116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
Little Mexico: A Cedar Rapids neighborhood vanishes
Homes and businesses of Little Mexico were razed in the 1960s to build I-380 in Cedar Rapids. The notion of erasing a non-white neighborhood to make way for progress is now seen through a different lens.
CEDAR RAPIDS — When Cedar Rapids purchased about 150 lots north of downtown in the mid-1960s to make way for what would become Interstate 380, the project was called R-9.
But the people who lived there — the Rodriguezes, the Cortezes, the Mendozas, the Gutierrezes and the Saldanas among them — knew the neighborhood as Little Mexico.
In a move made hundred of times over in cities across the country until the 1990s, local officials wiped out a predominantly non-white neighborhood, scattering families and neighbors in the name of progress. Words like “slum,” “blighted” and “deficient” were used in Gazette articles at the time to describe the homes and businesses that would be destroyed.
“What’s that mean?” asked Margaret Pena Meier, 72 of Cedar Rapids, who grew up in the neighborhood. “The houses were older, but I don’t think it called for them to raze that neighborhood like that.”
Meier, a retired correctional officer, grew up in Little Mexico until she was 16, playing at Whittam Park, shopping at Tommy’s Foods, walking to Immaculate Conception School and visiting relatives on every corner.
“We had the dog pound right across the street. We had Cargill right down the street. We had three bars — on A Avenue, B Avenue and C Avenue. We had one grocery store. We had Cedar Rapids Transfer, which is a trucking firm,” Meier recalled. “They razed all that and everybody had to move out. That was what we called home. And they took it all.”
At the time, this was the way highway projects were done in America. Today, politicians and planners view these actions through a different lens and see how many urban development projects disproportionately hurt people of color and low incomes.
Last month, U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg announced his agency will spend about $1 billion to fix racial inequities in U.S. highway projects, including roads built to separate white and non-white communities, Bloomberg reported.
“We need to make sure people who are going to be affected are treated with equality and equity, but mainly more equity,” said DeeAnn Newell, National Environmental and Policy Act director for the Iowa Department of Transportation. “Just because you give someone the same exact thing, it may affect them differently. We need to make sure we understand people’s needs before we make decisions.”
Little Mexico’s beginnings
John Rodriguez, who grew up on a farm in Mexico, was 19 in 1907 when he paid a quarter to cross the border from Juarez to El Paso, Texas, according to a 2004 interview that former Gazette columnist Dave Rasdal conducted with one of Rodriguez’s daughters, Grace Fielder, then 82.
Rodriguez, his wife, Lydia, and their three oldest children moved to Iowa in 1918, when John learned the Rock Island Railroad was hiring in Cedar Rapids.
“He was a fire-knocker,” said Mildred Stearns, 95, of Cedar Rapids. Stearns is the Rodriguezes’ granddaughter, but as the child of one of their oldest daughters, was raised as a daughter.
A fire knocker cleared hot coals out of the train engines, scuttling the cinders to a pile in the yard where they could be reused. The sweltering and often dangerous job was done without safety equipment.
Rodriguez brought 10 other Mexicans and their families — the first residents of what would become Little Mexico. At first, the immigrants lived in boxcars set up by the railroad on the south side of Cedar Lake.
Records from the 1920 Census show 65 people lived in “boxcars on the railroad track” in Cedar Rapids. Census taker Rose O’Hanes used back-slanting cursive to list the head of each household, followed by wife, sons and daughters and then “roomers.” One boxcar had 14 roomers from countries including Mexico, Serbia and Greece.
As railroad workers earned more money, they moved into rental houses nearby and, in some cases, bought their own houses, Fielder told The Gazette. The neighborhood, which started as a German settlement around the Magnus Eagle Brewery, turned over to a new set of immigrants.
Growing up in Little Mexico
Lydia Rodriguez bought a house on Seventh Street NE on Jan. 4, 1944, from William and Ella Bluski, according to a deed on file in the Linn County Recorder’s Office. She paid between $2,000 and $2,500 for the two-story everyone in her extended family called the “red house.”
“About 15 of us grew up together,” said Jimmy Vasquez, 76, of Cedar Rapids, who was the Rodriguezes’ grandson.
A photo from the early 1950s shows nine kids between the ages of 3 and 7 sitting on the back porch of the red house. Vasquez isn’t in the photo, but his cousin, Meier, is in the middle, bearing a serious expression.
One of Meier’s favorite memories was when Lydia Rodriguez, or Grandma Rod, as they called her, would let all the kids — 15 or so — sleep on the living room floor. They’d have popcorn at night, and John Rodriguez would wake them in the morning by calling, “Who wants pancakies?”
“When we were older and started dating, girls would say ‘You guys are cousins? You look like brothers and sisters’,” Vasquez added.
Vasquez played baseball with Meier’s older brother, Michael, at Whittam Park, which was at the corner of C Avenue NE and what now is Fourth Street NE. They would try to hit the ball over the trees. Kids played in the park’s wading pool and biked or walked everywhere, including to stores downtown.
“I never heard of Little Mexico growing up,” said Jimmy Vasquez, 76, of Cedar Rapids, who was the Rodriguezes’ grandson. Then one day, he and his friends were messing around at a store that sold musical instruments and a police officer told them: “You get back up that hill. Get back to Little Mexico.”
The brewery building was torn down in 1937 — a victim of Prohibition — and the vacant lot was overgrown with weeds by the 1950s. Neighborhood kids, who renamed the area the Forbidden Jungle after the title of a 1950 Tarzan movie, played there and later went there to smoke cigarettes or drink beer.
Today, Meier stands on the corner of Seventh Street NE and C Avenue NE, now noisy with traffic coming off I-380 and semi trucks unloading soybeans at Cargill, and points out where various aunts, uncles and cousins once lived. Those houses all are gone.
In the 1950s and 1960s, the federal government gave money to cities to tear down older housing and replace it with modern, affordable housing.
Many cities opted to use the money for commercial or industrial growth, according to a 2017 analysis by the Digital Scholarship Lab at the University of Richmond. Urban renewal displaced more than 300,000 people between 1955 and 1966, with the burden falling harder on people of color, the analysis showed.
The Iowa Legislature in 1957 passed a law allowing Iowa cities to participate in the federal program.
“Cedar Rapids is the third to move on this so far,” The Gazette noted in a 1959 article about urban renewal. “Waterloo and Des Moines already are further along than the planners here on the steps to qualify for federal money in major projects.”
Cedar Rapids officials had several neighborhoods they wanted to revitalize, one being R-9 that included Little Mexico.
“They wanted a fresh, clean look for downtown,” said Mark Stoffer-Hunter, a Cedar Rapids-area historian. “The overall intent was good; they wanted to preserve the economic base.”
The reasons city officials gave for the R-9 project were to “provide for new traffic arteries,” “provide the impetus for the development of a civic center” and “eliminate substandard structures, blighting influences and any other such impediments to the sound redevelopment of the project area,” according to a 1966 city resolution.
Although the goal of urban renewal was to get Americans into newer, safer houses, Cedar Rapids realized in the midst of R-9 there wasn’t enough affordable housing in other parts of the city.
A consultant report showed the city had an “insufficient supply of standard housing for low-income families,” according to a July 1, 1964, resolution. City leaders decided to provide a $5,000 a year rent subsidy for five years to displaced renters and another $5,000 a year if needed for relocation.
It’s hard to know for sure if Little Mexico residents got fair prices for their homes.
Property assessments in 1963 that involved photos of the fronts and backs of houses in the area showed some still had outhouses, Stoffer-Hunter said. Some of the more modest houses were valued as low as $6,000, he said.
Lydia and John Rodriguez sold their house on Seventh Street for between $7,000 and $7,500 in May 1966, Linn County records show. Lydia signed the deed May 5, 1966, and John signed it with an “X” May 14, 1966, from Guanajuato, Mexico. That sale price would be $58,000 to $62,000 in today’s dollars.
“Everybody had to move out. That was what we called home. And they took it all.” — Margaret Pena Meier, 72, of Cedar Rapids, who was raised in the former Little Mexico neighborhood
A larger house across the street — a house where Meier and her immediate family rented an apartment — sold in 1965 for between $14,000 and $14,500, records show, or the equivalent of $119,000 to $124,000 today.
Tom Aller, who was executive assistant to the Cedar Rapids City Council from 1972 to 1988, said in later buyouts for the interstate, the city got two appraisals and the resident was paid the highest appraisal price plus 10 percent and moving costs.
“I don’t mean to downplay the emotional angst of having to leave your house, but I feel very comfortable that people were treated well financially,” Aller said.
More than houses were torn down for R-9. An April 24, 1966, Gazette article with the headline “Going, going …” showed six buildings right before they were scheduled for demolition. One was the former Shrine Temple, at 520 A Ave. NE, and another was the former home of Acme Chocolates, at 412 A Ave. NE, which housed Calder’s Van and Storage in 1966.
The Scottish Rite building, at 616 A Ave. NE, was allowed to stay, as was Grace Episcopal Church, at 525 A Ave. NE. While a 1960s aerial photo of the area included houses and trees, a 1970s aerial shows only bare ground.
In 1970, Congress created the National Environmental Policy Act, which requires federal agencies to assess the environmental effects of their decisions and give the public an opportunity to provide comment. This included decisions on highway projects.
That movement grew until 1994, when President Bill Clinton signed an executive order forcing the federal government to consider how projects affect non-white and low-income populations.
“When NEPA first started, they really talked about natural and physical environment, so it didn’t include environmental justice in the beginning,” said Newell, who started with the Iowa DOT in the 2000s. “With I-380 there was no real look at urban renewal or ‘Hey, we need to talk with these people and see what their needs are’.”
Project planners saw rundown houses and thought “we can move them into a nicer place,” Newell said. “But if they (residents) can’t afford the home or the taxes, you just put people out on the street. What you think is good may not be good for the people you’re displacing.”
Now, the Iowa DOT does an environmental justice review with each project. First, it looks at census data or federal school lunch program data to see if there are concentrations of people of color or low-income residents in an area planned for a new highway, Newell said.
“We do some research to understand the project area and understand if there are limited English-speaking areas,” she said. “We would go out into the community and invite people in (to give input) early in the project.”
Environmental justice isn’t the only factor considered. The Iowa DOT also looks at the proposed project’s effect on wetlands, threatened or endangered species, cultural features, historical markers, archaeological sites, parks and recreation facilities.
“There’s definitely a balance with cost,” Newell said.
READ MORE: The history behind I-380 construction in Cedar Rapids
Some communities are using the courts to push for greater weight for environmental justice in the balance.
In March, Harris County, Texas, which includes Houston, sued the Texas DOT over a $7 billion expansion of Interstate 45 that county officials said would displace hundreds of people, including many people of color and low-income residents, Houston Public Media reported. The county agreed in November to a 30-day pause in the suit for negotiations with the state.
A similar lawsuit in 2015 in Corpus Christi, Texas, resulted in the Texas DOT agreeing to help residents, churches and small businesses with the costs of moving to a new neighborhood and improving parks in two neighborhoods affected by a new highway project.
What happened to the residents of Little Mexico?
When Little Mexico was torn down, the Rodriguez family, then numbered more than 100, moved to different parts of Cedar Rapids or left the area. Lydia and John Rodriguez, in their 70s at the time, split time between McGregor and Guanajuato, Mexico.
Their son, Bob Rodriguez, opened Papa Juan’s — an authentic Mexican restaurant named after his father — in 1970 on Second Avenue SE.
“We were the first ones to serve margaritas,” Fielder, who helped in the restaurant with her sisters, told The Gazette in 2004.
Papa Juan’s, now at 5500 Center Point Rd. NE, no longer is owned by Rodriguez family members, but it’s still touted online as Cedar Rapids’ oldest Mexican restaurant.
Anthony Vasquez, a great-grandson of Lydia and John Rodriguez, collected photos from relatives in 2004 and made many available to The History Center in Cedar Rapids. Lydia’s U.S. naturalization papers and a photo of her in front of the red house porch are on an exhibit wall at the center.
The extended family had a reunion picnic in July, gathering about 100 people in Jones Park. Tables were laden with food, including tamales. Stearns taught Meier and her granddaughter, Emma, to make the meat-filled corn pockets steamed in corn leaves, and now Meier carries on that tradition.
“The Rodriguez family was so big, even though we moved to different areas, we all stayed close together,” Vasquez said.
Helping us understand the history
Many people helped The Gazette find documents and photos, make connections between sources and identify people and buildings. They are Cathy Cutler, Iowa Department of Transportation District 6 transportation planner; Diane Langton, freelance historian and Gazette Time Machine writer; Karen Downs, Cedar Rapids property disposition coordinator; Chris Bys, deputy Linn County recorder; Alison Gowans, writer for the Cedar Rapids Public Library; Mark Stoffer-Hunter, Cedar Rapids-area historian; and Tara Templeman, curator and collection manager at the Cedar Rapids History Center. Thanks also to Rodriguez family historians Margaret Meier, Anthony Vasquez and Jim Vasquez.
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