Cedar Rapids, IA Celebrates International Culture

If you are looking for a welcoming community that embraces cultural diversity, this is your city.

By
Jessica Walker Boehm
On Thursday, January 9, 2020 - 10:40
Cedar Rapids, IA: Sykora Bakery

Cedar Rapids has developed a reputation as a welcoming, inclusive community, and for good reason.

The city has long been home to a large population of people who descended from immigrants from today’s Czech and Slovak Republics, who began arriving in the 1850s for work, and Cedar Rapids lays claim to America’s first mosque, the Mother Mosque of America. And that’s just the tip of the proverbial iceberg.

“For several years in a row, Cedar Rapids has received a perfect score of 100 on the Human Rights Campaign’s Municipal Equality Index scorecard, which examines how well cities enforce laws preventing discrimination,” says Cedar Rapids Mayor Brad Hart. “We are a caring, friendly community, and we believe that having a diverse population makes our city stronger and more vibrant."

A History Steeped in Inclusivity and Hospitality

One of the biggest contributing factors to Cedar Rapids’ sizable Czech population is the T.M. Sinclair & Co. meatpacking plant that opened in the early 1870s. Owned by an Irish immigrant, the plant employed many Czech immigrants who are believed to have written letters to family and friends back home, encouraging them to move to Cedar Rapids. Many did just that, which may be why Iowa Public Radio reports that Cedar Rapids is home to more people of Czech ancestry than any other city across the globe (excluding Prague, the Czech capital).

Due to the large number of Czechs living in the neighborhood near the plant, located on the banks of Cedar River on the city’s southwestern side, it was named Czech Village in the 1920s. The village combined with the New Bohemia neighborhood in 2009, and today, the 40-block Czech Village/New Bohemia District is home to places like the Czech Cottage, a shop carrying products from the Czech and Slovak Republics, and the Czech School of Cedar Rapids, which is the nation’s oldest continuously running ethnic school.

Cedar Rapids, IA Museums
JosephGreenStudios

“About 100 years ago, the population of Cedar Rapids was about 20% Czech, which is pretty significant,” says Stefanie Kohn, curator of the National Czech & Slovak Museum & Library in Cedar Rapids’ Czech Village/New Bohemia District. “Many people of Czech descent still live in Cedar Rapids today, and that may be because they have so many opportunities to continue celebrating their heritage.”

Cedar Rapids has historically had a large Muslim population, too, and it includes the first building created specifically as a house of worship for Muslims in America. Now called the Mother Mosque of America, the mosque opened in 1934 and still stands today, making it the oldest surviving worship center for Muslims in the U.S. 

Cedar Rapids, IA Museums
National Czech & Slovak Museum

Honoring Culture Through Events

The Cedar Rapids community remains committed to recognizing and celebrating its diverse population.

For example, in an effort to ensure the Czech Village/New Bohemia District continues to thrive, work is underway to enhance and expand the neighborhood by adding more entertainment, dining and shopping as well as repairing the housing stock that was lost during the city’s 2008 flood.

In addition, Cedar Rapids hosts family-friendly festivals and events each year that honor the community’s cultural diversity, including the Community Cultural Celebration and Expo that’s hosted by the Cedar Rapids Public Library and Cedar Rapids Civil Rights Commission and Iowa’s Creative Corridor’s AsianFest, which features Asian foods, traditional Asian dances and music, and artifacts and photos.

The community also hosts the Festival Latino de Cedar Rapids, an annual celebration of Hispanic heritage and Latin culture that includes Latin-American music and authentic Mexican and Cuban food.

“Each of our events celebrating cultural diversity are well attended by our residents, and I think that speaks to what we value in Cedar Rapids,” Mayor Hart says. “We welcome anyone and everyone who wants to be part of our community and grow with us. Our door is always wide open.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Jessica Walker Boehm is a journalism graduate of Belmont University and has been a regular contributor to Livability.com since 2010.