PHOTO ESSAY: Viola Gibson Park

Ben Kaplan
Jun 13, 2019 · 4 min read

On June 15th, The African American Museum of Iowa will host a Juneteenth Celebration at Viola Gibson Park in the Oakhill Jackson neighborhood of Cedar Rapids.

Juneteenth is a celebration of the end of slavery and the emancipation of black people, commonly referred to as black independence day. On June 19th 1865, two years after the Lincoln signed the emancipation proclamation, a final group of slaves learned they were free. It is, remarkably and pathetically, not a national holiday.

Viola Gibson park is named after, well, Viola Gibson, the founder of Cedar Rapids’ chapter of the NAACP, and a lifelong advocate for black education and civil rights.

Her park is on the eastern edge of Oakhill Jackson, and abuts Edward Hidder Park, Bender Pool, Metro High School, and Poets Park, and it is the centerpiece of a large and varied park system between New Bohemia and Oakhill Jackson. Or at least it should be. Unfortunately the park entrances and the street design along 12th Ave SE hurt the park from being the centerpiece of neighborhood social life and activity it could and should be.

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The 12th Ave SE Entrance to Viola Gibson park nearest to New Bohemia.

12th Ave slopes downward from as it curves through Oakhill Jackson next to Viola Gibson park. The park has a wall of limestone blocks that rise next to the sidewalk along 12th Ave that culminate in a decrepit and overgrown staircase. Weeds and debris cover the steps.

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Weeds, sticks, and other detritus cover the staircase entrance to Viola Gibson park.
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The Limestone wall has major cracks, and the chain link fence that runs along the top of it is rusty and twisted.
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Once you climb the steps you’re greeted with a low chain link fence, and nothing else.
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The view from the top of the staircase entrance to Viola Gibson Park in Oakhill Jackson, Cedar Rapids, Iowa.

Once you climb the steps into Viola Gibson Park something remarkable happens; you are greeted to a view of one of Cedar Rapids’ best urban parks. A large grass field continues out and merges with the splash pad and playground at Edward Hidder Park. The central space of Viola Gibson is a field large enough to fly a kite or play games. The park is ringed with mature trees that cast a deep, refreshing shade on hot summer days. To the left there is a baseball diamond and benches, to the right there’s Metro high school’s basketball courts.

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The baseball diamon at Viola Gibson Park is littered with sticks and weeds.

It’s clear that the baseball diamond has suffered from delayed maitenence. Sticks and weeds pockmark it’s surface. The benches behind home plate are also neglected.

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Shade drenched bench and bleachers nestled behind home plate of the baseball diamond.

The baseball diamond and bleachers are at the northern edge of the park. Here the park is at street level, and it’s entrance to the surrounding neighborhood is much more welcoming. The bleachers sit under trees that keep them shaded on cool summer days, and a charming but underused retail building is directly across the street, kitty-corner from Oakhill Jackson Community Church.

Unfortunately 12th Ave SE forms a substantial barrier between the neighborhood and the park. Between 3rd St SE and 19th SE the street has only one traffic control device, a pedestrian signal blocks away from the park that does not slow or stop cars the vast majority of the time. Cars routinely speed through the neighborhood at speeds that would be lethal to pedestrians and cyclists. It’s decades overdue for the addition of four way stops in Oakhill-Jackson along 12th Ave SE. It’s a miracle nobody has been killed.

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From the bleachers a small retail building beckons, but the road between the park and the neighborhood is deathtrap for pedestrians.
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The bleachers at Viola Gibson are a shady respite, the perfect place to read a book on a summer day.

The southern end of the park intersects with Metro High School and Bender Pool. Paths lead down the basketball courts of Metro, and a wide concrete path arcs behind Bender to the busy playground and splash pad of Edward Hidder park.

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A parking lot with basketball courts is sandwiched between Metro High School, Bender Pool, Viola Gibson, and Poets Park.
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A path leads from Metro High School behind bender pool to Edward Hidder Park.
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Whole Viola Gibson park is quiet, the sounds of children and families playing at Edward Hidder Park carries across the field. Edward Hidder Park has a popular splash bad and playground.

I don’t think most Cedar Rapidians realize that Viola Gibson Park , Edward Hidder Park, Poet’ Park, Metro High School, and Bender Pool flow together to create what is, in effect, a large public park with a wide variety of civic amenities. The entrances to Viola Gibson park and the street design of 12th Ave SE need investment and care to improve the connection between the park and surrounding neighborhoods.

Let’s slow down 12th Ave SE and repair the entrances to Viola Gibson Park.

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