Tag Archives: North Omaha

Baseball and Soul Food

June 22, 2017 by
Photography by Sarah Lemke

When baseball still ruled as the national pastime, Omaha showcased the game’s still prevalent but loosening black-white divide. In 1947, the year Jackie Robinson broke Major League Baseball’s color barrier, the barnstorming Omaha Rockets began to play. In an era when entire leagues and teams were drawn along racial lines, the all-black Rockets faced both segregated and integrated foes. A few Rockets went on to make history or gain fame. Most faded into obscurity.

Although the Rockets were not formally in the Negro National League, an association of teams made famous by Satchel Paige and Buck O’Neil, the Rockets were an independent semi-pro farm club of the league’s famous Kansas City Monarchs.

The Omaha team even trained with the Monarchs. Three former K.C. players— Horatius Saunders, Mack Massingale, and James “Cool Papa” Bell—variously managed the club.

Donald Curry pays homage to this black baseball history at his Omaha Rockets Kanteen. The soul food eatery inside the Lake Point Building (at 24th and Lake streets) is packed with memorabilia relating to black ballplayers and teams. Dedicated menu items include Octavius Cato’s Jerked Turkey Taco, the Willie Mays Soul Wrap, and Birmingham Black Baron Sweet Potato Pie.

Curry’s Southern Pitch soul food truck features the same concept.

The Omaha native operated similar-themed food businesses in Chicago, where he befriended ex-Negro Leaguers. One, Alvin Spearman, informed him of the Rockets. Curry knew Omaha was a stomping ground for the Monarchs. Learning that the city fielded a black team, which enjoyed close currency with the Monarchs, sweetened the pot and provided his current establishment’s name.

Curry says he’s created “a living memorial” to black owners, managers, and players in admiration of “their fortitude” pursuing professional baseball careers despite lacking the talent or opportunity to play higher-level organized ball. He likes the lessons imparted.

“They didn’t cry or complain about the situation,” he says. “Everyone goes through things, and everyone is denied certain things in life. But if you keep your head up and push forward, you can overcome those obstacles and succeed in what you set your mind to. They created their own leagues and styles of ball. Some of them became pretty well-off for that time.”

The vast majority of black ballplayers, just like their white counterparts, never played for a paycheck, but for love of the game. Whether competing for semi-pro, town or company baseball teams, or fast-pitch softball teams, they lived out their diamond dreams. 

Curry hopes to add Rockets’ materials to “the treasure trove” of signed photographs and other lore displayed at Kanteen. He may name some dishes after Rockets. Curry’s collection includes personal scrapbooks of Pittsburgh Crawfords legend Jimmie Crutchfield.

The team’s owner, Will Calhoun, launched the Rockets after he got the “baseball bug.” He rented out flats at 25th and Lake, which he generously called a hotel. Touring black athletes, denied by other establishments, stayed there. The Tyler, Texas, native and World War II veteran got into the game just as minor and major league strictures lifted and the Negro Leagues declined. Calhoun pressed on anyway, boasting, “I’ve got a little money. I know why so many of these teams failed. They tried to get by on a shoestring and didn’t have anything to offer the public.” He promised to “add a little more show to my Rockets.”

The Omaha World-Herald termed the Rockets his “noble experiment.”

The team made Legion Field in Council Bluffs its home park and barnstormed across Nebraska and into Iowa, South Dakota, Kansas, and Colorado via its own bus. The club even went into Canada and the Pacific Northwest. Its opponents included town teams and other touring teams, such as House of David.

At least one Rocket, Kenny Morris, claimed local ties. The former standout Boys Town athlete played outfield and third base for the Rockets. Mickey Stubblefield, William McCrary, and Eugene Collins all spent time with the Rockets between moves up and down organized baseball. Stubblefield, a journeyman pitcher, became the first black in the Kitty League and among the first blacks in the Nebraska Independent League. He ended his career in McCook, Nebraska, where he raised a family of 10. He later moved to Atlanta, Georgia. In 2011 he returned as Grand Marshal of McCook’s “Heritage Days” festivities.

Dick “Night Train” Lane was a multi-sport star in his native Austin, Texas. He then moved north to live with his mother in Council Bluffs, where a baseball scout signed him to play for the Rockets. He played one year of football at Scottsbluff Junior College in Nebraska. After entering the U.S. Army and excelling on military teams, he signed with the NFL’s Los Angeles Rams and went on to a Hall of Fame career.

Teams like the Rockets faded as baseball popularity waned and televised sports cut into attendance. Ever the promoter, Calhoun paired his Rockets with the Minneapolis Clowns in 1950 to try and boost crowds.

The Rockets soon disbanded but Curry celebrates them within larger black athletics history. His Kanteen is now home to Nebraska Black Sports Hall of Fame displays.

His food, culled from family recipes, celebrates African-American cuisine—collard greens, cornbread dressing, red beans and rice, mac and cheese, candied yams—only prepared healthier. Smoked turkey, for example, replaces ham hocks. Olive oil replaces butter.

Curry takes seriously the Kanteen creed: “Enjoy the food, digest the history.”

“We might as well be a museum serving food,” he says.

Visit omaharocketskanteen.com for more information.

This article appears in the July/August issue of Omaha Magazine.

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

Fair Deal Village MarketPlace

May 24, 2017 by
Photography by Sarah Lemke

As a child, Terri Sanders visited the original Fair Deal Cafe on 24th Street with her father to eat breakfast or lunch, and experience a vibrant North Omaha.

Sanders says the cafe, known from the ’40s to ’70s as Omaha’s “Black City Hall,” was a popular meeting spot for politicians and local African-American leaders.

Now community leaders say the Fair Deal Village MarketPlace, a recently completed $2.4 million economic development project built on the footprint of the café, will increase commuter traffic and dramatically change the North 24th Street business corridor.

“The businesses are successful, and again—it’s a revitalization,” says Sanders, 59, a member of the Omaha Economic Development Corp. and the development’s site manager. “You never return to what it was, but you can certainly revitalize it and go forward into the future.”

OEDC partnered with Omaha-based architecture firm Alley Poyner Macchietto for the project, which was built between March 22 and Dec. 3, 2016. OEDC is a nonprofit that benefits North Omaha, which has a history of poverty and other socio-economic hardships.

Officials also are branding the development, located at 2118 N. 24th St., as an entertainment and arts district. In addition to a reinvented Fair Deal Cafe, the development includes the Fair Deal Grocery Market and eight Omaha-based artisanal businesses. The grocery store, which focuses on healthy foods, is open seven days a week, and the Fair Deal Cafe is closed on Mondays.

“It brings positive [change] to the corridor,” Sanders says. “These businesses provide not just economic development for the business owners, but it also provides jobs to support them.”

The other eight tenants include: Hand of Gold, a nail salon; Fashun Freak, a women’s clothing and accessory store; ABE (All Black Everything), a men’s contemporary clothing store; LikNu Boutique, a women’s clothing and accessory store; Mike’s Custom Creations, a custom shoe and cleaning business; Divine Nspirations, a Christian gift shop; It’z Poppin, a gourmet popcorn shop; and D-Marie Hair Boutique, a hair salon.

“I think by virtue of the businesses located there, it’s an artist area,” Sanders says. “It’s a historical district—first of all—and arts and culture are a part of that.”

But here’s the twist:

The majority of the development, just south of 24th and Burdette streets, is constructed via an arrangement of shipping containers. The seemingly unusual approach to building the structure is becoming a popular trend across the world.

“I think the container concept, in itself, is unique. We’re the first [commercial] container site in the State of Nebraska,” Sanders says. “It’s an economical way to provide retail spaces to businesses that were either home-based or internet-based on a consistent basis.”

More than 50 commercial spaces created from containers exist across the United States, Canada, Europe, Africa, and even Australia. Experts say the model effectively ups foot traffic. The alternative structure serves as a cost-effective and durable approach to community redevelopment.

Each container at the Omaha marketplace is fitted with heating and air conditioning, Sanders says. Six of them are 8-by-20 feet, and two are 16-by-20 feet. She also says the visual appeal of the development has increased foot traffic on North 24th Street.

“I noticed when there are activities at the Union [for Contemporary Arts], there are people that come down to the Fair Deal to eat and shop,” she says.

James Thele, planning director with the City of Omaha, describes the project as a solid foundation for future economic development along North 24th Street.

“We envisioned, as a community, North 24th Street as being an arts and entertainment center,” says Thele, who pointed to the nearby Union for Contemporary Arts.

The city’s contributions to the project included a $370,000 federal community development block grant and $195,000 in tax increment financing—or TIF, a common incentive that allows developers to use a portion of future property taxes to cover initial costs.

City officials also acquired an adjacent property to the marketplace, which will be converted into a parking lot connected to the new entertainment district.

Edward Dantzler, a city development section manager, says the 35-space lot will include two handicap accessible stalls. In total, the lot will cost $370,000, with completion in May.

“The parking lot and stalls will be reserved for the Fair Deal project,” Dantzler says.

Thele says while it’s “hard to argue” about the benefits of jobs and new business in North Omaha, it is important to see other prospects of the development.

“It attracts attention,” Thele says. “It creates a buzz, and that’s important.”

Sanders says further revitalization on 24th Street will help North Omaha continue to grow and become a destination for visitors throughout the city.

“And even though we’ve not been open six months, I’m starting to see that vibrance returning to the community,” she says.

Visit oedc.info for more information.

This article was printed in the Summer 2017 edition of B2B.

Destinations

May 5, 2017 by

AKSARBEN VILLAGE

Every spring, everyone in Aksarben Village gets a spring in their step. No wonder, given all the walks and runs that take place there in spring and summer. Beginning in May that includes the Aim for the Cure Melanoma Walk (May 6), Great Strides Cystic Fibrosis Walk (May 20), Glow ‘N Go 5K (June 2) and Relay for Life (July 15). Walk—or run—to aksarbenvillage.com for details. Oh, and get ready for lots of fresh veggies. Aksarben hosts its first every-Saturday Omaha Farmers Market of the season May 7.

BENSON

The second annual all-ages Memorial Day Massive music festival will be held May 27 outside The Waiting Room (6212 Maple St.) MDM showcases national acts specializing in danceable, electronic music, ranging from hip-hop to trap to “vomitstep,” an EDM subgenre created by Snails, the headliner of the event, which also features performances by Boombox Cartel, ARMNHMR, and PRXZM. The outdoor show will be followed by after-parties at The Waiting Room and Reverb Lounge (6121 Military Ave.). Space Jesus, a psychedelic hip-hop producer/performer out of Brooklyn, will be at The Waiting Room’s all-ages show. Reverb is 21 and over only. The outdoor show is all-ages, unless you want to be a VIP, then you must be 21 to play. But no matter your age, you’d better bring your dancing shoes, because there’s no messing around here. These acts are here to make you move.

BLACKSTONE DISTRICT

What’s new in Blackstone? What isn’t. There are new hours at the Nite Owl, 3902 Farnam St. (5 p.m. to 2 a.m. Monday-Thursday; 3 p.m. to 2 a.m. Friday-Sunday ), a new tenant at 3906 Farnam St. (TSP Architects) and a new website for the district (blackstonedistrict.com).

CAPITOL DISTRICT

Shamrock Development is closer to making a reality of the Capitol District, an expanse stretching from the Riverfront west and north-south from NoDo to Leavenworth. The space, anchored by the Omaha Marriott Downtown, will feature mixed-use buildings and lots of open space. It’s a concept similar to Lincoln’s Railyard—including, Shamrock hopes, open-carry alcohol wherever visitors go.

DUNDEE

The future still looks bright for a public-private partnership that will bring the past back to Dundee—a $1.6 million project to restore the historic Sunken Gardens along Happy Hollow Boulevard. What is known to locals as “The Sunks” is envisioned to be a safe community green space with a formal garden in the center, a sledding zone, open sports field, and more. Organizers say they’ve met all their quarterly fundraising goals. See drawings and more at omahasunkengardens.org.

MIDTOWN CROSSING

Nature hates a void—and it didn’t go over so well in Midtown Crossing, either. Fortunately for Midtowners, the void left by the sudden closing of Brix didn’t take long to get filled. Longtime Omaha restaurateur Ron Samuelson indicated the spot will be filled by Della Costa, a seafood-inspired Mediterranean concept featuring dishes from the coasts of Italy, France, Spain, Morocco, and Greece. “It opens up a whole new range of opportunity for oysters, clams, and whole-grilled fish,” Samuelson
told midtowncrossing.com.

NODO

This is Omaha, right? Yup. But soon, a taste of Lincoln is coming NoDo’s way. Lincoln-based Zipline Brewing Co. is expected to open a tap room where the Saddle Creek Shop once was, between Film Streams and Slowdown. And it will be bigger than either of the places they have down in Huskerville. Boo-yah.

OLD MARKET

You know those little baby carrots don’t grow that way, right? Get the good stuff— and gobs of other fresh, locally grown produce — when the 23rd annual Omaha Farmers Market kicks off May 6. Hosted 8 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. every Saturday through Oct. 14, OFM includes baked goods, flowers, and more as nearly 100 vendors fill 11th Street from Jackson to Howard streets. See the lineup at omahafarmersmarket.com/old-market.

SOUTH OMAHA/
VINTON STREET

Project Project might be a nonprofit, but in February it was all about the green stuff for the independent, DIY contemporary arts space in the historic Vinton Street Business District. Green slime, that is. Project Project was host to Omaha Slime Fest, a fundraiser for Omaha Zine Fest. The former featured several unique competitions, the winners of which were dumped with buckets of slime a la Nickelodeon. Find out more about Project Project on Facebook or at projectprojectomaha.com.

NORTH OMAHA/
24TH & LAKE DISTRICT

Many of Nebraska’s best athletes began their dreams in and around “The Street of Dreams,” Omaha’s 24th and Lake Street area. Now, many of those famous athletes can be seen at the Omaha Rockets Kanteen Restaurant, named after a one-time Omaha baseball squad. The eatery (2401 Lizzie Robinson Ave.) pays homage to the Negro Leagues and is home to the Nebraska Black Sports Hall of Fame. Owner Donald Curry partnered with Black Hall co-founders Robert Faulkner and Ernest Britt so that the Kanteen now showcases memorabilia of Omaha greats like Bob Gibson and Marlin Briscoe alongside Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson.

This article was printed in the May/June 2017 edition of Encounter.

April 13-16 Weekend Picks

April 12, 2017 by

PICK OF THE WEEK—SATURDAY, APRIL 15: Filmstreams is preparing for the appearance of Oscar winner Julianne Moore April 24 by screening some of the actresses best films. This Saturday at 6:25 p.m., don’t miss The Dude and company in the classic hazy L.A. noir The Big Lebowski. Moore memorably portrays The Dude’s (Jeff Bridges) feminist artist client. The film by Joel and Ethan Cohen has made plenty of critics top 10 ever movie lists. Peter Travers’ of Rolling Stone wrote “Maybe it’s the way the Coen brothers tie everything together with bowling that makes this Los Angeles-based tale of burnouts, gun buffs, doobies, tumbleweeds, art, nihilism, porn, pissed-on rugs, severed toes, Saddam Hussein, attack marmots, Teutonic techno-pop and Bob Dylan—not to mention extortion, kidnapping and death—such a hilarious pop-culture hash.” For more info, go here.

THURSDAY, APRIL 13: Although he’s the spawn of two country music legends (Waylon Jennings and Jessi Colter), songwriter/video game creator Shooter Jennings has paved his own musical path. You can check out Shooter’s mesh of country, rock, EDM, and more TONIGHT at the Waiting Room Lounge (6212 Maple St.) at 9 p.m. Jennings has released eight studio albums, two live records, and has produced and released various projects courtesy of his own record label Black Country Rock. He rarely sticks to one format, which has become his signature non-style. For more info, go here.

SATURDAY, APRIL 15: Two of our favorite things merge this weekend in the Old Market. The Fur & Fashion Pop-Up Boutique will materialize in the parking lot of The Diner (409 S. 12th St.) Saturday from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Fashionista pet owners can come shop for themselves and their dogs. Hello Ruby, Omaha’s first mobile fashion truck, will have their stylish, yet affordable clothing and accessories on site, and Ripley & Rue, the dog bandana and accessories boutique, will be doing personalized pup name bandanas. So don’t forget to bring your pup to this very dog-friendly free event. For more information, go here.

SATURDAY, APRIL 15: Shoppers can get in the Easter spirit this Saturday at Dundee’s Hello Holiday (5008 Underwood Ave.) The Eggcellent Eggstravaganza for Eggstra Special Hunnybunnies runs from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. at the boutique. Shop Hello Holiday’s spring 2017 collection, which includes fashion from Tuesday Bassen, Samantha Pleet, and more. Be sure to get there early: Complimentary breakfast and mimosas will be provided for the first two hours. Draw from the “eggcelent” prize basket for special discounts, prizes, and other cool stuff. All are welcome and make sure to bring along your favorite “hunnybunny.” More info here.

THROUGH APRIL: The exhibit A Painters Yoga Journey continues at the 1516 Gallery (1516 Leavenworth St.) this week. It features a series of 48 painting by Robert Bosco, associate professor of painting at Creighton University. Each piece of artwork focuses on a different yoga posture. Collectively they are becoming part of a book on classical yoga entitled Yoga: The Discipline, written by Margaret Hahn, the originator of the Omaha Yoga School in the Old Market. According to his gallery bio, Bosco, a yoga practitioner, explores the deep yoga experience in his paintings. Bosco’s loyalty to this project has merged the science and preciousness of classical yoga with his personal sense of aesthetics. All proceeds from the various publications and prints raised from this exhibit are committed to world refugee organizations. For exhibit times and admission, go here.

FOR A COMPLETE LIST OF AREA EVENTS, CLICK HERE

Destinations

February 22, 2017 by

AKSARBEN VILLAGE

Horse stalls went bye-bye long ago. Now, Aksarben Village is losing car stalls, too. But that’s a good thing, as far as continued growth of the former horse-racing grounds goes. Dirt is overturned and heavy equipment sits on the plot extending north and east from 67th and Frances streets, formerly a parking lot for visitors to the bustling area. That’s because work has commenced at the corner on what will become HDR’s new global headquarters, which opens some time in 2019. The temporary loss of parking will be offset by great gain for Aksarben Village — a 10-story home for nearly 1,200 employees with a first floor including 18,000 square feet of retail space. HDR also is building an adjacent parking garage with room for ground-level shops and restaurants. But wait, car owners, there’s more. Farther up 67th Street, near Pacific, the University of Nebraska-Omaha is building a garage that should be completed this fall. Plenty of parking for plenty to do.

BENSON

A continental shift has taken place in Benson — Espana is out and Au Courant Regional Kitchen is in, offering Benson denizens another food option at 6064 Maple St. That means a move from now-closed Espana’s Spanish fare to now-open Au Courant’s “approachable European-influenced dishes with a focus on regional ingredients.” Sound tasty? Give your tastebuds an eye-tease with the menu at aucourantrestaurant.com. Also new in B-Town: Parlour 1887 (parlour1887.com) has finished an expansion first announced in 2015 that has doubled the hair salon’s original footprint. That’s a big to-do at the place of  ’dos.

BLACKSTONE DISTRICT

The newest Blackstone District restaurant, which takes its name from Nebraska’s state bird, is ready to fly. Stirnella Bar & Kitchen, located at 3814 Farnam St., was preparing to be open by Valentine’s Day. By mid-January it had debuted staff uniforms, photos of its decor, and a preview of its delectable-looking dinner menu. Stirnella (Nebraska’s meadowlark is part of the genus and species “Sturnella neglecta”) will offer a hybrid of bistro and gastro pub fare “that serves refined comfort food with global influences,” plus a seasonal menu inspired by local ingredients. Fly to stirnella.com for more.

DUNDEE

Film Streams (filmstreams.org) made a splash in January announcing details on its renovation of the  historic Dundee Theater. Work began in 2017’s first month on features including:

Repair and renovation of the original theater auditorium, which will be equipped with the latest projection and sound technology able to screen films in a variety of formats, including reel-to-reel 35mm and DCP presentations.

A throwback vertical “Dundee” sign facing Dodge Street.

An entryway that opens to a landscaped patio/pocket park.

New ticketing and concessions counters.

A store with film books, Blu-ray Discs and other cinema-related offerings.

A café run through a yet-to-be-announced partnership.

A 25-seat micro-cinema.

Oh, yeah, they’ll show movies there, too. And Dundee-ers won’t have long to wait—the project should be completed by the end of 2017.

MIDTOWN

In a surprise to many—especially those holding its apparently now-defunct gift cards—Brix shut its doors in January at both its Midtown Crossing and Village Pointe locations. It was not clear at press time what factor, if any, was played by a former Brix employee, who in late December pleaded not guilty to two counts of felony theft by deception after being accused of stealing more than $110,000 as part of a gift card scheme. Despite the closing, Midtown has celebrated two additions of late as the doors opened to the “Japanese Americana street food” spot Ugly Duck (3201 Farnam St.) and to Persian rug “pop-up shop” The Importer.

NORTH OMAHA

The restoration of North Omaha’s 24th and Lake area continues its spectacular trajectory. In January, the Union for Contemporary Art moved into the completely renovated, historic Blue Lion building located at 2423 N. 24th St. The Blue Lion building is a cornerstone in the historic district. Originally constructed in 1913, the Blue Lion is named after two of the building’s earliest tenants: McGill’s Blue Room, a nightclub that attracted many nationally known black musicians, and Lion Products, a farm machinery distributor. The entire district was listed as a federally recognized historic district in April 2016.

According to its website, “The Union for Contemporary Art is committed to strengthening the creative culture of the greater Omaha area by providing direct support to local artists and increasing the visibility of contemporary art forms in the community.” Founder and executive director Brigitte McQueen Shew says the Union strives to unite artists and the community to inspire positive social change in North Omaha. “The organization was founded on the belief that the arts can be a vehicle for social justice and greater civic engagement,” she says. “We strive to utilize the arts as a bridge to connect our diverse community in innovative and meaningful ways.”

The Union will be hosting the annual Omaha Zinefest March 11. Event organizer Andrea Kszystyniak says Zinefest is a celebration of independent publishing in Nebraska. Assorted zines—essentially DIY magazines produced by hand and/or photocopier—will be on display at the free event, and workshops will be offered to attendees.

OLD MARKET

M’s Pub fans had plenty to be thankful for in November following the announcement that the Old Market restaurant would rise from the ashes of the January 2016 fire that destroyed the iconic eatery. Various media quoted co-owner Ann Mellen saying the restaurant would reopen this summer. Construction has been steady at the restaurant’s 11th and Howard, four-story building, but customers weren’t sure M’s would be part of the rebirth until Mellen’s well-received comments. Mellen says the feel—and the food—will be the same. Even if the name may change.

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

Underdogs and Frontrunners in the Omaha Mayoral Race

February 21, 2017 by
Photography by Christopher Geary photos by Bill Sitzmann, all others contributed

Running for the office of Omaha mayor seems surprisingly accessible for any registered voter age 25 or older who is an Omaha resident of six months or more: Pay a $100 filing fee, complete a notarized candidate filing form and a statement of financial interests form, and submit a petition signed by 1,000 registered Omaha voters.

As the March/April issue of Omaha Magazine went to press, 10 individuals had taken out paperwork from the Douglas County Election Commission (the first step to getting on the ballot in hopes of being elected to the nonpartisan office that pays $102,312 annually for a four-year term starting in June). But in the months before the election, only about half of the potential candidates had developed and promoted detailed campaign platforms through polished websites, social media channels, and savvy media relations efforts. Several of those receiving less pronounced media attention have articulated core issues that range from legalizing marijuana, to improving the lives of local lower- and middle-income families, to touting free speech.

Douglas County Election Commissioner Brian W. Kruse says it’s unlikely all 10 will make it to the ballot for the April 4 primary based on precedent: Although seven candidates qualified for the 2013 primary, there were just five in 2009, only two in both 2005 and 2001, and three in 1997. (The two candidates with the highest number of votes advance to the general election, May 9 this cycle.) Self-promotion isn’t the only challenge for potential candidates, Kruse says.

“Especially with the mayoral candidates, we do hear quite a bit how hard it is to get 1,000 signatures that are accepted. It takes work, you know?” he says. Some well-meaning signers are discovered during the painstaking verification process to not be registered to vote or not registered in the correct jurisdiction, he explains. Candidates are encouraged to obtain extra signatures and complete paperwork well before the March 3 filing deadline. If time allows, they can correct paperwork errors or omissions or even gather more signatures if they come up short or cut it close.

“We would feel terrible if someone turned theirs in on March 3 and they had 995 signatures, because there’s nothing they can do at that point,” he says. “In our office, we will certify to 110 percent. We try to turn them around pretty quickly; the mayor (incumbent Jean Stothert) turned her signatures in on a Wednesday, and we were done by Friday afternoon. Often candidates will call and check with us on how it’s going, and we’ll give them updates. We try to be as customer service-friendly as possible … We’re here to serve the voters and the citizens of Douglas County.”

Christopher Geary, a martial arts teacher/studio owner and former Marine, is a newcomer to the mayoral race. He and the current mayor were the first to meet the credentials needed to appear on the ballot, receiving confirmation from the commission Jan. 6.

 

“I feel that service to others is not only something people should do, but it’s an obligation we all should embrace. I have run for office before and I feel that now is the perfect time to serve the City of Omaha, which has been my home for three decades … Omaha is an awesome city with a fantastic history and people. The diversity of communities and how we come together in hard times is really inspiring,” Geary says. “I have a vision for Omaha that brings government, business, and citizens together to improve living conditions for everyone by increasing job opportunities, helping businesses grow and prosper, and provide training for those seeking employment.”

Geary has made the unusual decision to not accept campaign contributions. “I think a candidate for any office should be free and clear of anyone or any group that would try to manipulate them once they are in office,” he says.

He also will not participate in debates, he adds. “Political debates end up being personal attacks on one another and rarely stay on point. Candidates will only say what people want to hear with memorized speeches and can easily stump the other candidates with facts they don’t have access to. Voters that watch or listen to these debates will not receive the necessary information to make informed decisions regarding his or her candidate.”

Mayoral candidate Taylor Royal

Another mayoral hopeful, certified public accountant Taylor Royal, is entirely new to politics.

“I have always had the heart to serve the public and make my hometown better for everyone, but the urgency to run for mayor originated when I moved back to Omaha two years ago,” he says, explaining that he was impressed with the business climate and other opportunities in Dallas, where he lived for four years as he earned his master’s degree and launched his career.

“Moving back to Omaha in 2015 was a different story. The same old problems that plagued our city when I was growing up were still prevalent, and new problems were surfacing,” Royal says. “I want to be mayor of Omaha to create a more business-friendly and community-friendly Omaha. I believe my new vision for Omaha will join our community together to solve our challenges and make Omaha the place to be for families and businesses.”

Royal received early media attention for his proposal to build a football stadium and bring an NFL team to Omaha, but his platform also includes unlocking new sources of revenue, looking for strategic opportunities to outsource, improving street maintenance, and revitalizing North Omaha. Citizens have been receptive, he says.

“My campaign experience to date has been a confirmation of what I already knew about the people in Omaha,” he says. “Omaha is a city filled with people who display unmatched hospitality and incredible diversity, and my candidacy has received a warm welcome from the residents.”

Candidate Heath Mello, who comes into the mayoral race fresh from two terms in the Nebraska Legislature, says engagement is key to winning an election.

“Looking back, I was probably most surprised by how important it was to spend more time knocking on doors and meeting with voters than doing anything else. Spending quality time with people in their homes, churches, and senior centers proved to be so much more meaningful to me throughout the campaign than any speech, fundraiser, meeting, or parade,” he says, estimating that he knocked on more than 12,000 doors in his first race alone.

Engagement then transfers to successfully serving the public, he adds.

“I worked hard for eight years as a state senator to keep that kind of personal engagement through town halls, neighborhood roundtables, knocking on doors, and proactively connecting with neighbors,” he says. And he’s taking that approach through his bid for Omaha mayor with a platform that includes plans to reduce crime, improve city services, create jobs, and foster collaboration.

“From Belvedere to Deer Park, Blackstone to Elkhorn, and everywhere in between, I am continuing to knock on doors and visit with small businesses to learn more about how Omahans want to help shape our great city for the next 20 years and how we can collectively create a smarter, more innovative city.”

Incumbent Stothert emphasizes safety of Omaha’s citizens as her top priority in her bid for re-election. “There is no issue we work harder on than reducing crime and apprehending and prosecuting those who commit crimes. I am proud of our police department and our work with community partners to make Omaha a safer community.”

Her motivation for running again is simple: “I love my job, and it is a privilege to serve as mayor.” Stothert notes, however, that running for re-election has both advantages and challenges.

“During the past 3 1/2 years, we have provided leadership, accomplished priorities, and worked with partners on community projects. This experience provides me the opportunity to highlight what we have accomplished, something you can’t provide as a first-time candidate,” she says. On the other hand, “Four years ago, I could spend most my time campaigning by meeting voters throughout the city and visiting people in their homes. While I am doing that again during this election, I also know my work and commitments as mayor must come first. Even though I have less time to campaign, I believe the best politics is doing a good job so we work hard to make sure Omaha is on the right track.”

Information on the election process or candidates is readily available, Kruse says, and he’s hoping for a good turnout for both the primary and general elections with 182 polling places open 8 a.m. to 8 p.m.

Visit votedouglascounty.com or call 402-444-VOTE to reach the Douglas County Election Commission for more information.

TEN MAYORAL HOPEFULS

As of press time, 10 prospective candidates had begun the paperwork process to enter the mayoral race. To appear on the ballot, they must obtain and file 1,000 signatures from registered voters who reside in Omaha by March 3. Contact information is based on Douglas County Election Commission public records and online information (listed alphabetically by surname).

Bernard Choping

  • Phone: 402-917-5149

Mark Elworth

  • Phone: 402-812-1600
  • E-mail: markelworthjr@aol.com
  • Twitter: @markjr4gov

Christopher Geary

  • Phone: 402-905-6865
  • Website: geary2017.com
  • E-mail: christophergeary@gmail.com

J.B. Medlock

  • Phone: 402-302-0000 and 402-213-2095

Heath Mello

  • Website: heathmello.com
  • E-mail: info@heathmello.com
  • Twitter: @heathmello

Ean Mikale

  • Website: mikaleformayor.com
  • Twitter: @mikaleformayor

Taylor Royal

  • Website: taylorjroyal.com
  • E-mail: royalformayor@gmail.com

Jean Stothert

  • Phone: 402-506-6623
    Website: jeanstothert.com
  • E-mail: info@jeanstothert.com
  • Twitter: @jean_stothert

Mort Sullivan

  • Website: mortsullivan.com
  • E-mail: mdsullivan@cisusa.info

Jerome Wallace

  • Phone: 314-495-0545

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

 

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

aayronwilliams1

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.

Nurturing Young Artists in North Omaha

August 26, 2016 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Within one year of establishing The Union of Contemporary Art in 2011, its founder and executive director, Brigitte McQueen Shew, noticed neighborhood kids arriving unexpectedly at the arts facility on North 24th Street.

The Union didn’t have formal weekend classes at the time. But the kids didn’t mind. They would show up, knock on the door, and ask: “Can we come in to make stuff?”

Union1McQueen Shew was happy to accommodate. “We just started letting them come in and do whatever they wanted,” she says.

The informal weekend sessions grew into the weekly “Art Club” in 2013, and the program continues to grow. Now, on any given Saturday, there are local artists helping out, teaching lessons, and serving as mentors.

“It really started organically, and the majority of the kids involved in the program still walk to the building,” McQueen Shew says of the free program for youths who are between the ages of 6 and 13, living in North Omaha. Art Club takes place every Saturday from 10 a.m. to 1:30 p.m.

The focus of each Art Club session depends on the artist(s) leading the group. McQueen Shew says they try to have a ceramic artist instructor available, “because the kids love working with clay.”

Sometimes the artistic medium is painting or printmaking, and they have also done yoga with the kids. Meanwhile, urban agriculture is an important aspect of Art Club every week.

“We’re located in one of the largest food deserts in the state of Nebraska,” she says, referring to North Omaha’s dearth of affordable, fresh, and healthy food. “We have a garden that basically belongs to the community, but the kids are responsible for it. They help us plant, maintain it, and during the summer when they cook lunches for each other, a lot of the produce come from the garden.”

Union3
Art and North Omaha

Within the past year, McQueen Shew has been trying to connect Art Club lessons with African-American art history. Her focus emerged from a guest lecture she gave at Sacred Heart School in North Omaha.

“I started the presentation by asking, ‘Who likes art?’” McQueen Shew says. “Everyone raised their hands. Then, I asked if anyone could name a famous artist, and I got lots of ‘Picassos.’ And then, I asked them they could name a famous African-American artist, and it was like crickets.”

During the next half hour of her presentation, she showed a steady stream of African-American artwork on the projector. At the end of her talk, she asked again, “How many of you can name an African-American artist?” All hands went up.

Union2Students were excited to learn about the important cultural and artistic contributions made by African-Americans. McQueen Shew says making the connection is important.

“It’s not really a conversation that we have in North Omaha,” she says. “Most after school programs focus on sports, which is why we really want to do this. There’s just no cultural outlet for kids living in the community. So, we work around a lot of art history ideas because I think it’s really important for the children and their families to connect themselves to the conversations.”

Art Club, and the rest of The Union’s youth outreach programming, strives to achieve The Union’s ultimate goal: to “unite artists and the community to inspire positive social change.” The youth outreach programs build on The Union’s other efforts to provide studio space and facilitate exhibitions for contemporary artists in Omaha.

Youth Outreach

The Union has gradually expanded its youth outreach over the past few years. Youth programs are free; however, most are directed at serving North Omaha residents living east of 72nd St., west of the Missouri River, south of Interstate 680, and north of Cuming Street or Northwest Radial Highway.

Over the summer, activities included a new family program on Thursday nights, various art workshops, and a summer camp for kids. The family night program could become a regular feature at The Union in the future.

For the past two years, The Union has offered “Teen Art Night” every Friday. Teen Art Night began as a collaboration with Catholic Charities for at-risk youth. The teen night is now geared towards all teens—ages 13 through 19—offering open access to The Union’s studio space, darkroom, print shop, ceramic studio, paints, drawing materials, and assorted art supplies every Friday from 5-8 p.m.

“We decided to open it up and let other teens come in, so that’s not open just for North Omaha, but also to everyone from the greater Omaha area,” McQueen Shew says. The summer family night was also open to residents of the larger metropolitan area.

Union4Changes are on the horizon for The Union. The non-profit space will relocate to the nearby Blue Lion building in the fall. The larger space will allow The Union to accommodate even more youths, instructors, and families. 

In January, The Union is planning to launch a new after-school arts program for North Omaha youth called “Union After School.” They are currently accepting participant registration for the program.

“We are also adding an element to the programs that we do with the kids when we move to the new building, and that’s theater,” McQueen Shew says, noting the hiring of Denis Chapman from Omaha Community Playhouse. “We’ll have a youth theater ensemble that will perform productions throughout the year.”

The Union’s move into the renovated Blue Lion building corresponds with a growing number of community developments in the vicinity of North 24th and 30th streets. McQueen Shew is excited to play her part in the area’s revitalization.

“There is so much happening in the community right now,” she says. “It’s a pretty amazing time.” 

Visit u-ca.org/youth-outreach for more information. FamilyGuideUnion5