My only reference to Cedar Rapids, Iowa was a 2011 film starring Ed Helms. Helms, most notable for his roles on The Office and the The Hangover series plays an insurance salesman who comes to town for a convention. While it was a dollar well spent on the discount shelf at my local video store – it didn’t really prepare me for my visit to Iowa’s second largest city.
In June of 2008 – Cedar Rapids made national headlines as rivers in the region began to flood with disastrous effects on the city. As news cycles go – the rest of us move on to the next story, but people here remember like it was yesterday.
Walking around the historic Paramount Theater people were quick to remind me that it just recently came back to life. It’s a gorgeous venue that dates back to 1928 but was left nearly worthless as water covered downtown Cedar Rapids. Today it’s back in business and as stunning as ever.
As I approach complete strangers, they all seem to have something in common. (Besides the fact that they’re all wondering why I’m approaching them.) There’s a bit of fear in their eyes as a thunderstorm starts to brew on the other side of the windows. It’s as though with each raindrop – comes the awful reminder of their town under water. Even worse – they worry it could happen again.
Driving across this part of Iowa, it’s heart breaking to see what appears to be a stream or even a river running through corn field after corn field. After awhile, you don’t even notice anymore because it just seems so common.
Stepping into the Cedar Rapids visitor center you’ll see maps, photos and brochures – all reminding tourists passing through that they’ve worked hard to bring their city back to life. If there’s one thing I took away during my quick stop here – it’s that this is a tight knit community.
While I waited for a big band performance to begin as part of Cedar Rapid’s Freedom Festival – it was amusing to sit quietly and listen as neighbors and friends greeted one another. The woman sitting behind me scoffed when I said there was a “small town feel”. She insisted that Cedar Rapids was a big town. The latest Census showed just over 126,000 people live here. Despite what the numbers may or may not indicate – the conversations brewing in every direction of my theater seat screamed “everyone knows everybody”. The only thing missing was the entire crowd yelling “Norm!” – like they did on the TV show Cheers. It’s something you don’t notice much in a big town, except perhaps in church or at a school function. But, on this Sunday afternoon – I was the only one in here that didn’t see at least one familiar face.
While discovering downtown and the surrounding area, I was struck by the number of one way streets. Every downtown of just about every city in America has one-way streets but here they seemed abundant. It could also have been that since it was Sunday and many things were closed – the street signs were something I paid attention to more than usual.
On Monday things were a little busier although I wouldn’t worry about a traffic jam on your way to work at the Quaker Oats factory. The company, now owned by Pepsi has its headquarters here in Cedar Rapids. They make cereals and other well known products. I’m told that every so often there’s a “sweet smell” that surrounds downtown. It’s also known as “Crunch Berry Day” – a reference to a type of Captain Crunch cereal that Quaker produces. General Mills also has a plant in town – where they make products like Cheerios and Betty Crocker frosting.
If there was one moment that really left an impression on me – it was when I noticed all of the U.S. flags were lowered. Running around from place to place – I noticed it everywhere. Not just at City Hall or in front of a library or government building – I mean, everywhere. I later discovered the flag had been lowered out of respect for an Iowa soldier from Cedar Rapids that had been killed in Afghanistan. Lance Corporal Adam Wolff was among 3 Marines that died while serving their country — and everyone in town had shown their respect.
As I began to travel to my next destination, I ended my Cedar Rapids visit by spending some time with the minor league baseball team here – the Cedar Rapids Kernels. The team is a minor league affiliate of the Minnesota Twins. It was my very first minor league experience and it was an absolute riot! I wandered around before the game began and chatted with employees and early bird fans.
One man, who was kind enough to take a photo for me in front of the field – lit up when I noted that I was from Saint Louis. He recalled the time he saw Stan Musial play while visiting. I watched two older gentleman enjoy their popcorn and tidy up their scorecards as game time drew near, trying not to grin as I overheard them discussing trivial matters. Several young ladies were home from college for the Summer and working as baseball cheerleaders – if such a thing exists. They carried signs and threw tee shirts into the crowd. I didn’t have time to catch tee shirts – I was too busy eating my $4.00 ball park lunch — a soda, popcorn and hot dog. I can’t remember the last time a cashier at a stadium handed me back change.
Like most destinations – it’s not so much the attractions or the politics or even the weather (okay, maybe a little bit the weather) – but, the people. And the people of Cedar Rapids and Iowa overall, were simply top notch. It’s easy to see how they remain a loving community.
No amount of rain is ever going to change that.