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General News    H2'ed 4/8/09

The Story of Cedar Rapids, Iowa in March 2009

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Since the flood in June, 2008, I have been a writer in search of the story concerning Cedar Rapids and its efforts to revitalize, rebuild and reconstruct from the physical and emotional destruction that took place on that fateful day. The story got wiped off the national news cycle in pretty quick order and Cedar Rapids is mentioned more now due to the state's Supreme Court ruling on gay marriage that it should have received after the flood.  

Not unlike what occurred and continues to occur (see, Fargo, ND), some of our towns and cities (lest we forget New Orleans, LA; Greensburg, KS; Galveston, TX) have been seriously affected by severe storm damage. Several factors are always at work when natural disasters strike. In the case of Cedar Rapids, it was the timing of it all that hit as hard in some ways as the storm itself-- the country was embroiled in a whopper of a presidential campaign season; the raging of the financial storms that are hitting all of us; and the attendant job losses. This compounding of the flood damage called out for the national coverage it did not receive. It has made the people there ask why not?

Yet, there are lessons there for all of us. While Cedar Rapids must continue to expend enormous amounts of both financial and political capital in their efforts to come out of this situation, their experiences in finding the solutions to the ravages the flood has caused to their town can teach us--from both their successes and failures--how these democratic processes work and what the limits are to their effectiveness. 

Let me begin by referring readers to the previous article I wrote  click here that details what the damages were and that should provide the necessary context for understanding what has to be overcome. I should also add that the town government has been engaged almost from the start of the post-flood recovery in holding all kinds of meetings where they have been sharing the design ideas as they were being formulated and to encourage the neighborhood associations to become as vocal as possible in making their needs known. In many ways, this type of work is thankless and time consuming. It is also something that most of those who are in city government have no experience at. Consultants have been brought in to varying degrees of effectiveness to help facilitate these meetings and to foster a form of responsiveness that will in the following years get more judicious reviews as the effects of their work will be better known.     

My initial attempt to find the real story in Cedar Rapids that would make it both clear to me and to readers meant having to understand what its relation was to the damages occurring throughout our country. Whether a town was dealing with the effects of a mountain of coal ash falling on it or a set of alleged illegal financial decisions that gutted their pension funds, certain elements remain the same. In each situation, decisions must be made that will affect everyone's future. Some have the resources to represent their own needs and some do not. I am not suggesting that in this story of the Haves and the Have Nots that all the Haves are the bad guys. I am saying that fundamentally what we are witnessing is what happens when those who Have can use their educational, financial and political resources in ways that the Have Nots cannot.   This classic American tale comes right out of a John Steinbeck or Upton Sinclair novel except altered for the times in which we live now.    

As many of the less educated and poorer citizens of Cedar Rapids have told me, the town was built on the backs of the blue collar workers who came there first. It is in their telling of the story, that they see their town being taken over by those who became successful and have been joined by a newer group of people who came to Cedar Rapids to make their fortunes too. Within this cohort of those who feel left out economically we find the largest share of those who have suffered the most from the flood's ravages.

After talking to some of these people I encountered while walking through the flood ravaged neighborhoods, my sense of the urgency for the town has increased. Without the town restoring itself, these poorer individuals who have been left out of the rebuilding of their home for a variety of reasons, (e.g., they bought their homes on contract rather than with a mortgage and thus are ineligible for funding or their homes are in what may become the flood zone and thus will be demolished in order to make way for the new flood management systems). Where many of these people relocated to is unknown. Yet, this segment of our population represents the growing underside of our immense and hopeful plans for restoring the national economy too. The question remains if we are only creating a larger and growing underclass, then what have we truly restored?     

Another element of this story has to do with communication, not just with who controls it but whether it even exists. A vital part of any large-scale project is that all those involved in it know what is going on. Cedar Rapids is dependent on one newspaper to report and disseminate the news as it is happening. This is not just a fact in Cedar Rapids. We are witnessing the demise of local papers all across the country. Much of what needs to be known about the proposed changes cannot be reported or covered. The physical impossibility of that is self-evident. Yet, one of the most basic frustrations I heard from almost everyone I spoke to in Cedar Rapids was that there was a terrible lack of communication. This lack of communication exists on all levels. If, as I have already said, the point of making this story available is to show these microcosmic scenes coming out of Cedar Rapids in order to shed some light on the larger and more far-ranging problems facing our nation as a whole, how can this be done unless the news gets out and the news is accurate?     

There is another section of the town to deal with as well--the flood destroyed the entire downtown business district. Situated on the river's edge, it, too, was flooded and the waters destroyed businesses along with the landmarked  Paramount Theatre, and the 100-year old steam generator plant that supplied heat for the entire downtown and the hospitals.      

Here too we see represented a number of problems that speak to a large section of each city's woes today. Beginning with the Paramount Theatre, which was the locus of their arts organizations, a collective shudder hits anyone concerned with arts funding in this country. Reliant as it is on both public and private monies, when the economy is bad, it is seen as trivial. The destruction of the Paramount, which had just been renovated, meant the dispersing of many of the arts organizations. Funding for the arts will continue to be difficult. Yet in some ways it also offers a clean slate of possibilities that were not there before. As I witnessed this September when for the first time an outdoor concert was held at Brucemore (another landmarked historic site) that had not been possible before the flood. This speaks to the ways in which hardship can create opportunities for change that are new and exciting. And who better to lead that kind of change than the arts?     

The key to keeping things positive and future oriented in terms of rebuilding  Cedar Rapids is keeping things green, i.e., environmentally sound. The old steam generating plant that has kept the downtown district and the hospitals heated has been necessary for its survival and has been run on coal. Yet, it too was flooded out and in order for the hospitals and downtown businesses to function this past winter meant an inordinate increase in the cost of heat. But now having to replace this old plant with a newer and more environmentally sound one brings with it a whole slew of problems, e.g. money, clean-up of the site and who is responsible for it, the time lag between something new being built and the older structure going back on line, etc. Solving this problem will in many ways determine the future of the downtown business district.     

As we have seen throughout the country, downtowns have seen better days. The arrival of the malls and the large box stores were partly responsible for their demise. These malls and the housing subdivisions surrounding them have claimed in Iowa large swaths of farmland. This is a precious commodity that cannot be replaced. Considering the damage to the farmland from the flood and to the watershed as well, there is much to be done still to be certain that this vital breadbasket is not destroyed. On this land rests in so many ways the future of this country.      

While I am glossing over much of the political and financial history of the town's existence and how various decisions were made that does not mean it is unimportant. This, too, is a huge part of the story of any town or nation. Priorities are set at one moment and the next generation finds a reason to topple those decisions. Why it is necessary to mention this is that whenever we are discussing the need for change, we must not ignore how we got into whatever situation we are in to start with. When we ignore the historical elements we do a grave injustice to what we are now entrusted to fix. We own none of this.  It is in our trust while the next generation becomes prepared to take on this same job.    

The story in Cedar Rapids changes hourly. In order to keep up with it from 1000 miles away has become more difficult than I thought it would be. On occasion, USA Today or the Wall Street Journal shows up to report on their progress. In the formative days of the flooding, the New York Times reported on the rising flood waters and then published some nostalgia pieces on the old barns in the farmland and how we were losing them. But no sustained outside voices have been concerned with what the outcome of this story will be. More than a lack of funds causes these decisions to be made. And to the detriment of our own national sense of optimism and courage we lose these stories and how the outcomes will be achieved.     

My goal in sticking with the people of Cedar Rapids as they find their way out of the flood's destructions is to help us all understand their stories. On the national level we should be able to see ourselves in their stories. We need to also make sure that even when the businesses, the hospitals, the arts and jobs return we are also aware of what has happened to those who are not able to speak for themselves as of yet. We need those stories as well.

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Deborah Emin is the founder of the publishing company, Sullivan Street Press ( She is also the impressario of the Itinerant Book Show as well as the program director of the REZ Reading Series in Kew Gardens, NY. Her (more...)
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