CEDAR RAPIDS — On a recent Thursday evening, the New Bohemia neighborhood in Cedar Rapids was buzzing.
More than 600 people gathered on the NewBo City Market lawn to participate in yoga, dance fitness or join walking, running or biking groups at the free weekly Meet Me At the Market event. Across the street, the Skeeter Lewis Trio entertained diners inside Parlor City, while the restaurant’s outdoor patio and the nearby NewBo Alehouse patio were packed with people enjoying libations, food and the weather.
Members of the Cedar Rapids Sport and Social Club played bags throughout the neighborhood, while bikes piled up in front of the cycling-themed bar, Kickstand.
Meanwhile, construction surrounded NewBo City Market on three sides — renovations have started at the National building, damaged in a fire in July 2014, while work continued on soon-to-open restaurant Pig and Porter in the newly constructed NewBo Station building, next door to acerbically trendy T-shirt shop Raygun.
Behind the market, another mixed-use residential and business development, called the Depot, was quickly rising.
All this activity is just a portion of ongoing development throughout the city — and it appears, on the surface at least, to be reshaping the fabric of Cedar Rapids. Which led The Gazette to ask — is it a new day for Cedar Rapids? If so, what does that look like, and what does that mean for our future? Where is our community going, and what will it take to get there?
Gazette reporters will be examining these questions in coming months as part of an ongoing series. But to start, we wanted to ask people if they felt Cedar Rapids was changing as a community.
“Absolutely. Just look around NewBo and downtown,” said Greg Januska, 63.
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He has lived in Cedar Rapids for 15 years and said it feels like a different place than when he moved here. He and a group of friends, all wearing yellow Meet Me At the Market T-shirts, were enjoying ice cream and popcorn at the Great American Popcorn Company across the street from NewBo City Market. Attending Meet Me at the Market and then grabbing a snack together has become a weekly tradition for the group.
His friend Keely McAfee, 57, of Marion, has lived in the area most of her life. She believes it is a more engaging place to live than it used to.
“There are so many places to eat,” she said. “Especially since the flood, we’ve seen a lot of improvements down here.”
Nancy Craig, 58, a Meet Me at the Market committee member, said Cedar Rapids’s changes are about more than new buildings. She has helped organize Meet Me at the Market, officially part of NewBo City Market but run by a separate volunteer committee, since it began four years ago.
“The energy we feel every Thursday night down here, it’s amazing,” she said.
The program, beyond offering people a chance for a free workout, she said, is meant to both get people downtown and build a sense of community, something that could have economic benefits.
“I think employers and businesses recognize the need to make Cedar Rapids an attractive place for young people,” she said. “In order to get people to stay in Cedar Rapids, they have to feel connected.”
While community-building is hard to measure, Meet Me at the Market does track attendance, and that speaks of success — last year, participation topped out at just over 300 people in a week, while this year they’ve consistently seen more than 600 participants. Sometimes, it can be hard to find a place on the lawn to wedge in a yoga mat.
“It’s kind of scary,” Craig laughed. “We’re all like, ‘What did we do?’ But it’s a good problem to have.”
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At least one pair of young people have decided Cedar Rapids is attractive enough these days to return to.
Kara Christensen and her girlfriend, Arika Beech, both 26, grew up here before leaving for Minneapolis six years ago. Last year, both decided to return. Sitting on the NewBo Alehouse patio, they named things that keep them engaged in Cedar Rapids, such as the Uptown Friday Nights summer concert series and hip restaurants such as the recently opened Black Sheep Social Club.
“After living in a bigger city, you can see that Cedar Rapids is trying a little bit more than even six years ago. It’s developing,” Christensen said.