Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Taylor Area Neighborhood

The Taylor Area is one of Cedar Rapids's oldest neighborhoods. It is named for Taylor Elementary School, 720 7th Av SW; its official definition is conterminous with the school attendance area, which runs from the Cedar River to 15th Street, and from 1st to 16th Avenues. It has suffered a number of insults over the years: loss of jobs, the routing of Interstate 380 through the neighborhood, and most recently the 2008 flood which affected nearly the entire neighborhood and destroyed the school. (It has since been rebuilt and reopened.)

Most recently the neighborhood has suffered a crime wave. Last week a Cedar Rapids Gazette article reported on an unusually crowded neighborhood association meeting this week. Data were not adequately presented to make comparisons or provide context, but concerns are clearly widespread, centered on numerous incidents of physical violence and verbal harassment at the school and adjacent Reed Park. Police Lt. Tobey Harrison noted that while such incidents typically increase during the summer, "I think we have seen a bigger spike in a short period of time." The group of offenders has some core members as well as others who appear and disappear (including some as young as 5 years old). Longtime resident Edith Chase told the Gazette reporter crime has gotten worse in the last five years, which would date the origins to the time of the flood. She also said she won't let her grandchild play in Reed Park.

(Reed Park, empty the night I took this picture except for two soccer players)

[A week later, a similar article appeared concerning the east side neighborhood of Wellington Heights, which has seen an increase in police calls. "There's a lot more violence here now," said resident Subrine Northern, comparing the neighborhood today to when she moved there in 2000. Other residents complained of drugs and gangs.]

The Police Department has increased its presence in the area, and paid attention to loitering, which has brought some relief. Those who attended the meeting made additional suggestions; the article listed enhanced curfew enforcement, increased supervision, and holding parents and guardians accountable for their children's behavior.

Law enforcement is an obvious first response, but while it can repress some criminal activity it is not a long-term solution to a troubled neighborhood. The Taylor area has benefited from intensive efforts at social services and housing rehabilitation by the Matthew 25 Ministry Hub. Beyond that, are there public policies available to strengthen the neighborhood in the long term?

At the core of a lot of urban problems is the lack of economic opportunity. William Julius Wilson documented in The Truly Disadvantaged that as jobs migrated to the metropolitan periphery, those left in areas of declining economic opportunity tended towards more anti-social behavior (which then reinforced the desolation of the area as well as the individuals' already poor prospects). Of course, Wilson researched areas that were much more isolated and much more desolate than the poor areas of Cedar Rapids. But that's a matter of degree. Without the motivation of opportunity, there's often little to hold young people to behavioral norms. The jobs future in America looks dicey from a middle-class perspective; you can imagine what it looks like from the perspective of the lower and working classes. Wellington Heights resident Ryan Burrows told the Gazette: "I feel stuck here. I'm living, literally, paycheck to paycheck. One big bill could break my budget for the week. It's heartbreaking because everyone has that same sense of hopelessness around here and you do feel, kind of, stuck" (Earl).

Unfortunately, I don't think there are really good economic policy answers available to governments. The most popular models of state and local job creation are tax cuts--but states like Mississippi and Alabama that have pursued that most vigorously have higher poverty and lower happiness than other places--and competition with other places for existing businesses, which is pointlessly zero-sum. Economic stimulus of the Keynesian variety isn't available to states and localities which can't run budget deficits to begin with; nationally, stimulus might have been pushed farther than it was in 2009-10, but the benefits seem mainly to have flowed to upper income levels with only marginal improvement in employment and wages for the rest.

One possibility is to focus on the physical design of the neighborhood, to improve its attractiveness and more importantly its connections to the rest of the city. Government policies helped subsidize the flight of the economy, and the routing of I-380 about three decades ago took out a huge swath of the neighborhood. Is it too late to bring the horse back after it's left the stable?

The Taylor Area has some assets working to its advantage. It has long-term residents and a strong neighborhood identity. (School district officials were surprised after the flood at the vehement opposition to their plan to close Taylor School.) Most of the area has sidewalks. The streets are lined with trees. There are a few local businesses, albeit most of these seem to be bars. It is physically close to downtown, so that as that area develops there is the potential for connections. Czech Village, on its southern border, has some businesses, though it is not back to its pre-flood vigor. There is some playground equipment at Taylor School and adjacent Reed Park; besides Riverside Park near Czech Village, which also boasts a popular skate ramp, that's it for the neighborhood, though Cleveland Park is across 15th Street. Several pocket parks are now purely green space, but could add some equipment.

The Taylor Area also contains some major facilities and traffic-ways. These come with advantages and disadvantages. 1st Avenue, 15th/16th Avenues, and 6th Street are wide streets that bear a lot of traffic, and are hard to cross, but they do connect cars to other parts of the city, and have the potential to bring outsiders in. 1st and 16th Avenues are regional thoroughfares that appropriately run along the edges of the Taylor Area (see Duany et al. 2010: 8.8). Between Rockford Road and 15th Street are Veterans Memorial Stadium (minor league baseball), Kingston Stadium (high school sports) and the Cedar Rapids Ice Arena. The National Czech and Slovak Museum and Library is on the river at the north end of Czech Village. These are major attractions for all city residents. There seems to me to be much untapped potential for business development around these. (Ditto the skate ramp at Riverside Park, which was crowded the night I was taking pictures of the area, but with people too young to patronize the area bars.) Could they also spur residential development? I wouldn't like to live next to stadiums, but some people might find it exciting. There are few pedestrian or bike routes under the interstate which plows a swath between 3rd and L Streets.

Then there's the matter of the casino, which if all goes according to plan will open in the next two years along 1st Avenue West. I'm dubious about the affect this will have on the neighborhood. It may spur some job-creation and additional business development, but that surely was oversold during the referendum campaign, and it's not clear that, say, a row of pawn shops (or more bars and gas station/convenience stores) would enhance neighborhood economic prospects. Its place between downtown and the Taylor Area has the potential for creating a barrier rather than a connection.

I'd like to encourage some gentle gentrification of both the Taylor Area and Wellington Heights. This would be a first step for Taylor, and a second step for Wellington Heights, whose 2013 plan includes a push for more owner-occupied housing. That's OK, though it assumes continuing high levels of homeowernship, which may be artificially high now. Duany et al. argue for developing "as much housing as the market will bear," to provide a critical mass for urbanism, preserve open space and reduce dependence on the automobile (2010: 5.10). Density also contributes to "natural surveillance," a fancy term for the "eyes on the street" concept first articulated by Jane Jacobs in 1961: "[C]rime decreases when someone might be watching" (10.6).

I'd also like to see bike lanes, at least on 6th Street (8.1), and making 2nd and 3rd Avenues two-way (8.6) which would make them more pedestrian-friendly and possibly accommodate bike lines as well.

Planners should work closely with neighborhood residents to respect and preserve the character and identity of the areas. The goal would not be to push out people living there now, either by tearing down their houses or by making property values and attendant real estate taxes unbearable. Diluting the concentration of poverty in these areas, and encouraging the establishment of compatible local businesses, would increase safety and economic prospects for all. This will require developing the dead zones between the neighborhoods and downtown (roughly 12th to 5th Streets east, and the river to 6th Street west) in ways that build connections and offer further opportunities for business establishment and economic opportunity.

There are some other good ideas for neighborhood-centered development at the Better Block site: (1) Help communities put on authentic events as a means of generating ideas, (2) Create innovation zones especially where there are vacant lots or buildings, (3) 'Hackathon' events bringing visual and media artists together with neighborhood residents to help with visioning.

Finally, and somewhat tangentially, there's the matter of public transportation. The two neighborhoods are close enough to downtown to benefit from intercity rail service. More immediately, our well-intentioned but meandering bus system could add some lines that would go directly up and down 1st Avenue, and directly east and west from Mt. Vernon Road to 16th Avenue. (I am indebted to Ben Kaplan for this suggestion.) These would be easily accessible to residents of these neighborhoods, and more usable than the current lines in getting to jobs in other parts of town.


Andrew Duany and Jeff Speck with Mike Lydon, The Smart Growth Manual (McGraw Hill, 2010).

Chris Earl, "Wellington Heights Sees Increase in Police Calls," Cedar Rapids Gazette, 12 August 2013, A2.

Meryn Fluker, "Taylor Neighborhood Crowd Shares Crime-Fighting Solutions," Cedar Rapids Gazette, 6 August 2013,

Andrew Howard, "Saint Paul Better Block a Glimpse of Authentic Twin Cities,", 26 July 2013,
 Rick Smith, "Cedar Rapids Council Endorses Wellington Heights Neighborhood Plan," Cedar Rapids Gazette, 10 July 2013,

Iowa Public Radio, "River to River" show on new urbanism in Iowa, 12 August 2013,

William Julius Wilson, The Truly Disadvantaged: The Inner City, the Underclass, and Public Policy (Chicago, 1987

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