Cedar Rapids population size and perception work against integration

“Cities in Iowa have a chance to build an integrated community, but that's going to require a concerted effort”

Randy Day of Anamosa, a parole officer working out of Wellington House, helps Malone Murray, 7, carry pumpkins back to M
Randy Day of Anamosa, a parole officer working out of Wellington House, helps Malone Murray, 7, carry pumpkins back to Malone's house during the annual pumpkin give-away at Wellington House on Wednesday, Oct. 23, 2013, in Cedar Rapids. Wellington Heights is one of the two neighborhoods in Cedar Rapids with minorities making up more than 20 percent of the population. (Liz Martin/The Gazette-KCRG)

Think of your neighbors. Do they look like you?

When it comes to skin color and if you live in Cedar Rapids, statistics indicate that the answer is likely to be “yes.”

That’s not exactly a shock: Data from the most recent U.S. Census, conducted in 2010, show that Iowa’s population is 91.3 percent white, while Cedar Rapids is 88 percent white.

The city’s most racially diverse area, as defined by the geographic sections used for the census, lies in the city’s southeast quadrant between the Cedar River and the intersection of Mount Vernon Road and 19th Street. That area — which includes New Bohemia, itself part of the Oakhill Jackson neighborhood also located within the region — is still 69.3 percent white, according to the 2010 census data.

“That we have people of all races and some economic diversity, it’s celebrated here,” said Mike Richards, a 15-year Oakhill Jackson resident and former president of the neighborhood association. “People who have grown up in this neighborhood have seen that modeled … . It actually developed in a social context.”

Not a single census tract in Cedar Rapids — or Linn County — has a majority of ethnic minorities or is evenly split between white residents and people of color. Charles Connerly, who has been a professor in and director of the University of Iowa’s School of Urban and Regional Planning since 2008, said that’s an issue of size.

“When the number is small, you won’t see these incredibly segregated areas,” Connerly said.

The 2012 population projections from the Census show that the nation is on track to have more people of color than non-Hispanic whites by 2043. As the United States continues to diversify racially, Connerly’s observation may sound like good news, the fulfillment of the integration promise at the heart of the civil rights movement.

But, he noted, a lack of segregation is not de facto integration.

“If you’re looking at census tracts, they may look integrated,” said Connerly, who noted that his expertise is in urban planning and not specifically on Cedar Rapids. “If you look at blocks, they may be segregated.”

Of Linn County’s 45 census tracts, only three contain populations where people of color comprise at least 20 percent of residents. All three of these areas, which border each other, lie in the city’s southeast side — though the boundaries of the least-diverse region, where 20.8 percent of residents identify themselves racially as nonwhite, extend slightly past A Avenue NE and 16th Street NE.

Why it matters

To hear Chad Simmons tell it, Cedar Rapids is not welcoming to people of various racial backgrounds.

“I would say that ultimately you could take a look at that by talking to employers about who comes in and who chooses to leave,” said Simmons, executive director of the Cedar Rapids-based organization Diversity Focus. “Retention is a huge issue.”

For Cedar Rapids to thrive, Simmons said the community must become more inclusive. To him, that means providing infrastructure in five areas — health and well being, economic development, arts and culture, education, and employment — for residents of any and all racial backgrounds to be successful.

“If you can’t keep the people that you’re importing in, if they don’t have the things they need to thrive … now we have an issue about the viability of our region,” Simmons said, citing the area’s aging work force.  “There are things that have to be addressed because we’re competing against other communities for the same talent.

"It’s the speed of change that will determine winners and losers, not the change itself.”

The UI's Connerly agreed, broadening his scope beyond Cedar Rapids. He called Iowa “work force challenged” and said one reason the state struggles “to attract and retain a high-quality work force” is because of the perception that the area is so ethnically homogenous.

“Cities in Iowa have a chance to build an integrated community, but that’s going to require a concerted effort,” he said, referring to Iowa City, Dubuque, Des Moines and Cedar Rapids. “It’s time for them to embrace diversity in order to build a better society … It has huge economic-development impacts.

"It’s not just diversity for diversity’s sake.”

Where we live

In Simmons's estimation, that lack of inclusion — which Diversity Focus staffers aim to remedy — plays out in where the city’s residents choose to live.

According to Bill Williamson, an agent with Skogman Realty who shows homes throughout Linn County, he’s never dealt with prospective buyers explicitly stating race or ethnic diversity as factors for not moving into a certain neighborhood.

“I can’t remember that I’ve ever had someone say, ‘I don’t want to live there,’ wherever there would be,” said Williamson, a Cedar Rapids native who has been a realtor for just more than two years.

A survey from Diversity Focus earlier this year illustrated that 9 percent of Linn County respondents have experienced housing discrimination.

Professor Connerly guessed, based purely on media depictions, that the southeast side of Cedar Rapids is perceived as having lots of crime.

Richards, who is white but whose family contains members of other races, said that Oakhill Jackson has this image in part because of its working class and racially diverse makeup. Both he and his wife, Lynette, who is president of the neighborhood association, have heard comments questioning the area's safety or the family’s decision to live there.

“I think those are ‘polite’ comments of veiled racism,” Richards said.

Residents of Wellington Heights, located in the city’s second-most racially diverse census tract, where 25.7 percent of residents identify as nonwhite, say their neighborhood also has an unwarranted bad reputation. But they did not explicitly connect that to race but rather crime issues in its history.

“I think Wellington Heights has a reputation that it’s not safe,” said Kathy Maddigan, a resource at Wellington House, a community-support center, and 21-year resident of the neighborhood. She said she supports the racial diversity in the neighborhood.

“There’s a percentage of rental, and there’s a lot of (negative) stereotypes that go along with that,” she added.

Data from the Cedar Rapids Police Crime Analysis Unit shows that between January and September 2013, Wellington Heights was the neighborhood with the most arrests in the city. Of the Cedar Rapids Police Department's 7,434 arrests in 14 neighborhoods, 413 came from Wellington Heights.

During that same period, 169 arrests occurred in Oakhill Jackson, ranking it ninth highest of the 14 areas.

Knowing your neighbors

Noemi Gonzalez, a Mexican-American mother of three, moved with her husband and children from Burlington, Iowa, to Wellington Heights three months ago. She’s found the city to be welcoming but didn’t seek to live in an especially diverse part of Cedar Rapids.

“It didn’t really mean anything to me,” Gonzalez said. “These are just the people I’m living around.”

Gonzalez was one of a few residents to say that the neighborhood is not especially close knit.

Justin Wasson, president of the Wellington Heights Neighborhood Association, said the area “absolutely” has a strong sense of community. But as far as whether that perception crosses racial lines, Wasson was less confident.

“It’s hard to say for sure,” said Wasson, who is white. “There’s several African-American families, for example, who live just on my block, and I get along great with all of them.”

That’s not the experience for all Wellington Heights residents. Anthony Morrow, a young black man who moved to the neighborhood five years ago from Rock Island, Ill., to be near family also living in that neighborhood, said things are much more socially segregated.

“It’s the black people hanging out with the black people,” Morrow said.

Eliza Morse, a native Cedar Rapidian who moved to Wellington Heights from Time Check in 2008, said the ties between neighbors are a lot looser in her new neighborhood when compared to her old.

“They look out for each other over there (on the northwest side),” said Morse, who identifies as white. “Here (in Wellington Heights), it’s like everybody’s on their own.”

According to Simmons of Diversity Focus, himself a person of color, neighbors getting along with each other isn’t the central issue when it comes to matters of race in Cedar Rapids.

“Do you try to get rid of the cold or the symptom? I think the social aspect is a symptom,” he said. Getting rid of the cold, he said, "that’s where you want to put your time if you want long-term results.”

When it comes to integrating where people live, Connerly of the UI said it requires "conscious and coordinated effort to market the neighborhood." But the results can have far-reaching reverberations.

"It's still possible for white kids to grow up in environments where they only see white kids," he said. "The kids we're educating are not being prepared for the society they're going into ... ."Because we have these homogenous enclaves, we have a national dialogue that is not dealing with race and the growing divide in class." 

Give us feedback

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.

Or if you have a story idea we should look into? Tell us here.