Smelling the condition of the city

Cedar Rapids mayor seeks to clear the air and improve the city's outside image

Today, Cedar Rapids Mayor Ron Corbett officially proclaimed an end to the "The City of Five Smells."

It's still very much the "City of Five Seasons," but the mayor wants to expel Cedar Rapids' smelly, snarky longtime alter-motto. He presented a proclamation during his State of the City address intended to do just that. "We are no longer the City of Five Smells," he declared.

And, apparently, the last straw was a radio show.

In December, Corbett said, Mike Golic, one half of ESPN's popular Mike & Mike morning radio duo, was stuck in Cedar Rapids due to lousy weather. The show asked people to call in with suggestions on what Golic could do during his unplanned stay. A friend of Corbett's in Colorado was listening to the show and called to alert the mayor. It was not pretty, Corbett said. Even local citizenry were "trashing" the town.

At one point, a caller deployed the dreaded "City of Five Smells." Gasp.

"Is this really how we want to portray ourselves to the world?" Corbett asked the 650 people who showed up to hear the city's condition. He called on citizens to make a list of things that are great about this town. And start praising it, stop knocking it.

"How we portray ourselves is pretty important," the mayor said.

I agree. I do. I know this is a clever, symbolic gesture to make a point. Community pride is important. Stopping to think about all the things that make us proud about this town and region is a healthy, positive exercise.

And on my list, oddly enough, are the so-called five smells.

I'm a Midwesterner by choice. And the Midwest smells. It smells because our people are raising, harvesting, processing, milling, toasting, grinding and shipping agricultural products to people all over the world who need them. That manufacturing forms the sturdy economic backbone of this city, a Midwestern city.

If there comes a day when Cedar Rapids no longer smells, we'll all be smelling big trouble. And no, it doesn't smell like Crunch Berries.

I know some of us sometimes bristle at our farm identity, the Corn State, overalls, etc. We wrestle with it. This is the town where "American Gothic" was painted. It's iconic pairing has been overused as a rural caricature. And yet, it's also a masterpiece, one of the world's most famous paintings.

Having a strong back and, perhaps, an aroma, or five, doesn't mean you don't have a brain. Technology and innovation and entrepreneurship have built and are transforming this city every day. It's a far more diverse economy than meets the nose. Anybody who gives this city more than a passing whiff will figure that out in a hurry.

I've always thought City of the Five Smells was a sign of our healthy sense of humor, not low self-esteem. As someone who cracks wise on occasion, I truly appreciate that. You need a healthy sense of humor if you choose to live in the Midwest. The weather alone is comedy gold. Laugh, or sulk in a drift. Your choice. A tougher choice this winter, I concede.

I also understand how the mayor felt when he heard those audio darts aimed at this city. That sort of stuff is hard to take.

But I think as important as it is for all of us to remember why we're proud of where we live, and to talk up the town, it's also important to not let the coarsest voices drag us down. Sometimes in this city, I think our leaders listen too much to the squeakiest wheels and loudest critics. A lot of barking, to be sure, but, frankly, not much bite.

Sometimes, you just have to smile, knowingly, and shrug. Embrace it. Take a deep breath. Don't let the (beeps) get you down.

And unless the mayor also ordered the installation of a massive air freshener, our smells remain, unscathed. Smell them with pride, I say.


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