Little Mexico: A Cedar Rapids neighborhood vanishes

cigaretteman

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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,” Vasquez said. 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.

Urban renewal​


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.


 

cigaretteman

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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.


Environmental justice​


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.


“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.
 

jamesvanderwulf

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People's Republic of Johnson County
When the City of Coralville used eminent domain to take down all those " undesirable " cabins, welding shops, truck repair shops, crane services, excavating shops, drywall contractors, tow truck services, numerous other small business in the " River Landing " area from white business owners was there any big outcry? The pittance amounts they were given for their property forced those who could, to relocate in Tiffin, Solon, Hills, Oxford and other " cheaper " locations. Some just went out of business. That's how big government works, if they want your property, they eventually take it, but I'm sure the Marriott, 30 Hop, Backpocket Brewing, Von Mauer and of course the University of Iowa Hospital and Clinic enjoy their primo location, while I need to go to Solon for my truck repairs...
 

cigaretteman

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Note the quotes from LoneClone in this article:

More than 90,000 people drive every day on Interstate 380, a 73-mile ribbon of concrete connecting Eastern Iowa for over 40 years.


But as we hop on and off I-380 to get to work, school or the store, most of us don’t know about the backroom deal that helped secure the interstate’s passage through Cedar Rapids, the alternate routes it could have taken or about the two people who died in the push to open the highway.


Building I-380 from Coralville to Waterloo took 15 years and the acquisition — sometimes by eminent domain — of thousands of properties, including houses, businesses, churches, schools and farms.


LITTLE MEXICO: A Cedar Rapids neighborhood vanishes when I-380 moves in


“Public projects well planned serve a long-term purpose and they serve the city for decades and decades and decades,” said Tom Aller, who was executive assistant to the Cedar Rapids City Council from 1972 to 1988. But “you don’t put an interstate through a town and satisfy everybody,” said Aller, 72, who retired as president of Alliant Energy in 2014.


President Dwight Eisenhower signed the Federal Highway Act on June 29, 1956, creating a 41,000-mile system of interstate highways intended to provide safe, speedy cross-county transportation, the History Channel reported. Interstate 80, which goes through Iowa on its route between San Francisco and New York City, was one of the original approved routes.


By the 1960s, city leaders in other parts of the country were itching for their own highways.


“There were a number of communities that wanted more mileage,” Aller said. “Cedar Rapids wanted it, Waterloo wanted it.”


Don Canney, who served as Cedar Rapids mayor from 1969 to 1992, was a civil engineer and former streets commissioner and knew what an interstate highway could do for his city, Aller said.


In the early 1960s, Canney went to Minneapolis to meet with Hubert Humphrey, who was a Minnesota senator before becoming vice president in 1965. They connected with other politicians from Missouri, Iowa and Minnesota and came up with a pitch for an interstate highway stretch from St. Louis, Mo., to St. Paul, Minn, passing through Cedar Rapids and Waterloo on the way.


“That’s where the idea of the Avenue of the Saints came from,” Aller said. “That’s how the mileage got added.”

Charting the course​


Now the question was what route to take.


As far back as 1931, Cedar Rapids leaders were talking about a new north-south route through town. An early idea was widening Center Point Road, The Gazette’s then-City Hall reporter Dick Hogan wrote in 1981.


A 1950 major street plan called for routing traffic from Mount Vernon Road SE across a new connecting link with B Avenue NE and over a new railroad viaduct to Oakland Road NE, The Gazette reported. This route would have cost $1.25 million.


“Originally, there wasn’t supposed to be that S-shape,” Mike Deupree, another Gazette reporter who covered City Hall from 1973 to 1979, said about the S-curve that I-380 makes through downtown Cedar Rapids. “The logical thing would have been for it to go straight, but it would have gone through the southeast side, above 19th Street, where a lot of the rich people lived.”


That route lost favor.


“I don’t know how much of that was politics or that land acquisition would have been a lot higher,” Deupree said.


By 1961 there were five possible routes, ranging in cost from $3.4 to $4.3 million, with each route expanding and connecting existing roads and bridges rather than building a completely new highway.


The Iowa Highway Commission started studying interstate highway routes in 1962, the same year Gazette articles started talking about a “superhighway” connecting Iowa City and Cedar Rapids.


The city hired Howard, Needles, Tammen & Bergendoff (HNTB) to study the road alignment. A copy of HNTB ’s 1966 preliminary design report on the Cedar Valley Expressway, as the project was then called, is on file at the Iowa Department of Transportation’s District 6 office in Cedar Rapids.


“The need for this expressway is demonstrated by the maximum traffic assignment of 66,500 estimated as the daily average two-way volume near downtown Cedar Rapids in 1985,” the report states.


That design plan called for the present-day I-380 route, which Canney and other city leaders liked in general. But there were some sticking points.


“In the original plan there was not an exit at 42nd Street,” Aller said. “The town was livid.”


Canney, with the City Council’s support, told the Highway Commission the city needed an exit at 42nd Street NE or the city wouldn’t help with all the connecting roads, traffic lights and underground infrastructure needed for the interstate.


Eventually the commission relented, Aller said.
 

cigaretteman

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Canney also had the idea for the Five-in-One-Bridge, which used one set of piers over the Cedar River to include the dam, F Avenue NW, E Avenue NW and both directions of the interstate.


While crossing the river there made sense in some ways — it allowed interstate traffic to see the heart of downtown Cedar Rapids and avoided the railroad, Quaker Oats and a power plant — it also set up the S-curve, a common spot for crashes that is hard for police to patrol.

Replacing ‘deadly’ stretch​


Construction on I-380 started in 1970 on the southern end, with the four-lane interstate replacing Highway 218, a two-lane stretch between Iowa City and Cedar Rapids that was so congested it often took more than an hour to drive.


“It used to be a terrible ordeal driving between Iowa City and Cedar Rapids,” Deupree said. “There was no place to pass and truck traffic.”


Aller agreed, calling that part of Highway 218 “the deadliest highway in the state of Iowa.”


As North Liberty, Swisher and Tiffin have continued to grow, traffic counts on the southern part of I-380 have made driving that four-lane stretch at certain times of day again feel a little dicey, said Cathy Cutler, transportation planner in the Iowa DOT’s District 6 office in Cedar Rapids.


“People are uncomfortable on 380 at four lanes,” she said. “That’s why we’re expanding to six lanes.”


The expansion from I-80 to Forevergreen Road in North Liberty is already underway as part of the new Interstate 80/I-380 interchange project. The Iowa DOT has approved another $40 million to widen I-380 through Swan Lake Road, north of the Penn Street exit, Cutler said.


“Then we actually will hop up and look at Wright Brothers intersection and then come back to the middle section,” Cutler said.


Hiawatha gets an exit​


As workers in the early 1970s laid concrete for the southern part of I-380, the Highway Commission was routing sections farther north.


Original plans called for an elevated highway all the way through Hiawatha, but Hiawatha wasn’t having it. The city of 2,400 residents at the time complained the interstate would be noisy, stinky and would remove properties from the tax rolls, state records show. Hiawatha sued the state in 1974.


The state’s 1975 settlement with Hiawatha called for lowering I-380 to ground level and including an interchange at Boyson Road. Nearly 50 years later, Hiawatha is preparing for another I-380 interchange at Tower Terrace Road.


The Highway Commission considered seven routes between Cedar Rapids and Waterloo, with alternate routes going through Independence, La Porte City, Palo, Vinton and Winthrop. For each route, the commission considered the impact on farming, number of stream crossings and whether there were churches or schools that would have to be removed.


In two public hearings, Iowans were split between the Palo and Independence routes.


But on Dec. 20, 1972, the commission chose the “Raymond Alternate” route — I-380’s current route — because it was the most direct path, making it the most “convenient and economic connection,” and because it required only one Cedar River crossing.


Push to open​


By 1981, I-380 was almost done through downtown Cedar Rapids. The Five-in-One-Bridge was completed in 1979 and city leaders were eager to let motorists drive on this long-awaited interstate.


“All these different politicians promise things, it will be over by this date or that date,” said Duane “Sandy” Sands, a transportation inspector from 1971 to 2010. “It was such a rush to open it up.”


Officials persuaded the Highway Commission — now called the Iowa DOT — to open some lanes while work continued on others, Sands said. On Dec. 4, 1981, two workers retrieved barricades from Seventh Ave NE and placed them on the back of a flatbed trailer towed by a dump truck.


“As the northbound truck and trailer crossed the I-380 bridge south of H Avenue NE, a gust of wind lifted one of the barricades, knocking the two men off the trailer,” The Gazette reported. “One of the men was dragged.”


Dale Scott, 24, of Marion, and Keith Bennett, 20, of Lisbon, died from their injuries in the fall.


“They said ‘Oh, you guys were being unsafe,’” Sands said. ”It wouldn’t have happened if they hadn’t promised to be open by that date.“


Lee Benfield, Iowa DOT District 6 transportation planner from 1978 to 2006, remembers the workers’ deaths. “Anytime you’re building a road project like that, you get to a point where people say, ‘It’s done, why can’t we drive on it yet?”


I-380 was completed in 1985, 15 years after it started. People involved in the project still think it serves Eastern Iowa well, including during the historic 2008 flood that caused the Cedar River to spread over 10 square miles of the city.

“Do you remember the only road that was open?” Aller asked. “That tells you a lot.”


Cutler, who has planned a lot of road projects in 32 years with the Iowa DOT, said she’s grateful I-380 planners had the foresight to buy enough land for six lanes and access control so people can’t build up close to the road.


Driving on I-380 through downtown, you see some of the city’s landmark buildings, including the Veteran’s Memorial Building with its gold-plated “eternal flame,” 21-story Alliant Tower, the federal courthouse and the CRST Center, with a section that cantilevers over the river.


“I do think it’s the right place for this interstate to be,” Cutler said.

 
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bagdropper

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I first began driving when 380 thru town was being constructed. You cannot believe how difficult getting around CR was prior to 380 being completed. And yeah, CR to IC was a nightmare before 380 was completed.

It was like a mini-holiday as each section heading north through town opened up.
 
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EagleHawk

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The state’s 1975 settlement with Hiawatha called for lowering I-380 to ground level and including an interchange at Boyson Road. Nearly 50 years later, Hiawatha is preparing for another I-380 interchange at Tower Terrace Road.
Not sure why it is expected to take 24 years to complete a 4 mile stretch of road, that would help clear traffic on Boyson Road (from the linked article). I thought that finishing the road to Hwy 13 was one of the key stipulations to getting the interchange on 380.
 

lucas80

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When the City of Coralville used eminent domain to take down all those " undesirable " cabins, welding shops, truck repair shops, crane services, excavating shops, drywall contractors, tow truck services, numerous other small business in the " River Landing " area from white business owners was there any big outcry? The pittance amounts they were given for their property forced those who could, to relocate in Tiffin, Solon, Hills, Oxford and other " cheaper " locations. Some just went out of business. That's how big government works, if they want your property, they eventually take it, but I'm sure the Marriott, 30 Hop, Backpocket Brewing, Von Mauer and of course the University of Iowa Hospital and Clinic enjoy their primo location, while I need to go to Solon for my truck repairs...
Sure, but I have a couple of classy places to get drunk at, and a Trader Joe's to smugly shop at.