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I love you Cedar Rapids

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Ben Kaplan, guest columnist

I never expected that I would live in Cedar Rapids. I came to the city for school (Go Kohawks!). Like many students at Coe, I didn’t engage too deeply with the city that surrounded the campus. When I graduated I got a job with OneIowa, and then KCRG-TV9, and then We Create Here at The Gazette Company. Now I do this, and I take photos and make videos, working out of the Vault Coworking Space in the Geonetric Building.

There’s that old saw, “you fall in love slowly, and than all at once.” That’s what happened with me and this city. I fell in love with the stately, leafy streets of the Southeast side during long runs in college. They looked nothing like any of the neighborhoods in Albuquerque, where I grew up. I fell in love with Riley’s on First Avenue, and their smokey, crispy, thick-cut bacon. I fell in love with Brewed Awakenings and a strong cup of black coffee. Drag shows at Basix, the Sac and Fox Trail in the fall, and dark beers at Mahoney’s.

I graduated from Coe in 2010. I lived in Mound View, then Wellington Heights, and, finally, the border between Oakhill-Jackson and New Bohemia. I’ve lived here since April of 2011. The only place I’ve ever lived any longer is the house where I grew up.

When I moved down here there wasn’t much. There was my shiny new building, Parlor City, Chrome Horse, the Cherry Building, and that’s about it. The warehouse that would eventually become the NewBo Market was a derelict green monstrosity. CSPS was still being renovated. There was potential, unreleased energy waiting for the catalyst to go kinetic. It’s hard to remember now, what with the incredible pace of change over the past few years, but in 2011 much of the areas along the river were still boarded up. The scars left behind by the great flood had yet to fade.

There wasn’t just one catalyst, or if there was it was the people more than any single business or project. The places ravaged by the flood of 2008 became possibilities. We — us — our neighbors — the collective people of this city — imagined a place better than what it had been before water rushed through. 2012 was the year that the city switched from recovery to renewal. 2013 brought the amphitheater and the market and cranes and construction and Lion Bridge and Cobble Hill and Sag Wagon.

It felt like as I grew up the city grew up with me. A futon and Ikea tables got replaced with real furniture from Mad Modern. I met people who owned their own businesses, who volunteered, who had great big dreams for what this place could be. I got to follow the first cohort of the Iowa Startup Accelerator as an embedded journalist. I’ve had two serious boyfriends while I’ve lived down here. I’ve stormed out of CSPS during intermission in anger and I’ve watched the sunrise paint the skyline pink from my balcony while I rested my head on someone’s shoulders. I have a built a group of friends whom I love and who I can’t imagine my life without. I have learned that I will never make better falafel than what I can get at Zaytoon’s.

We lost so much in 2008. A run along the levy through the Northwest side still is a stark reminder of the destructive power of the river. This time we had more warning, and the power of experience. Maybe even an intense desire to even the score with mother nature. Over the last week I saw thousands of my fellow citizens come to places that were threatened and do everything they could to protect them. I saw a city government firing on all cylinders to protect as much of the city as they possibly could. Entire districts packed with people with pickups and shovels ready to help. Community, compassion, empathy, love — all the better angels of human nature on full display.

I get asked why I live here a lot. My normal invocation usually begins with a list of what I can walk to (my office, five local coffee shops, two breweries, countless local restaurants, live music, bike trails, countless shops, etc.) and how much I pay in rent. This is the quantified, brochure version of Cedar Rapids. It is what is most visible when we describe things like recovery, or our economy. Since the Great Flood the city has become more vibrant. Downtown, Czech Village and New Bohemia have become bustling cultural centers with an incredible civic life. I live here because, as the data shows, it hits all the metrics of a good place to live as defined by census info and whatever the hell metrics livability.com is using this month.

There’s a truer answer though, one that’s more personal. I live here because when I decided to start my own business people asked, “what can I do to help?” And then they helped. I live here because I am surrounded by people who want to help other people rise up and succeed, and the more people I meet the more true that becomes. I live here because there is an energy here, a crackling electric force of goodwill. I live here because the people are good, and ambitious, and compassionate, and resilient, and practical. These are qualities that cannot be easily replicated, no matter how many coffee shops are within walking distance. These are the qualities that make me proud to call this place home.

I know a lot of the people who had their homes, jobs, and businesses threatened by this flood. Steve’s made me an off menu quesadilla at Brewhemia during Whiskey Friday’s. I’ve spent hours talking to Bart at Next Page Books about what I’m reading, or planning to read, or pretend that I’ve read. The guys at Goldfinch kitted out my bike. Dylan at Black Sheep is the first bartender that’s ever made a martini that I fell in love with, so of course I had three more. Thank god for Brooke at The Early Bird for the morning after.

All of these people, these places, these moments helped me fall in love with this city, but the moment I knew I loved this place sticks with me. It was winter a couple of years ago, a night out downtown that had bled into a house party. I was walking home across the First Avenue Bridge bundled in a thick coat, my breath crystallizing in the air. I looked up, at the radiant flame atop the Vets Memorial Building, the sharp blue of the Alliant Logo, and scattered lights still burning in the Cedar River Tower. Then I watched the reflection of downtown ripple across the black water of the river. What kind of community goes through the darkest, most powerfully destructive event in their history and decides they will not just recover, but that they will become even better? Cedar Rapids. What kind of place pulls it off? Cedar Rapids. How can you not love a place like that?

• Ben Kaplan lives and works in Cedar Rapids. Read more: medium.com/corridor-urbanism

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