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.
But the one thing you can’t do in Czech Village—at least not any more—is live.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 to 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.
Embed from Getty Images
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.
People who meant to carry out a few things more things from their Czech Town homes had to be rescued by boat.A wet spring ramped to a drenching finale in early June, when the storms began dumping 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.Embed from Getty Images
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 neighborhood became the sort of place where an industrious type could grab a rung in the American dream and start their climb.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 and 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.
To my youngest, the flood is prehistoric. But I’ve been around long enough to know: sooner or later, everything is lost.“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 in only memory. To my youngest, the flood is prehistoric. But I’ve been around long enough to know: sooner or later, everything is lost.
And while I’m generally unqualified to give opinions on matters of taste and culture, I have to tell you about last night. You see, I was fortunate enough to attend A Midsummer Night’s Dream, perfected. That’s right–423 years after the original production, Janet Schlapkohl’s adaptation, performed by Combined Efforts Theatre has nailed it.
I admit I’ve never actually had the pleasure of seeing MND performed up until last night, but it is difficult to imagine a more delightful adaptation, a more picturesque venue, a more splendid series of scenes or more heartfelt performances.
About the theater
On satellite, Eastern Iowa looks like a child’s leaf-rubbing: ghost-green fields patchworked by Christmas-velvet groves, with veiny rivers worked all through. To get to The Country Camp, drive down a ribbon of hardpacked gravel, up a dirt driveway and then turn north at the horse pasture to park. Next, get out of your car and marvel at the number of vehicles there already. As you make your way past the horse barn to stage one, look around and realize–Grant Wood wasn’t making it up–Iowa really DOES look like that–except it’s golder and greener and fresher and oh-so-astonishingly real. It’s late July, and the air smells like tall corn and cut alfalfa.
Iowa weather is fickle, but we were fortunate last night–it was clear and the temperature landed somewhere between shirtsleeves and tank tops, with the humidity hovering in that sweet spot that makes Iowans quit complaining about the weather long enough to complain about the caucuses.
As we waited, we were serenaded by a chorus of cricketsong and hen gossip, smelling cotton candy and an abundance of that lemon-meringuey Bug Soother that Midwesterners pass around at outdoor gatherings as if it were a party favor. And then, showtime.
All the world’s a stage
Expect no curtain call at The Country Camp. Instead, Ms. Schlapkohl has the audience move from set to set, taking advantage of meadow, farm and woods as a backdrop, and using everything from chairs to logs to railroad ties for audience seating. Act I was accompanied by barn swallow acrobatics and Act II was held in a shady cathedral of spruce and red cedar–the sort of wooded copse that lies on the edge of every Midwestern farmyard. Inside, it smelled of juniper and pine needles. Beneath our feet, a loamy carpet peppered with cedar seeds, and overhead, a canopy of birdsong. The far side of the woods featured a circus train of walkways and ladders (no doubt enjoyed by Country Campers) which provided a marvelous backdrop for Fairyland. In the meadow beyond, a pair of monarchs improvised an amorous ballet, while the sinking sun gilded a perfect swell of prairie.
Spectators may find the need to lean around the weathered trunk of a cedar tree in order to catch all the actors, but this in no way affects the enjoyment of the show. From that enchanted Fairyland in scene two, Act III is enjoyed from a clearing suitable for frolicking in flower wreaths, where the audience may grab a chair or perch upon a log instead.
But about the show
But about the show–and that is what this is supposed to be about–Combined Efforts Theatre is a disability-inclusive theatre troupe based in Iowa city, Iowa. It was founded in 2002 by Janet Schlapkohl. I couldn’t begin to list all the delightful performances last night–being of only limited acquaintance with the play–but Josh Sazon was mesmerizing as Oberon. The role of Nick Bottom was played with comic abandon by Derek Johnson and Lark Cristensen-Szlanski played a sweet and wry Margaret of the Mead House. My personal favorite was Pam Michaels Meyers with her delicious dose of snark as Hippolyta. In addition, the show featured a host of entertaining Athenians, winsome Fairies and hilarious Mechanicals. Ms. Schlapkohl’s version is a slimmed down and kid-friendly version, with a tang of present-day, the performance of which was complimented by the occasional graceful interception of the missed line.
I realize now that this was not just a review of MND, but of rural Iowa and Grant Wood and a reminder of how grand and great the world can be. And that even in the midst of dark tragedies and frantic headlines there are oases of peace and calm and beauty. So my advice to you is get thee to Iowa City if you are anywhere close. There are only two more chances to enjoy this wonderful show. I have to think the Bard would approve.
My heart still sails at the thought of it.
Yesterday I had the pleasure of speaking with a lovely woman from New York. Why, you may ask, and on that, I’m going to smile and dodge the question. All I’ll say is stay tuned for further developments. But the thing that struck me when I spoke to her was one question—a funny question, asked in a strained voice:
“So you live in Iowa?”
She said it with the tone of a woman who was picturing me hunkered down in a covered wagon, the howls of coyotes off in the distance. I think she was worried.
Those of you who’ve ever spent any time in the Midwest know we largely live in the twenty-first century. But it is the second time in a week I’ve heard someone marvel at Midwesternness, like it’s something alien or perhaps a skin condition we might want to have looked at.
Are we truly that different?
Back in 2011 Stephen Bloom wrote a scathing article about Iowa—caused quite an uproar—and whether we were a bunch of rifle-toting rubes or chronically unemployed meth-heads, I was never quite sure. And while it seems there’s no shortage of perceptions about Midwesternness coming from elsewhere, the funny thing is, I think if I polled the Iowans I know, we’d all agree: We’re willing to take you as who you are, not where you’re from.
And maybe that does make us different.
Well–that, and the fact we call soda “pop”.