May 2, 2014 by
Photography by Keith Binder

The story of South Omaha—past or present—has always been the story of the American immigrant experience. Boom, bust, cultural conflict. Poverty, cultural ascension, cultural assimilation. Social issues, sure. But genuine vibrancy and character, too—an energy so many communities try and fail to replicate with facades.

“I think it is misunderstood, it has a different flavor but different can be beautiful,” says Marcos Mora, president of LatPro Studios as well as a promoter of Passport to South Omaha, a new campaign to revitalize and grow this part of the city.

Even on a cold, windy day the South 24th Historic District in South Omaha is buzzing with people, traffic—something that makes for great street ambiance. During the lunch hour, street vendors can be seen selling items like tacos and treats—authentic Mexican cuisine. One thing is for certain; you can feel the sense of pride and community. The energy is high and residents are friendly and making small talk with each other.

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With a new generation of Hispanics making South Omaha their home, the area once dubbed the “Magic City” for its speed of growth during the American Industrial Revolution is undergoing its own revolution. Still, some thoughtful planning was needed to harness this organic burst of energy.

“We looked at the Old Market, Benson, Dundee to see how they we’re doing it,” he says. “We want to change the perception.”

One example of change: “You can still get the traditional Mexican cuisine but also new Latin dishes you couldn’t find before,'” Mora says.

With new colorful flavor on the block, coordinators of the annual Cinco de Mayo festival thought it was only natural to center the event on something we all love: Food. “Food, Fun, and Fiesta” showcases local restaurants and food vendors with the first ever Spice of South O. Free entertainment, a carnival, and a parade that is one of the biggest in the Midwest attracts people from as far as South Dakota, Kansas, and Missouri.

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The town square, Plaza de la Raza, or “gathering place for the people,” is the heart of the area. Looking from the northwest corner of 24th and N streets, the rich history of the street comes to life. Among other feasts for the eyes: The colored tile-lined sidewalks and park benches and the towering figure of the great economic generator in the early life of this region—the Livestock Exchange Building.

Events celebrate the incredible cultural diversity of the neighborhood, an amalgam of 125 years of Polish, Czech, German, and Mexican heritages. Created mostly in the boom years between 1890 and 1910, 33 buildings are recognized on the National Register of Historic Places.

Some cultures can only be seen now in the names of structures such as the J.V. Vacek building, which now holds retail bays.

The signs of the more recent residents are seen more in paint than stone; in murals covering the sides, tops, and fronts of buildings. Legend of the Volcanoes Popocatepetl & Iztaccihuatl, Our Lady of Guadalupe, and revolutionaries Emil Zapata and Pancho Villa are depicted with vibrant colors.

In its fifth year, La Veinticuatro Walking Tour hopes to educate the public on the importance of preserving and restoring older districts. Although not an Omaha native, Vince Furlong, tour coordinator for La Veinticuatro, has a passion for cities with historical significance. Furlong leads several tours a month to help promote revitalization of this part of the city.

Local businesses like The World of Pottery and Bievenidos a la Plaza Latina bring to life the story of the current residents’ heritage by showcasing folk art imported from the Guadalajara area displayed in an outdoor plaza type atmosphere found in Latin America. As a destination business, World of Pottery has customers from around the Midwest.

Some of the customers, though, just come to remember old times.

“One women from Auburn described a time she drove out the now front doors of the World of Pottery in a new car with her dad,” Furlong says. “This was back in the 50s when it was H&H Chevrolet.”

Petersen & Michelsen Hardware is another stop on the La Veinticuatro tour. There, one is swept back in time by memorabilia from the stockyards in the form of pictures, old packaging, and uniforms. Dan Boland, owner of Petersen & Michelsen Hardware, tells guests about the 120-year history of the store; the oldest business on the street.

All traces of the once-bustling meatpacking hub are not completely lost. In between answering the phone and helping customers, Boland points out an item in one of the store’s aisles. It’s a hydraulic drain flusher that meatpacking plants order from his store from around the country.

In his store—as in all of South Omaha—the new and old, the antiquated and modern, blend together into a rich tapestry.

“South Omaha is still so vibrant,” Boland says. “My dad and grandpa both called this the Magic City, and I still have to agree.”

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