Tag Archives: Chris Foster

Neighborhoods, USA

February 20, 2017 by
Photography by Provided

Chris Foster quickly developed a deep appreciation for his Gifford Park neighborhood after arriving in 1986. He joined its neighborhood association when it was launched a couple of years later and served as its president for a two-year stint that ended in 2001.

But it took a trip to Pittsburgh that year to trigger an epiphany. He realized what his midtown neighborhood could become.

On the trip, members of Omaha’s Planning Department and folks from various Omaha neighborhood associations traveled to the Steel City to attend that year’s “Neighborhoods, USA” national conference.

At the NUSA conference, hundreds of attendees passionate about improving neighborhoods and building stronger communities gather to swap ideas, participate in educational workshops, tour neighborhoods, and honor the innovative and life-changing work of neighborhood betterment projects.

And 2017 will see an exciting culmination of the efforts of city planners and Omaha neighborhood advocates like Foster—the 42nd annual NUSA conference is coming to Nebraska for the first time. The conference will be held at the Omaha Hilton Hotel and CenturyLink Center from May 24-27.

“NUSA coming to Omaha is a great training, educational resource, and networking opportunity for Omaha neighborhood leaders to learn about what’s going on in neighborhoods all around the country,” says Julie Smith, a conference organizer and neighborhood alliance specialist with ONE Omaha. “We will learn about programs other cities have and know that they face a lot of similar challenges, as well.”

A Fourth of July parade attracts residents in the Maple Village neighborhood.

Years in the Making

Discussions to bring NUSA to Omaha started six years ago, according to Norita Matt, a city planner who attended that 2001 conference with Foster. Years of planning led to Omaha’s presentation to NUSA leaders at the 2015 conference in Houston that landed the bid to host this year’s event.

“There is a lot that goes along with it; you have to have the mayor’s support and plenty of city support,” Matt says.

The Omaha conference will include local keynote speakers; dozens of local, national, and global workshops; awards for exceptional neighborhood betterment programs; local and national exhibitors; and a mayor’s reception.

The highlight of each conference, Matt says, are the Neighborhood Pride Tours during which attendees learn how neighborhoods use innovation and elbow grease to better their communities. More than 20 tours, including two in Council Bluffs, will focus on the rich history, unique designs, and revitalization of neighborhoods, she says. Tours are capped with receptions, local entertainment, and demonstrations of different cultures through music and dance.

“Going into the neighborhoods gives us a chance to hear about challenges and what people are doing to bring back the neighborhoods,” she says.

Gifford Park is one of many neighborhoods to participate in the city’s annual Spring Clean Up.

Two Omaha keynote speakers will highlight a key crucial neighborhood betterment effort. Jose Garcia and Terri Sanders will present their groups’ efforts to revitalize the 24th Street corridor, Omaha’s original “Street of Dreams,” connecting North and South Omaha, including the Fair Deal Village MarketPlace near 24th and Burdette streets.

Fostering a Better Community Life

For Foster of the Gifford Park association, NUSA coming to Omaha holds special significance because of his profound experience in Pittsburgh more than 15 years ago.  >

“I described it as a life-changing experience because I saw a presentation on inclusiveness involving community gardens,” Foster recalls, describing how he was “blown away” by a Seattle speaker who described the city’s network of community gardens.

Foster and others spent hours with the speaker at a local coffeehouse, and he then found himself doodling ideas about a vacant piece of land behind the Gifford Park home he shares with his wife, Sally.

Soon after, they were cleaning up the double-wide lot and purchasing the parcel for $4,000. Others joined in to transform the lot at 3416 Cass St. into the Gifford Park Community Garden. A youth gardening program soon followed.

A mural on North 30th Street emphasizes the history of the Florence neighborhood. Photo by Mele Mason.

A couple of years later, the garden expanded and an “adventure playground,” complete with a double-decker treehouse, was built as a way to build community ties among Gifford Park families and children.

Since then, a host of neighborhood activities and services have been developed, including a community bike shop and a free youth tennis program held each August at 33rd and Cass streets.

The conceptual seeds that revitalized Gifford Park’s community were planted at that NUSA conference years ago.

“NUSA provides me with some leadership development,” Foster says. “It gets people excited, invigorated, and motivated to want to take on projects in neighborhoods or work with the city and take on leadership roles. As volunteers, we have more effect on our neighborhoods than almost anything else. We’re the owners and stakeholders who can actually get it done.”

Visit nusa.org for more information.

The 42nd annual NUSA conference is coming to Nebraska for the first time. The conference will be held at the Omaha Hilton Hotel and CenturyLink Center from May 24-27.

A mural in Prospect Village celebrates the North Omaha neighborhood.

This article was printed in the March/April 2017 edition of Omaha Home.

Gifford Park

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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