Life after the flood in Cedar Rapids’ Czech Village

In Part II of her series ‘Tales from Czech America,’ Rosie Johnston talks to business owners trying to recover in Iowa’s Czech Village

Guest Writer | 08.03.2011
The ground level of Czech Cottage was completely inundated by the flood

Al Zindrick and Bob Schaffer are two of the longest-serving business owners in the Czech Village district of Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Bob founded Czech Cottage — a gift shop selling glassware and Christmas ornaments from the former Czechoslovakia — with his parents in 1975.

“We were all unemployed at the same time” says Bob, adding that the family’s decision to set up in business coincided with an initiative to revitalize Czech Village. “It had fallen into decline as the industry down here began to go away. We saw an article in the paper; merchants were reviving the district, a building was available. We bought it and opened up.”

While Bob was born and raised by a Czech mother and American father in Cedar Rapids, Al Zindrick moved to Iowa from Wisconsin in 1974. He worked as a chef in Czech Village before purchasing the bar Al’s Red Frog in 1981. Twelve years later he added Zindrick’s Czech Restaurant to his property portfolio. On the menu, according to Al, was “all the good stuff: roast pork, chicken paprikas, goulash, garlic soup.” ‘This was a pretty thriving area.’

The list, which wouldn’t sound out of place in any good Prague pub, goes on.

“This was a pretty thriving area,” he reminisces. “Before the flood, the economy was already going to heck, so we kind of slowed down a little bit, but people were still eating, so it was okay.”

The interior of Czech Cottage and many of the goods were heavily damaged
Worst flood in local history

Then, in June 2008, the worst flood in Iowa’s recorded history struck. Czech Village, right on the banks of the Cedar River, was one of the areas hardest hit. “Overnight after the flood our business stopped,” says Bob, whose shop and storeroom were inundated by over seven feet of water. “It looked like somebody had taken a mud bath down here. Lighter glass items floated like little boats.”

Residents of Czech Village were evacuated in the days leading up to the disaster and so Al, whose home was directly above Zindrick’s Restaurant, was left in a Cedar Rapids hotel room (with his building abstracts and a bottle of brandy he had managed to save) tallying up the damage done.

“This was right before Father’s Day; I had $15,000 of food products and canned goods. And then all the pots and pans. … It cost us $175,000 just for kitchen equipment and restaurant equipment to get back up and running.”

Bob puts the damage sustained by his business, meanwhile, at $250,000: “for a gift shop, we were way over-inventoried” he says, adding that his collections of Czech folk costumes and antique furniture were also inundated and, in some cases, ruined.

Why then did both men decide to reopen in exactly the same spot? Bob answers frankly: “I have a fair amount of property here. I knew selling it I’d get a fraction of what I’d paid for it. Plus I still have all my inventory, what else can I do with that?”

Al Zindrick opened a new bar, Al’s Blue Toad, with the help of a new business partner
Back from the brink

Czech Cottage lies above the 100-year flood line, which makes a repeat of 2008’s disaster highly unlikely, Bob says. “I couldn’t think of anything in the world I could do. At this point in my life no one would hire me,” the spry 55 year-old adds. He received a $50,000 “Jumpstart” grant from the state of Iowa toward recovery. He says it staved off bankruptcy.

In the meantime, Al was counseled to file for bankruptcy, which paid off his debts on the Red Frog building. “They couldn’t take my car and they couldn’t take my house,” he explains, “so I stayed upstairs [above Zindrick’s Restaurant] and sort of hung on.”

Al says it was difficult to find the money needed to move forward, but that he eventually found a new business partner with whom he reopened Zindrick’s Restaurant, rebranded as Al’s Blue Toad. “Now things are good” he says, “we have good weekends and a good following. People come who heard about the flood and want to support us.”‘They couldn’t take my car and they couldn’t take my house, so I stayed upstairs and sort of hung on.’

Likewise, Bob says Czech Cottage has benefited from local support since it reopened in December 2008: “We had empty shelves and nothing in the middle of the store. But there were so many people who came in and looked around and, you could tell, they weren’t really concerned with what they bought, they were just going to buy something.”

Bob Schaffer got a grant to help re-establish his business

Despite this, Bob says his turnover is down from where it was before the flood. He attributes this to the recession and the demolition of local homes damaged in the disaster, not to mention the district’s “missing teeth” — businesses such as Polehna’s Meat Market and the Saddle & Leather Shop that used to bring people in and are no more.

While both men talk of solidarity and support coming from within their own community, Al voices some frustration about the way the disaster has been perceived at a national level.

“I don’t know why they’re still talking about New Orleans, but here… Cedar Rapids is a major metropolitan area and we’re the bread basket of the world. You would think there would be more said. But I guess they figure that we’re strong and that we want to carry on, pull up our boot straps and go for it. And it will come back, it really will,” he said. If the resilience of Al and Bob is anything to go by, then that may well just be the case.

Rosamund “Rosie” Johnston is the oral history project coordinator for the National Czech & Slovak Museum & Library. She is coordinating efforts to record the personal stories, family sagas and community histories of Czech and Slovak émigrés who settled in America.

Read Part I of the series — ‘Flood, Sweat and Tears’— here 

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