April 15, 2015 by
Photography by Keith Binder

Originally published in March/April 2015 Omaha Home.

Until the relatively recent past, a rapid-fire word association game played on the subject of “Gifford Park” would, for many, elicit the most meager of responses. Sure, blurting out “California Tacos” and “Shelterbelt Theatre” would tally points in this exercise, but other responses, even among the more intrepid of urban adventurers, would likely have included variations on the theme of “crack houses,” “prostitution,” and “buckets of 9-1-1 calls.”

Like so many Midtown neighborhoods now being reclaimed by a pioneering and diverse group of new settlers, the once-neglected area is experiencing a dramatic rebirth. The renaissance of Gifford Park, longtime homeowner and community leader Chris Foster explains, had the most fundamental of beginnings.

“The Gifford Park Neighborhood Association [organized in 1988] was founded on fear,” Foster says. “It was really about nothing more than survival. Our streets weren’t safe. Some very dedicated people built on and decided to try other things. They added simple things like an Easter egg hunt in the park. They started a newsletter. Today the fabric of the neighborhood is its community spirit. We care about this place and a tremendous number of volunteers pull together here in Gifford Park.”

 

The children of the neighborhood, Foster says, best represent the focus of the association’s efforts.

“Young kids don’t see color,” Foster says. “They don’t see incomes. They just see people as people.”

Volunteers of the neighborhood association offer a robust tennis program in the park, including free lessons with donated equipment. In the same once-quiet park whose silence was interrupted only by the very occasional thump-thump-clang of a pick-up game of hoops, kids swarm to the soccer events made possible by the donation of used nets. And at the community gardens, special sections are reserved for children so that a new generation can plant the seeds of change in the butterfly-strewn space that itself is a big part of the neighborhood’s metamorphosis.

The garden was established in 2001 and has become a center of both social and agrarian activities for many in Gifford Park. The neighborhood is also home to the the Big Muddy, a collectively run urban farm whose goods often travel only a couple blocks to be sold at the Gifford Park Farmers Market during growing season. Raising chickens is also prevalent in the neighborhood located just north of the Mutual of Omaha campus.

“Sometimes I think that our chicken population is approaching that of the people here,” Foster quips. Neighborhood kids also learn and work at the Community Bike Project, a nonprofit that’s many initiatives aim to provide transportation in a fun setting. One of its most popular offerings is the Youth Earn-a-Bike program. Through the course of six free classes, students receive instruction on bike maintenance, safety, and riding skills. At the end of their schooling, they take home a bike they fixed up in the process, including a lock and helmet, all at no charge.

“Gifford Park is a great neighborhood with an amazing amount of community involvement,” says Charles Mitchell, the shop’s manager who happens to live right next door.” The people who have lived here a long time are really invested in this place, but now younger people and even the kids that we get to work with here in the shop all come together and connect in really authentic ways.”

Decoding the impetus behind a neighborhood’s rise is often an exercise in assessing the “bones” of a community.

Benson, for example, is hot-hot-hot in large part because of its collection of previously underused structures along Maple Street. It’s a place that practically screamed for the new and novel. The formula was deceivingly simple. Just add an eclectic mix of innovative, risk-taking entrepreneurs, stir in an uncanny sense for what it is that people seek, and…voila…instant and seemingly
overnight revival.

Gifford Park has few such assets in the way of infrastructure. A mere handful of storefront options are available for any aspiring business-launchers at the neighborhood’s small commercial epicenter, the intersection of 33rd and California streets.

So what accounts for the symphony of nail guns and table saws throughout the neighborhood that will reach a crescendo once temperatures continue to rise? Here it is not about dollars invested. In Gifford Park, neighbors are building stronger communities one household at a time.

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