In June 2008, the Cedar River — which runs through the heart of Cedar Rapids — swelled and spilled over its banks, flooding more than ten square miles of the city. Thousands of homes were impacted as well as many businesses in the city’s core neighborhoods were inundated with water.
It was the worst natural disaster the city of Cedar Rapids had ever seen.
Through their anguish and grief, citizens of City Rapids pulled together to begin the long process of clean-up and recovery. Looking back on the last ten years, the progress is astounding.
“The accomplishments we've made since the 2008 flood are truly amazing,” said community advocate Steve Shriver. “The flood gave us the opportunity to rethink everything and really rebuild the downtown areas more strategically.”
While there is work yet to be done on flood mitigation and plans for now vacant parcels of land, the rebirth of the city is something residents can be proud of and visitors can relish in.
We talked to leaders in several of the city’s core neighborhoods to reflect on just how far we’ve come in the last ten years.
Casey Prince, former Downtown Executive Director with the Cedar Rapids Metro Economic Alliance, said the last ten years of progress years have transformed the downtown core, where many of the city’s company headquarters, cultural attractions and community celebrations are concentrated.
“This is the historic heartbeat, the place that is most distinctly us,” Prince said. “And the strength of our core radiates out to benefit the entire city.”
Heavily impacted by the Flood of 2008, the city’s core has since been revived. Major milestones include the reopening of venues like the U.S. Cellular Center, Theatre Cedar Rapids and Paramount Theatre, coupled with the addition of new venues like the Cedar Rapids Public Library and McGrath Amphitheatre.
In addition to gaining a number of cultural, dining and nightlife attractions, the area has also seen a surge of residents moving downtown. With the growing population, Prince said the area’s restaurants and attractions serve as “the dining and living room for downtown dwellers.”
“Downtown today is vibrant and welcoming. It’s urban meets hometown,” said Prince. “Cedar Rapids is a 21st century city that still treats you as if you’re in small town Iowa.”
In less than ten years, a very battered and bruised NewBo district, now anchored by NewBo City Market, has been converted into one of Cedar Rapids’ most popular hot spots for dining, entertainment, recreation and community.
The neighborhood is home to a variety of events throughout the year, music venues, a community ceramics center, event spaces, a business start-up accelerator, alternative schooling, co-working spaces and so much more. Thousands of pedestrians and cyclists visit New Bohemia every weekend, resulting in the district becoming “one of the great community building areas of Cedar Rapids,” said Shriver, who owns several businesses in the neighborhood.
Historically a creative haven in Cedar Rapids, the NewBo neighborhood has been both preserved as well as and reenergized with new development to create a live-work-play atmosphere with an eclectic vibe.
“We have always envisioned people wandering around, looking at art, shopping, and taking in the interesting architecture,” said Shriver. “We hope people are indulging in all of the good food and drinks as well as all of the various activities going on all year long.”
Just across the river from NewBo is Czech Village, a quaint, historic neighborhood known to draw visitors to the city for a unique cultural immersion.
Another neighborhood heavily impacted by the flood, Czech Village has seen much change over the last ten years, but remains a destination for dining, museum visits and for shopping —especially for antiques and vintage items.
“It’s hard not to rave about all the progress that has been made,” said Gail Naughton, former President and CEO of the National Czech & Slovak Museum & Library. The Museum, which was devastated in the flood and then physically moved to higher ground within the neighborhood to avoid future flooding, committed right away to doing their part in bringing the neighborhood back.
“We knew Czech Village needed the Museum and we wanted to support the recovery of this neighborhood,” Naughton said.
While it is still difficult to see the vacant lots where homes used to sit in the historically residential neighborhood, Naughton said she knows there is much to look forward to as recovery continues.
“I still suck in my breath at the thought of how much was lost,” she said. “But we are excitedly looking forward to the City’s plans for recreation areas and a park.”
Developer Fred Timko said the Kingston neighborhood — on the west bank of the Cedar River—may have taken a bit longer to blossom post-flood, but it is a unique part of the community.
“This neighborhood has largely redeveloped as a residential one,” he said, noting that it mirrors the make-up of the neighborhood pre-flood. While there isn’t as much retail as in other neighborhoods, Timko said there are still great options for dining, including a coffee shop, a sports bar and fine dining. He also pointed out the historic nature of the neighborhood and the attention to preservation during recovery and redevelopment.
“Kingston has really turned around in the last three to four years,” he said. “One project has led to another and the neighborhood is growing up nicely.”