Davenport, with its population of more than 100,000, is the largest of the Quad Cities, and one of two situated in Iowa, on the west bank of the Mississippi. (The others are Bettendorf, Iowa, and Rock Island and Moline in Illinois.) Hard-hit by the farm bust of the 80s, Davenport has a quiet downtown area that blends quickly and unassumingly into residential neighborhoods sporting classic examples of 19th- and early 20th-century midwestern frame-house building. You can peruse them on the way into town if you take the Brady Street exit off I-80, which you have taken west from Chicago on your journey to Iowa; it shouldn't take you more than four hours, with a stop for lunch along the way.
Accommodations include your usual inexpensive chain hotels, the faded elegance of the downtown Blackhawk Hotel, and the Voyager Inn, a 60-room low-rise not far from the interstate, where some of the visiting ballclubs stay. There are also some extremely pleasant bed-and-breakfasts. The River Oaks Inn (1234 E. River Dr., 319-326-2629), is set back from River Drive, the main road along the river, by about 50 yards of mostly untamed lawn, and there's a small gazebo in front; in back, just off the patio (where you can take breakfast if you choose), is a lilac bush of Brobdingnagian proportions that perfumes the air in a 20-yard radius. The sitting and dining rooms are cozy and comfortable, and the four bedrooms--located off a broad second-floor hallway, more like a huge foyer--are good-sized, well-lit, and each uniquely furnished; the largest has a separate sun porch and dressing room. It's important to call for reservations.
Village Bed and Breakfast (2017 E. 13th St., 319-322-4905) is an 1850s Greek Revival structure listed on the National Register of Historic Places, meticulously restored and furnished with a blend of old wood furniture and modern design by its antique-dealer owners. There are only two guest rooms--both off the hallway atop the stairs that vault up from the large, wood-stove-dominated kitchen--each with private bath and antique furnishings; also, a back veranda that views the river, use of the laundry room, and breakfast made to order. (If you're up early enough, you're welcome to join the proprietors, a quite interesting, well-read couple.) Unfortunately, the Village is often unavailable Friday and Saturday nights: the further in advance you call, the better your chances.
Nearby is East Davenport Village, a section currently undergoing gentrification: yuppie bars, shoppes, etc. The neighborhood supports a moderate nightlife, including the McClellan Stockade (2124 E. 11th St.), comparable to some Lincoln Park taverns in its accoutrements and clientele; Players (2210 E. 11th St.), a sports bar that stays open past midnight and is reputed to be lively; and Rudy's Tacos (2214 E. 11th St.), a late-night Mexican restaurant. For contrast, there's the Mound, at the corner of Mound Street and 11th, which would seem to be named for its address; however, it is a working striptease joint, so you can make your own associations. Across the street is a nightclub bearing the sign Live Western Music; it seemed to be supporting a minor altercation as I passed, which I took as an indication of its authenticity.
Also in East Davenport Village is the 11th Precinct Saloon (2108 11th St.), an inexpensive spot on the low side of the yuppie curve. A hangout for local softball players, it has a pool table, sports cable TV, free popcorn, and a small menu that includes a variety of bottled beers, many of which are kept cold, and a delicious unbreaded pork tenderloin sandwich. In fact, I thought it was beef until the waitress informed me I'd been chowing down pig. This is not idle chat: Iowa, it seems, is crazy about pork, and at least in Davenport, the preferred casual cut is the pork tenderloin, served breaded or unbreaded, and usually as a sandwich. A decent version of the breaded variety is served at the Iowa Machine Shed (319-391-2427), just off I-80 at 7250 Northwest Blvd.--a farm-theme restaurant (of all things, right there in the farm belt) replete with a wait staff wearing bib overalls and red-checked accessories. For the more familiar pork ribs, the locals rave about Jim's Rib Haven and its Kansas City style cookin' and saucin.' Jim's has two locations: 531 24th St. (across the river in Rock Island, Illinois, 309-786-8084) and 904 16th Ave. (in East Moline, Illinois, 309-752-1240).
For special occasions, there's the upscale Christie's (2207 E. 12th St.; reservations recommended at 319-323-2822), one of the few places in Davenport where you can spend $35 or $40 for dinner. The French/European cuisine is good and even inventive--I had monkfish in a sauce that featured brie cheese as its base--although no one used to big-city fine dining will be overly impressed. The wine selection is reasonably sized, but nothing special; coffee and dessert were especially good. Christie's seats only 40, with linen tablecloths, fresh flowers, paintings, and candlelight. For alimentary contrast, try the Hungry Hobo (four locations around Davenport) for ridiculously cheap sub sandwiches. I had a Hobo Combo, the house specialty, which includes Italian ham as well as provolone and dried salami, and has a little kick to it.
Davenport is very much a river town. The river defines the city's past: it was founded in part because of its strategic value. The first railroad bridge over the river was at Davenport, and an 1856 lawsuit over that bridge helped build the reputation of the railroad's lawyer, Abe Lincoln; the first of the Mississippi's famed lock-and-dam systems was constructed at Davenport. The river also defines Davenport's future: economic recovery for the entire Quad Cities area is tied to the imminent arrival of riverboat gambling (in 1991). In the present, riverboat cruises are available and recommended for both dining and dancing. Two leading purveyors of these services are Roberts River Rides (319-359-3811) and Schadler's River Adventures (309-764-1952).
Should you choose not to cruise up the middle of the river, you can drive there. The Army's Rock Island Arsenal (309-782-5421), which manufactures ordnance and equipment and employs 12,000, occupies much of the actual Rock Island, a reasonably sized hunk of land that sits in the Mississippi between Davenport and the city of Rock Island, Illinois. Guarded by checkpoints but open to visitors, Arsenal Island (as it is known locally) is also a major recreational area, with a golf course, bike and hiking trails, a running track along the river, and several cemeteries (national, Union Army, and Confederate). Also on the island are a museum (309-782-5021) that contains literally thousands of guns, from field cannon down to Indian rifles, six-shooters, and modern Army pistols; the house built and owned by Colonel George Davenport, who founded the town; and the Mississippi River Visitor Center at Lock and Dam 15, which features exhibits and a viewing area to watch the lock at work.
The cultural heart of Davenport is found in the western part of the city, where two museums share a block not far from Marycrest College. The Putnam Museum (1717 W. 12th St. at Division, 319-324-1933) is a sort of natural history museum, with several impressive stuffed wild animals, a display of minerals and crystals, a lot of starfish--but also an Oriental garden display, a walk-around exhibit on local history, and an Egyptian exhibit that contains an unwrapped mummy that can be used to scare uncooperative children. The neighboring Davenport Museum of Art (319-326-7804) is small but worth the trip, if only for the permanent display of drawings and paintings by Grant "American Gothic" Wood, one of Iowa's most famous artists. The main-floor gallery provides a spacious setting for visiting shows.
I suspect your best visits to Davenport will coincide with one or more of its special events. The biggest summer bash is the annual Bix Beiderbecke Memorial Jazz Festival, named for the legendary jazzman who was born in Davenport; the 1989 lineup (July 27-30) includes trad-jazz bands from Michigan, Texas, and New Orleans, and Chuck Hedges's Swingtet from Chicago. For more info, call Cathy Huff at 319-324-7170. The Bix festival has grown to include ancillary events such as a street festival, a fitness screening clinic, and the Bix 7 Run, a seven-mile race sponsored by the Quad City Times that attracts runners from several states. (Call 319-359-9197 for details on participating.)
The agenda also features the Rock Island Arsenal open house in mid-May; the Quad Cities Mozart Festival the second half of June (319-383-8876 or 319-322-3036); the Quad Cities Great River Ramble, which includes a blues festival, Venetian Night boat parade, hot-air-balloon races, and fireworks, July 4 weekend (309-793-6300); and the seventh annual Frog Jumpin' Contest at the end of August (319-322-8861). For the kids, there's the Niabi Zoo, which is located in Illinois (but not too far in) at Coal Valley (309-799-3482); July 16 the zoo will celebrate elephant Kathy ShaBoom's 25th birthday with games, activities, and (presumably peanut-flavored) cake.
And there's always baseball: the Quad City Angels of the Midwest League play at John O'Donnell Stadium, Centennial Bridge and River Drive, through August (319-324- 2032).
(By the way, the area codes above contain no misprints. Davenport itself uses a 319 area code, but many area businesses are located on the Illinois side of the river, where, accompanied by the eternal snickering of some phone company bureaucrat, the area code is 309.)