Advertisement

Letter to the editor: Cedar Rapids’ identity

  • 327
    Shares

Cedar Rapids in the aftermath of the Aug. 10 derecho. — Jason Smith/Little Village

Chad Cooper, Cedar Rapids

A howling came through my city, and it was unlike anything I’d ever experienced.

In Cedar Rapids, everyone is now intimately familiar with a derecho. The storm visited town over lunch on a Monday, bringing hurricane-force winds (100+ mph) and leaving devastation as a parting gift. A couple hundred thousand without power. Many without a home. Many more without a sense of what could come next. My city has experienced this before.

The 2008 flood came with a similar rapidity and gifted our community similar destruction: 1,126 city blocks were flooded, washing over more than 10 square miles. It inundated downtown, ravaged core neighborhoods with dirty water up to the rooftops of homes, and gutted any idea of normalcy. It tried our souls, but we rebuilt and returned better. Now, we face our second large-scale natural disaster within the span of 12 years. At times, it seems if not for bad luck, CR would have no luck at all.

A downed tree from Chad Cooper’s front yard on 9th Street SE in Cedar Rapids — courtesy of Chad Cooper

* * *

When one is born and raised in Cedar Rapids, they fall into three camps:

First, those who know nothing better for their needs and find comfort in the practical aspects: relative safety, consistent convenience, affordable real estate, etc. These are CR’s lifers.

Second, those who know something better, pine for it and flee from this place as soon as physically possible. These are CR’s departed.

Third, those who know of something more alluring, also pine for it, but realize that this city is themselves — an intrinsic identity that can’t be outrun or fled from. These are CR’s conflicted.

I was born in Cedar Rapids. I was raised in Cedar Rapids. And I decided to invest in Cedar Rapids, buying a home in the Oakhill Jackson neighborhood in 2012. I am Cedar Rapids, and I find myself wincing even as I write it.

Why?

Because to be Cedar Rapids is to ostensibly be nothing. In the Midwest, I’m too big and too urban to wrap myself in the farmer mystique — a city slicker in the middle of an agrarian state. But I’m also too small to mean anything to the rest of the world — a country hick or a complete mystery. Even within my own state, I’m the second child. And with Iowa City only 20 miles south, I’m relegated to being the blue-collar neighbor who doesn’t get invited to the cocktail parties. I’m ill-defined, nebulous, nonexistent.

All of the above seemed amplified after the derecho. The national news has largely overlooked or ignored our disaster, and when it has been covered, the focus has been more on downed cornfields and flattened farms. The agrarian destruction fit the narrative; the urban devastation in a city with a metro population of 250,000+ didn’t.

SIGN UP TODAY

Subscribe for daily news updates from Little Village

SUBSCRIBE

How does one cope with an unacknowledged trauma? Is there meaning to be discovered in “flyover country”? How do you reckon with yourself when all you are is where you’re from?

In the aftermath of the storm, without power, I found myself grasping in the dark (literally and figuratively) for answers, for hope, for my toothbrush. I’m even writing this in the dark as a note on my phone, going on my seventh day without power.

Life lived as a Cedar Rapidian has found me grasping in a similar way: for self, for identity, for how to define my love for a place I often also disdain for its seeming inability to stand out and represent something more.

* * *

About an hour after the storm passed, our entire neighborhood was out in full force to assess damage and start the clean up. An elderly woman who lives alone soon had a team of neighbors cutting branches from a downed tree in her yard and hauling it to the curb. A family from Africa that had moved in only a few months prior was the first to start to work. They were followed by a half dozen other people. Within two hours, to look at our backyards, you hardly would have known a disaster took place. This scene has repeated itself numerous times in neighborhoods across the city.

I can’t say the derecho has reconciled my feelings for my city, just as the 2008 flood failed to do, but it has strengthened my pride in its strengths: its resilience, its sufficiency, its aversion to self pity. And perhaps the city has gained a distinctiveness from how it reacts in times of crisis. Cedar Rapids has come to embody human resilience.

The storm has also heightened my realization that I’m inseparable from my city. The poet William Carlos Williams, in describing his conception for his epic poem Paterson, said that, “a man in himself is a city, beginning, seeking, achieving, and concluding his life in ways which the various aspects of a city may embody … any city, all the details of which may be made to voice his most intimate convictions.” Williams went on to write that, “the city the man, an identity — it can’t be otherwise — an interpenetration, both ways.”

My identity derives from my city, and that identity manifests as resilience, an inability to quit. I can leave this city, but it’s imparted something that will never leave me: A collection of clichés that actually function as fundamental truths. Without them — without my city — I’m rudderless, I’m nothing.

* * *

A yellow jacket in Chad Cooper’s backyard. — courtesy of Chad Cooper

Let me tell you a story about yellow jackets. Yes, the flying (and stinging) insects. Yellow jackets have been harmonious neighbors on my back deck for years. They spend hours each day working at a feverish pace, hovering and collecting small amounts of the wood to construct their nest. It’s painstaking work that takes the entire summer to complete.

As I walked across my lawn after the storm, I noticed the yellow jackets’ nest was a casualty — destroyed by the onslaught of wind, flying debris and fallen trees. Months of work destroyed in only a matter of minutes. The scattered remnants sat beside shingles and siding from nearby houses. I figured I’d seen the last of my yellow jackets for the year. But the next morning, under the brightness of a sunny day, I walked out back to see yellow jackets hard at work collecting wood to rebuild — the scene emblematic of a city that moves forward because moving forward is its second nature, its identity.

Share your storm story with Little Village

  • 327
    Shares
Thoughts? Tips? A cute picture of a dog? Share them with LV » editor@littlevillagemag.com

Advertisement

Advertisement

Summer Programs 2020

Get 150+ local restaurants delivered to your door in the Iowa City & Cedar Rapids areas!

The Future is Unwritten

You look to Little Village for today’s stories. Your sustaining support will help us write tomorrow’s.

Regular

$10/mo or $120/year
(AUTO-RENEW)
The cost of doing this work really adds up! Your contribution at this level will cover telephone and internet expenses for one month at the LV editorial offices.

Italic

$20/mo or $240/year
(AUTO-RENEW)
$240 is enough to cover one month’s costs for sending out our weekly entertainment newsletter, The Weekender. Make a contribution at this level to put a little more oomph on your support and your weekend.

Bold

$30/mo or $360/year
(AUTO-RENEW)
LittleVillageMag.com connects eastern Iowa culture with the world. Your contribution at this level will cover the site’s hosting costs for three months. A bold move for our boldest supporters!

All monthly and annual contributors receive:

  • Recognition on our Supporters page (aliases welcome)
  • Exclusive early access when we release new half-price gift cards
  • Access to a secret Facebook group where you can connect with other supporters and discuss the latest news and upcoming events (and maybe swap pet pics?) with the LV staff
  • Invitations to periodic publisher chats (held virtually for now) to meet with Matt and give him a piece of your mind, ask your burning questions and hear more about the future plans for Little Village, Bread & Butter Magazine, Witching Hour Festival and our other endeavors.

Advertisement

Randy's Flooring is a local, employee-owned retailed that has been part of the Corridor for over 40 years, delivering quality and value through the largest selection of carpet, tile, hardwood, window treatments, and specialty products supported by the knowledgeable staff and in-house flooring designers who can help transform residential and commercial spaces.

 
Get Started