Tag Archives: Los Angeles

A New Day Arisen

June 7, 2017 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Kelly Hill stands on the corner of 30th and Lake streets admiring Salem Baptist Church’s towering cross, which looms over the landscape. A member of the church for more than 15 years, Kelly grew up in the now-demolished Logan Fontenelle Housing Projects not far from the area. He can remember a time before Salem sat atop the hill, when the Hilltop Homes housing projects occupied the area.

“I left Omaha to join the military in 1975, and I didn’t return until 1995. I missed all of the gangs and bad stuff in Hilltop,” Hill remembers. “When I was a kid, it wasn’t a bad area at all. Me and my sister would play around there all the time.”

Within those 20 years, Hill was fortunate to have missed Hilltop’s downfall, as it would eventually become one of Omaha’s most notorious housing projects.

A major blight on North Omaha’s image in the 1980s to mid-1990s, Hilltop Homes would eventually be the second major housing project demolished in the metro area after Logan Fontenelle.

Before Hilltop Home’s razing in 1995—which had the unfortunate consequence of displacing many lower-income minority residents—the plague of drugs, murders, and gang activity had turned the area’s housing projects into a localized war zone.

It was a far cry from their humble beginnings as proud housing tenements for Omaha’s burgeoning minority population that exploded in the 1940s.

Edwin Benson

Built around Omaha’s oldest pioneer resting place, the neighborhood takes its name from Prospect Hill Cemetery on 32nd and Parker streets. Prospect Place was repurposed by the U.S. government to house a large influx of minority and low-income residents, mostly African-Americans, who migrated to Omaha seeking opportunities outside the oppressive South during the mid-20th century. Some 700 units of public housing emerged across the city in the 1940s, including Hilltop Homes and the nearby Pleasantview Apartments.

The projects were conveniently situated. Hilltop’s 225 units were positioned in a centralized location along 30th and Lake streets, near the factory and meatpacking plants on 16th Street to the east, with Omaha Technical High School to the south (the largest high school west of Chicago at the time).

Multiple generations of families would come to call Hilltop and Pleasantview their first homes; however, the collapse of the job structure on the north side of Omaha in the late 1960s would be a major catalyst in Prospect Place’s eventual downfall.

Successful factories and stores that kept the area afloat—such as The Storz Brewery and Safeway Grocery Store—closed their doors. At the same time, new civil rights laws prohibiting job discrimination were being passed. Some believe that fear of change, and fear of civil rights era legislations, motivated major employers in the community to move from northeast Omaha westward. A disappointing trend of joblessness and poverty would eventually devolve the community into a powder keg ready to blow.

Multiple riots at the tail end of the 1960s would take an additional toll on North Omaha. Four instances of civil unrest would erupt from 1966 to 1969, decimating the community.

“Too many kids were getting shot, killed, it was pretty bad in Hilltop.” Benson says.

The last North Omaha riot would happen a day after Vivian Strong was shot and killed by Omaha police in the Logan Fontenelle Housing Projects not far from Prospect Place. Rioters would go on to fire-bomb and destroy a multitude of businesses and storefronts in the neighborhood.

The local chapter of the Omaha Black Panthers would stand guard outside of black-owned businesses like the Omaha Star building at 24th and Lake streets in order to prevent its destruction. Many businesses would never recover from the millions of dollars in damages caused by the riots.

These disturbances would mark an important time-frame for Hilltop and Pleasantview’s gradual downfall. The turbulence within the community, spearheaded by systematic racism and poverty would take its toll on the area.

The Prospect Place projects would devolve into a dilapidated ghetto, with even harsher times awaiting the neighborhood as gangs and crack-cocaine would hit the city hard in the 1980s.

Omaha wasn’t a place people would have thought the gangs of Los Angeles, California, would make a strong showing. Quite the contrary,  gang members from the West Coast would eventually discover Omaha’s smaller urban landscape to be an untouched and lucrative territory.

Ex-gang member Edwin Benson can remember the switch taking hold in his later teenage years.

“The Crips came first, I’d say around the mid-to-late 1980s. They took over areas like 40th Avenue and Hilltop,” Benson says. “The Bloods’ territory was further east, big in the Logan Fontenelle projects and up and down 16th Street. So, gang-banging kind of took over the city for a long while.”

The isolated, maze-like structure of Hilltop and Pleasantview, along with the high-rise apartments added in the 1960s by the Omaha Housing Authority, would make them ideal locations for the burgeoning Hilltop Crips and other smaller street gangs.

“I can remember kids from Hilltop coming over to Pleasantview and starting trouble.” Benson recalls. “We would fight about who had the better projects! We fought with our fists, rocks, sticks…whatever was close you got hit with!”

A refuge for illicit activity had sprung to life within Prospect Place in the 1980s. Members of the community, as well as police officers, grew hesitant to venture into the area. Hilltop became a forgotten segment of the city, lost to the surrounding metro’s progress, marred by a decade of violent crime and drug offenses.

Hilltop would see an unfortunate trend of senseless homicides and gun violence that would peak in the early ’90s.

In 1990, two young men from Sioux City were shot outside of Hilltop when they stopped to ask for directions to the Omaha Civic Auditorium on their way to an MC Hammer concert.

In 1991, a 14-year-old boy was arrested for stabbing a 13-year-old boy during a fight. That same year, a local Crip gang member was gunned down at the 7-Eleven on 30th and Lake across the street from Hilltop.

In 1993, the pointless murder of another teenager may have finally spelled Hilltop’s doom. 14-year-old Charezetta Swiney—known as “Chucky” to friends and family—was shot in the head from point-blank range over a parking space dispute on Oct. 22. A sad occasion at the beginning of the school year, Benson High School was gracious enough to host the high school freshman’s funeral with more than 700 people in attendance. She was the 31st person slain in Omaha that year.

Jay W. Green, 27, would eventually be found guilty of Swiney’s homicide, charged with second-degree murder and use of a firearm to commit a felony in the summer of 1994. At the end of that same year, Omaha’s City Council would begin laying the groundwork for Hilltop Homes’ eventual razing in 1995.

Benson, the former gang member, believes Swiney’s murder and the rampant gang activity within Prospect Place were the main reasons for Hilltop Homes’ demolition.

“Too many kids were getting shot, killed, it was pretty bad in Hilltop.” Benson says. “Once the projects were gone, I think the Hilltop Crips just kind of faded out. We would joke and call them the ‘Scatter-site Crips’ since everyone was being moved to the scatter-site housing out west! If you hear someone claiming Hilltop these days they are living in the past.”

The demolition would leave a desolate space in its wake. Fortunately, the barren eyesore would not last long, as Salem Baptist Church would make their ambitious proposal for the site in 1996.

“I can remember me and my sister marching from the old church grounds on 3336 Lake St. to the new site on the hilltop,” Hill says, reminiscing with vivid recollection of April 19, 1998, the church’s groundbreaking. It was a glorious Sunday for church members, led by then-senior pastor Maurice Watson, a culmination of Salem’s proposed “Vision to Victory.”

Salem’s groundbreaking ceremony was heralded, marking the once-troubled land of Prospect Place as an “oasis of hope.” The community witnessed the progress as the newly razed 18 acres of land transformed from a vestige of poverty into a church sanctuary seating 1,300 people, in addition to classrooms, a multi-purpose fellowship hall, a nursery, and ample parking. Prospect Place was undergoing a new renaissance which would continue well into the new millennium.

Othello Meadows is the newest pioneer at the head of changing the image of Prospect Place. Having grown up on Omaha’s north side, Meadows remembers the projects as “a place not to linger if you weren’t from there.” After years away from his hometown, seeing the remnants of Hilltop Homes and Pleasantview Apartments was eye-opening.

“When I came back to Omaha, I was surprised by the disinvestment in the area after the projects were gone,” he says. “It went from housing thousands of people, to a sense of abandonment; like, only two houses were occupied on the entire block.”

Meadows’ words ring true. Other than Salem’s deal with Walgreens, which acquired acres of land for around $450,000, no additional development had taken place for years within Prospect Place. Fortunately, Meadows and the 75 North Revitalization Corp. are looking to reinvigorate the area.

As the executive director of 75 North, Meadows refers to Prospect Place as the “Highlander” area, which helps to separate the land from its troubled past. His goal is to bring life back to the area.

The development company now owns the land where the Pleasantview apartments resided before being demolished in 2008. A plan for a new neighborhood with continued growth is the main focus for the area, and he expects tangible progress in the coming months.

“If you drive down 30th Street between Parker and Blondo, you’ll see real work happening and real things going on.” Meadows says. “We have about 12 buildings under construction that are 50-70 percent complete [as of early February 2017], including a community enrichment center called the Accelerator that is 65,000 square feet, a very beautiful building. By late April to early May 2017 we should have some apartments up, and we already have people putting down deposits and signing leases. People are excited to be moving into the neighborhood.”

When asked about the targeted clientele for the new apartments and retail space, Meadows provides a broad answer: “The motto that we follow is—trying to create a mixed-income community. We’re not trying to recreate the projects, of course, but we also don’t want to create a neighborhood where longtime residents can’t afford to live. We have to balance the prospects of affordability and aspirational thinking.”

Indeed, when looking at the seventyfivenorth.org website, the ambitious vision for the Highlander Apartments is a far cry from the projects. Photo galleries and floor plans envision a renewed community akin to Midtown Crossing and Aksarben Village. The images are cheerful, depicting people riding bikes and walking dogs, even an imagined coffee shop.

In a way, the renewed development, optimism, and potential for economic growth in the Highlander area can trace its roots back to the members of Salem and their desire to build a signal of hope where it once was lost.

But Hill (the former Logan Fontenelle Housing Projects resident who left Omaha in 1975 and returned in 1995) doesn’t think the church is given adequate recognition for its contributions.

“If a person didn’t know this place’s history of violence and poverty before Salem was built, they would only see the progress in this area as simple land development,” Hill says. “Salem doesn’t tend to broadcast the things they do for the area other than to its members, so those on the outside don’t necessarily recognize its lasting influence.”

It’s undeniable that the soaring church spire on the hill is a spectacle to behold on a bright, sunny day. It stands as a symbol of hope and belief. Benson still looks at the former site of Prospect Place with a hint of longing.

“I know it might sound crazy, but I was a little sad when Hilltop was torn down.” he admits. “A lot of good memories were made in those projects. But I love seeing the church up there. I hope whatever comes next is good for the community.”

Visit salembc.org for more information about Salem Baptist Church. Visit seventyfivenorth.org for more information about 75 North.

Salem Baptist Church

Out-of-State Camps

April 27, 2017 by and

The time is swiftly approaching when parents will have to sit down and have “the talk” with their children. This heart-to-heart shouldn’t be taken lightly as the child’s response could have a serious impact on their future.

The subject matter? What summer camp should they attend? This is a right of passage and tradition for some; for others, it is an introduction to what will become a career or lifelong passion. While campfires, canoes, and “Kumbaya” are associated with traditional summer camp programs, other organizations across the country have transformed the annual break into something truly extraordinary.

When choosing an experience as unique as your child, consider a camp catered to their imagination. Whether they dream of becoming an astronaut, fashion designer, marine biologist, or musician, there is a platform available to them. While groups of boys and girls are roasting marshmallows and crafting in commons areas, the youngsters at these one-of-a-kind camps are fostering special skills, pursuing their passions, and opening their minds to a world where life is lived outside the box.

1. Pali  Adventures—Near Los Angeles, California
($2,000-plus for one week*)

Kids who love to play cops and robbers, or dream of being the next Carmen Sandiego, find plenty of options at Secret Agent Camp (SAC) run by Pali Adventures. Other unique camps include Hollywood stunts, flying trapeze, and LARP (live action role playing). This is a true imagination station for kids 8-16 years old.

2. Global Expeditions Group—Multiple locations
($5,800-plus for three weeks)

Send students around the world. Global Expeditions Group runs Action Quest and GoBeyond Student Travel. Action Quest involves living on, and helping to sail, a boat for three weeks while learning diving, sailing, marine biology, and more. GoBeyond takes students to places from Peru to the Galapagos to Asia and farther while participating in service learning.

3. ThrillCoasters Tour—Multiple locations
($2,000-plus for one week)

Although the word “camp” is not in the name, this adventure is for the kid who lives for amusement parks. One trip includes two days at Cedar Point in Sandusky, Ohio, which boasts 16 roller coasters, another includes two days at Six Flags Magic Mountain, which has 19 roller coasters, more than any other amusement park in the U.S.

4. Camp Winnarainbow—Berkley, California

($1,845 for two weeks)

Camp Winnarainbow, created by 1960s activist/icon Hugh Romney, better known as Wavy Gravy, focuses on circus and performing arts, from clowning to juggling to trapeze. Parents needing a week away can attend the adults-only version. Ben & Jerry’s now-retired ice cream bearing Romney’s nom de circus helped fund the camp from sales of their brazil-nut caramel confection.

5. Long Lake Camp for the Arts—Dobbs Ferry, New York
($5,950 for two weeks)

Long Lake allows youngsters to focus on their individual artistic specialties, as it offers a self-choice schedule. This schedule allows kids to combine activities in an unlimited number of ways. The biggest lessons they will learn here are commitment, confidence, and dedication, all while pursing their passion.

6. Fashion Camp NYC—New York, New York
($1,200 for one week)

This is not a sleep-away camp, but kids who are serious about joining the fashion industry will benefit from this experience. Three successive programs are offered that teach kids everything from what careers are available in the fashion industry to gaining internships. Along the way, they complete individual and team projects and meet with top executives from the industry.

7. Space Camp—Huntsville, Alabama
($1,000 for one week)

Founded more than 30 years ago by rocket scientist Dr. Wernher von Braun, this camp is the stuff of legends, or at least TV show mentions. Campers will gain hands-on training, experience high-fidelity simulations, and develop impactful skills for a future among the stars. Alumni of Space Camp have gone on to become astronauts and engineers for NASA and ESA.

8. Camp Jam—Multiple locations ($1,500-plus for one week)

Camp Jam is available in 10 cities across the United States (Chicago and St. Louis are the closest to Omaha), offering a vast curriculum for campers including music business, stage performance, songwriting, and recording. One highlight of this camp is the master classes, which are taught by noted artists such as Rolling Stones bassist Darryl Jones or Matchbox 20 keyboardist Joey Huffman.

9. Camp Woodward, Pennsylvania; Truckee, California; Tehachapi, California; Copper Mountain, Colorado
($1,800-plus for one week)

Camp Woodward has pruned and produced some of the world’s best skateboarders, snowboarders, BMX-ers, and more. The camp is specifically designed for professional-level training, and has some of the best facilities in the world. No prior experience is needed, and kids will have the opportunity to practice in one-of-a-kind parks, take freestyle and private lessons, and participate in a variety of classes. 

This article was printed in the Summer 2017 edition of Family Guide.

*Editor’s note: The article originally incorrectly listed Pali Adventures as $2000 for three weeks.

The Other World-Renowned Kobe

January 7, 2017 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Kobe Paras had never heard of Omaha when Creighton called this past summer.

He spent the first 15 years of his life in the Philippines before moving to Los Angeles to chase a basketball scholarship. At the time, Creighton was just one of dozens of prominent basketball programs in pursuit of the high-flying 6-foot-5-inch tall guard. Creighton head coach Greg McDermott had coveted Paras since he first spotted the native Filipino while recruiting his high school teammate. Paras had committed to UCLA at the time, but he withdrew from the school in early June after failure to meet academic requirements. With Paras back on the open market, McDermott wanted to make him a Bluejay.

During his July visit to Creighton’s campus, Paras toured the $13 million Championship Center and posed for pictures with McDermott’s Naismith player of the year trophy, but it was the personal connections Paras made that led him to pick Creighton as his future home.

“I got to bond with the coaches and my teammates, and it really felt right,” Paras says.

He will need those bonds. Paras enjoys celebrity status in his home country, as the basketball-obsessed nation looks to him as a potential NBA player. The Pacific archipelago has never produced a professional player in the world’s most coveted league.

“I am not a regular student-athlete,” he says. “I have a lot of people looking up to me.”

Paras’ earliest memories are of hoards of fans stopping to ask his father, Benjie Paras, for autographs and pictures. Benjie was a two-time MVP in the Philippine Basketball Association, and has since become an actor. His father’s fame caused the younger Paras to grow up in the limelight, but Benjie tried to instill a sense of perspective in his son.

“When he was my age, he had to do laundry for other people to have enough money,” says the younger Paras of his father. “He kept telling me how blessed I was.”

Basketball was not something Paras picked up until the third grade. Before that time, he played badminton and table tennis. A growth spurt in seventh grade helped the now-taller young man to fall in love with basketball. Meanwhile, basketball continued to grow in popularity throughout the Philippines.

“Basketball in the Philippines is a religion,” Paras says. “Wherever you go, you see people playing basketball.” 

NBA games were constantly broadcast throughout the country, which helped Paras, whose first name pays homage to the recently retired Los Angeles Lakers star Kobe Bryant, become familiar with the sport’s biggest stars.

In 2013, an encounter with his favorite player, Lebron James, took Paras’ fame to a whole new level. During a trip to the Philippines, James took part in a camp for the country’s most promising young players. In a pre-game warm-up, Paras slammed home a one-handed dunk as James leapt to the side of him in a half-hearted effort to play defense.

“I didn’t really plan it,” says Paras about the moment. “My friends were like, ‘do you realize who you just dunked on?’”   

The original video of the dunk received over 2.5 million views. That clip would bring about a whole new level of fame for the then-15 year old.

Paras’ move stateside to aid his basketball skills would come just months after the dunk. It was at Cathedral High School, under the guidance of coach William Middlebrooks, that Paras, living away from his family, honed his leadership skills and focused on building his brand.

“I told him, now that you are here, your popularity can only grow,” says coach Middlebrooks. “Especially as people better understand Kobe Paras the person.”

Paras also developed as a basketball player with more than just raw athleticism. He will bring those skills to a Creighton team poised to make a run at an NCAA tournament bid.

“He already has the body to play at this level,” says McDermott of Paras. “He also really knows how to put the ball in the basket.” 

And even thousands of miles from the Philippines, Paras’ enthusiastic fans have been able to follow his every move.

“We found out pretty quick that the media in the Philippines was going to find him wherever he went,” says McDermott, who has spent many a Skype session this fall with the media outlets in Paras’ home country.

Paras also keeps in touch with many back home via social media. On Twitter he has over 114,000 followers and on Instagram he has more than 454,000 followers.

“On social media people always reach out to me,” Paras says. “Anywhere I am, I feel the support.”

Even though he knew almost nothing about Omaha before his visit in July, he has come to appreciate his new home. He says his favorite place is the gym, and he loves that there is less traffic here than in Los Angeles. He also knows that the start of basketball season means winter is coming.

“He is getting ready for that snow,” Middlebrooks says. “He called me and said, ‘coach, I think I need boots.’”

Visit gocreighton.com for more information.

kobe1

The Man Who Invented the College Football Playoff

December 28, 2016 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

There are scripts,but there’s also all kinds of room for improvisation. It’s improv. You get into character and run with it.

Larry Culpepper is either delusional or a consummate bullshitter, claiming, among other whoppers, that he created the College Football Playoff. He is raucous, chippy, and self-absorbed. His hair, shirt, visor, and flip-up glasses scream 1976. He’s a guy you’d buy a pop from, but likely shy away from having a beer with.

But Culpepper, the fictional character brought to life by actor/improv pro Jim Connor, is an increasingly beloved traveling minstrel who now transcends the Dr. Pepper brand he was created to peddle. Three years after his birth in an ad campaign with a potentially short leash, Culpepper now is mobbed by fans during live appearances; is part of a 10-part, football-season-long ad series; is the face of Dr. Pepper’s $35 million sponsorship of the College Football Playoff; and, increasingly, is a media darling beyond the confines of paid advertising slots.

For marketing purposes, Culpepper is from nowhere in particular. But in late August, Culpepper appeared on ESPN’s College Football Live and was asked to give his prediction for the playoff’s final four teams. His answer: Alabama, Clemson, LSU, and Nebraska (fresh off their losing season).

“Nebraska?” One commentator scoffed, before asking a cohort, “Is he from Nebraska or something?”

larryculpepper2Culpepper isn’t, but Connor is. For the Omaha native and Husker fan, that moment on ESPN illuminates why he has enjoyed playing Culpepper so much. “There are scripts, but there’s also all kinds of room for improvisation,” Connor says during a call from his home in Los Angeles. “It’s improv. You get into character and run with it. It’s a great time.”

Connor, the youngest of seven children (“which explains my personality right there,” he says), attended Creighton Prep, where, along with classmate Alexander Payne, he performed with the school’s improv acting troupe. He remembers one gig in particular that fueled his passion for the rush and satisfaction of successfully winging it for a crowd. “It was for a local service group,” he says. “We did some silly birthing scene, and the women in the group—you know, who had some experience with such a thing—really had a good time with it. It’s so cool when you connect with an audience.”

Connor was a gifted ham and public speaker. He served as vice president of the student council at Prep, wrote and acted in pep rally skits, and even placed first place for Humorous Interpretation at the National Forensic League’s National Speech Tournament in Minnesota.

After what he described as a “difficult” freshman year at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln (“it just wasn’t for me”), he transferred to Saint John’s University in Minnesota. After college, he moved to Boston and worked as a carpenter while performing in theater and short films, then moved to Denver to pursue his MFA in acting at the famed National Theatre Conservatory.

The goal, “was never to get famous,” he says. “I just wanted to make a living being an actor. I wanted acting to be my full-time job.”

A dream of tens of thousands who have moved to Los Angeles. And while at 54, Connor is no household name, he has succeeded at stringing together enough commercials and small parts to make acting his career.

Besides nearly 150 commercials, his film credits include Watchmen, Meet Dave, Blades of Glory, The Onion Movie, Home Invasion, and Horrible Bosses 2. Alexander Payne asked his old friend to give the drunken wedding-reception toast in About Schmidt.

He also had numerous recurring roles in television comedies such as Parks and Recreation, Brooklyn Nine-Nine, Scrubs, and The King of Queens.

In 2014, Connor and about 500 other actors auditioned for the role of the Dr. Pepper concessionaire in a national ad campaign targeting college football fans. Actors were given latitude to define the character and riff. Connor created an amalgam of “a lot of people I’ve known” to create Culpepper, a loud, proud, gregarious huckster who seems to actually believe—in the face of constantly presented information to the contrary—that he created the four-team college football playoff system.

For all of Culpepper’s failings, he’s also affable, wide-eyed, and childlike in his zeal for the job and the game, appealingly un-self-aware, and extremely clever. “Larry is a real guy, he’s a smart guy,” Connor says. “He’s just got some unusual ideas sometimes.”

larryculpepper1Among myriad other reasons why he claimed the Cornhuskers would make the playoffs: “Nebraska runs that classic passive-aggressive offense,” he told the ESPN crew. “They’re playin’ real nice, and then you’re like a puddle on the 50-yard line.”

It was inspired nonsense, which is the foundation to good improv, which is what Connor would love to spend the rest of his career getting paid a living wage to do.

Indeed, as Culpepper increasingly becomes a star beyond the confines of college-game broadcasts, as Dr. Pepper continues to expand the ad campaign (Connor’s character is now essentially the spokesman in football matters for the company, which AdWeek magazine estimated paid at least $35 million to be a “championship partner” in the College Football Playoff).

He is hoping to land more significant movie and television roles, especially in one of the increasing number of loosely scripted, improv-heavy comedies.

“I’m not going to get cast for scripted stuff in front of a studio audience,” he says. “That’s not what I’m built for.  Shows like Parks and Recreation—where you have space to work more freely with a talented group—that’s where I belong. That’s where I love to be.”

Visit larryculpepper.com for more information.

Touched by Tokyo

August 26, 2016 by
Photography by Alain Nana Kwango

If you don’t consider Omaha a beauty-style launching pad, think again. Homegrown talents Jaime King and Gabrielle Union tear it up on screen, in photo spreads, and for the red carpet. Designer Kate Walz has a Paris collection to her credit. But no one’s trending hotter than hairstylist-to-the-stars William Jackson, aka Tokyo Stylez.

This lithe young man with striking African-American and Native American features is courted for his dope skills with tresses.

“Hair is the new accessory now,” he says.

It all began in Omaha doing his family’s hair. It morphed into an enterprising hustle that became his calling and career. Based in Washington D.C., he’s a bicoastal creative with a celebrity client list: Lil’ Kim, Toni Braxton, Fantasia, Naomi Campbell, Rihanna, Gabrielle Union, and Kendall and Kylie Jenner.

“It’s all about building relationships and a trust that you can create their image—their look—and bring it to life for them,” he says.

Tokyo2He’s signed to make over a TV-publishing icon. He’s close to realizing a dream of doing hair for divas Beyonce, Madonna, and Cher. He appears on TLC’s Global Beauty Masters. He tours, giving tutorials. His “Touched by Tokyo” brand features a hair fragrance mist and custom wigs.

It’s all happening so fast. But he’s ready for it.

“Right now is my time, and I just have to capture it and take things to the next level,” he says in his sweet, soft voice.

He feels his versatile chops set him apart.

“I’m like a big creative ball wrapped in one. I have a little bit of everything. You want to take it to the street, I can take you there. If you want soft, chic, and classy, I can do that. If you want a little high fashion. I do that, too. I’m just out of this world. Anything you want, I’ll do. I plan to be the next Paul Mitchell,” he says without brag.

His dreams got fired at 9 when his mother, Jessica Haynes-Jackson, was incarcerated. Some bad choices led to being caught up in a drug ring. She got busted and served several months in prison. While confined, Tokyo and his siblings lived with their father. Before going in, she says, “I asked Tokyo to take care of sissy’s hair while mommy was away. He was delighted and gracefully accepted the challenge. I knew he could do at least one ponytail, and that was all I expected.”

Except he proved a prodigy, replicating what he saw his hairdresser grandma and his mom create—braids, twists, French rolls.

He says, “I picked it up really quick. That’s kind of where I got an idea I knew what I was doing.”

When his mother was released, he couldn’t wait to show her his handiwork.

Tokyo1“She had never seen it. She’d only heard my grandmother telling her, ‘He’s killing it.’ So to show her and to see the look on her face was a great feeling.”

“This was how we discovered his amazing talent that now the whole world enjoys,” Haynes-Jackson says.

By 15, he made a name for himself doing hair. Meanwhile, his mother earned two degrees, became a mental health counselor, and coached. She is his biggest fan and inspiration.

“She’s always supported me and loved everything I’ve done. She’s an awesome lady. She is very independent. She’s never really asked anyone for anything. She’s always found a way to make things happen. I definitely would say I’ve inherited my drive from her.”

“I think what I love most about Tokyo is his warm, gentle spirit,” his mom says. “He is the same person despite his celebrity status. I think what touched my heart the most is when he traveled with his ‘Glam Squad’ to give a teenage girl battling a rare cancer a surprise makeover for her prom. I am a very proud mom.”

Tokyo’s travels have gone international. Life in the fast lane means dropping everything to do high profile gigs with tight deadlines.

He got an early taste of being a coveted stylist in school.

“Everyone came to me to get their hair done—girls and boys. My mom’s friends and clients. Their daughters. I was in such high demand it was crazy. People would be passing me notes, ‘Hey, can you do my hair after school?’ It was always something. But I knew this was something I wanted to do.”

Tokyo3With “a very steady clientele, the money was coming in,” he says. An attempt at a dancing career led to taking Tokyo as his stage name.  Seeking a bigger market as a stylist, he moved to Atlanta where he rebranded as Tokyo Stylez and blew up on social media. Celeb clients followed. In D.C. he’s minutes from New York fashion central and a nonstop flight from L.A.’s entertainment capital.

He plans to have a business presence in Omaha.

“I definitely want something back at home where it came from. It would only be right to do so.”

Meanwhile, he changes perceptions of Omaha wherever he goes.

“People are like, ‘You have black people there?’ I get that every time.”

Visit touchedbytokyo.com for more information. Omaha Magazine.

Gurdon Wattles and the Streetcar Riots of 1909

Photography by Bill Sitzmann
Illustration by Matt WIeczorek

It is difficult to imagine Omaha’s once-bustling streetcar system. Scarce evidence remains: There are alleys downtown paved in brick with rail lines running down them, and some old buildings that were once car barns, but that’s about it.

If there is little physical reminder of streetcars’ heyday, there is nothing left of the labor unrest that enveloped the era, despite the fact that it was national news and left an astonishing legacy.

The main character of this story is Gurdon Wattles. A native of New York and a graduate of Dartmouth, Wattles came to Omaha in 1892, finding work here as the vice president of one of the city’s banking concerns.

pagesanThere were several competing forms of transportation at the time. There was the Omaha Horse Railway, which provided something called “horsecars,” which were essentially streetcars drawn by horses. They had five miles of track running through the city, transporting almost a half a million Omahans per year. Then there was the Omaha Cable Tramway Co., which owned a cable car, the only one in the city. The Omaha Horse Railway eventually merged with the Omaha Cable Tramway Co. in 1889.

The city was a mess of rail lines and competing services, which would sometimes sue each other. Wattles joined the fray in 1890, buying controlling interest in one of the companies, and then taking advantage of a Nebraska legislative measure calling for all the lines to be consolidated. The result was the Omaha Traction Co., which was not only one of the nation’s earliest streetcar lines, but also one of it’s longest–lasting. Omaha still had streetcars in 1955.

The streetcar company grew to include 140 miles of tracks and 1,500 employees, and that was a lot of employees to keep happy. In 1909, a national streetcar union called the Amalgamated Association of Street and Electric Railway Employees attempted to unionize local labor, but Wattles rebuffed the attempts in a way that was common at the time. He hired strikebreakers.

Wattles told his men that he would not allow a union. When they went on strike, he replaced them with laborers from New York, whom Wattles cheerily described as a “jolly lot of disreputable” and “always ready for a fight.”

The strikers were ready for a fight, too. On September 19, 1909, they rioted in downtown Omaha, attacking streetcars and battling strikebreakers. They continued to riot for four days, and largely had the support of the public, who refused to ride streetcars during the strike.

But the strikers could not compete against cheap labor that was on hand to fill their positions, and by October the strike had ended. Wattles would write a book about it, crowing about his success. The book—titled A Crime Against Labor—argued for a standing national force of strikebreakers for similar incidents of labor unrest.

However, the strike damaged Wattles’ reputation in Omaha. Once a city leader, he felt himself attacked by “socialistic and anarchistic elements.” In 1920, he moved to a small citrus grove in Los Angeles, and invested heavily in the development of the neighborhood, which expanded quickly and grew rich.

And that’s the strangest legacy of the 1909 strike: That neighborhood was Hollywood. His mansion still stands there today.

Visit douglascohistory.org for more information. Omaha Magazine

Mission,Passion, & Joy

August 18, 2016 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Roger Garcia has a lot of work to do—relationships to build, programs to create, grants to obtain, and people to help.

Yet the 29-year-old dismisses the notion that his role is “work.” He prefers words like mission, passion, and joy; all of which compelled Garcia on his daily commute to Lincoln’s outreach center for Hispanic and Latin Americans.

Garcia served as director of Lincoln’s El Centro de las Americas from 2012 until recently, when he accepted a similar role as the executive director of Centro Latino of Council Bluffs. Although Garcia is happy to “work” closer to his wife, Yanira, and their south Omaha home, his drive to help the community still borders on obsessive.

In each person that Garcia helps, he sees the struggle that his mother, Margarita, endured decades ago.

Initially an undocumented immigrant from Honduras, Margarita gained a path to citizenship through the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986. Roger’s father, a documented Mexican immigrant, was psychologically abusive and controlling. By 1994, Margarita had enough of him and Los Angeles. She took her youngest of three sons and left for the third and final time.

She grabbed 8-year-old Roger and packed up the few things she owned. Somehow, she coaxed a beat-up old Buick nearly 1,500 miles eastward into Nebraska. She eventually landed in Columbus for a job with the meatpacking industry. Holding only one job satisfied neither her work ethic nor demands on her pocketbook. She took up welding, baking, even cosmetology—whatever it took. Today, her knees are shot, but she owns and manages three rental properties between Omaha and Columbus.

Roger-Garcia-2“She loves this country, and she worked her butt off,” says Garcia, who remembers his mother going to work at 4 a.m. so she could get him to school every morning during her break. “People like my mom just want to work hard and provide for their family.”

The people who come through Garcia’s door are reminiscent of his mother. They are looking for the same things. They want a better life for their children. They don’t readily ask for handouts, he says.

Garcia’s commitment to the region’s Latino community runs deeper than esteem and pride for his mother’s accomplishments. He grew up in rural Nebraska. He feels compelled to help those enduring similar experiences.

He encountered racism in childhood. Once, a pair of white adults accosted Garcia and his fourth-grade classmate with racial slurs. The adults kicked the kids off their bicycles. Such experiences motivated a short-lived denunciation of his heritage in the fifth grade. “I said, ‘No, I’m not Mexican. I’m not Honduran,’” says Garcia, clearly pained by the memory. “I didn’t want to be discriminated against.”

Thanks to music, Garcia eventually found solace and comfort in his own skin. “Through American rock music, I learned that it doesn’t matter how you look,” he says.

His sense of ethnic identity became more complex while pursuing dual degrees in psychology and Latino/Latin American studies at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. The occasional volunteer worker at the Omaha Boys and Girls Club found his calling. By the time he finished his undergraduate studies, he had earned UNO’s vice chancellor award for student leadership.

He moved on to Bellevue University to pursue a master’s degree in public administration, and became more immersed in Omaha’s Latino community. He met with elected officials, served as a community liaison for then-Mayor Jim Suttle, and met with other college campus groups and leaders.

He joined El Centro de las Americas in Lincoln as the center’s director and quickly elevated it to new heights. Beatty Brasch, the executive director of Lincoln’s Center for People in Need and a board member of El Centro, laments Garcia’s recent departure.

“He did a remarkable job. He brought the community together and developed programs there for a lot of people,” she says. “We’re sorry he’s leaving. I wish he stayed.”

His list of accomplishments garnered a new accolade in 2015 when he was listed as one of the Jaycees’ Ten Outstanding Young Omahans in the 83rd annual TOYO! awards.

That’s what happens when a passion becomes “a calling on a spiritual level.”

As Garcia and his future wife, Yanira, built their relationship, they also forged a deeper connection to their Christian faith.

“On our first date he asked me if I would ever date anybody who wasn’t a believer,” she says. “I said, ‘No.’”

Two years later, in 2015, they were married, and Roger is now pursuing a doctorate in theology with an eye toward possibly launching his own ministry.

Until then, there is indeed a lot to be done, but none of it should be confused with toil.

“It’s what we should all be doing as believers,” he says. “It’s not an obligation. It’s a joy. It’s a joy to spread His love.”

Visit sucentrolatino.com for more information.

Samuel Brett Williams’ Revelation

August 7, 2016 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

The Rapture. The Apocalypse. The end of the world. And the New Jerusalem is in…Arkansas?

Hopefully, someone packed their Rapture kit. Oh…throw in an atheist and things just got real.

Revelation, adapted from a book (yes, that book), is a dark comedy written by Samuel Brett Williams.

“It’s fun as hell can be on Earth,” Williams says.

Williams, like his character Brandon in Revelation, moved from Arkadelphia, Arkansas, to New York City. His scripts are typically set in his own Bible Belt backyard.

Williams says the “strange stuff” about his former state is true, while the “normal stuff” is made up. He attempts to be conscientious, though, “not to leave Arkansas and piss on it.” He will be the first to point out the flaws, but will also be the first to defend his hometown.

Growing up there, he admits feeling smothered and suffocated by the hellfire-and-brimstone culture.

“At 10 years old, burning in hell is the most terrifying thing that can happen,” Williams recalls.

Once he left his cocoon, Williams thought of religion as, well…absurd. His intent is never to make fun of it, but explore it. Kick it. Push it.

Many of Williams’ plays dare the audience to laugh at the morbid while bringing light and understanding.

“It’s like Hannibal Lecter gives them a good meal before he kills them,” Williams explains.

Williams’ idea first emerged when reflecting on a high school class he took on the Book of Revelation.

He releases a booming laugh, looking a bit like a dark-haired Seth Rogan.

“Wouldn’t it be the funniest thing in the world if we all died and went to an alien planet? Tom Cruise would jump out and yell, ‘Damn it, I told you,’” he says.

He pitched his idea at the Seven Devils Playwrights Conference (before the onslaught of all the end-of-the-world movies, he is quick to point out). The National New Play Network commissioned him to write it in 2013.

His comedies deal with darker issues, but Williams wants his audience to “laugh and gasp” at the same time. His first full-length play, Woodpecker, focused on torture in Guantanamo Bay. Another, Derby Day, was more personal and characterized his brother and uncles betting on a horse that dies.   

In his spare time, Williams has directed and been a screenwriter for television. His play Revival will soon be a movie.

“It is Little Miss Sunshine meets The Wrestler,” Williams says.

Although he enjoys script writing, he says nothing is better than just seeing a chair on stage. There is nowhere to hide, and the audience has to rely on good storytelling. Williams’ plays have been seen in New York, Los Angeles, and as far away as Scotland.

Revelation will hit the stage at Shelterbelt Theater this fall as part of their By Local/Buy Local season.

Williams loved the intimate setting of the black box space at Shelterbelt and was excited to do something in the Omaha area.

Shelterbelt Executive Director Roxanne Wach mentions she could not be more thrilled to have a local season.

Is Wach worried Revelation may be too controversial for a conservative Nebraska city?

“Bring it. It’s good to make people think,” Wach says.

Williams says the Shelterbelt family has been “fearless” and he isn’t worried about offending anyone. Well…except his mother.

Despite all his successes, Williams’ greatest achievement is teaching his screen writing program at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. Oh, and having the strength to divorce his wife. His next play, Our House, is about the end of his marriage.

Williams tackles the topic with his sardonic humor and a written dedication to his ex: “For Claudia, go to hell.”

Visit shelterbelt.org for more information. Encounter

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The Gillaspie Family

May 13, 2016 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

The satellite dish outside Mark and Dianne Gillaspie’s west Omaha home beams in more than movies; it lets them dial up their sons’ latest swings, scoops, and slides on the baseball diamond, a scenario many people dream about but rarely experience. The couple multiplies by two the thrills and agonies of watching their children play professional ball.

Their older son, Conor, 28, has returned to the San Francisco Giants, while Casey, 23, advances through the minor league levels of the Tampa Bay Rays organization. Talk about beating the odds: According to an NCAA study, the chances of a high school player making the big leagues is one in 6,600. But then, the Gillaspie (pronounced Gillespie) family has beaten the odds before. Conor and Casey’s base path to success mirrors their father’s.

“I was drafted by the San Diego Padres in 1981, my senior year at Mississippi State,” says Mark, an All-American right fielder who taught himself to switch hit on the sandlots of Omaha. “I played ball with my friends all the time, from morning ’til night,” he recalls of his “good” childhood, when summers also meant sitting in the old Rosenblatt Stadium watching the College World Series. “My senior year we were able to make it to the CWS, winning our first game.

“I miss Rosenblatt. I think most baseball fans do,” he says.

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Before Mark reported to rookie ball in Walla Walla, Washington, he became engaged to a pretty softball player studying physical therapy at MSU. He and Dianne bridged the time apart the old fashioned way.

“He wrote me a letter every single day,” says Dianne, smiling. “There were no cell phones back then.”

Mark’s letters, no doubt, filled Dianne in about his teammates drafted in the same class, names now part of baseball lore: All-Star outfielder/first baseman-turned-ESPN analyst John Kruk (Mark’s roommate), and the man who would become “Mr. Padre,” the late, great Tony Gwynn. Mark still chuckles when he remembers the first day of practice.

“We’re in our ugly Padres uniforms, hanging around the batting cage, snickering at this really large kid from Los Angeles who didn’t look like an athlete at all. Well, our first game, he hits four balls off the wall. Two weeks later, he was called up to the next level.”

In fact, within a year, Tony Gwynn would make it to the Show.

Mark reached his ceiling at Triple-A. The Padres, so rich in talent during the ’80s, never had a place for him. Accepting reality, especially since he now had Conor, Mark pursued his second interest—law enforcement.

An Omaha police officer for almost 20 years, Mark currently serves as the school resource officer at his alma mater, Central High School. He has no regrets. “I’ve met the best people in my life,” he says of his fellow officers. “These are my brothers. I would do anything for them.”

Mark and Dianne never prodded or pushed their children into a life of sports, even though the natural athletic skills of all three, including daughter Makenzie, rose to the surface early.

“Makenzie is the best athlete in the family, “ says her proud dad. “She won all-state honors in softball and soccer at Elkhorn.” She’s now a soccer coach in Kansas City.

Luckily for her brothers, she didn’t compete in baseball.

“Conor told me when he was four years old he was going to be in the big leagues,” Dianne recalls. He stayed true to his word.

Conor and Casey willingly and happily put the backyard batting cage to use when they wanted to practice their swings, with dad often throwing pitches. They played in Little League. They both went to Millard North High School and Wichita State. Each caught the eye of scouts their junior year, earning first-round draft pick honors. The similarity ends with their personalities.

At 6 feet 5 inches and 240 pounds, Casey “is our teddy bear—a big, lovable kid, real easy going,” says his mom.  Adds Mark, “Somebody that big who can hit the ball out of the park from both sides of the plate attracts a lot of interest.”

Disciplined, strong-willed, and hardworking characterize Conor, who slugged his way to a big league call-up that eluded his father. He won a World Series ring in 2012 as a part-time third baseman with the Giants, only to be traded to the White Sox the next year.

“He had a good first year with the Sox, but the second year his production trailed off,” says Mark. “He’s now back with the team that drafted him.”  Mark, who spent eight years in the minors, knows all too well that, “baseball is a game of failure. You’re going to screw up.”

That’s why he and Dianne don’t pay attention to what fans say or write about either son. They just call the kids on the phone and talk about “normal family stuff.” For the Gillaspies, family is what really matters.

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Denise Cerny

November 12, 2015 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

I don’t ever remember being bored,” says Denise Cerny.

She sits at her kitchen table for just a couple of moments before jumping up to pour a glass of iced tea. She sits again, then jumps up to grab her iPad so she can investigate something on the Internet.

The constant movement fits her well. Her parents are Ardith Smeal, 92, and the late Donald Smeal. Donald owned Smeal Fire Apparatus Co. for more than 50 years. The company is one of two in Nebraska manufacturing those bright red vehicles people see rushing to eliminate fires.

Along with their west Omaha home, she and her husband, Rod, keep a home in Phoenix. Denise gardens, often finding unusual plants to keep in pots on the back deck. She and her husband also golf avidly.

“Activity is important in our life and in our relationship with each other,” says a sister, Mary Lou Tomka of Lincoln. “My dad and mom had seven daughters, and five of us played softball at the same time. We’ve always been involved in activities.”

Cerny long kept in shape as a marathon runner. She ran marathons in New York, Los Angeles, Alaska, and Hawaii.

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“When the kids were little I used it as my down time,” Cerny says. “There’s something about being in the open air, focused on running—it keeps me going.”

Make that it “kept” her going. Five years ago, at age 58, her knees began to hurt after running. She did not admit it at first—she liked having strong knees.

“That was one thing I would always say. I would run, and I would look up and say ‘Thank you, God, for good knees!’”

She finally saw an orthopedist, also a friend of hers, who said, “You have osteoarthritis in both knees.”

Cerny’s heart fell. She had to quit running.

“It took a long time before I could drive past a runner and not be envious.”

She underwent surgery and spent several weeks on the couch recuperating.

“Before I had the surgery I thought, ‘What am I going to do?’” Cerny says. “I had to be in the house.”

The surgery could not keep her down totally.

“I started playing Rock Band,” Cerny says with a girlish giggle. “I had never played a video game before…but you know what, it’s a lot of fun!”

After several weeks, she started moving again, even if the athletic activity switched gears.

These days Cerny’s great athletic passion is bicycling. She rides her bicycle frequently around Omaha and has ridden RAGBRAI (Register’s Annual Great Bike Ride Across Iowa) every year for the past 12 years.

“I was still marathoning and my sisters (Renee Smeal of Omaha and Tomka) said ‘you ought to do this.’” Cerny says. “At that time I didn’t have a very good bike. After a couple of years I got a better bike. You would not believe how much easier that made things.”

Cerny’s definition of better includes lighter. The lower weight of the bike allowed her to ride faster and longer. This was especially helpful five years ago.

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“I had done RAGBRAI right before my surgery because I wanted to be in shape,” Cerny says. “And that worked!”

Cerny discovered that bicycling does not hurt her knees.

“I had to find other ways to take up that slack,” Cerny says of not being able to run. “I did RAGBRAI the next year after surgery and was still fine. I started working with a trainer because I thought I needed someone who knows what they are doing so I don’t hurt myself again.”

Bicycling gives her the outlet once taken up by running.

“Once you do it, you have to keep doing it,” Cerny quips. “The people of Iowa are so great with their pies and the parties they throw. The last day when you get to the Mississippi, you’re (geographically) as high as you’re going to be all week, and you want people to know how great this is.”

Tomka no longer rides on RAGBRAI, but Smeal and Cerny ride with a group from Omaha known as Team Angry during the weeklong party/bicycling event.

“My sisters talked me into joining a team for safety reasons,” says Cerny, who still rides solo during the week, catching up with the group at her own pace.

“It isn’t a race, and it isn’t a ride where you have to stick together,” says Smeal. “The only time we ride together is the last day. On the last day we like to enter the final town together. You ride in as a team and people cheer and you get your picture taken with your team dipping their front tires into
the Mississippi.”

No matter whether Cerny bikes, golfs, or plays Rock Band, she keeps a “can do” attitude in mind.

“I really like my life,” Cerny says. “I’m really lucky I can do that.”

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