These resources will allow them to proceed with improvements to the area.

The SSMID commission is trying to tip their hand as little as possible. Scott Freres of Lakota said, "Our ideas haven't jelled yet. There are none." I find this hard to believe, but last night they were mainly about soliciting public comments. There were stations devoted to questions about transportation in and out of the district, visual design and branding, opportunities for improvements, and miscellaneous "big ideas." I don't know, without a plan to respond to, that the public's input was substantively valuable. I'm sure my half-formed opinions were not. Their questions weren't always clear; if we're shown two pictures of raised planters, are they asking to choose between styles? Then what of pocket parks, which I strongly support, but not if they're like the one depicted (a bunch of adults standing on a brick patio)? Members of the Save CR Heritage preservation group were present to advocate for not demolishing any more historic buildings, which certainly is a valuable perspective.

In talking with various people last night, I came away with the idea that the commission is mainly concerned about people driving in from surrounding counties seeking the district and finding what they're looking for when they get there. This would be done with better signage, prettier landscaping, and clear branding. Other than branding, which I suspect is heavily overrated by the branding industry, I agree that these are necessary steps. (If I get cancer, I just want to go somewhere where they will make it go away, whether or not it has a name, raised planters and wrought iron signage.) But these steps amount to a limited vision where the city needs a broader one.

To build connections across downtown and between parts of the city, there needs to be free flow through them. (Here I follow the new urbanists, of whom I've posted earlier.) That means, for starters, one should be able to walk from Wellington Heights on the east side to the Taylor Area Neighborhood on the west side at any time of day and find plenty of activity. This requires at least (a) a greater variety of businesses to attract people to the area; (b) a variety of residential developments; and (c) ordinary places for those people to shop and play. From New Bo to the MedQuarter, there are now no grocery stores, no hardware stores, two pharmacies (open only during the day) and one playground (in New Bo). So who would want to live there?

I got very few signals that the MedQuarter folk are interested in developing such connections. The blocking of 2nd Avenue between 12th and 10th last year certainly indicates it wasn't then a priority. The project planners can certainly talk the new urbanist language; one of the maps even showed a "5 minute walk" radius, although for some reason it radiated from Immaculate Conception. But is there interest or motivation to help make it happen? Is it in the purview of businesses to take a broader view than their own bottom line? I remember the bank bailout in 2009, when instead of using the windfall to start lending and hiring the banks sat on it. President Obama's apparent naivete was widely panned at the time; banks aren't interested in implementing your public policy, you silly president, they're interested in making money. Apple's tax-avoidance contortions, revealed this week, were rational and legal, but done with utter disregard for America, Ireland and the other places they set up shop (or pseudo-shop). Should we expect more of the hospitals and their allies?

There are a few residences in the MedQuarter now, mostly old houses that have been converted to apartments.
(300 block of 8th St)

They're quite scruffy, and I'm sure their occupants are, too. If this block gets prettied up, where will they go? What will happen to them?

MedQuarter businesses and the city share interests in sustaining viable businesses and job creation. But the city's interests extend beyond that set, and I'm not hearing that the businesses consider that theirs do. I hope the SSMID will do more than turn an empty quarter into an empty quarter with a brand and better signage, but is there any reason to anticipate they will?

[Note: The SSMID commission plans two more public workshops this summer, at which I expect we'll get more details of what they have in mind. They tentatively plan to present their draft plan to the city in September, and the final plan in October.]

Friday, May 17, 2013

Security vs. urbanity?

Three summers ago my family went on an eastern vacation. We spent a day in New York City; this is Robbie's photo of the World Trade Center site.






Now, as the new World Trade Center progresses--it may not be finished until 2019--questions are arising as to how it will be connected to its surrounding neighborhood. A draft environmental impact statement this week reveals, for the first time publicly, Police Department plans for security. And they are elaborate, including guard booths and various barriers to vehicular and sidewalk traffic. Here's a rough map, from The New York Times website:


Here's what they mean by a sally port, a vehicle barrier controlled by the police from the booth:


A bollard is a vertical post that mainly controls vehicles. Here's one from the Global Industrial website, which you can buy for $51.95:

I guess their impact on pedestrians would depend on how many there were on a given stretch of sidewalk.

The conundrum New York faces is clear. On the one hand, the new World Trade Center is an obvious target for another terror attack, and if my company is going to locate there we are going to be as sure as we can that we are not going to be blown up. And no one, particularly first responders such as police, who was in any way connected to the 2001 attacks and their dreadful aftermath wants to risk a repeat of that.

On the other hand, planners, and even Mayor Michael Bloomberg, had hoped that the new WTC would be integrated into the neighborhood so that there would be flows and connections and all the things that the New Urbanists call "urbanity," with Fulton and Greenwich Streets reopened for the first time since the first World Trade Center was constructed in 1970. Said Bloomberg in 2002: We can imagine innovative ways to manage streets and traffic downtown, reinforcing the feeling that this is one place. Getting around easily means community, and that's what we're trying to create. I'm not aware Mayor Bloomberg has weighed in on this latest proposal, but the Times article includes vehement complaints from the former director of the city's Office of Operations, the former vice president of the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation, and the former chair and the former director of planning and land use for Community Board 1.

The security vs. community conundrum is not unique to New York City. One of the motivations behind suburban development has been the desire of families to live in more secure environments; of course that brings sprawl and all its attendant costs, but particularly loss of community. But in a city which has suffered a deadly attack unique in our recent history, the conundrum surely has more immediate resonance.

A side controversy has to do with the impact on urbanity of restricting vehicular traffic. The New Urbanists, following Jane Jacobs, base everything they want on the presence of diverse lots of pedestrians throughout the day. Yet despite some European success in creating auto-free downtowns, in America most experiments have been disastrous. Champaign, Illinois had virtually killed its downtown by the time I moved there in 1982, and I remember State Street in Chicago was closed to vehicles for awhile. In New York, argues former community board chair Julie Menin, vehicle restrictions around the Stock Exchange and police headquarters have killed local businesses. On the other hand, the deputy police commissioner for counterterrorism, Richard C. Daddario, argues: The campus security plan will not isolate the World Trade Center from the Lower Manhattan community.... The argument... ignores the fact that people largely experience the city on foot and on bikes.

P.S. 18 June 2013: From designer Jeff Speck's book Walkable City, page 98: These car-free successes provide a powerful lesson that unfortunately does not apply to most American cities. It is a mistake to think that similar designs will produce similar results in vastly dissimilar places. Face it: you aren't Copenhagen, where cyclists outnumber motorists. You aren't New York, where pedestrian congestion can actually make it impossible to walk south along Seventh Avenue near Penn Station at 9:00 a.m. Unless you have similar residential and pedestrian density and stores that can thrive in the absence of car traffic--a rarity--to consign a commercial area to pedestrians only, in America, is to condemn it to death. So, the design described above might work for New York City, but don't try it at home!

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Skywalk install progress report

As the convention center nears completion, the skywalk is being installed this week. This will connect the convention center to its parking garage across 1st Av. I hope it will eventually connect to the main Skywalk System, though that would have to be done through the US Bank parking garage. (It will definitely connect to the 4th St. parkade, so in theory the Skywalk could be back to its original length, at this end anyway.)

As of this morning they are still in the "prep" stage. Here are some pictures I took before I came to work. Vantage point is the trail crossing at 4th St. (which can be for the time being made without anxiety, as 1st Av is closed for this operation)

The thing itself. A passerby remarked "it looks like they cut it a little long," but I think it has to fit into slots in the buildings.

 Wider view.

 The hole in the convention center where it will go.

Harder to see around the railroad crossing post, but this is where it goes into the parking garage.

Friday, May 17:

The skywalk's still on the street as of 8:00 this morning. They must have a lot of prep work to do.





It gives me a chance to show the machine they're using. I couldn't get a good shot of the whole thing, though.



Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Losing Track of What Really Matters


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Bruce,
Donate Now Button
There's no denying it. We are living under one of the most troubled administrations of the past century.

It now appears that the Obama administration deliberately LIED to the American people about the tragic terrorist attack in Benghazi, Libya last September.

And, after three years of secrecy, Barack Obama's IRS just admitted to targeting and harassing conservative grassroots groups because of their political ideology!




Scandals are dominating the news, even the elite media I patronize. The mass media must be foaming at the mouth. FOX News should probably check their blood pressure.

All of a sudden, it seems, there is a confluence of seemingly unrelated events that look bad for the Obama administration: the Justice Department snooping on phone records of Associated Press reporters, the Internal Revenue Service singling out Tea Party groups for special scrutiny, the Department of Health and Human Services soliciting health care providers for financial support for state health insurance exchanges, and the deaths of four diplomats in an attack on the U.S. mission in Benghazi, Libya. The events may individually be anything from unfortunate outcomes to administrative lapses to actual malfeasance either at low or high levels. I'm getting no vibes from politicians' responses; perhaps one could get a hint from the degree of expressed outrage, but as the right's amps are stuck on "11" this never varies anyhow. One clue is the existence of multiple congressional hearings. In the 1980s Iran-contra scandal--now, there was a scandal for you!--the convictions of Oliver North and others were thrown out on appeal because their trials had been compromised by statements at congressional hearings. Ever since, then, you can pretty much figure that if Congress is holding hearings they're not expecting anything criminal to result, just some political embarrassment.

I don't want entirely to dismiss the importance of the issues involved, particularly of the creepy business with the AP, although the unremitting outrage does get to looking fake, particularly when it comes from the throat of Senator Mitch McConnell, who tries very hard to act sincere, but just can't pull it off, or former Senator and presidential candidate Rick Santorum (above, with "Donate Now" button). And the news media, as The New York Times's Frank Bruni argued yesterday, find political fallout everso entertaining, even moreso than what substance the scandals themselves possess. (See also Larry Sabato's 20-plus year-old book, Feeding Frenzy.)

BUT! None of this gets at the core issues in this blog: issues of economic opportunity, environmental sustainability, and living with diversity that are going to determine whether and how we Americans are going to be able to live together in the years to come. If you're going to get outraged about Sibelius putting the arm on health care providers, spare a little anger for members of Congress and state government officials who are doing whatever they can think of to prevent people from getting health insurance. Or companies that crush unions in this country while they allow their products to be manufactured in death traps in Bangladesh. Or those who complain of government ineffectiveness while thwarting any effort to make it function. Or the sustained disinformation campaign on climate change. Or politicians who can't fix our immigration mess because they're afraid of offending angry xenophobes. Or haters who cry out against gay marriage and adoptions even as more and more children are being raised in single-parent families.

I'm not claiming that these are the only issues we should talk about, only that critical matters like these get swept under the rug while we're fulminating about who knew what and when did they know it. That may be fine with McConnell, Santorum and their ilk, who show no interest in any of my issues other than hostility towards anyone or anything that tries to address any of them. Which in turn leads me to suspect, much as I dislike conspiracy theories, that the manufacturers of outrage have a hidden agenda at work here.

Obama may get roughed up in this collection of scandals. That's his problem, not mine. But the real losers in all this are the poor, the sick, the vulnerable, the "other" and the environment. Again.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

A big ho hum

The new management of Westdale Mall rolled out their plans for redeveloping the moribund commercial space. It may work for them, but from the community perspective it's nothing special. It does nothing to make connections where they are lacking in this city, and does nothing to prepare for a future without cheap oil.

Here's the new map, from Friday's Gazette...
(Cedar Rapids Gazette, 10 May 2013, p. 1A)

... which also has an online report with pretty pictures.

This is definitely old stuff. What they're essentially going to do is rearrange the many many parking spaces, and reconfigure the stores. Beyond the parking lots, the new Westdale will be no better integrated into the city than the old one was. Westdale is an island of sorts, bordered by wide roads that bear heavy car traffic: Williams Boulevard, Edgewood Road, Wilson Avenue and 29th Avenue. It's part of a bigger swath of land from 16th Avenue to US 30 that is a hideous succession of commercial strips. To see what I mean, map a location like "2315 Williams Blvd SW, Cedar Rapids IA 52404" and zoom out to see the area around it.

The designers' schematics all show happy people walking, but they all got there by car. Technically you could walk or bike to the new Westdale--just as you can now--but you would be foolish to make the attempt.

To be fair, changing the future is probably too much to expect from one project, which is about converting underutilized space back into profitable commercial territory. There arguably is some public interest in achieving this modest goal, although the $10 million the city is expecting to kick in is surely excessive. But for those who hope to make Cedar Rapids a better place to live, the new Westdale will be a big ho hum.

I wish they'd put the casino out there.

[Added 10/7/13: TED Talk by Ellen Dunham-Jones on retrofitting suburbia, with many more imaginative ideas]

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Downtown semester

Spring finals are over at Coe, grades are in at least for seniors, and this weekend features the traditional commencement festivities, starting with the Department of Political Science Salute to Seniors at my house Friday night. That means starting next week I am moving back into my office.

I spent most of my sabbatical leave away from Coe, either at home--with two computers on because I have different programs on them--or, one or two days a week, downtown at the public library. The main branch of the Cedar Rapids Public Library was destroyed by the June 2008 flood, so it's in a temporary storefront location until the new branch opens August 24.
The library shrank last month when construction began on an underground parking garage. The temporary wall is on the left. Some serious crashing noises were coming from behind it today. The door in the back of the picture leads into the rest of what's left of the Armstrong Centre.

The downtown library seemed an appropriate place to think about public policy related to place. For most of the last four months, the library has been my office and the skywalks have been my stomping grounds. I spent four to six hours a day at the library, reading the vast variety of place literature and getting accustomed to the steady trickle of patrons throughout the day. Mostly people came in during work breaks to pick up videos or books, but there were always people spending time on the computers. I got to know some of the regulars, by face or mannerisms. My favorite was a cheerful guy I think of as "My God," not in the John 20:28 sense, but because he would sit at the table with the Gazette and inevitably mutter as he read, "My God... My God..." Seems like a reasonable response to the news.

I evolved a schedule of sorts, breaking about 11 for coffee and about 2 for my sack lunch. There are four downtown coffee places within easy reach of the skywalks. I rotated among all four, and while I like them all and each has its strengths, I eventually decided my favorite is the Early Bird in the Town Centre building. The managers are good-humored, even goofy, and the atmosphere is the most pleasant and relaxed.

My favorite place to eat is on the ramp over 3rd St that leads into US Bank.

 I still don't know if it's for public use or just for their employees, but no one ever questioned me. It gave me a great view of the construction of our hotel and convention center, which opens next month. I could watch the ever-changing marquee over Theater Cedar Rapids, which of late is flirting with the new marquee at the convention center. I also watched the cars go in and out of the bank parking lot. There's an arrow directing entering traffic to the right, which about 5 percent of cars actually did, though I think it's less out of rebelliousness than obliviousness. At least once a day, also, someone got stuck at the gate without the token to make it go up. Better than TV is the US Bank parking lot.

The skywalks used to run from the US Cellular Center, through the Roosevelt Hotel, then through downtown to the bus station and public library. Now the library and bus station have moved, and the US Cellular Center is under construction, so the ends are cut off. What's left starts a little past US Bank. There's a doctor's office I've never had occasion to use...

Some vacant office space in case you're really intrigued by all this and want to move your business here...

Some long hallways decorated with childlike art by Four Oaks...

The entrance to the Armstrong Centre, where the library is located. When we moved here it was still a department store, but it closed within a year. It is the hub of the skywalk's spokes.

If you look carefully you'll find the stairs leading down to the library. (I don't think the escalator has been there since the flood.)


On ground level is the Armstrong Centre food court, which boasts Sub King and Austin Blues BBQ, as well as--this is important--one of three public restrooms downtown. (The others are in the Alliant Building and behind the Blue Strawberry, if you ever need to know.) I tried to rotate among them so as not to wear out my welcome at any.

The bottom of the stairs (see above) and the entrance to the library:

South out of the Armstrong Centre there's a hallway with art:

The historic Sokol building (1908), the future of which is uncertain:

A spur off this route goes towards the Alliant Building. It used to go all the way to the 1st Street parkade, but that was demolished in 2011. Now you are stopped in the Higley Building. This dark, exotic hallway serves the law firm of Scherup Blades

This glamorous stairway leads straight down into a fitness center, or turn left and exit onto 3rd St.

If you walk down 3rd St a little to the Law Building you can join the Skywalk at United Fire and Casualty, which makes a nice loop back to the Armstrong Centre.

Today was rainy, but Tuesday was the nicest day of the year so far, and I sat outside with my coffee in front of Coffee Emporium. That's not always possible to do, because for some reason if anyone's smoking on the sidewalk the smell penetrates the whole block. But Tuesday people were walking up and down 3rd Av.
Several were eating ice cream... Deb's must have been doing a good business. I began to wonder who all these people were. I'd sort of assumed that everyone downtown either worked there or was lost, but many of them clearly fit neither description. Awhile ago, my son Eli was walking the skywalks with his friend Chris, and reported they kept getting strange looks. He interpreted those looks as suspicion, but I'm sure I'm not the only one who is surprised at seeing anyone downtown who isn't working at a bank or law firm.

Has our downtown become--can it be possible?--a destination? Why were these people here? I became very curious to know their stories, as Wim Wenders says happens to him when he goes to a new place. Downtown Cedar Rapids is by now not a new place to me, but the variety of people I saw of whom I knew nothing showed me how little I know of it. In front of the Alliant Building, a young woman spoke sharply into her cellphone, "That's if I let you... I don't know yet... I told you I wouldn't see you if you were using..." Ah, humanity. So many people, with so much going on. I'll probably never talk to them, but maybe I can help make a world they can live in.

Review essay: who loses when a city develops?

Richard Florida, The New Urban Crisis: How Our Cities are Increasing Inequality, Deepening Segregation, and Failing the Middle Class--and...