Guest Columnist

Back to yesterday: Journey of life leads back to Cedar Rapids

Downtown Cedar Rapids showing Interstate 380 in lower right corner Saturday, May 30, 2011. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)
Downtown Cedar Rapids showing Interstate 380 in lower right corner Saturday, May 30, 2011. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)

Driving up and down First Avenue for the first time in 50 years, I was a stranger in a strange land. Much has changed. Much remains the same.

The rushing rapids on the Cedar River remain the same. Such is the picture of eternity that a great river paints for itself always. Cedar Rapids has changed during the past half century. You’d have to be away from the city for 50 years to really take clear notice.

At the former Roosevelt Hotel, there is a chicken restaurant and a vacant store and a much grander but plastic-looking modern hotel next door.

There was no possibility of a vacancy at the Roosevelt Hotel in 1967-68.

During the spring of 1968, I remember clearly a bus rolling up the front of the Roosevelt Hotel and New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller jumping onto First Avenue and being greeted heartily by a crowd of Cedar Rapids Republicans when he was running for president.

The downtown was more robust then, much more about the past than the present … and if we could have foreseen the future, we would have understood that the downtown of Cedar Rapids, like nearly all the downtowns in America’s dozens of Cedar Rapids, would be largely abandoned for shopping centers and malls with only a handful of longtime retailers struggling on in this declining marketplace.

I am back behind my desk, in front of my desktop and thinking … about 1967 and being in Cedar Rapids … and returning last Saturday with a friend … and being reminded again and again that year was more intense, more complicated and more extraordinary than any in my life.

That year spent in Cedar Rapids as I now recall it was longer than I might ever have imagined a year could be and filled with events and breakthroughs and victories and defeats that are unimaginable to me today. The backdrop for all of this was the changing American landscape and the rising social revolution.

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Cedar Rapids was alive with restaurants and small stores lining First Avenue from the Coe campus down to the river on both sides during this time, now so much a part of a fading past. There was so much going on. So much to discover.

So many events turning the nation upside down and there I was in Cedar Rapids, Iowa trying to figure out my life!

I was at Coe College for one year.

I came from Boston to Cedar Rapids at a time in the nation’s history when it seemed as if we were split — blacks against whites, rich against poor, old against young, women against men.

I came to Iowa in 1967 having no idea how exciting and exotic the experience would be, how kind, generous and thoughtful Iowa people could be. How exciting life could be in Iowa!

I thumbed to Denver with a buddy beginning the journey on First Avenue Halloween night 1967.

I worked for the candidacy of Robert Kennedy that spring passing out pamphlets in neighborhoods throughout the city.

I left Cedar Rapids the day before Kennedy was assassinated at a time when it felt like the nation was being strained to its core.

Returning to Cedar Rapids after 50 years has passed revealed a changed city, an expanded commercial and business community extending miles outside the city’s core almost to the edge of the vast farming empire that gives such power to this great state.

Quaker Oats still dominates the skyline and local landscape as it did in 1967.

As a longtime journalist and writer it was pleasing to read The Gazette, which inevitably remains The Gazette as some things never change.

The Hamburger Inn is history. The Maid-Rite is gone. Stickney’s is gone.

The Roosevelt Hotel is a condominium.

The Coe campus is substantial and architecturally correct. Gorgeous, really.

I came during the springtime of my youth to Cedar Rapids.

I returned during the autumn of my life.

What a great trip it has been for all of us.

l Joshua Resnek is an Emmy Award-winning journalist from Boston.

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We value your trust and work hard to provide fair, accurate coverage. If you have found an error or omission in our reporting, tell us here.

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