116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
Cedar Rapids has a big decision to make.
I’m not talking about the mayoral race or City Council elections. Nor do I mean the ballot issues extending the one-cent sales tax for streets or re-upping the gambling referendum.
Nope, I’m talking about picking a new city flag.
Yes, I’m aware the COVID-19 pandemic is surging again. A climate crisis is setting the world on fire. Democracy is hanging in the balance. Popeyes now has chicken nuggets.
But I take some comfort in returning to issues that existed in the Before Times, when pieces of cloth not fashioned into face masks still seemed relevant. A heady time before flags were used to bludgeon U.S. Capitol Police officers.
And if you don’t think this is important, you’re obviously not one of the nation’s leading vexillologists.
It was the American Vexillological Association that ranked Cedar Rapids’ current flag as one of the nation’s worst flags. The current flag features “Cedar Rapids” and “Iowa” emblazoned in bright red, with detailed blue scenery depicting a pioneer cabin, a church, industry and the Veterans Memorial Building. It also bears the words “Proud of Yesterday, Progressive Today and Promising Tomorrow.” It was drawn by a high school student in 1962.
Vexillologically speaking, it’s all wrong. The best flags, experts argue, contain no writing. They have meaningful symbolism, two or three basic colors and a design simple enough that “a child can draw it from memory.” The current Cedar Rapids flag breaks all the rules.
Design expert Roman Mars gave a TED talk on city flags in 2015 and presented Cedar Rapids’ flag as a bad example. “Few things give me more joy than a well-designed flag,” said Mars.
Those were the days. Now, not ending up in the ICU is a real day-brightener.
So in early 2019, or roughly 27 COVID years ago, city leaders started talking about replacing the flag. They asked citizens for ideas. Four local volunteer designers used that input to draw up four flag finalists. The whole process, according to the city, cost $687.73.
The designs are titled “Embracing the River,” “Community United,” “Resilience and Renewal” and “History and Progress.” All four are blue, green and white.
On all four finalists, blue represents the Cedar River and green represents the city’s wonderful green spaces and natural areas. White gets the job of driving the symbolism.
“Embracing the River” and “History and Progress” show the river splitting at a white outlined May’s Island. White symbolizes homes, businesses and infrastructure, including flood protection. The sides of a white outlined diamond on “Community United” symbolizes the city’s four quadrants. The white stripe on “Resilience and Renewal” symbolizes resilience and dedication to, you guessed it, renewal.
Each flag has a five-pointed star, representing the City of the Five Seasons. And no, the seasons are not flooding, derecho, masking, polar vortex and time to catch a nonstop flight to Punta Gorda.
Online voting on the designs runs through the end of August on the city’s website, with a winner announced Sept. 18.
From a vexillological standpoint, these flags check all the boxes. Blue water, green space, white stars and stripes, pretty simple. Although my very first thought was what’s up with these Seattle Seahawks flags?
No wording, check. I might even be able to draw them from memory.
Kudos to the designers for giving it their best shot. Although as I look at these nominees, I can’t help but doubt any of them will raise many goosebumps of community pride as they ascend a flagpole. Their rather cold and angular designs won’t seem terribly meaningful without the city’s lengthy paragraphs of symbolic explanation. Nothing about them screams “Cedar Rapids.” And “vexillologically excellent” is exceedingly hard to scream.
But it is just a city flag, after all. Until this process started, many of us didn’t even know Cedar Rapids had a flag. Does the city even need a flag? At $687.73, it is, at least, a great bargain.
And if the winner somehow brings joy to Roman Mars and the nation’s vexillological community, maybe it’s all worth it. We could crack their top 10!
And I could be all wrong about these flags’ appeal. Perhaps one of these days, when we crawl from the rubble of civilization, the city’s new flag, sticking out from a pile of jagged concrete, will inspire Cedar Rapids residents to go on, inspired by the white stripes of resilience. See, this could be a very big decision.
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