Posts Tagged ‘Cedar Rapids’

“Cedar Rapids” the Movie

February 17, 2011

So in my last post I made some references to the upcoming release of “Cedar Rapids.” I should clarify that I don’t know that much about the movie and it may well paint Iowa in a good light; I don’t know. But I admit that I’m confused when, say, the editor of the Cedar Rapids Gazette entertainment section, who also hasn’t seen the movie, refers to it as an “homage” to Cedar Rapids and how great that will be for our national image. Really? Was “Fargo” an homage to that town?

Even as I ask that question, I know that many of you will say it was in fact an homage. It’s true that the Cohens displayed great affection for the people of Fargo even as they severely ridiculed them. Masters that they are, the Cohens can deftly maneuver that fine line. And maybe this movie will do the same, but I certainly wouldn’t jump to conclusions that this is what the movie is trying to or will do. Rather than an homage, it’s better to think that the location of Cedar Rapids offers the movie-makers something helpful for their plot. And this is a comedy about an earnest but naive man from Wisconsin on his first adventure into “big-city” experiences. So you’ve got to think that the comedic value has to be the irony of “big city” and “cedar rapids,” no? What makes it funny to go to a convention in Cedar Rapids? Maybe our slogan, the City of Five Seasons, is enough (can we please get rid of this city motto–for those of you who don’t know: the fifth season is “the season to enjoy all the others” so it’s all year long. No, I’m serious).

Here’s the thing. I’ve said some less-than-flattering things about Iowa in this space, some of it fair, some of it not. But ultimately I don’t look down on Iowa or Iowans–Cedar Rapids is a good town and I feel good to be here. My heart broke and still breaks for its struggle following the flood. It’s a town filled with big-hearted people who are giving it everything they can to recover. I wish the community well and do what I can to help it along its way. On the other hand, it has always seemed to me that Iowa on the whole is about 20 years behind the rest of the world. Even that doesn’t really bother me. In the right light, this can have its own charm. What ultimately bothers me is that we don’t even see that we’re twenty years behind. If it’s a conscious choice, it may be kitsch but OK, I can live in a world of nostalgia as well as the next person, but if we live with our heads stuck in the sand then the process of recovery is always going to be stuck in the same sand.

Let me give one example (and then I swear this will be the last time I bring this up–or I will try): I’ve written more than my share about the crazy beer/liquor laws we’ve been living under before last year. So what happened during that time was a craft brewing explosion around the country. Now I would have been upset had we been aware of it but chose to not participate in that explosion. But the reality was that people in this state didn’t seem to get that the explosion was even happening, that we were actually losing money to those states around us that carried better beer. During the final debates about the issue, the real fear was that young drinkers would buy higher alcohol beers to get drunk. Proponents of course kept saying, look at other states please. Craft beers are also much more expensive. College kids are not buying these beers. And now we have a more reasonable law and our beer culture can slowly grow. But we’re twenty years behind everyone else. Most national breweries have unfavorable views of Iowa and aren’t too concerned with having us as a market–this will change, but my point is that we now have to sell ourselves to catch up. I say this not to rehash the beer debate but because this is the easiest example I have. We seem to be stuck behind the times in terms of food, movies, coffee, music, etc. And this makes it even harder to draw in businesses, or young professionals, or even keep the youth we have.

I’m looking forward to seeing this movie. And I hope it has some good-natured fun with Iowa. I also hope and trust that the people of Iowa will see it as good-natured. Part of me is skeptical, though, that we’ll necessarily even see what’s funny to people elsewhere. We’re an earnest lot we are. I hope the pundits are right and this movie will bring a little recognition to an area that’s been struggling and could use some help. Of course it won’t help that they had to actually film it in Ann Arbor.

Legion Arts Theft

July 15, 2008

Yesterday was a beautiful summer afternoon, perfect July weather. I took some pictures of our raspberry patch that’s really filling in after 3 years, and our flower gardens that are really coming into full bloom. I had every intention, then, of writing a nice summery post, show off the gardens, describe our wonderful grilled veggie, orzo, feta and herb dinner last night and talk beer. But this morning I read this really distressing news from post-flood world.

I have written quite a few times about Legion Arts in downtown Cedar Rapids, really the best thing going about this town. I had also posted some pictures of the building and was happy to report that the art gallery and performance space on the second floor were basically unharmed by the floods. This included thousands of dollars in sound equipment. If the building is structurally sound (it appears so but the final verdict isn’t in) and electricity can be restored, they could be up and running pretty quickly. The salvage work on the businesses on the first floor, though, apparently left the building unprotected. Yesterday, thieves used a gap where walls had to be torn down to steal $14,000 of sound equipment. Sure, they are insured and will be able to get back on their feet, but this just astounds me. The neighborhood is a complete disaster area and thieves are seeing it as opportunity. Legion Arts has always run on a shoestring and the hard work of countless volunteers. Directors Mel Andringa and John Herbert have put their lives into keeping this place afloat for over 20 years. As the centerpiece of the new Bohemian Arts District, it was the cornerstone of a new vision for Cedar Rapids before the flood and will be the anchor of whatever might come after the flood. And this is what it comes down to.

I’m mad. I’m sad. And I’m a bit scared of what this bodes for the future as these “opportunities” will be here for many months in this city. Right after the flood, the city was shocked by the news that vandals had broken into the children’s zoo in Bever Park and rounded up 50 ducks of a variety of species from the duck pond, herded them into the corner and stoned them to death. It was just stunning to think of what bad can lurk even in the worst of times (you know, when we all point to tragedy as the point when we come together and the good in people shows up). Nothing like kicking people when they’re down. I was happy to see the community response to that event, and hope there is a similar outcry and public assistance for Legion Arts.


July 7, 2008

I have read a disturbing number of articles and blogs that are attempting to make comparisons between the Iowa floods and New Orleans after Katrina. The argument goes that Iowa has handled this disaster in the way that New Orleans should have: Iowans have pulled together and are working through it while New Orleans folks merely whined. This is such a bogus and disturbing argument I just don’t know where to begin. The swath of devastation from Katrina was vastly larger than the Iowa floods. We also have had no loss of life in Iowa, thank God. But there are two primary issues for me: first, New Orleanians had a reason to complain about the length of time it took FEMA and others to arrive with help, and the incredible mismanagement of such help. In contrast, FEMA was on the scene the day of these floods. If anything, this shows that at least some lessons have been learned through Katrina. I’d also suggest, though, that the portrayal of Iowa nice here doesn’t ultimately hold up. I watched a painful City Council meeting in which citizens called the council racist and classist and claimed they were attempting to bankrupt them. The problem is that even if we have voted the council in based on experience, no council in any city is really prepared to deal with this scope of crisis. Now, I don’t mean to denigrate Iowans here. On the whole, I think the depiction is correct. People have pulled together to an amazing degree; I just don’t buy into this Iowa good, New Orleans bad depiction that I’m hearing these days. One interesting comparison I might make between the two cities is that the most heavily damaged areas were working-class, poorer neighborhoods. If anything, those who are making the argument against New Orleans ought to ask why FEMA was able to get into our white, eastern European neighborhoods immediately while it took so long to get into New Orleans’ primarily black neighborhoods. I’m not trying to add fuel to some racial fire here, but if you’re going to point out the flaws in New Orleans’ response to their crisis, you need to acknowledge that their are different ways to consider the “objective” events. We always need to paint the full picture.

On a different front, I spent some time doing salvage work with the Legion Arts building, one of Cedar Rapids’ primary cultural centers. While the devastation on the main floor and in the firehouse (which was under renovation to serve as artist housing and work space) was heartbreaking, I’m also happy to say that the building is still structurally sound and the primary art gallery and performance space on the 2nd floor were mostly untouched. When power returns to the neighborhood (they’re now predicting early August), Legion Arts can get back up and running. Some photos of the building and the neighborhood might also give you a sense of the scope of clean-up projects. Here is the building before the flood. The sandbags would have kept the building safe based on the 1993 floods which did not touch the door and based on the projections that were in play up until the day before the crest:

The reality of the flood, however, was that water made it up to the address numbers on the top window. Here is the post-flood scene:

And here is the scene as ruined debris were pulled from the building:

Here are a few pictures of the remains of 40 years of art work by Mel Andringa. Mel was using the firehouse as a studio and storage while it was renovated as an artist studio for out of town artists:

You’ll notice what look like puzzle pieces, and well they are puzzle pieces. Mel uses puzzles for his art. It’s a shame to lose all this work, but he seems to be keeping his spirits about him and is looking forward to getting Legion Arts up and running again. For those of you who have never had the pleasure of salvaging in a flood-ravaged building, here are a few internal shots from the firehouse:

Notice the thickness of the sludge everywhere. It’s hot, nasty, smelly, and quite toxic work, but Iowans are in fact pulling together and going through this building by building, house by house. I don’t mean for my earlier comment to suggest otherwise, I just don’t want to hear the ridiculous and pointedly political comparisons made with New Orleans. Me, I’m just looking for a return of the Legion Arts as a sign of the return of Cedar Rapids.

Post-Flood Legislature

July 2, 2008

A few posts back, I had discussed the need for quick, decisive action on the part of local leaders following the Iowa floods. I am happy to see that discussions of possible neighborhood buyouts are moving fairly quickly. Over 4,000 homes were completely flooded in Cedar Rapids and officials are upgrading the number of unsalvageable homes daily. This community can not sustain such a disaster and to rebuild in these areas is short-sighted. I am especially amazed to learn the percentage of homes and businesses that were completely without flood insurance–even in the so-called 100-year zone which had been hit in ’93. While affected homeowners would actually end up financially hurt by a buyout (the actual payments would hardly afford them a new home, if even pay off mortgages), they generally see that this is the smart thing to do and are willing to pursue buyout plans. What they most want across the board is to know one way or the other so that they do not have to put their lives on hold more than necessary.

I had pointed to Grand Forks, North Dakota as a model of efficient leadership following the floods of ’97. I was happy to see an editorial from Grand Forks mayor and city council President in Sunday’s Gazette. They pointed out that a community must forget about “normal”; it won’t be back. But with bold, and certainly controversial, leadership a new normal can be developed. I do not envy city leaders right now as there will be no good decisions. People will be frustrated in whatever direction we move; emotions will understandably run high with all of these decisions. But move we must, and I’m happy to see that our local officials seem to be taking this to heart.

What I am not so happy about is to see that our State leaders do not seem to be taking this to heart. Here, too, I will echo and support a Gazette editorial: these floods have highlighted a disastrous state of infrastructure in this state and pose serious questions of recovery process that need to be addressed immediately. It’s sad to see that the call for a special session to address the flooding is being ignored. The State legislature understandably wants Federal money to come to the rescue, but this does not mean that decisive leadership is not also needed at the State level. We can not wait for Federal money to handle this, and we certainly can’t wait for a post-election session. Any money that does come in will still need to be allocated, and allocated quickly. We need a system of prioritizing in place now, and we need a plan to come up with the funds that the state will certainly be asked to contribute to recovery. The need for an ambitious special session seems unquestionable to me. If nothing else, people will feel better if they know their legislature is working on their behalf while they wade through the muck and slime to recover what little of their lives is left. Come on folks, this is what leadership is all about! This is what we voted for; now is the worst time to pass the buck.

The Difficult Decisions

June 22, 2008

It’s easy enough to see why communities originally developed near the water and why those communities have remained. It’s not easy to simply say, “OK, now we’re all going to relocate somewhere out of the flood plain.” But we should certainly consider if this is perhaps the time to make that move. A 100-year and a 500-year flood in 15 years? Over 3,000 houses were flooded in Cedar Rapids. Several neighborhoods–the Time Check area, the Czech Village, and the Normandy Drive area in Iowa City–were nearly completely destroyed. Over half the houses in the Time Check area, for instance, are not safe enough to enter.

This is a fact of life in many smaller towns along these rivers, as well, with whole communities washed away. In these regions, the dynamics are different. We as a society have said that we need to have the fertile floodplains farmed (whether this is a good policy or not is another debate); if we need to make floodplains productive then we do need to at least make reasonable efforts to afford those farmers the ability to live where they work (this is, of course a catch-22 as the process of making floodplains farmable actually alters the river’s dynamics that make it so fertile in the first place. But as I say this is another debate for another time). I’m not saying I necessarily buy our farming priorities, but I do recognize the economic dynamics of midwestern cropland; the issue is that the dynamics in these small towns is different from midwestern cities. There is no inherent reason to keep people living in regions such as the Time Check neighborhood other than the fact that people’s lives have been established and connected to the region. Many people have strong emotional ties and are ready to rebuild. I more than understand that. But can we afford to have people live there? These floods have really highlighted the sad state of Iowa’s infrastructure as a whole. Do we have the resources to rebuild in a way that will make any of these areas safe and functional?

Both Cedar Rapids and Iowa City governments are beginning to discuss buy-out options. These are very difficult decisions. What is ultimately needed is true leadership. The decision cannot be put off one way or another. Once people in those communities start rebuilding, it’s too late to truly have the conversation. Right now, there is a clean slate (so to speak). People may not like particular decisions, but they lose nothing in the process that they haven’t already lost. Once they rebuild, they will lose their homes twice. In both cities, the government needs to be willing to make some unpopular decisions and live by them.

I know that officials have been discussing these issues with officials from Grand Forks, ND. Grand Forks officials did a good job after the ’97 floods (I’m sure we all remember those haunting images of the city burning in the midst of floodwaters with no real way to stop the fires) of making intelligent but unpopular decisions and moving ahead quickly and decisively. It has taken ten years, but Grand Forks is now once again a vital city. Several neighborhoods were bought out and turned into green spaces by the river. I think this vision would serve Cedar Rapids really well. Most of all, though, it’s the decisive leadership that our officials should emulate from Grand Forks. Grand Forks offers a glimpse of what it will take and how long it will take if we are going to get past this disaster. Yes, people are going to be unhappy pretty much whatever you do, but that’s the nature of the beast at this point. Waiting on some of these decisions will only make it worse.

One More Organization

June 19, 2008

I wanted to mention one more organization that is really hurting and could use some donations. The Cedar Rapids Community Health Free Clinic does amazingly good work in downtown Cedar Rapids serving over 22,000 patients over the last year, all of whom have incomes below $15,000. Predictions are that this number will rise dramatically over the next year as some 7 to 10,000 people are projected to lose their jobs due to the flood. The Clinic survives almost solely on individual donations, so this is another organization I really encourage donations for. If you are interested, please take a look at their website:

Flood Update

June 17, 2008

Today I got my first real sense of what business and homeowners will be facing. I helped people salvage what they could from houses that flooded up to the 2nd floor. The experience is incredibly heart-wrenching and images don’t really do it justice. Outside, there are lawnmowers and furniture in the trees; appliances are strewn in ditches and everything is coated with inches of pure muck. Inside, a house’s contents are flung wherever and thick, gunky, moldy muck is over everything. The smells are horrendous. And these were houses in small neighborhoods several miles from the river. It’s just unbelievable to try to imagine the miles and miles of homes that are facing these conditions. Many are unsafe to even walk in as basements are collapsing and floors are rotting. Most of the houses I saw are completely gone. And now the floodwaters are moving down into the far southeast corner of the state and on to the Mississippi.

I had mentioned in my last post that I would try to list some places that are worthy of donations. I will say at the start that the Red Cross disaster funds are currently depleted. The Red Cross will have to borrow money to offer relief for the Iowa floods. So more than ever they seem like a good place to support. Locally, the Greater Cedar Rapids Community Foundation has opened up a Flood 2008 fund. These funds will support non-profits in Linn County and help with specific flood relief projects. Donations can be sent to PO Box 9, Marion Iowa, 52302. These funds seem like the most wide-reaching ways to put money into Iowa recovery.

A few other options for less-visible but important groups to support:

First, the Legion Arts group has started a fund for low-income artists and musicians who live in the area. Legion Arts has really been a mainstay for cultural development in cedar rapids and their efforts here should really be supported. If you are interested, I’d suggest you go to their website at It is uncertain how much damage the legion arts center and stage sustained at this point. You might use this website to track the center itself as I am sure they will need funds to maintain this incredibly important fixture of cedar rapids life.

Second, I have talked with many people about the amazing number of rescued animals and pets who are being housed at this point. This is an often neglected side of such tragedies and, if you are interested, funds can be sent to the Kirkwood Foundation, c/o Friends of the Cedar Rapid Animal Shelter, Kirkwood Community College, 6301 Kirkwood Blvd. SW, Cedar Rapids, 52406

Finally, an issue after my own heart. One of the great things about Cedar Rapids is its parks and trails system. Many of the trails have been completely washed away. This system was already in serious financial difficulty, to the point that I have trouble imagining this trail system returning to its old self, let alone expanding as the city hoped. If you want to contribute to the trails system, I would suggest you look at Linn County Trails Association at I recognize that this may seem like a secondary issue at this point, but it’s things like hiking and biking that help give a place character and feel alive, something this area will need in the years to come.

I think the extent of these floods is just starting to become clear to people. It will take a long time to wake from the daze and see the long road ahead. Any help along the way will be more than appreciated.

As always, whatever your situation and place, take care of each other.

The Road to Recovery

June 17, 2008

The waters are receding in Cedar Rapids and the Iowa River has crested in Iowa City (earlier and lower than predicted–at least a bit of good news amid the rest). So, now the long, painful road to recovery begins. The latest estimate of damages in the area is close to 2 billion. And this apparently doesn’t even factor in the loss of cropland for this year which in many areas will be a total loss.

The city began to allow people back into their homes after an inspection but this proved a longer and more complicated process than anyone imagined. After further inspection they have decided that neighborhoods are too dangerous at this point and all entry into flooded houses has been denied. People are understandably upset and nerves are frayed; on the other hand, I believe that the authorities are indeed acting in everyone’s best interests. At least from the limited images we get, flooded areas seem like toxic nightmares to me. One report I saw on the news urged people who were able to get to their houses not to pump water from basements too quickly as the pressure would make the walls collapse–this is certainly something I wouldn’t have been aware of and I can’t imagine how many people are ready to rush in and start pumping. We fortunately got through this with few injuries; now seems like the time when injuries would start piling up. I don’t have answers to how to handle this, but I can see the need for caution here. That said, I am speaking as an outsider. My house was not flooded and I can only imagine the emotions welling up in the floods’ victims. For the homeowners and the authorities alike, the next few weeks will prove a vexed existence.

I am taking stock of organizations that are offering services and aid to the victims and to the city. I will post them shortly to this site should anyone feel inclined to contribute to particular efforts. As we know with the all-too-frequent disasters recently, though, the Red Cross is always a worthy avenue to funnel funds to those in need. I will give updates as we go, though, on other opportunities to help.


June 14, 2008

So, here’s a few more images of Cedar Rapids:

It’s hard to know how this is playing in the media outside, what images and stories are making it into the larger world, but I hope it’s big. No, this is no Katrina with its horrible loss of life and there are no real political stories here (at least yet), but this is utter devastation. And the horrifying part is that the Iowa River hasn’t come close to cresting yet. Here in Cedar Rapids, the Cedar River is now starting to recede but it will be at least a week before it completely recedes; drinking water is at a critically low level and thousands will be without power for over a week. But we at least can see the extent of the flooding. In Iowa City, the extent is not quite fathomable yet. Both cities will reach record flooding that far surpasses the 1993 floods. Here in Cedar Rapids, the flood waters were a good 10 feet beyond original predictions. 2008 was named “The Year of the River,” a year to revitalize our downtown and turn to the river as its cornerstone. Little did we know that it would truly become the year of the river. The road to revitalization now is a long and tenuous road at best. The Paramount Theater, Theater Cedar Rapids, Legion Arts, Museum of Modern Art, the University, Hancher Theater all under water. Small businesses gone. Jobs evaporating. Whole neighborhoods of poor and working class citizens completely flooded out. Yes, the mantra is “we will get through this together,” but the realist in me doesn’t know what “getting through” in this context will really mean.