Before Riverside became the “Future Birthplace of Capt. James T. Kirk,” it had something else going for it — an eclectic small-town charm that permeated the walls of every building and the bricks of every street in town.

On Saturday evenings, the air was filled with the hum of a bustling downtown district.

Farmers flooded into town to do their weekly shopping.

Music played by the Riverside Band floated through the streets from the bandstand in the park. 

This was Riverside.

Riverside – a city that was once home to a buzzing downtown, a thriving business district and the Highland dance hall – is now home to vacant storefronts and chipped window frames.

But that seems to be changing. 

A streetscape project completed at the end of last year brought newly paved sidewalks to the downtown area in an effort to stimulate growth and activity in the area. 

In the past year, several new businesses have opened in Riverside, including a sewing shop, a coffeehouse and a Mexican restaurant. 

It’s still relatively quiet compared to 100 years ago. 

At one point in time, “Riverside was a pretty happening place,” said Dewain Audiss, a volunteer at the Riverside History Center.

In the book “They Didn’t Play No Jazz: An Oral History of Riverside, Iowa in the Roaring Twenties,” Laurie Robinson compiled newspaper clippings, advertisements and memories from another era in Riverside.

“Gosh, Saturday was a night on the town,” Robinson quoted Marie Havel, a resident of Riverside in the 1920s.

“The stores would stay open – and there was a lot of businesses in town then – ‘til everybody went home,” Robinson quoted Delbert Flynn, another Riverside resident.

That small-town charm lasted long into the 20th century and is within living memory for many of Riverside’s current residents. 

“Downtown was always busy. I can remember going down to the hardware store, … where the wooden floors cracked when you walked down the aisles, and it was just packed to the max,” said City Clerk Becky LaRoche, who grew up on a farm north of the city limits.

Downtown Riverside was once home to dozens of thriving businesses, including several general stores, a drug store, a dental office, a laundromat and several bars.

Many of these were still in business during the city’s centennial celebration in 1972, LaRoche said. 

But Riverside’s streets no longer buzz on Saturday evenings, and its downtown district remains quiet.

There are many suspected reasons for the small town’s decline, but one that most can agree on is the construction of the multi-lane U.S. Highway 218 in the early 1980s.

“Because of automobiles and an interstate highway, the residents can do their shopping in Iowa City, Cedar Rapids, Kalona or Washington,” wrote Catie Simons, a local historian, in one of the many binders detailing the town’s history at the Riverside History Center.

Many residents commute to larger neighboring cities that provide more economic opportunities.

Riverside is referred to by many as a “bedroom community” – that is a community residents return to at the end of a long workday in a neighboring city.

“And I think it has to do with a rural economy. Because back then, everything was rural – everybody was a farmer. It wasn’t [like it is] now. Everybody works in the city,” LaRoche said. 

It wasn’t only the highway that took Riverside out of Riverside, either.

“I also think our town – our council – was not forward thinking. … I really feel like we did not have good leadership for a number of years,” said Mary Jane Stumpf, a businessowner, longtime resident and member of the Riverside Area Community Club.

Although that small-town charm may not return to Riverside with the strength and prevalence that was once present, the city decided to try a new approach. 

The secret to the city’s comeback may lie in its future – specifically, the year 2233.

In 1985, Riverside became the future birthplace of Capt. James T. Kirk, who is scheduled to be born on March 22, 2233, in the fictional television and movie series “Star Trek.”

That same year, the town celebration, at the time called “Riverfest,” was renamed to Trekfest, and so began the city’s journey toward its new identity. 

“We do have the draw. They’re coming in. If we can just get some more things for them to do when they’re here, [we can] keep them a little longer,” LaRoche said.

In a recent downtown walkthrough a pair of Iowa Economic Development Authority consultants told council members, “You are the only one that can say that you are the birthplace of Star Trek, do you know how many places would love to have that?” LaRoche said.

It is now simply a matter of making that title their own.

“If a restaurant went in there and called it[self] Spaceship Café or something and they had Kirk burgers and Romulan ale and Spock fries – it would be busy,” LaRoche said.

City Administrator Christine Yancey, who has been working in city government for more than 17 years, has extensive experience working with small towns.

Her hometown of Mount Vernon, where she spent 11 years working as city administrative assistant, has maintained a unique small-town charm of its own – and provides a source of inspiration for Riverside.

“They were suffering from the same thing we’re going through now,” Yancey said. “They just had to find their identity.”

With a number of city improvements on the horizon, including the recent downtown streetscape project, the repaving of Highway 22 through downtown and the addition of a community center planned for the near future, many believe Riverside may be discovering a new kind of charm for itself.

“By cleaning up the downtown, hopefully we’ll encourage more people to come into town,” Councilperson Jeanine Redlinger said. “We certainly have a lot to offer here.”

“We’re hoping that businesses will come, and people will move in,” Councilperson Edgar McGuire said. “We’re improving for the future.” 

To many, these streetscape improvement projects are evidence of the town heading in the right direction.

“I have renewed hope,” Stumpf said.

With another 214 years to go before the arrival of their most beloved resident, Riverside has time to grow.

And while the town may be quieter than it once was, its residents have not given up hope of finding Riverside’s spark once again.

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