history of new bohemia

 
 

New Bohemia’s gritty birth

They call themselves rebels, street artists, vagabonds, free spirits. They describe their movement as edgy, counterculture, grassroots, and part of a punk aesthetic. While many people believe the New Bohemia neighborhood started after the flood of 2008, when the  New Bo City Market was built, this group of renegade artists actually banded together long before then to create an inclusive artistic community in this historic, industrial district.

“The people created this place,” says Steve Shriver, a member of the original New Bohemia Group board and owner of Eco Lips, a company founded in the neighborhood. “The reason this is here is not from a city council meeting, it wasn’t top down, but because a few people at a grass roots level decided to embrace the area and promote art.” With its focus on downtown, the city had effectively turned its back on the South End, the name of the neighborhood before it became New Bohemia, symbolized by the fact that the backs of the YMCA and the federal courthouse face 8th Avenue, cutting off this area from the resurgence of downtown.  

Once a bustling immigrant neighborhood with shops, social halls, a movie theater, restaurants and more, the South End had become rundown after the small businesses closed their doors and industrialization took over. Eventually factories moved in to some of the historic buildings—the old Czech school became a sausage factory—sometimes buying whole rows of buildings, and when those companies shut down, the shells of these readapted structures were left to rot.

But the neglected architecture attracted a certain crowd: creative people looking for cheap rent. Blair Gauntt, an artist and president of the original New Bohemia Group board, recalls asking himself, “Where is there a big, open, dirty warehouse?” A similar search for affordable studio and performance space, guided by their friend and fellow artist Jane Gilmor, had brought Mel Andringa, founder of Legion Arts, to the neighborhood’s CSPS building in 1991. He and his partner F. John Herbert rented the entire second floor as a live-work space, which they experienced while living in New York. They started presenting performance artists, often “putting them up under the stage in order for them to do their show.” Audience members held baked potatoes to stay warm because the street-level business turned off the heat at 5:00 p.m. Other artists, like Rich Dana and Russ Fagle, settled into the Cherry Building, which was mainly a warehouse owned by Robert Chadima. Several more artists realized the potential for live-work spaces in the area based on their experiences living in the warehouse districts of larger cities, and they often rehabbed the buildings they occupied along the way.

While artists sought out the area, the mainstream population of Cedar Rapids considered it unsafe and highly undesirable. The abundance of vacant buildings, a lack of streetlights, the constant rumbling of semis, and the lowest property values in the city kept them away. “My view was fist fights after midnight and car crashes,” says Mark Hunter, a historian who moved into the neighborhood in 1997.

But the founders of the New Bohemia Group appreciated the area. “The beginning was very simple,” says Gauntt. “It was an arts organization for and about the artists, to support, promote, and facilitate art.” Artists needed that support to survive, and they fed off each other’s creative energy. The group started meeting on ratty old couches in the Cherry Building.

They named their group, and with it the neighborhood, in April 2004, asking board members and meeting attendees to submit ideas. They considered names like The Vanguard, New South End, and even CornHo (Gauntt hoped this name would keep the group from ever taking themselves too seriously). The group voted, and New Bohemia won. The name honored the Czech history of the area while also expressing the current bohemian spirit—artistic, unconventional, and offbeat. The original board members still disagree about whether the neighborhood should formally be called NewBo (Andringa likens this nickname to NYC’s SoHo) or the full-length New Bohemia. Either way, it stuck, eventually becoming a household name in Cedar Rapids.  

Inspired by the counterculture art that had been created and performed in the area for years, the group staged early events with a do-it-yourself spirit, driven by a passion for art, music and community rather than money or development. They had sparse budgets, and they typically didn’t inform the city of their plans. “I joined the New Bohemia group because I was doing a little zine called CRAM [Cedar Rapids Art and Music], and the founding members approached me about joining forces.  We were able to use the magazine to advertise events and promote the neighborhood,” says Sarah (Cram) Driscoll.

The group organized a public art show called 2x2xU in 2004 with the purpose of creating community and enhancing the boarded-up windows and dilapidated doors. Professional and amateur artists alike received two-foot by two-foot panels as their canvasses. The paintings were all based around a theme, but organizers accepted all styles and ability levels. The idea was to “turn a neighborhood liability into a neighborhood asset,” says Andringa, as the group hung the paintings on fences and the outsides of the rundown buildings in the neighborhood. “The street became our gallery,” says Jim Jacobmeyer, an art teacher who lived in New Bohemia. “The thing we liked about 2x2xU was that it wasn’t juried, anybody could buy a board and do a painting and put it on the street. If we wanted to celebrate the district somehow, we’d just do it.”

The group got some press from 2x2xU, and that energy fed more events that would promote art in the area. Art Bikes came next. Artists welded bikes together in a parking lot—anything that resembled a bike could be entered in the sculpture contest—and an Elvis impersonator MCed the event. They involved kids from the Henry Davison Youth Center, and the event brought families out as kids decorated their own bikes with flair that the group provided. After the judging, a band performed, and then they gave it an eco spin by riding their bikes en masse from New Bohemia to Prairiewoods, an ecological spirituality center about six miles away. The group lived up to its Bohemian name (free of regard for conventional rules and practices) by riding on city streets and trails without permits.

The energy from those first two community events created the momentum for additional events, and each year more and more people found their way to New Bohemia to experience art in all its forms. The neighborhood may have grown beyond its simple, grassroots beginnings, but as Shriver says, “The soul lies in the roots and continues to influence development in this area.”

Those roots grew out of a gritty, rundown space where innovative, unconventional people decided to create the community they needed. Russ Fagle says, “It’s more than just a place. It’s a movement, a state of mind, a dynamic that’s evolving.”

Perspectives on new bohemia

  • “The energy really came out of some pretty unique and eccentric characters. All these people were just so much fun to hang out with, and we all had that spirit of let’s try something and see what happens” —Jim Jacobmeyer

  • “You can’t just adopt the character of the neighborhood. You have to adopt the characters of the neighborhood. The inhabitants who created this community and represent the lifestyle of the community have an investment in it.” —Mel Andringa

  • “The social engagement of the neighborhood is important and engaging young people is important. Making art accessible is a core principle of this neighborhood.” —Russ Fagle

  • “I loved the clever ways the New Bohemia Group would make a scene.  It was low-brow and primitive; we definitely attracted our own tribe to that area.” —Sarah (Cram) Driscoll

  • “We liked to do things without permission, then ask for forgiveness later. We just took it to the streets and did some crazy, wild things.” —Jim Jacobmeyer

  • “The low-cost, grassroots aspect of the neighborhood, blended with the creativity factor, created a perfect environment for our entrepreneurial start-ups” —Andrea Shriver (co-founder of Raining Rose, the natural lip balm company that launched out of the Cherry Building).

  • “Promoting New Bohemia as an arts district came hand in hand with developing historic preservation in the city. I liked the idea that the history of the neighborhood could inspire art projects. And I didn’t have to worry [any more] about the whole neighborhood being torn down.” —Mark Hunter

  • “I saw an entrepreneurial spirit in the artists’ movement, and they saw an artistic spirit in my entrepreneurship. It was synergistic.” —Steve Shriver