Tag Archives: Carver Bank

Baller Artist

October 14, 2016 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

“Kids need a community that shows them they can be successful and invests in their success,”

-Aaryon Williams

With an international basketball career spanning Peru, Denmark, Iceland, and Mexico, most 30-year-olds might be tempted to coast. Not Aaryon “Bird” Williams. The prolific artist and arts supporter is in the legacy construction business.

aayronwilliams3Williams has directed well-known local mural projects, such as the Terence Crawford Mural (inside Miller Park Elementary) and the Love Mural (at 24th and Lake streets behind Love’s Jazz and Art Center). He’s a spoken word artist and regular at Verbal Gumbo at House of Loom. His painting “The Butterfly and the Bee,” a tribute to Muhammad Ali pictured in victory over Joe Frazier, was unveiled at Carver Bank, where Williams puts his art management education to use as a program director.

Williams is tall and charming, especially when talking about his passions. He looks equally at ease suited up in the VIP room or paint-splattered in the studio. But when speaking of the past, he looks down as if haunted.

“Born” and “failed” are the two most significant words Williams associates with his old hometown: Gary, Indiana. According to the Department of Justice, Gary is one of six American pilot communities targeted by the federal government for nationally publicized civil rights abuses. A model American ghetto. Not exactly the land of opportunity for a young black man.

“I failed there, miserably,” Williams says of his time in Gary. “After my older sister died of lupus, I moved to Omaha on my 18th birthday by Greyhound. I had no money, no friends, a small group of family members, and a high school GPA of 0.56 as an incoming senior.”

“After my older sister died of lupus, I moved to Omaha on my 18th birthday by Greyhound.”

-Aaryon Williams

Fortune reversed itself when Williams enrolled at North High School in 2004. There, unlike in Gary, he got the palpable sense that people wanted him to do well, motivating him to do better than an F average.

aayronwilliams2“I met teachers and administrators who actually wanted to see me succeed. That was important. Kids need a community that shows them they can be successful and invests in their success,” says Williams. “I became the star of our basketball team, one of the leading art students of my class, sang solo for high school a cappella men’s group, and scored a 3.25 GPA my first semester. Turned out, I wasn’t as incompetent as I thought.”

That formative time changed his life, and working with Omaha youth has been a priority for Williams ever since. He’s worked for Girls, Inc., the UNMC Wesley House Leadership Academy, Impact One gang intervention, and Omaha City Sprouts Garden to name a few.

“I always had a passion for working with kids and inner-city youth,” says Williams. “I stepped away from basketball in 2010 because I’m about more than how high I can jump.”

Williams is founder and director of FLIYE Arts Company, a group providing resources and support to talented young artists. “It’s an acronym that stands for ‘Focused, Liberated, Intelligent, Youthful, Extraordinary.’ It’s a combination I used while transitioning from Gary to inspire and encourage myself.”

Williams is also founder and director of the FLIYE Arts Youth Development (FAYD) after school mentoring program at Omaha North High where kids have lined up to learn from metro area experts.

“FAYD specializes in building better artists and intellectuals through mentoring. We want kids at North—and eventually at other Omaha high schools—to have the chance to meet and learn from people who can help them achieve their goals. Kids need a community support system to be successful, and that’s what we give them.”

Visit facebook.com/fliyeartsco for more information. Omaha

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Empowering North Omaha

October 13, 2016 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

“Everybody says that it takes a village to raise a child, but what happens when the village really needs to be brought back together in order to do that work?” asks Willie Barney, the founder and president of the Empowerment Network.

This holiday season, Christmas in the Village at 24th and Lake streets will demonstrate the vision cast by Barney and others. The sixth annual community celebration takes place on the first Saturday of December (Dec. 3) from noon until 5:30 p.m. Twinkling lights will spread Christmas cheer along several blocks from the intersection at the historic heart of North Omaha (sponsored by the
Sherwood Foundation).

Free horse-drawn carriage rides will carry passengers throughout the neighborhood. There will be free coffee and cranberry-flavored tea distributed on the streets; free gloves and toys for kids; arts and craft vendors selling their wares; biblical actors from Mount Moriah Baptist Church joining animals from Scatter Joy Acres farm in a live nativity scene; free entry at Love’s Jazz, The Union for Contemporary Arts, The Omaha Star, Carver Bank, and more. Omaha Economic Development Corporation’s brand new Fair Deal Village Marketplace will also be featured.

“The carriage ride is always packed,” Barney says. “That’s why we’ve had to add at least two of them, and we block off the streets so people can walk up and down and enjoy the atmosphere. The live music is in Dreamland Park, so you can hear live music from some of the best gospel and jazz artists singing outside.”

Joyous music up and down the street rekindles 24th and Lake’s former glory as a nightlife district, where the nation’s best jazz musicians once played on a nightly basis. Vendors and restaurants will be serving hot food during Christmas in the Village. Businesses and nonprofits, old and new, will be open to welcome visitors. Last year, Barney says more than 4,000 people attended the event.

“One of our goals is for Christmas in the Village at 24th and Lake to become not just a one-day event,” says Barney. “That’s really our vision: to let people know that you can come to 24th and Lake, that there are businesses and restaurants here. That’s what we are building toward, and we are now starting to see it come to fruition.”

The “village” concept has been an integral part of the Empowerment Network’s philosophy since its inception. In June 2006, Barney met with a small group to discuss building a coalition of community leaders and resident stakeholders. He says their goal was “working together to rebuild the village.”

“That’s really our vision: to let people know that you can come to 24th and Lake, that there are businesses and restaurants here.”

They initially looked at the whole of North Omaha as one village, but they have since broken the geographical region into 12 village areas. The 24th and Lake area is one village. The area of Prospect Hill (also known as the Highlander neighborhood) is another such village area, where nonprofit developer Seventy5North is building a new mixed-use project. The name “Seventy5North” refers to Highway 75, which divides the Highlander neighborhood from 24th and Lake.

Barney was born in Hollandale, Mississippi, went to college at St. Ambrose University in Davenport, Iowa, and quickly rose in the ranks of Lee Enterprises from intern to marketing executive. He moved to Omaha with his wife in 2000 for a marketing manager job at the World-Herald.

“When we were being recruited here, we read about the graduation rate, and about the great business climate, and all the great things that were under development,” he says. “But it was in those first six months to a year (after relocating) when it became apparent that there were some major disparities, and not everyone in this community was participating actively in the opportunities that are here.”

After four years with the World-Herald, he took a job with Salem Baptist Church with hopes of making a difference through North Omaha’s faith community. Two years later, he gathered with a small group to discuss starting the Empowerment Network.

The Empowerment Network formally launched in April 2007 with the involvement of 400 individuals—local residents, stakeholders, and community leaders. Today, the organization consists of more than 3,000 participants.

Aside from Christmas in the Village, the organization hosts several annual and recurring initiatives, including:

williebarney1A Village Community Meeting—on the second Saturday of every month at North High School, starting with free breakfast at 8:45 a.m., followed by speakers, roundtables, and networking.

Omaha 360—a gang violence prevention initiative, every Wednesday at the Omaha Home For Boys off 52nd and Ames streets.

The African American Leadership Conference—a fall event focused on career advancement, leadership development, networking, and strategic initiatives.

Step-Up Omaha!—the largest youth employment initiative in the state, where the Empowerment Network works with community partners and businesses to hire 400-500 youths between ages of 14 to 21 for summer jobs.

North Omaha Cradle to Career Education Strategy—an initiative focused on improving educational outcomes in North Omaha.

They were also active in helping to draw up the North Omaha Village Revitalization Plan in coordination with the City Council, Planning Board, Nebraska Investment Finance Authority, and the OEDC. It was approved in 2011.

“We worked with Michael Maroney (with the OEDC) and other partners to identify what the community would like to see at 24th and Lake. That was the beginning of the North Omaha Village Revitalization Plan, which became the master plan for the area, which led to Christmas in the village and other major developments,” says Barney, noting that Seventy5North also came out of the meetings.

The plan called for new buildings and new infrastructure investments at 24th and Lake, but Barney and other community leaders didn’t want to wait until construction was completed. “Let’s use what we have,” was the consensus, Barney says. “Why don’t we visually show what we mean when we say arts, culture, entertainment, and business district? Why don’t we create something that the community can taste, touch, and feel?” Christmas in the Village is part of the realization of the answer.

Visit empoweromaha.com for more information.

From Soapbox to Stage

September 22, 2014 by
Photography by Keith Binder
Whenever Denise Chapman traverses the blight and decay that have scourged North 24th Street for upwards of 40 years, she can’t help but ask questions. From Cuming Street to as far north as Fort Street, what was once known as the “The Street of Dreams” in its halcyon days has remained pockmarked and disfigured from race riots dating back to the 1960s.

 

Chapman says she doesn’t understand why.

“Those empty lots were burned down in a riot?” she asks. “Okay, well why didn’t something else go up?” she inquires, surrounded by stacks of envelopes and paperwork. “What happened next? Or, more importantly, why not next?”

For the award-winning actor and education director of the Omaha Community Playhouse, these questions don’t require answers—at least not yet, Chapman says. Rather, they’re the underpinnings for what she calls “the right questions,” or questions born from art.

That very sentiment earned Chapman a six-month residency at Carver Bank last May, where the over 30 but under 40-year-old has begun her most ambitious project to date—a play examining the 1969 Vivian Strong riots.

“I didn’t think I was going to get in,” Chapman says before producing a roaring laugh. “I really didn’t. I went in and had one of my soap-box moments.”

Located at the historic intersection of North 24th and Lake streets, Chapman’s Carver Bank performance space isn’t far from the former Logan Fontenelle Housing Project where Vivian Strong was shot and killed by an Omaha police officer 45 years ago.

The 14-year-old girl’s death triggered nearly a week of riots that included the looting and firebombing of North 24th Street businesses. Chapman says the spirit of the community is still as scarred from the incident as is its landscape.

“When a community implodes, if you don’t deal with the core issues of that implosion, they don’t ever really go away,” she says as her voice drops to a solemn half-whisper. “There’s always residue of that. So there’s still residue of mistrust between community and police. There’s still this sort of fleeing from the neighborhood. There’s still that ‘you know you’ve made it when you can move out’ stigma.”

Chapman, a “theatre practitioner who works with bodies and space,” is no stranger to writing plays that explore the plight her North Omaha hometown has endured. Last year, she adapted Euripides’ The Trojan Women as a vehicle to examine the community of women who are affected and left behind by the war on drugs.

“The possibility that we have as artists to affect real generational change — that’s why I’m in the work,” Chapman says, pausing a moment to collect her thoughts.

She can’t help but smile.

“Art changes everything,” she beams.
“It really does!”

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Loyalty and Pride

February 8, 2014 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

When Ron Dotzler asked his future in-laws for permission to marry their daughter, her mother said no.

“No? Why?”

“Because you’re white.”

Dotzler grew up in rural Iowa, in a small town of about 300 people. “No diversity whatsoever until I went to college and played basketball. Met my wife, fell in love with her…” He shrugs. “I had no clue.”

After a few years of a successful career as a chemical engineer, starting a family, and building a brand new house out west, things settled down. Then Dotzler and his wife Twany announced they were moving to North Omaha as a sort of pit stop before serving overseas in missions. “Her mother went off on me,” Dotzler recalls. “‘We did all we could to get our daughter out of the ghetto, and you’re taking her back?’”

They’ve lived in North Omaha 25 years now. The Dotzlers never did make it overseas.

Instead, the couple works alongside a small staff and a large roster of volunteers as the Abide Network. The organization is one of many groups in the North Omaha area working to infuse neighborhoods north of Cuming Street and east of I-680 with new work, new homes, and new empowerment.

Its reputation

JoAnna LeFlore, interim program director of Bemis Center’s Carver Bank art gallery at 24th and Lake, calls these pockets of activity “bubbles.” “Brigitte over at The Union is a bubble,” she says, referring to Brigitte McQueen, director of the artist residency program at 24th and Burdette. “Love’s Jazz is a bubble. The Empowerment Network. We’re a bubble. If you didn’t grow up in North Omaha, you have no idea what vibrancy is here.”

It’s true that Omahans outside of the vague borders of North Omaha have a certain perception of the area. LeFlore recalls an exchange she had with a bank teller from Bennington after she read LeFlore’s business card. “24th and Lake?” the woman asked. “Isn’t that a bad neighborhood?”

“I just…I took a minute,” LeFlore says with a tired laugh. “And I said, ‘Why would you think that?’ And she said, ‘One of my friends is a police officer, and he told me not to go to that neighborhood.’” LeFlore reverted to her default reaction whenever she runs across someone who relates hearsay. “I listened, and I let her talk.” She pauses. “And then I just told her to come down to Carver Bank and get a sandwich at Big Mama’s.”

The sandwich shop next door to Carver Bank’s gallery and studio space is popular with Creighton students. Grace Krause, a graphic design graduate from Creighton University, has been an intern at Carver Bank for a couple weeks. “I grew up in North Omaha, kind of in the Florence area. I’ve always been a defendant of North Omaha. It’s a really great place; it just has a bad rap.”

JoAnna LeFlore is the interim program director of Bemis Center’s Carver Bank art gallery at 24th and Lake.

JoAnna LeFlore is the interim program director of Bemis Center’s Carver Bank art gallery at 24th and Lake.

LeFlore agrees. “Yes, there are things that happen in this neighborhood that are regrettable, but they also happen all over the city.”

Stats collected by the Abide Network suggest that, while violent crimes do happen all over the city, North Omaha still bears the brunt of them. Dotzler keeps a map covered in red pushpins for every murder (“It’s approximately 820 total”) that’s happened in the city in the 25 years he’s lived in North Omaha. “As you can see, two thirds of them take place right here,” he says, pointing to the area north of Dodge and east of 50th Street.

Its goals

However, Krause’s comments reflect another side of North Omaha, one that statisticians can’t discount. “When you meet people from North Omaha, they’re exceedingly loyal and proud of where they’re from,” says Othello Meadows, lawyer by profession, community developer by chance, and North Omahan by birth. “You always have this feeling of, like I owe something to where I grew up.” His work in Seventy-Five North Revitalization Corporation offers what he calls the best of both worlds. “It’s challenging work intellectually, but there’s also this greater good we’re trying to achieve.”

Through Seventy-Five North, Meadows wants to bring three elements of greater good to North Omaha: high-quality, mixed-income housing; a cradle-to-college educational pipeline; and a network of community services.

“Neighborhoods with good economic diversity are more resilient and economically stable,” Meadows says. “And we’ll create that with a combination of for-sale and for-rent homes.” That means multi-family apartments, single-family homes, and duplexes.

“When you meet people from North Omaha, they’re exceedingly loyal and proud of where they’re from.”
—Othello Meadows

The mixed-income housing is probably the closest of Seventy-Five North’s goals to becoming a reality. The organization owns 23 empty acres where a project called Pleasantview stood near 30th and Parker Streets when Meadows was a child. “If you grew up here, you knew about it,” he says. “It was a really tough place.” When he moved back from practicing law in Georgia in 2008, “they were tearing it down. The cost to rehab it was way more than it was to tear it down. Twenty-three acres with nothing on it. Kind of a rare find.” He plans to break ground on a new apartment building before 2015.

Dotzler, on the other hand, says moving away from rented housing is what the area needs. “Seventy percent of these homes are rental,” he says, referring to the neighborhood where Abide Network is based, “owned by landlords who receive money through Section 8 housing. There’s a reason it’s a good business,” he says. “It’s just bad for our community. Fifty-eight percent of rentals are owned by somebody outside of the community.” Dotzler says that rental properties move people around constantly, making a community lack stability.

Interestingly, lack of stability is what Meadows wants to solve as well but with a combination of rental and market-price homes. “Right now,” he says, “you can’t build a house for what you’d be able to sell it. It’s different to have houses that someone can qualify for versus someone who can pay market rate.”

“It’s important for people to have an option to stay here,” LeFlore agrees, though she also would prefer to see more home ownership in the next five years. 
“Jobs, living situations. Anything that celebrates what’s good will keep people living here.” She adds that another item on her five-year wish list for North Omaha is a strong community development organization. “Something like Othello’s doing,” she says, referring to Seventy-Five North. “Other cities do it. They engage the neighborhoods that exist, and they engage the city to redevelop the neighborhood. So I think in five years that needs to happen. There is no excuse. I think it’s urgent.”

For Dotzler, one point of urgency is neighborhood safety. “The police would tell you a cleaner neighborhood is a safer neighborhood,” Dotzler says, “so let’s mow lawns, let’s pick up trash, let’s fix broken windows, let’s paint over graffiti.” To that end, the Abide Network has for the last six years been steadily “adopting” small blocks of neighborhoods, about 20-25 houses with perhaps four people per house.

The red, dotted line indicates the 23 vacant acres where Pleasantview used to stand and where Seventy-Five North Revitalization Corp. plans to break ground with new apartments by early 2015.

The red, dotted line indicates the 23 vacant acres where Pleasantview used to stand and where Seventy-Five North Revitalization Corp. plans to break ground with new apartments by early 2015.

As Meadows says, “North Omaha is a huge geographic area. It’s critical to take a manageable bite. The person who says they’re going to change North Omaha is nuts. You have to say we’re going to go to work in this neighborhood. And then hopefully you can establish a model that’s replicable.”

That’s just what Abide Network is doing. Since that first block six years ago, the organization has adopted about 100 such neighborhoods, visiting at least once a month to address the fixes that Dotzler lists. They’d like to reach over 700.

Its determination

“We see a lot of emphasis on affordable housing, a lot of emphasis on education, a lot on community services,” Meadows says of the various programs working in North Omaha, “but independently, these don’t get a neighborhood to turn a corner and stay around that corner. You can’t implement these things in any kind of isolated fashion. They really have to work together.”

In fact, one of the reasons the old Pleasantview plot was so attractive to Seventy-Five North (in addition to the vacant 23 acres) was the existence of several already-strong community partners. Meadows lists off just a few: Charles Drew, a federally qualified low-income health-care provider; Salem Baptist Church, the largest African-American congregation in the state; and Urban League of Nebraska, which provides services from job training to parent education.

“It’s our role to coordinate the support that our residents can look forward to,” Meadows says. Housing, education, and services—those elements working together, he says, are what will turn the boat around in North Omaha.

“A small organization like Carver or The Union can only do so much,” LeFlore agrees. “To really market an area of the city, it has to be a communal effort. It has to be a commitment from—well, I don’t know who to put at the table. It’s everyone’s job. Find your place and sit there. Get to the table and have a seat.” She laughs but there’s an element of no-nonsense. “Don’t point the finger and don’t be the naysayer.” LeFlore says she’s tired of hearing ‘We tried that 20 years ago, and it didn’t work.’

“Maybe someone who you meet now can you help you do it right,” she says. “You have to be humble to start a movement. Your ego has to be gone.”

Old Buildings, New Art

November 3, 2013 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Since Omaha was founded nearly 160 years ago, many of its older buildings have seen their demise. But in at least two of Downtown Omaha’s historical structures, creative artists and imaginative entrepreneurs have replaced staid bankers and burly beer makers, enabling these pieces of history to continue on with a new purpose.

Carver Bank

An abandoned building near 24th and Lake streets became a renovated space this year for:

  • Artists in residence. Visual and performance artists receive workspace and a $500 monthly stipend for one year.
  • Art. Exhibitions, events, and workshops are available for youth and adults.
  • Participation. A cultural and economic resurgence is happening in North Omaha.
  • Environmentalism. Finishes inside are mostly made of salvaged and recycled materials, such as a gymnasium floor from a decommissioned school in Panama, Iowa.
  • Delicious food. Big Mama’s Sandwich Shop is open till 4 p.m. every day but Sunday, even serving a roast-beef sarnie called The Carver.

Carver Savings and Loan, named for scientist George Washington Carver, opened in 1946 as Nebraska’s first African-American bank. Vince Furlong, who conducts walking tours for Restoration Exchange Omaha, says that the bank closed in 1966. After housing several nonprofits, the building shut its doors in 2006.

In 2010, Hesse McGraw, then chief curator for Omaha’s Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts, and Chicago-based artist Theaster Gates began talking to people in the neighborhood about the needs of North Omaha, according to Jessica Scheuerman, program coordinator for the Bemis Center.

After two years, McGraw and Gates decided to renovate the abandoned Carver Bank building. They wanted to spearhead a program with an emphasis on visual and performance artists of color or who are North Omaha-minded.

Patricia “Big Mama” Barron, the eponymous owner of the sandwich shop, says the neighborhood was excited about the renovation that began last year. “People would come by and talk about how happy they were to see something go in there.”

The Carver Bank building is owned by the City of Omaha and leased for $1 over five years to the Bemis Center, which renovated and programs the space.

The artists’ program fits in well with the City of Omaha’s long-range, public-private plan to revitalize North Omaha, focusing on the 24th and Lake Cultural Arts District.

The building’s renovation is a good example of recycling. Framing lumber torn down during the building’s demolition was reused to frame new walls. Says Barron: “I’m a person who believes in recycling things, and I hate to see old buildings torn down. That’s a part of history being torn down.”

Anheuser-Busch Beer Depot

The stable is gone. The ice house is gone. Even the beer vault is gone. All were destroyed by a fire.

What remains is a quaint, brick building that was an office when the brewery’s complex was built in 1887. At 1213 Jones Street near the Bemis Center, the building has housed The New BLK (pronounced Black) advertising agency and art gallery for three years.

“‘The new black’ is a term in fashion for the next hot thing,” says Brian Smith, who gives his title as connector, catalyst, and co-conspirator.

The building was remodeled in 1988 by its current owner, Alley Poyner Macchietto Architecture, which had offices there before moving. The architecture firm added a mezzanine loft area for nonprofit offices, and the space is still set aside for that use. “A recent example was Aqua-Africa, which builds wells in South Sudan,” says Smith.

The New BLK spreads out on the main level in a modern, open, workspace. The advertising firm also runs an art gallery on the lower level, featuring emerging artists.

Gerard Pefung, born in Cameroon, is one such artist who exhibited his work at The New BLK. “He recently did a mural installation at Omaha Police Headquarters,” Smith says. “Some of our partners are active artists and some have managed artist studios in Europe.”