The Czech Village & New Bohemia District is located on the southend of the city center of Cedar Rapids, Iowa. This 40-block district made up of two hip, historic neighborhoods straddles the banks of the Cedar River and offers fun and unique dining, shopping, music and art. New Bohemia, on the east side of the river, can be found on 3rd Street E south of 8th Avenue including the old Sinclair Packing House site. Czech Village, on the west side, is 10 blocks centered on 16th Avenue SW from D St Street SW to the river.
Cedar Rapids is part of the greater Iowa Cultural Corridor which encompasses Linn and Johnson counties as well as nine adjacent counties. With a population of more than 132,000 residents, Cedar Rapids is the second largest city in the state of Iowa. The Czech Village & New Bohemia District has a noble past. With settlement beginning in the 1870s, its past is full of immigrant stories of hard work and sacrifice while constructing amazing buildings that were – and remain – monuments to arts, culture, and sociability.
Today, the District stands as a shining example of the perseverance of its past residents and business owners. Carrying on the legacy of early settlers, the District represents a wide mix of small businesses; arts, culture and entertainment venues; and multi-family housing.
Czech Village & New Bohemia neighborhoods banded together into a District in order to breathe new economic life into a historic area of Cedar Rapids. The area had suffered economic decline for many years and was nearly destroyed by record flooding in 2008. Despite these hardships, courageous business owners, nonprofits, and residents began the task of rebuilding. Numerous grant opportunities facilitated by federal relief dollars, the state’s I-Jobs program, local foundations, private companies and individuals, and Iowa’s Main Street program.
The Czech Village & New Bohemia District is bustling with excitement – retail locations are sought after, new housing is in the works, and music and art are everywhere. The DISTRICT is truly vibrant, unique, and thriving.
In 1871, T.M. Sinclair & Co. meatpacking plant began operations in Cedar Rapids between 4th and 5th Avenues, outside the central business district, across from the new Czech social hall. The new industry was welcomed by city leaders and resulted in the first influx of Bohemian immigrants into the community. Workers and their families began to develop lodging and neighborhoods near their new place of work. However, there were concerns about “questionable odors” from this particular location so close to the young city’s downtown area.
T. M. Sinclair & Co. Meatpacking Plant, as seen from across the river
At the encouragement of community leaders, the following year, 1872, Sinclair relocated his slaughterhouse/packing plant to the south end of Third St. East on the banks of the Cedar River. This single action changed the course of Czech settlement patterns in Cedar Rapids. The new Sinclair plant was very successful and a large number of new workers were needed within the first few years. The nearby Bohemian immigrant population had gained a source of long term employment. Word got out to friends and relatives in Europe. And, the news of plentiful work brought waves of new Bohemians to Cedar Rapids continuing throughout the 1870s. The previously undeveloped area between the downtown and the Sinclair plant quickly filled up with Czech immigrant housing.
Further evidence of rapid growth for the new South End neighborhood included the construction of a new iron bridge across the Cedar River at 16th Avenue South to help facilitate traffic coming and going to the Sinclair plant from farmlands west of the river. St. Wenceslaus Catholic Church was established in 1874 near the packinghouse. This church became the first and only Czech National Parish in the state of Iowa and the Archdiocese of Dubuque, an independent parish built specifically to serve the Czech people in their native language. The first brick church edifice was completed in 1882.
Commercial buildings housing Bohemian immigrant businesses began sprouting up on street corners closer to the packinghouse and away from the earlier established Czech settlement area near downtown Cedar Rapids. The earliest commercial buildings to appear were at the intersection of 14th Avenue and Third Street SE. These included storefront “blocks” erected by families such as Petrovitsky and Lesinger in the 1880’s.
The 1880’s saw the influx of additional job source industries in the new Bohemian neighborhood, the “South End.” The area had excellent railroad access, which made it easier for companies such as Whiting’s Foundry, the Star Wagon Works and the J.G. Cherry Company to locate in this area. The factories tended to be located near the south extension of Downtown Cedar Rapids’ 4th Street railroad corridor. Thus the areas between the tracks and the river rapidly filled with an eclectic mix of distinctively “neat and frugal” Czech immigrant residences.
As the 1890’s approached, the majority of Cedar Rapids Bohemian commercial businesses had located in the South End neighborhood, creating a “Little Bohemia.” Plans were made to build a grand new CSPS Hall at the corner of 11th Avenue and Third Street SE to replace the 1870 structure in the downtown area. The new structure’s cornerstone was laid on October 30, 1890, with great ceremony. The splendid new CSPS Hall was dedicated in June of 1891 and the appearance of this grand three story structure helped permanently establish that this was the center of the Cedar Rapids Czech community.
Between 1900 and 1910, the city of Cedar Rapids designated the area to the north of what is now New Bohemia, as a wholesale/warehouse/manufacturing district. Almost overnight, entire blocks of the first Czech settlement area of Cedar Rapids were demolished and replaced by structures such as large scale wholesale/warehouse buildings, a lumberyard, an ice cream factory, and three major railroad freight houses.
Although the majority of the Czech businesses had moved to the south of this area by 1900, the few remaining had to scramble for new locations. This included the Sokol Gymnastic Association of Cedar Rapids, originally known as the Jednota Tyrs Association. Sokol had initially used the old CSPS building at 5th Avenue & First Street SE and had just built a new Sokol Turner Hall at 7th Avenue near Third Street SE in 1901. Because of the new railroad freight station developments, Sokol were faced with finding a new location in 1908. Rather than choosing a location in the South End, a lot was chosen at 417 Third Street SE, closer to downtown and a half block from the Cedar Rapids passenger train station. The new Sokol gymnasium had a grand opening in January of 1909. Today, it is the only surviving building standing of Czech heritage in the first and earliest Czech settlement neighborhood of Cedar Rapids.
The original Sokol Gymnastics Building, still standing in Downtown Cedar Rapids today.
South of Ninth Avenue SE, the second Czech settlement neighborhood of the city continued to thrive and grow after 1900. In 1901, the very first building in the United States built for a Czech School was opened at 925 Second Street SE. The Czech School (Matice Skolska) had begun in Cedar Rapids in 1870 and is recognized as the oldest Czech language school in the country.
The Czech School was the site of a lecture given by Thomas G. Masaryk on September 13, 1907. This man – who would play a great role in the formation of Czechoslovakia in the years to come – was met with great enthusiasm by the Mayor and citizens of Cedar Rapids. Impressive new building projects were completed in the South End area between 1890 and 1920, particularly along Third Street and 14th Avenue SE. Substantial commercial storefront buildings continued to appear, including the P. Matyk Dry Goods store in 1893 across the street from the new CSPS Hall and a series of commercial storefronts at 1119-1129 Third Street SE.
The Czech Grade School in 1904.
The intersection of Third Street and 12th Avenue became the location of two major improvements. First was in 1908 with the erection of the ZCBJ (Zapadni Cesko-Bratrska Jednota) Hall on the southeast corner and the completion of the new Iowa State Savings Bank in 1917 at the southwest corner. In addition, three movie theaters showing silent films were opened in the neighborhood between 1911 and 1915. These included the Ideal Theater at 215 14th Avenue SE, the Praha Theater at 227 14th Avenue SE and the Olympic (later the Strand) at 1124 Third Street SE. The Olympic also offered small stage performances, adding to the rich cultural choices available in the South End district.
ZCBJ housed the Western Bohemian Fraternal Association
The Great Cedar Rapids Flood of 2008 devastated both the Czech Village and New Bohemia areas with flood waters rising more than eight to 11 feet in most buildings. Virtually all of the businesses and residential structures in the District were heavily damaged. Many property owners sold and left the area, while others stayed put and began the arduous task of rehabilitation.
Through the dedication and collaborative efforts of several leaders in the community, many key businesses and organizations in the District were among the first to reopen among the flood affected throughout Cedar Rapids. Despite the level of destruction experienced, members of the community have expressed their commitment to not just rebuild, but to preserve the unique character and historic assets of the area.
The National Czech & Slovak Museum & Library, peaking out from the flood waters, June 2008.
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