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.

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