Epitaph for a Neighborhood
by Karen Rawson
There is a ghost, beside the river, behind Czech Village.
If you go there now, you’ll find tree stumps marooned in pools of yellow sawdust. You’ll find haphazard stacks of logs and a litter of branches too small to collect. You’ll smell pine resin and see broken streetlights and find curb-cuts to phantom garages down roads that end mid-block. You’ll see abandoned houses with windows full open to the winter air.
And if you come this spring, you might find crocuses to split the snow on scrubby vacant lots, or daffodils sprouting from now-defunct gardens. You might spy Hungarian tulips volunteering from the sides of vanished sidewalks, or remnants of flower beds in these lost lawns.
Czech Village is—Czech Village was—a small neighborhood. It was roughly fourteen city blocks nestled next to the Cedar River levee. The neighborhood was populated by last-century single-family homes and one single strip of commerce along the northwest border. The commerce is still there.
It looks like Main Street USA—as long as you squint and aren’t too particular about the peeling paint and mismatched park benches. It could be small-town anywhere, but for the Slavic lettering and Czech flags. You can still go there and find a dark bar stool at a neighborhood tap and hide out for an afternoon. Or, you can sample the local hipster brew while your bike is at the bicycle recyclist. There’s a bandstand, an Artists’ Sanctuary and enough junk shops to satisfy just about anyone’s flea market itch. And before you head out, you can pick up a dozen kolaches and a loaf of marble rye from a bakery that’s been under the same name for nearly a hundred years. But the one thing you can’t do in Czech Village—at least not any more—is live.
It’s not our fault.
2008 was a year of walking away, a year for final visits and unsaid goodbyes. In Cedar Rapids, 2008 was designated the Year of the River, and our river—well, she rose to the occasion. 31.12 feet to be exact, which was nineteen feet above flood stage and eleven feet higher than anyone had ever seen.
Maybe you saw us on the news—our downtown a full story deep in swift current. Our river swelled to more than 20 city blocks wide for miles on end. It was a few years back and it’s hard to keep track—what with the natural disaster of the week competing for your attention—so we’ll understand if you’ve forgotten. We haven’t.
It was 2008 and all of us as a nation were in the depths of the sub-prime mortgage crisis. And then—here in Iowa—it started raining.
A wet spring ramped to a drenching finale in early June, when the storms dumped inches at a time across the Cedar River basin. The active weather pattern flung hail, tornadoes and thunderstorms at us daily. On June 9, 2008 seven inches of rain fell in the northern Cedar River basin. The record crests made their way downstream: Cedar Falls, Waterloo, Charles City. Vinton. Urbana. Palo.
Tuesday, June 10th, people in Cedar Rapids were optimistic: we’d been through floods before. The USGS called for a crest of 21 feet on Thursday. Floodwater spilled onto Edgewood Road.
Wednesday, June 11th, Cedar Rapids ticked past the 1993 record of 19.27. Folks snapped photos from the bridges downtown until the city came out and closed them. The Weather Service upped their prediction to a Friday crest of 22 feet and the Czech Village was evacuated as water creeped up out of the storm sewers and made its way up lawns.
Thursday June 12th, heavy thunderstorms dumped three inches of rain on a weary and water-logged town. Revised predictions called for a crest of 24.7. Then, a railroad bridge weighted down with gravel-filled cars snapped. Water that had been creeping up inches an hour raced up by feet. People who meant to carry out a few things more things from their Czech Town homes had to be rescued by boat. Someone called the National Guard and by Thursday night, sandbagging efforts at one local hospital (nearly a mile from the river) ceased, and the hospital was evacuated.
The river crested Friday the 13th at 10:15 am. Czech Village would never be the same.
In the late nineteenth century, an iron bowstring bridge was constructed at Fourteenth Avenue, and the homes and commerce of the east bank spilled onto the western shore of the Cedar. Immigrant families, letters in hand, came to join their kin in a chance at a better life. Old women in babushkas, babies with moon faces, women with their work-chapped hands; barrel-chested men with ruddy faces, swinging lunch pails stuffed with goulash as they crossed the bridge to their factory jobs. They were working folk, with names like Sokol and Jiruska: hardy people with strong frames, proud cheeks and easy laughter.
The years went by. Some stayed for generations, raising their families in the black-earth flats of the west bank. Others moved on, and the neighborhood became the sort of place where an industrious type could grab a rung in the American dream and start their climb. Kids grew up in the ever-growing shade of the city landfill, climbing the levee barefoot to skip stones on the river. Young mothers hung laundry with babes on hip. War widows put kids through college on the wages from factory jobs. Nickel by nickel, folks bought back the title from the bank and meant to live their lives out there. Old folks tended gardens in their mortgage-free homes. They were small houses, sure, and the windows leaked winter and the list of to-dos was never done. But they were theirs.
And then the flood—and who knows where all those people went? Perhaps some were lucky enough to snag one of the affordable-housing remixes that sprouted up in Oakhill-Jackson. Folks moved out, moved on. Even those that meant to stay, one by one gave in to city pressure, or to the desolate feel of living in a ghost town.
The Assessor’s website tells the story in three acts. Pull up any property from Seventeenth to Twenty-first, from A Street through the low-side of C. First photo is a fresh house, the bushes lush and the white paint glinting in the sun. Next, the same house with horizontal stripes, like a convict on death row: the porch askew, the windows boarded. And then, nothing but a skinned lot, the grass worn away where they filled in the basement and tossed on a handful of grass seed.
In January, the City came out and sentenced every living tree with an orange X. In the span of a week, they flattened them—left the trees lying on their sides, their sections strewn across the vacant lots. A truck picked up the haphazard cords of the more valuable cuts. And then they were gone: a diesel belching black smoke rolled in, and in the space of a day a wood chipper erased those century-old trees log by log. Every last one: Sugar maples and walnuts, pin oaks and blue spruce, and one graceful white locust as elegant as the May queen. Crows held protest on the ground where the trees were supposed to be, blasting black complaint at the passing cars.
It’s going to be a levee. And trees have no place in levee plans, or so I’ve heard. But not until 2018 or 2019. I guess how it all plays out remains to be seen. It’s brought to you by the same planners who masterminded the one-way dead-end streets in the downtown and the whole back-in-angle parking debacle.
Until then, there’s still time to see the ghosts. Look for tulips to volunteer this spring and resurrection lilies in high summer. The city will mow, but determined hands planted those flowers. They’ll come back—at least for as long as they can. As long as they can find the light.
“I used to live right there,” I tell my kids whenever we drive down old Lincoln Highway. They nod, bored, because I say it every time. It’s a medical building now—what used to be a 1900 Craftsman-style home with a giant field-stone porch. Stuff like that, it happens more and more, the older that I get. Homes and buildings and even neighborhoods now exist only in memory. To my youngest, the flood is prehistoric. But I’ve been around long enough to know…sooner or later, everything is lost.
Karen Rawson is a YA novelist and the author of several successful blogs including KarenLeeRawson.com, AllTheBadassWomen.com, WhatPegmanSaw.com, and the WritersToolkit.net.