This article appears in the program book for the FEI World Cup Finals, produced by Omaha Magazine in March 2017.
Everyone involved in the equestrian world shares a passion—for the sport, for the horses, and for the beauty and nobility of the presentation. Lisa Roskens, founder of the Omaha Equestrian Foundation, counted on that enthusiasm to make the very first Omaha International a success. The number of local and regional volunteers who worked the event exceeded expectations back in 2012. But once the Federation Equestre Internationale awarded Omaha the 2017 FEI World CupTM Finals, Roskens knew organizers would have to overcome an obvious hurdle; one created by geography.
“This is the World Series of our sport, truly a global and national event,” says Roskens. “While most people involved in equestrian sports understand and follow the World CupTM, they don’t really understand Omaha.”
True to form, whenever confronted with a challenge, Roskens gathered her friends and colleagues in the OEF to brainstorm. How could they reach out to those who only know Omaha as a city locked in the middle of “flyover country?”
“We realized we needed a much more personalized outreach approach for those people to truly understand what they can expect (from Omaha) and to give them reasons to get excited about coming here,” she says. “So it wasn’t just mass mailers going out to generate excitement.”
Sybil Greene and Karen Ensminger, co-directors of Omaha 2017 Ambassadors
And so the Omaha 2017 Ambassadors program began. It quickly evolved into more than a platform to tout the positives of the Midlands. The scope of the effort, extending beyond neighboring states, also generated a groundswell of support for the FEI World CupTM Finals Omaha 2017 and for equestrian sports in general.
OEF board member Karen Ensminger and riding instructor Sybil Greene head the Ambassadors program. With the help of an office assistant and a few interns, they created an impressive information pipeline—one person at a time.
“Our goal was to get at least one person in all 50 states who would take information from us and then spread the word,” explains Greene. “We figured they would become a contact point for others in their area who wanted to know more about the World CupTM and Omaha in particular.”
The women started gathering Ambassadors by calling personal friends in the horse community. Having grown up in Maryland, Greene knows riders from the Chesapeake Bay area up through New Jersey.
Ensminger, a native New Yorker who has worked in Los Angeles and Boston, had no trouble making up her friends’ minds for them. “I called them up and said, ‘Look, this is what’s happening here in Omaha and I’m sure you want to get involved. So I’m going to sign you up as an Ambassador,’” she says as she laughs. The new recruits then received a packet of information from Omaha about the 2017 FEI World CupTM Finals. “I told them to put the flyers in their barns, tack stores, feed stores, their places of work, grocery stores, coffee shops, everywhere. And then, of course, I invited them to come.”
In addition to the invitation, Ambassadors received a navy blue ball cap emblazoned with the event’s colorful horse logo and “Omaha 2017 Ambassador” stitched in white underneath, an FEI World CupTM Finals pin, vouchers for a non-sold-out event, and discounted tickets.
To reach the massive number of riders they don’t know, Greene harnessed the power of social media. She created an Ambassadors Facebook page, where people could sign up electronically. She joined Facebook groups that had anything to do with horses—farms, stables, barns, riding clubs, horse dealers—and asked for people to volunteer as Ambassadors. She re-posted articles about the FEI World CupTM Finals Omaha 2017 and sent out media blasts, paying special attention to the ones listing things to do in Omaha.
“It’s been an extremely low financial output on our part,” says Ensminger.
Though striving for a modest goal of one contact per state, the committee managed to sign up multiple Ambassadors in several states, including 25 to 30 in horse-heavy states like Texas, California, and Montana. Many Ambassadors have taken up the invitation to attend the FEI World CupTM Finals. Some are even volunteering their services in whatever capacity needed during the events.
“The baseball people know about Omaha because of the College World Series, the swimming people because of the Olympic Swim Trials,” says Greene. “And now the horse world knows about us. We’re building on our reputation as a place for elite sports.”
Will the Ambassadors program, created especially for the Midwest’s first-ever international equestrian showdown, continue? “If participants see it as a valuable and fun experience, then we will consider expanding upon it,” says Roskens.
Judging from the number of selfies taken with Omaha ’17 merchandise and posted on social media, keeping the program might just be a plan.
Cheryl Johnson, Sue Morrison, and Karen Ensminger prepare mailings for the Ambassadors program.
When Ian Rose and Robert Voelte moved to a new condo on the top floor of the historic Beebe & Runyan Lofts, northeast of the Old Market and Gene Leahy Mall at Ninth and Douglas streets, the location provided everything the elementary educators and arts enthusiasts were looking for.
“We’re able to walk to the Holland. We’re able to walk to the Orpheum, the Old Market, all the parks down here. We’re also members of Film Streams, so we can walk over there as well,” Voelte says. “And as much as we’re passionate about teaching, we’re also passionate about travel. We’re close to the airport, which makes it really convenient because we do travel quite a bit, and it’s easy to get there.”
However, the spacious two-bedroom, two-bath, 1,700-square-foot unit just can’t accommodate their entire collection of beloved artworks, furnishings, accents, and decor carefully selected over 30 years. So rather than giving up a sizable percentage of these treasures or relegating them to permanent storage, Voelte has come up with an inspired solution: change out decor and refresh the look of his and Rose’s home twice a year.
“I thought about how museums only have a small percentage of their holdings on display at any one time,” he explains. “I decided to adapt that idea for my home and only display a limited amount of my belongings at one time, rotating things in and out. I am able to appreciate my home and the decor even more because everything always seems new and fresh to me.”
The process evokes good memories of past adventures, old friends, and even the story of how each item was acquired, Voelte says. The pieces come from all over the world, and much was purchased during or influenced by travel. Core favorites include an antique Chinese chicken coop used to store dishes and linens; an antique Japanese kitchen cabinet that serves as a bookcase in the master bedroom; hand-carved one-piece spider tables from the Bamileke tribe in Cameroon; mid-century walnut Eames chairs; Akari washi—paper lantern lamps made by Noguchi in Japan; and Verner Panton dining chairs.
“I think our home is very unique,” he says. “My style is eclectic with Asian, African, natural, classic, and utilitarian themes. Authentic vintage textiles previously used in utilitarian ways—indigos from around the world, Indonesian ikats, Japanese obis, African tie-dyed raffia skirts, and Kuba cloth—are often the inspiration that begins the design process.”
It’s never quite the same look twice, Voelte adds, but he does work around his core pieces as well as some palette constants.
“In late spring or summer, the feeling is lighter and fewer items are on display. The mood is brighter with hand-dyed indigo fabrics, khakis, whites, creams, and seashells—things I associate with summer because we are both teachers who look forward to travel, socializing, relaxation—recharging our batteries,” Voelte says. “In the fall and winter, decor gets changed out, including rugs, artwork, and linens, as well as some furniture rearrangement. It is a more spiritual, reflective, introspective time, which is reflected in darker colors: purples, charcoal, Chinese red. The decor is more layered with design elements.”
The Renaissance Revival-style building in which the couple’s condo is located was built in 1913 to serve as a warehouse and showroom. The original architect was John McDonald, best known for the Joslyn Castle. The Beebe & Runyan building was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1998. Rose and Voelte purchased their condo as a raw space following the building’s 2007 conversion.
“When we walked in, we immediately were drawn to the exterior brick wall on the west side, which has two inlaid brick arches that span three windows each,” Voelte says. “It is quite eye-catching.”
Their unit boasts sloped ceilings that reach a height of 16 feet, original brick walls, and wood posts and columns. They finished the space as a semi-open loft designed with custom finishes and natural materials like walnut cabinetry built by hand, honed marble counters, and slate tile or refinished original birdseye maple floors.
Every detail shows thought and consideration, like backsplash tiles that were hand-carried in a suitcase from California. Niche and built-in shelves highlight special artworks. “Everything has to be aesthetically pleasing to me or it won’t be in my house,” Voelte says.
The space was also designed with entertaining, especially dinner parties for family and friends, in mind.
“I love to cook, so I spend a lot of time in the kitchen,” Rose says. “Our kitchen is so open that even when you’re in the kitchen, you’re not detached from the rest of the home. I can still be in the middle of what’s going on.”
“As much as we love to travel, we love our home,” Voelte says. “We have a great life!”
The buried remains of Ice Age mammoths hold secrets to the story of climate change and the rise of mankind.
Mammoths vanished from Earth some 11,000 years ago at the end of the geological epoch known as the Pleistocene, but their story grows increasingly significant today with contemporary discussions of global warming and the alarming rate of wildlife species extinctions worldwide.
As the United States and China crack down on legal channels for buying and selling African elephant ivory— due to a quirk of international treaty regulations—Chinese ivory traders have begun turning to tusks from prehistoric woolly mammoths.
Traditional Chinese ivory craftsmanship has a history dating back thousands of years. Ironically, the continuation of the ancient Chinese art form could become dependent on supplies of ivory from extinct woolly mammoths.
Mammoths are the ancient relatives of modern elephants. Although their closest living relative is the Asian elephant, they also share the biological family “Elephantidae” with African elephants. Paleontologists have excavated their long-nosed (i.e., proboscidean) kin on nearly every continent, except for Antarctica and Australia.
Nebraska has an especially rich history of elephants. In fact, the mammoth is Nebraska’s official state fossil. Mammoths or mastodons have been uncovered in all but three of Nebraska’s 93 counties (every one except Grant, Arthur, and Wayne counties).
“Our elephants first come over about 14 million years ago into North America, and Nebraska is probably the only place in the country where you can find a complete sequence until their demise in the late Ice Age, 10-12,000 years ago. Nebraska is probably one of the few places where you can document the entire history of the Proboscidea in North America,” says George Corner, collection manager at Morrill Hall, the University of Nebraska State Museum in Lincoln.
Nebraska’s State Fossil
Mammoths were mythical creatures to the young Corner. As a kid growing up in rural Blue Hill, his family would travel to the capital every year for the state basketball tournament. Across from the Nebraska Coliseum (the tournament’s home prior to the Devaney Center’s construction) was Morrill Hall.
He would resort to temper tantrums if his father wouldn’t let him “go look at the elephants” during their Lincoln visits, Corner says with a laugh.
The paleontologist (who turned 69 in January) stands in the middle of “Elephant Hall,” where gigantic specimens of the state’s rich proboscidean history loom overhead. He has spent 47 years working for the museum—starting with field studies as an undergraduate student of geology, and with the museum’s highway salvage project during and after his master’s in geology.
Corner, who jokes about being as old as the creatures on display, credits the bulk of the collection to Erwin H. Barbour. In 1891, the Ohio-raised Barbour came to the University of Nebraska to head its geology department. Within a year of landing in Lincoln, Barbour had taken charge of curating the museum; he served as its director for roughly 50 years.
The crown jewel of the museum’s Elephant Hall goes by the nickname Archie. That’s short for Archidiskodon imperator maibeni. Archie is a Columbian mammoth (a southern branch of the mammoth genus, which may have lacked the shaggy-coat of its northern woolly mammoth relatives). Both Columbian and woolly mammoths once roamed the grasslands of Nebraska.
“We like to claim that Archie is the largest mounted mammoth in the world, but I’ll show you one thing that Barbour did,” Corner says. “Look at his toes. He’s mounted on his tippy-toes. Now, you can’t tell me that an elephant of that size could stand on his tippy-toes.” (Archie would have likely weighed in the realm of 8,400 kilograms, the size of a large bull African elephant plus 20 percent.) “But Barbour wanted as much height as possible.”
Archie stands in a semi-circle of proboscidean specimens that stretch from prehistoric non-elephants into modern-day varieties—from long-jawed mastodons, to stegomastodons, to mastodons, to the elephant family: mammoths (though a woolly mammoth is not on display at the museum) and culminating in modern Asian and African elephants.
“Some of these critters came over to North America as they were, so there wasn’t a lot of evolution in place. Most of the evolution probably took place in the Old World and then migrated over in the late Miocene,” Corner says, explaining how elephants traveled to Nebraska via the Bering land bridge that once linked northeastern Russia to Alaska.
Asian and African elephants have only recently ventured into Nebraska with help from modern man.
The museum’s Asian elephant specimens came from two that died when a Campbell Brothers Circus train caught fire at Pawnee City in 1904 (only to be excavated by Barbour’s graduate student two years later). The museum’s African elephants on display include the skeleton of an African elephant that had died in a German zoo—acquired before the construction of Morrill Hall in 1927—and taxidermy mounts shot during a 1920s safari by Adam Breede, the publisher of the Hastings Tribune (who contributed most of the museum’s collection of African taxidermy).
“In Nebraska, mammoths became extinct along with 85 percent of all animals larger than the size of a jackrabbit 10-12,000 years ago. And I can’t tell you why,” Corner says, who speculates that climate change, disease, maybe an asteroid, or any combination of such factors, could have driven Nebraska’s mammoths to extinction at approximately the same time that mammoths went extinct worldwide.
Early humans lived alongside mammoths in the landscape that would eventually become the state of Nebraska. But Corner doubts that mankind could have been entirely responsible for the demise of mammoths: “Early Nebraskans witnessed the extinction of these animals, and they were opportunists; they hunted them—but I do not think they were the final cause.”
On remote islands, isolated pockets of woolly mammoths lingered past the species’ mass die-off. The last known living woolly mammoths went extinct on Wrangel Island (a secluded Russian territory in the Arctic Ocean) as recently as 3,700 years ago.
Why did mammoths go extinct? “That’s the big question in paleontology,” Corner says. “Go to the African savannah—we had analogs in the New World to all these animals. In Nebraska, we had elephants, rhinoceros, and camels. Why did all those big game animals become extinct here when they managed to survive in Africa—where there were more humans hunting them? Why? We don’t know.”
NEBRASKA MAMMOTH TRIVIA Remains of more than 10,000 extinct elephants have been found in Nebraska, but far less than 1 percent of the state has been carefully explored for fossils.
Elephant and Mammoth Ivory
Modern elephants in Africa face persistent pressure from poachers and conflict with human settlements that encroach on an evermore limited range of habitat.
To address the poaching crisis, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (which went into effect in 1975) banned the ivory trade in 1989. But African elephant populations had already collapsed during the decade leading up to the ban, falling from roughly 1.3 million to 600,000 elephants.
Despite decades of coordinated international efforts to protect African elephants, grim statistics remain a reality today: “An elephant is killed every 15 minutes,” according to The Ivory Game, Netflix’s original documentary released in November 2016. The vast majority of that blood ivory is destined for China.
The CITES ban has allowed several technical loopholes for African elephant ivory. For example: pre-Convention and pre-ban (antique) ivory could be bought or sold, as could ivory harvested from African safari hunts.
After Beijing declared traditional Chinese ivory carving to be an “intangible cultural heritage” in 2006, China participated in a one-off purchase of 108 tons of ivory sourced from naturally deceased elephants in 2008. The sale raised $15 million for African conservation, and the Chinese government has been slowly allocating the stockpile to licensed factories for sale only in the domestic Chinese market. Many environmentalists view the sale as a failure for stimulating demand and providing a front for the laundering of “blood ivory.”
Mammoth ivory is an entirely different beast. CITES does not regulate the trade in fossils or extinct animals. Prehistoric ivory is a way around the global regulation of elephant ivory.
Most of the world’s untouched mammoth ivory remains locked in the frozen permafrost of Siberia. When snows melt during the brief Arctic summer (from mid-July to mid-September), riverbanks often reveal prehistoric remains. Warmer summers means the permafrost is thawed longer every year. That means more and more mammoth tusks are protruding from the ground every year.
Indigenous locals, seasonal tusk hunters, and Russian gangs aggregate the raw tusks in Siberia. Officially, the tusks must be approved for export by the government authorities, but traders (and smugglers) are increasingly taking their purchases directly into mainland China over the land border with Russia, Mongolia, or neighboring countries.
Chinese demand for mammoth ivory has pros and cons. The trade is potentially beneficial for identification of excavation sites—hunting of tusks is incentivized, so tusks are saved that would otherwise be destroyed from exposure to the elements after millennia underground; however, the trade destroys the integrity of excavation sites disrupted by tusk hunters.
According to John E. Scanlon, the Secretary-General of CITES, more than 90 percent of Russian mammoth ivory exports went to China (including Hong Kong) in the past 10 years, with total Chinese imports surpassing 80 tons annually from 2010 to 2015 according to the official trade database of the United Nations.
NEBRASKA MAMMOTH TRIVIA Nebraska’s state fossil is not just ancient history. The mammoth is an important player in the global ivory trade today.
Changing Regulatory Landscapes
Today, on the crowded streets of Hong Kong’s tourist districts, there are roughly half a dozen storefronts that advertise mammoth ivory products for sale. Signs visible outside the mammoth shops promote the legality of prehistoric ivory—tusks of extinct woolly mammoths harvested from the frozen permafrost of Russian Siberia.
Hong Kong played a crucial role in developing China’s niche mammoth ivory market. Before and after the CITES ban, the former-British colony (which became a special administrative region of China in 1997) also served as a key transit hub for elephant ivory—legal and illegal—entering the mainland Chinese market.
Implementation of the 1989 elephant ivory ban brought about major declines in Hong Kong’s ivory carving industry. During the same time period, however, the mainland Chinese economy enjoyed rapid economic growth—boosting demand for luxurious ivory products among the nation’s nouveau riche.
As demand for ivory intensified in China, the government implemented an extensive licensing system, mandatory certification cards for legal elephant ivory products, stiff penalties, and a crackdown on smuggling. Despite the risks, black market ivory dealers continued to cash in on Chinese market conditions to maintain the country’s status as the world’s primary destination for black market elephant ivory (followed next by the United States).
Destructions of seized ivory stockpiles followed. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service crushed more than 6 tons of confiscated ivory in Denver, Colorado, in November 2013. Then, two months later, Chinese authorities crushed more than 6 tons of its own seized ivory in Guangzhou province. Over the course of 2014-2016, Hong Kong’s government followed suit with the incineration of 28.86 tons, nearly all of its seizure stockpile—the world’s largest ivory burn until Kenya torched 105 tons ($172 million worth) of ivory in 2016.
During a September 2015 meeting in Washington, D.C., President Barack Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping agreed to enact “nearly complete bans on ivory import and export, including significant and timely restrictions on the import of ivory as hunting trophies, and to take significant and timely steps to halt the domestic commercial trade of ivory.”
In the U.S., tightened elephant ivory laws went into effect in July of 2016 to close loopholes for pre-ban ivory, antiques, and hunting trophies.
Cheryl Lo, a senior wildlife crime officer with the World Wildlife Fund in Hong Kong told Omaha Magazine in late November that she expected Beijing to reveal China’s implementation plan sometime in December. No status update had been released as of the magazine’s press deadline. Hong Kong officials had already announced the implementation plan for the territory’s more stringent ivory regulation in June 2016.
Lo says her research for the WWF found that Hong Kong’s registered elephant ivory stockpile has remained level for many years, indicating that traders were likely replenishing with black market stocks.
She says more research on mammoth ivory in Hong Kong is needed. At this moment, she says there is no evidence to prove systematic laundering or smuggling of African elephant ivory into China under the guise of mammoth tusks. “The current concern is probably at the individual store level—shops that intentionally or accidentally misrepresent or mislabel to consumers that elephant ivory is mammoth,” Lo says, noting that the potential for wrongdoing should still be monitored.
In the future, China’s implementation of stricter ivory regulations will likely increase market pressure on the prehistoric ivory stocks. Being able to tell the difference, then, becomes paramount. Sometimes the difference can be difficult to identify—especially in tusks that are heavily processed or scrimshawed with ink.
Mammoth tusks sometimes exhibit a rocky/mineralized exterior, discoloration from being underground, with denser consistency than elephant tusks. But this generalization does not always apply to high quality tusks gathered from the permafrost.
Likewise, tusks from adult male mammoths are generally larger with greater spiral curvature than African elephant tusks. “But this is not true of all mammoth tusks. Some very much resemble tusks of elephants,” says University of Michigan professor Daniel Fisher, one of the world’s foremost experts on mammoths and mammoth tusks. “There are, of course, juvenile mammoths whose tusks are not large at all, and female mammoths whose tusks do not show much spiral curvature.”
While forensic methods can certify a tusk as belonging to a mammoth, the procedures could damage the specimen or require specialized lab equipment. The most certain means of verification requires a polished cross-section of the tusk. Close inspection of such a surface reveals intersecting spiral curves called “Schreger lines.” Elephant tusks exhibit Schreger lines that intersect with an angle greater than 115 degrees, while mammoth tusks exhibit an angle of less than 90 degrees.
NEBRASKA MAMMOTH TRIVIA Paleontologists estimate that at least 3,000 elephant fossils remain buried in the average square mile of Nebraska countryside.
Chinese Mammoth Ivory Dealers
Daniel Chan—the owner of Lise Carving & Jewellery in Hong Kong—claims to have first introduced mammoth ivory to the market.
“I began buying mammoth tusks from suppliers in Alaska and Canada in 1983. That was a very busy time for [elephant] ivory. In 1983, nobody wanted to use the prehistoric material, only me. I bought and kept it,” Chan says. “In the early ’90s, nobody was using this material. I was the first Hong Kong person to visit Moscow looking for mammoth tusks.”
In his Hong Kong factory/warehouse, several craftsmen are working at a long carving table. Whirring electrical tools spit ivory dust in the air as they carve Buddhist figures and trinkets from ancient material. There is even a baby mammoth skeleton in the corner of the room. It faces a mountain of mammoth tusks stored in shelves and piled on the floor.
After the fall of the Soviet Union, Chan pioneered the supply chain from Siberia to Hong Kong via Moscow. Competition followed. Other ivory dealers moved into his market niche and demand for mammoth ivory steadily grew. Mainland Chinese smugglers buying direct from Siberia and transporting their stocks over the land border with Russia became a major annoyance, undercutting his business.
One of Chan’s peers, carving master Chu Chung-shing says, “I can carve on any materials. I don’t need to break the law to make a living.” Chu owns two upscale shops that exclusively sell mammoth tusk artwork in Hong Kong’s most popular tourist districts.
Chu’s Prestige Crafts storefronts glisten with ostentatious carvings, which stretch up and around gigantic, spiraling mammoth tusks. His work was exhibited at the 2010 Shanghai World Expo, and he has had large exhibitions promoted by committees of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference.
Chan and Chu shared similar experiences in their search for elephant ivory alternatives.
“The ban was a huge blow to me. I even carved out of ox bone, but only for a short time. Everybody was trying something new after the ban,” Chu says, who eventually found an ideal substitute in mammoth ivory, even though the prehistoric tusks are denser and more prone to cracking than contemporary elephant tusks.
Both ivory insiders emphasize that any new ivory ban from the government should not impact the mammoth ivory trade because of the fundamental difference between the two products.
In Beijing, the China Association of Mammoth Ivory Art Research issues cards to authenticate mammoth ivory products, similar to the system mandated by the Chinese government for elephant ivory carvings. However, use of the mammoth registration cards is voluntary.
Chen Shu, the president of the association, maintains an extensive showroom of mammoth carving arts at his home. Large polished mammoth tusks join examples of historic schools of traditional Chinese ivory carving—from Canton ivory balls carved with impossibly intricate concentric spheres, to Beijing-style painted ivory carvings, and even delicate modern jewelry designs.
Many domestic buyers consider mammoth ivory to be a commodity investment, while others have used the expensive carvings to bribe or otherwise buy influence.
Chen watched prices skyrocket for prehistoric ivory in the past decade. The growth far outpaced changes in elephant ivory prices. He says raw elephant ivory increased from roughly 1,000-2,000 yuan per kilogram in 2003 to 8,000-12,000 yuan per kilogram in 2013; over the same timespan, raw mammoth tusks that once sold for hundreds of yuan rose in price to 30,000-40,000 yuan per raw kilogram.
In the summer of 2016, Chen says that the mammoth ivory market was experiencing a downturn following the central government’s anti-corruption campaign, a slowing Chinese economy, and the Sino-U.S. agreement to strengthen regulation of the world’s two largest markets for black market ivory.
NEBRASKA MAMMOTH TRIVIA
One mastodon is discovered for every 10 mammoths in the state.
Regulation of Mammoth Ivory
Mammoth tusks occupy an awkward place between opposing views on the global ivory trade. In the view of Chinese traders, mammoth ivory is an alternative to African elephant ivory that sustains their traditional craftsmanship.
Many environmental activists, on the other hand, view the mammoth ivory trade as a means of sustaining a hated industry.
Currently, India is the only country to have banned the sale of mammoth ivory. In the United States, four states have bans on the sale and purchase of mammoth ivory: New York, New Jersey, California, and Hawaii.
Nevertheless, Esmond Martin, one of the world’s leading elephant conservationists has cited mammoth ivory as a possible beneficial alternative to elephant ivory (so long as mammoth carvings are produced on a large enough scale that they can be easily differentiated from elephant carvings). Unfortunately for mammoth traders who buy bulk quantities that often include fragments and lower-grade tusks, such scale is not always financially viable.
Mammoth ivory was recently addressed at the 17th meeting of the Conference of the Parties in South Africa from Sept. 24 through Oct. 5, when national representatives gathered to discuss the state of global wildlife regulations.
In response to the “indirect threat” to elephant populations through the potential for laundering, a draft resolution from Israel urged monitoring of specimens and new mammoth ivory regulations. But the CITES secretariat ruled against the resolution, in part, due to the anecdotal nature of evidence.
Evidence published during the prior year included a 10-month undercover investigation by the Elephant Action League in Hong Kong and Beijing. The undercover report claimed that the Beijing-based Beijing Mammoth Art Co. Ltd had manipulated its connections in Hong Kong to avoid Chinese ivory regulations.
Hong Kong’s environmental groups have mounted a vocal campaign against the territory’s ivory traders. A coalition of local school children protested the Chinese state-owned retail chain Chinese Arts & Crafts (which has outlets across the mainland and Hong Kong), and in 2014, the retailer responded with an announcement that it would sell only mammoth ivory. The commitment did not apply across mainland China, however; the Beijing arm of the company—an enormous shopping mall located near the historic city center—continued to sell both elephant and mammoth ivory products in summer of 2016.
“After the Hong Kong government bans elephant ivory in the new year, Hong Kong’s trade in mammoth ivory will also need a closer look,” says Alex Hofford, an environmental activist and WildAid wildlife campaigner, who alleges that prehistoric ivory trade is a “cynical laundering mechanism for freshly poached elephant ivory.”
NEBRASKA MAMMOTH TRIVIA The sale or purchase of mammoth ivory is not regulated in the state of Nebraska.
A Precious Scientific Commodity
University of Michigan professor Daniel Fisher says that China’s mammoth ivory supply chain is cutting into a precious scientific resource.
“Tusks hold the history of a mammoth’s life,” Fisher says. “Tusks are highly specialized incisor teeth, and they grow by adding thin layers of material, only 10-20 microns thick, for every day of the animal’s life. The composition and density of new tusk material varies with the seasons, in an annual cycle, so that a tusk also ends up showing annual layers that are, in principle, something like the rings of a tree.”
Cross-sections of tusks analyzed under a microscope can reveal the mammoth’s reproductive cycles, daily behavior, and might even offer clues into the secrets of global warming through changes in the creature’s diet. “We’re also looking at how they responded to human expansion into the Arctic, so this is also a story of our history,” he says.
For the past 18 years, Fisher has made annual trips to study mammoth excavation sites in Siberia. While exploring the most desolate corners of the Russian tundra, he has traveled by helicopter, boat, reindeer sled, and even hovercraft. But most of his fieldwork is done on foot.
“In many cases, I was following in the footsteps of the ivory hunters, and they are getting all they can. Even if some ivory doesn’t fetch a prime price, it might be worth something, and they don’t leave much behind,” he says.
Sometimes the modern mammoth hunters discover tusks from places where ancient human hunters stored carcass parts. Removing specimens from these sites destroys the archeological context, which scientists could otherwise study. Sometimes, he says the Russian Academy of Sciences will flag tusks for scientific retention. But that’s still rare, and by the time they do, site-specific data is already lost.
Fisher’s research has taken him all over the world. Even Nebraska. In 2006, he examined the Crawford mammoths (then-housed at Morrill Hall in Lincoln). The fighting mammoths, locked in eternal battle, are now on display at Fort Robinson’s Trailside Museum in the northwestern corner of the state.
George Corner remembers Fisher’s visit, and he laments that most of the tusks recovered with Nebraska’s mammoths are in no suitable shape for carving.
“You don’t hear a lot about fossil ivory in Nebraska. Special conditions preserve the tusks, like the frozen permafrost of Alaska or Siberia,” Corner says. “If you were to pick up a tusk from the loess soil around Omaha, you would just have a pile of tusk fragments.”
NEBRASKA MAMMOTH TRIVIA “We find elephant remains all the time in Nebraska. But it’s rare to find a skeleton or even a partial skeleton anymore. That’s because of a change in road construction practice. Instead of letting road cuts lay open, the Roads Department will immediately grass them over or seed them with hay. So, we don’t have a lot of time anymore to look at road cuts.”
For visual artist Erin Blayney, who grew up in the great outdoors, it’s all about light and space. She has plenty of both at her Old Market apartment that doubles as her studio.
Natural light from six large, south-facing windows cascades over her easel and houseplants. “Not only is that perfect for the type of lighting I need to do my best work, it’s healthy for my overall well-being,” says Blayney.
Exposed brickwork, high ceilings, and an open floor plan contribute to a sense of spaciousness. Extra-wide windowsills provide great perches for her collection of succulents.
“I love nature and the outdoors,” she says. “This apartment allows me to integrate that love into my living quarters, and not feel cramped or experience cabin fever.”
Her spot above Urban Abbey in the historic Windsor Hotel building puts her right in the thick of things. “The Old Market for me is very welcoming, unique, and nourishes a diverse group of people of all ages and backgrounds,” she says. “It’s urban yet has some aspect of a small neighborhood as well.”
A Florida transplant and Art Institute of Chicago graduate, Blayney creates figurative drawings and paintings. She previously worked as an art preparator for California museums.
Her mother preceded her to Omaha to be near a sister, and Erin followed. “My mom lives three blocks away from me, so it’s wonderful to conveniently meet for coffee or go for a bike ride together,” she says.
This self-described “people person” is drawn to the human form. She variously works from live models or photographs.
“Drawing and painting people, mostly gestural, seems to be pretty consistent for me,” she says. “It’s capturing the physicality of a person expressed through facial expression or movement. I love capturing the realness of their character, even if it’s subtle.”
Recently, Omaha restaurant mogul Willy Theisen commissioned her portrait of his granddaughter for his new Paragon eatery in Dundee.
When approaching a new work, she says, “I never know how it’s going to look, so it’s a little adventurous. If I stop thinking about what I’m doing and just let it flow, it comes out naturally. That ‘diving into it’ mindset is what I have to be in for the work to really evolve. It’s mysterious.”
Blayney’s work is not all figurative. “Occasionally, I’ll do still life,” she says, gesturing to an in-progress oyster shell rendered in a swirl of pastels. She is contemplating an oceanic-themed series motivated by her love of the water, marine life, and nature.
“I was brought up on water. I swam in the Gulf of Mexico. So that’s in my bones.”
In Omaha, she has twice worked at Jun Kaneko’s studio (most recently in 2006 as a painting assistant). Of the celebrated artist, she says, “We had a good connection. He’s very quiet, polite, observant, receptive. He was very trusting of me. Like when I did some mixing of colors, pigments—he trusted my instincts. I’m not a ceramicist, but I felt in my natural element.”
She feels at home in Omaha, where she says, “The connections I’ve made are so important.” The same for her day job at Alley Poyner Macchietto, where she curates art shows. She admires the local art-culture scene.
“I feel the creative community in Omaha is very supportive rather than super competitive. The friends I’ve made here are very authentic, genuine, and loyal.”
She enjoys what the Bemis and Joslyn offer as well as how “smaller, contemporary, progressive galleries like Project Project and Darger HQ are pushing the envelope. I’m a huge fan of Garden of the Zodiac. 1516 Gallery is just gorgeous.”
In the spring of 2016, Petshop Gallery in Benson exhibited her portraiture work. She regularly shows in the Bemis Benefit Art Auction and had a piece in the October 28 show (she described the colorful abstract portrait as “a little mysterious looking”).
Blayney also contributed to the Old Market Art Project; hers was one of 37 banners selected (from nearly 300 submissions) to be displayed outside the Mercer Building as renovations followed the M’s Pub fire.
“It’s an abstract painting that took forever,” she says. “There’s a lot going on in it. Finally, it just came together. I collaborated with another artist in the process of painting it, and then I finished it.”
She sees many opportunities for local artists in Omaha, but there is room for improvement, too. “There’s definitely room to grow—I’d like to see even more galleries because there’s so much talent here,” she says.
Going into the fall, several commission projects were “consuming” Blayney’s time. Her projects come from anywhere and everywhere. “Lately, it’s been more people coming to me and asking either for a portrait of themselves or of a family member. I can be surprised. I’ve given my card to someone and then a year later gotten a commission. It’s unpredictable.”
Haunting melodies float on a summer breeze. Anna McClellan is practicing on the grand piano;her melancholy lyrics and precise keystrokes are muffled by walls of her friend’s house in the Dundee neighborhood. Step inside the house and it becomes clear: the calm singer-songwriter with oversized eyeglasses is on fire.
McClellan, 23, is preparing for several shows scheduled across town in the coming days and weeks. She is also preparing for a two-week, cross-country tour to California. Her destination: Hardly Strictly Bluegrass, a free festival on the first weekend of October at San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park. She is booking her own gigs for the trip there and back.
The Omaha-born musician will take the stage with another famous local singer-songwriter, Conor Oberst. One of the festival’s seven stages is called “Conor Brings Friends.”
Oberst contributed vocals to McClellan’s most successful single, “Fire Flames,” also the title of her 2015 album (Fire Flames was a cassette tape released simultaneously in digital format by Majestic Litter).
McClellan has played several times at Oberst’s Pageturners Lounge in Dundee. “He’s very supportive of a lot of people around town,” she says. “It’s nice in Omaha, because it’s such a tight-knit community of people (making music). It’s really easy to get help.”
She wrote the song “Fire Flames” in a single sitting, which McClellan says is unusual for her. The lyrics exemplify a recurring theme in her music: “It is such a universal idea to want to be a part of what’s going on, and what the world is, and also being scared of it. But knowing that even though you’re scared of it, if you don’t jump in and try to be a part of it, you won’t be satisfied.”
In conversation, her demeanor is so chill. But she’s a hustler behind the scenes. She works two jobs (one at Joslyn Art Museum, another at The Blackstone Meatball) and plays shows around town by night. She’s speaking to Omaha Magazine on her day off.
McClellan began studying piano at age 8 through the Omaha Conservatory of Music. She credits the tutelage of Anne Madison for inspiring her passion for piano. Playing the saxophone in jazz band, concert band, and marching band (while a student at Central High School) helped her break out of her comfort zone: “I tend toward structure, where everything’s pre-planned and you know what you are going to do. To be taken out of that comfort zone, and then pushed into solos, made me better, more daring.”
Her mother, former KETV newscaster Carol Kloss, also provided crucial encouragement. They performed together in church musicals, and Kloss included McClellan—the younger of her two daughters—in several Omaha Press Club Show performances.
McClellan first began experimenting with songwriting while studying abroad in Denmark during her junior year of high school. She was in a band called Howard after returning to Omaha, then went solo in 2013. Last year she moved to New York City for three months, working and performing, eventually catching a break to go on tour as the opener for the band Frankie Cosmos.
Now, she’s working on a new album with Ben Brodin (the Omaha producer of Fire Flames). “We recorded new demos last Sunday for the new record,” McClellan says in July. “It’s going to be a little different. All of the songs that were in Fire Flames were written over this long period (some dating back to high school) more like a collection, but this will be more cohesive.”
“A lot of it is about relationships of two people…and romantic relationships in general, and then, fear,” she says, laughing. “I think it’s easy to get worked up over being scared, so I tend to do that a lot, even for the sake of the song.”
Ground beef and cottage cheese on an enchilada. The combination sounds strange, but it tastes amazing.
Creamy, melted cottage cheese oozes over hearty meat and shredded lettuce, tucked into a flour tortilla. Douse the whole plate with ladles of finely chopped hot salsa (made fresh every day), and dig in.
The menu warns in all-caps: “GUARANTEED A GUT-BUSTER!” It stretches across the plate like a log, coated with a blanket of cheddar and sprinkled with black olive slices. Twin mounds of rice and refried beans huddle beside the delicious monstrosity.
Ever since I learned of cottage cheese enchiladas, OJ’s Cafe on the edge of the Missouri River has called to me like a siren song for fat kids.
Mexican food is fairly common in the Midwest nowadays, but OJ’s Cafe was a trendsetter. Located next to the Florence Mill, just south of I-680’s 30th Street exit near the Mormon Bridge, OJ’s wood-paneled facade harkens back to the days of the Wild West.
The recipe for cheese and beef enchiladas belonged to the owner’s mother. The owner, 70-year-old Olga Jane Martinez (whose married name is Vlcek) was born in Anaheim, California. She opened the cafe 40 years ago. Vlcek says they added the Western-style facade a few years after opening.
Mexican food was hard to find in Omaha back then. The restaurant was situated in the site of a former dairy that sold milk, eggs, ice cream, hamburger, and cheeseburgers. At first, Vlcek followed suit. She kept the menu and added a daily special. Mexican dishes were the Thursday and Friday special.
“Then customers started asking for more Mexican food,” Vlcek says. “I said, ‘You know what? I am going to try to make a business of this.’ So, I cut everything else (about a year after opening).”
OJ’s now offers a full menu with tacos, burritos, vegetarian options, nachos, and a wide range of Mexican fare. The kitchen will even switch out flour tortillas for corn upon request.
Walk inside OJ’s today and find heavy wooden lacquer tables and booths. Kitschy decorations abound. Ceramic suns cover one wall. Promotional mirrors for imported Mexican beer cover another. There’s a stained glass window with cacti and a sombrero, a crucifix, family photos, and lots of other trinkets contributing to the down-home atmosphere.
A waitress asks for our order. I know what I want, but ask her suggestion anyway. She recommends the cottage cheese and chicken enchilada. I pause for a moment. I didn’t know the meat choice could be switched. I take a risk. Chicken and cottage cheese it is.
When I order a plate of tortilla chips, I ask for a mix of corn and flour ($3.75) and a Pacifico on-tap ($3.75 glass) from an ample selection of Mexican beers. The beer arrives in a frosty mug. A margarita ($4) with salt on the rim follows with the entrée.
Word to the wise couple: Those with smaller appetites should consider splitting the enchilada ($10.25). After essentially chugging half of the dish, I slow to contemplate the merits of beef vs. chicken and cottage cheese. The chicken is fairly bland, aside from the rich cheesiness common to both. I still prefer the beef (which seems more savory, possibly cooked with more seasoning); however, I’m not disappointed. Being perfectly honest, I dump so much homemade salsa on my plate that it probably doesn’t matter what I’m eating.
To wrap up the meal, a sombrero ($5.50) arrives. Luckily, I’m eating with a dinner companion. We share the two heaping scoops of vanilla ice cream towering over a cinnamon and sugar-coated tortilla, all drizzled with Mexican caramel.
Completely stuffed, I wonder about the origins of my favorite enchilada. Who better to ask than Olga Jane Vlcek herself. She still works at her namesake restaurant every day (OJ’s is open Tuesdays through Saturdays, 11 a.m. to 8 p.m., with a mid-day break that closes the cafe from 2 p.m. to 4:30 p.m.)
“That’s my signature enchilada,” Vlcek says of the beef and cottage cheese enchilada, which happens to be her favorite, too. The cottage cheese and beef enchilada was on the menu in the early days of OJ’s, but it wasn’t popular. “Ironically enough, I couldn’t sell them,” she says with a laugh. “People wouldn’t buy them, so I took it off the menu.” She made a commitment to herself that if her restaurant became established, she would bring back her mom’s enchilada recipe. And that’s exactly what she did. Omaha Magazine
Jennifer Williams grew up in Houston, making Nebraska’s cold, windy winters seem interminably long. “Everything just seems to shut down,” she says wistfully, standing in the kitchen of the six-bedroom, six-bath home she shares with her family, including husband Dan, daughter Brooke, 11, and son Dawson, 9. “It’s so bare outside.”
Walking through the first floor of the two-story brick house, past the formal dining room, Dan’s office, the master bedroom, Brazilian cherry wood-trimmed kitchen, quaint butler’s pantry, living room, den, and a sunroom that nurtures several potted aloe plants, the thought of settling in for a long winter’s nap indoors doesn’t seem like a bad deal—until you open the back door. There, on the south lawn, the reason for Jennifer’s cold weather lament reveals itself.
A poolside paradise occupies almost one-third of the family’s three-acre property in the aptly named Hidden Valley neighborhood—accessible from an unmarked dirt road that winds behind the Sarpy County Sheriff’s building. “We spend a lot of time out here and we entertain a lot as well,” says Jennifer, standing on a spacious deck that runs along the width of the house. Peering down from the deck’s railing, she points out the hot tub and a fire pit underneath, where many a marshmallow has met its demise.
The clear blue shade of the salt water in the large square pool matches the color of the sky on this sun-kissed afternoon. A spiraling waterslide guarantees a splashy landing near the pool’s basketball hoop and volleyball net. Four deck jets shoot shimmering arcs of water across the pool, but the visual fun happens after the sun goes down. “The fountain jets shoot colored streams at night,” Jennifer says. “It looks like a bunch of Roman candles going off.”
The Williams family knows something about pyrotechnics. Dan owns Wild Willy’s Fireworks, headquartered in his hometown of Springfield, Nebraska. For a business that only sells merchandise from June 25-July 4 and December 29-31, Wild Willy’s does a bang-up job. “In Omaha, there are 50 tents selling fireworks this summer, and 21 of those 50 tents are ours,” says Jennifer of Dan’s “hobby.” He also owns Tighton Tools and Fasteners, and a construction company.
In August, when Dan has more time to relax, the family holds a big blowout for friends, family, and neighbors. Fireworks cover the entire yard, lighting up the sky while a band plays under a tent. Accommodating a lot of guests poses no problem.
Dozens of lounge chairs, lined up beside each other with great precision, cover the pool deck and the patio. A charming pergola, the framework of which includes interlocking wooden slats on top, offers respite from the sun. With its Oriental décor and wicker furniture accented with burgundy-colored pillows, the pergola provides a setting so relaxing, it has “don’t call me until September” written all over it.
Across the pool from the pergola stands a structure that resembles a modest, Hollywood-style bungalow. Its exterior mimics the main house, with two white columns supporting a brick archway. Intricately designed wrought-iron screens protect the glass doors and windows.
Looks can be deceiving.
The “bungalow” is actually a stand-alone garage, where Dan and son Dawson have bonded by building two Chevy Chevelles from scratch. Garage amenities include a full bath and an RV hookup.
The cozy grouping of a lanai, open-air bar, and decorative water fountain fit seamlessly along the outside of the garage. A large fireplace of natural stone built into the wall provides enough heat to the lanai’s living room area to extend summer well into October. The polished, deep amber-colored travertine tile floor catches the eye, as does an electrified sun—a unique wall hanging made of orange metal the Williamses found in Mexico.
A smaller sun “light” hangs above the granite-top bar on the south end of the lanai, where family members can park themselves in bar stools, sip raspberry lemonade and watch a game on cable. They may also opt to turn off the wired-in music system and listen to the soothing sounds of trickling water from the fountain.
These are the times Jennifer cherishes—quiet moments with her family, eating dinner and playing cards in their little slice of heaven. She thinks about when she and Dan met, at the University of Nebraska at Kearney in the `90s, and the nearly 10 years she spent working in California before she returned to Omaha and married. As she surveys her Hidden Valley treasure, she says, almost inaudibly, “We love our life. We give thanks every day for what we have.” OmahaHome
When Janet Tuttle was in her 40s, she wanted to take up skiing again, an activity she started at age 14 but stopped when home and family life took over. She joined the Omaha Sports Club, but when that group decided to focus less on skiing, a new group branched off from it: the Omaha Ski Club.
Today, Tuttle is 79 and still going strong as a member of the Omaha Ski Club. Her favorite part of skiing is the scenery.
“I love the mountains,” she says. “When you ski in the mountains, you see things you don’t see when you’re driving.”
Teri Hammon, 57, a board member who plans all of the club’s trips, says about three quarters of the members are age 60 or older.
“We’re not old fuddy-duddies,” Hammon says. “We ski hard and ski all day.”
The Omaha Ski Club generally takes two to five skiing trips a season and members bicycle in the summertime (“to stay in shape for skiing,” Hammon says). The group has skied in Colorado, California, Utah, Wyoming, and Canada.
“Anywhere there’s powder!” Hammon says.
The group recently traveled to Snowmass, Colorado, for their first trip of the 2015-2016 season. Trips vary in length and typically involve the members meeting at a ski resort. Members enjoy participating in social activities, including a pre-trip party to discuss travel arrangements and a welcome party on the first or second day, along with lots of skiing.
In order to go along on a trip, one must be a member of the Omaha Ski Club (or one of its reciprocal clubs with the Flatland Ski Association). Annual dues are reasonable. Each member pays for his or her own travel, lodging, and equipment, but group discount rates often apply.
One need not be an expert skier to join the club, which welcomes all skill levels along with non-skiers who want to go to the resorts and do something else. Knowledgeable, experienced members often help beginners. Tuttle says she particularly likes to go out with the beginning-level skiers along some of the easier slopes.
Tuttle and Hammon agree that the club gains stability from the large percentage of retired members, who tend to have more free time and savings that allow them to go on the trips. Tuttle says she appreciates the social aspect of the club, which includes and welcomes anyone regardless of age.
“The socializing is a nice part of the skiing,” she says.
What about the risk of injury? Tuttle and Hammon have bumped and bruised themselves on the slopes—that’s why Tuttle says she’s become more careful as she’s aged.
But it takes more than a few accidents to keep her from returning to the mountains.
“It’s kind of like falling off a horse,” Tuttle says. “If you love what you’re doing, you get back on the horse again.”
This article appears in July/August 2015 Sixty-Plus.
Susan Bray has never been one to shy away from attention. She built her life around standing out.
As a blonde, long-haired “hippie chick” in the 1970s, Bray stood out in some Asian and Middle-Eastern countries that had never welcomed a white woman traveling solo.
Her adventures started after she left Nebraska and moved to Honolulu to live with her brother after college. A few years later, Bray married a physicist. They eventually relocated to Guam—“the hottest place on God’s green earth,” according to Bray. And she would know.
The travel bug bit hard soon after the couple divorced. She’s visited more than 50 countries in her 70 years of life. Most of her 50 countries came in a span of five years during three different trips.
She saw the cage in Titian where she believes Amelia Earhart was held captive by the Japanese until her death. She was goosed by a camel in Afghanistan. And she was horned in the rear by a water buffalo in Nepal.
Bray most recalls the kindness of the people in Nepal. It’s her favorite country. While there, she rented a motorcycle and headed toward Mount Everest—at least, until it broke down. She says, “It wasn’t a Harley, I’ll tell you.” But even out in the remote rice paddies, she quickly found help.
She went to Agra to see the Taj Mahal. It is the second most beautiful work of architecture she’s ever seen. The most stunning edifice Bray saw was the Golden Pagoda in Burma (now Myanmar). “It was like eight to 10 stories high, and it had a spiral staircase like the Guggenheim.” In an excited whisper, she then adds, “It was all plated gold. Just startling when you see it.”
Traveling cost a lot. She came home to her mother in Omaha in 1976 with about 45 cents to her name. Thankfully, pay phones only cost a dime at the time.
Subconsciously, Bray may have been studying art and architecture all over the world because she knew that’s where her heart was. Her passion led her to city planning in Omaha, which evolved into
Soon she grew restless and weary of Midwestern winters. Bray bought a house in Hawaii and lived there until her mother became ill. To be closer to her, she moved to La Jolla, Calif.
Quickly getting involved in historic preservation once again, “I ended up being in charge of the restoration of downtown San Diego,” Bray says. “I did an area called the Gaslamp Quarter. It was all old buildings I did…96 of them.”
In her living room is a newspaper clipping from the San Diego Tribune, the headline of which reads, “Gunslinger of the Gaslamp: Susan Bray is the guardian of downtown’s historical integrity—like her or not.”
She looks at the photo in the clipping and says, “The guys working on this building gave me a pink construction hat. So cute.”
Reflecting on Gaslamp, Bray says, “That’s my biggest contribution. I changed the footprint of a city. And that’s forever.”
Bray thinks a lot about legacies because she’s been diagnosed with a rare degenerative brain disease similar to Lou Gehrig’s called Orthostatic Hypotension. It’s terminal. This news came after she already survived lymphoma and breast cancer.
Her doctor in California recommended that she live near her burial site. So, six years ago, she threw all her photos, a small red chair, and a blue stool in her car to come back to Omaha.
Although she always appreciated the sense of community here, she felt sad to find so many of her good friends had already passed away or moved. She’s grateful for the new friends she has made and some friends from Westide High School she’s reconnected with.
Bray does not know the meaning of the term stranger. “I dialed the wrong number the other night in San Diego, and I ended up talking to a 79-year-old woman for an hour,” she says.
Even sales calls get a taste of her gusto. “My daily joy is making people laugh,” she says. “I think that’s why God put me on this earth.”
So even though Bray has to “fill a bathtub to feel at home” so far from the ocean, she’s made a home again in Omaha. Inside her apartment, Bray’s parakeet, Big Boy, sings in the background. Combine that with the vintage blond art deco floors—“I would only ever live in a historic property”—it could almost be a tropical getaway.
As director of inCOMMON, a nonprofit organization located at 13th and William streets, Christian Gray thrives on building relationships in the Omaha community. Growing up in the affluent suburbs of Orange County, Calif., Gray was rarely exposed to the hardships many Americans face, but somehow he got the message that material wealth is not what life is about.
“When I began to juxtapose a wealthy lifestyle with the lifestyle of millions around the world, and even here locally in the United States, it began to bother me,” Gray admits. “It began to make me uneasy about what life is, and I began asking questions like ‘What is the purpose of life? Is it to be comfortable? Successful?’ I began to challenge a lot of those notions that I think were just part of the culture growing up.”
After graduating from the University of Arizona, where he met his wife, Sonya, Gray began seeking out places where he could help. His passion for helping the poor has taken him from Romania to India to South Africa and back to the U.S. During the process, he had time to really self-reflect on the bigger picture.
“I’m still trying to figure it out, but I think the purpose of life is to live wholly and richly,” he says. “That doesn’t mean you have a ton of stuff or even a ton of success. It means you’re an authentic person, and you care about other people, and you’re part of a greater global community and humanity. I think that’s the answer. I think the way we go about that all looks differently. Locations can change and reflect how we can live that out. I think that’s the purpose of life, to really be a part of enriching the global community.”
Once settled in Omaha, Gray got to work on inCOMMON, which specializes in uniting and strengthening vulnerable neighborhoods. He spearheads many subsidiary programs, such as The Listening Project and Neighbors United.
inCOMMON incorporates Asset-based Community Development (ABCD) practices into its work. ABCD is a best-practice that dates back to the 1970s. “We try to build upon a neighborhood’s pre-existing strengths,” he explains. “We have the Listening Project, where we train volunteers to go into the community and hear from its residents and try to build solutions to their problems.”
As a result of information gathered from The Listening Project around the Park Avenue neighborhood, inCOMMON is preparing to open a community center in June called Park Avenue Commons. Located on the corner of Park Avenue and Woolworth Street, the dilapidated Acme Rug and Carpet Cleaning building is getting a new life as a part of Gray’s vision.
“When I began to juxtapose a wealthy lifestyle with the lifestyle of millions around the world, and even here locally in the United States, it began to bother me.”
“I had a growing compassion for the condition of people that are poor, and I wanted to be a part of creating better futures for our communities in that way,” Gray says. “Park Avenue Commons will provide easier access to social services, emergency and preventative services, and a place to come together as a community.”
Gray has many dedicated volunteers that share the same passion for helping the less fortunate. For example, Omaha resident Leslie Wells is gearing up for a recycling program, in which he provides bikes for the homeless to collect recyclables from downtown businesses. Gray emphasizes it’s about building those relationships in order to cultivate community development and empowerment.
“‘The single greatest cause for sustained poverty is isolation,’” he says, quoting Dr. Robert Lupton of FCS Urban Ministries. “If we look at poverty, at least in an urban context, as people living in an isolated community that are cut off from opportunities, then relationships are key because they allow people to bridge outside their limited ranges to a greater opportunity. Strong neighborhoods require that people know each other and people are cooperative with one another and working to solve problems together. The key to overcoming poverty is to have residents that know each other and work together.”