Tag Archives: North Omaha

The Growing Business of Keeping Women Safe

November 21, 2018 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

In the wee hours of March 1, 2017, a masked intruder entered a west Omaha hotel near 180th and Dodge streets, lurked around corners, stalked the lone female desk clerk, then pounced on her. With his pants below his waist, the predator groped the woman as he dragged her down a hallway toward a restroom.

Then the narrative changed.

The woman fought back. In the struggle, she ripped off the man’s black ski mask, giving his face as much exposure as his genitals on the surveillance cameras. She broke away from him, ran back to the desk, and called 911. Police captured the suspect the next day.

“Statistically, you’re more likely to be a victim just because you were born a female. I know it sounds terrible, but it’s a fact,” says Shawn Whittington, an instructor for the Women’s Primal Self-Defense classes at Omaha’s 88 Tactical Group, an elite training and educational state-of-the-art facility with a firing range. “Predators are looking for easy targets. But they’re not looking for a fight.”

Instructors at 88 Tactical teach the basics of verbal and physical responses to help ensure a woman under assault achieves the ultimate goal: to get away.

Since January 2017, almost 500 area women have taken the Primal defense class, a rigorous four-hour training session that costs $80. Hundreds more participate in the intermediate and co-ed self-defense courses.

The reason has a lot to do with stories of violence that come in waves with every news cycle.

“The Mollie Tibbetts tragedy brought the single biggest spike in inquiries we’ve seen yet,” says Whittington, referring to the disappearance and murder of a 20-year-old University of Iowa student in July. Whittington, an Omaha firefighter and paramedic, helped field phone calls and emails for several hours each day in the weeks following the discovery of her body. “It got a lot of people thinking, ‘Maybe I need to take my personal safety more seriously,’” he says.

Serious statistics have fueled the burgeoning self-defense business nationwide and in Omaha.

Sexual attacks against women constitute an epidemic in this country, according to several health organizations. An estimated one in five women has been the victim of rape, or attempted rape, the majority at the hands of a domestic partner. Department of Justice statistics show one in three experience some sort of sexual violence.

In Omaha, reports of sexual assaults against women in 2017 grew almost 12 percent from the previous year.

While a victim’s trauma lingers long after the sexual attack, Amber Crawford, co-founder of Impact Kickboxing and Fitness Center in Omaha, has seen how increased physical strength can help the healing process.

“I’ve worked with some women who have left an abusive relationship, but the intimidation and insecurity are still there,” says Crawford. “They come here to get their confidence back.”

Confidence becomes the primary byproduct of kickboxing for every member, even though most women who sign up at Impact do it “because they want to get skinny,” says Crawford. But as they lose inches executing jabs, cross hooks, spinning back fists, elbow slashes, and the always-effective well-placed kick, “many of our members will go into martial arts training because they think, ‘What else can I do to protect myself?’’

Crawford and her business partner, Jodie Daniels, opened Impact two years ago in the L Street Marketplace complex. Kickboxing may not qualify as a self-defense discipline, but the muay thai style taught at Impact emphasizes both punching and kicking, which can come in handy.

“What they learn here is how quick and strong the strikes should be,” explains Crawford.

Word began to spread about this unique fitness program and membership soon outpaced the space. Fortunately, another storefront with double the square feet recently became available next to Kirkland’s, directly across the street from the original site.

The spacious new gym consists of one large room with about 30 freestanding punching bags distributed evenly along the mat in an atmosphere best described as unintimidating. With more than 300 members (70 percent of them women) ranging in age from 13 to 67, Crawford and Daniels see one, possibly two new locations in their future.

Most women’s self-defense programs represent only part of a larger business model, often included under the umbrella of the $4 billion-a-year martial arts industry and taught by professionals like Thomas Todd of Championship Martial Arts in Omaha.

A highly ranked black belt in both taekwondo and karate, Todd began training at age 10 and later came under the guidance of K.H. Kim, known to thousands of Omaha youngsters as Master Kim.

Todd began his own school in his native North Omaha before moving 13 years ago to the current 6,000 square-foot facility at 88th and Blondo streets, “so we can do a lot more for the community,” he says.

The women’s $25 self-defense classes, held once a month for an hour-and-a-half, reflect Todd’s belief in community service. He gives deep discounts to those who struggle financially. And, like the instructors at 88 Tactical, he often takes his skills outside the studio.

“We’ll go to schools and work with teachers and staff or sometimes they’ll come here,” he says. “We go to real estate offices, churches, college sororities, women’s groups, and corporations. We also hold a lot of mother-and-daughter classes. Demand gets bigger every year.”

Todd devotes a lot of class time on ways to defuse a situation. He trains how to use body language to look strong. He tells women to be alert and aware of their surroundings, to quit texting, and to scream at the top of their lungs to scare off a predator.

As for more aggressive measures, “we teach them how to strike the ‘big four’ soft spots: eyes, nose, throat, and groin,” he says.

As a self-defense tool, where do guns fit in?

“One complements the other,” says Shawn Whittington, who also serves as a firearms instructor at 88 Tactical. “But a self-defense class is the best place to start, because you may have to fight to get to your gun.”

Whatever the training, survival remains the primary objective.


Visit 88tactical.com, gofierceimpact.com, and martialartsomaha.com for more information.

This article was printed in the December 2018/January 2019 edition of B2B. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

Custom-Made Paradise in the Woods

October 24, 2018 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Tracy Zaiss never gets tired answering the inevitable question from first-time visitors to the family’s hilltop home.

“They always ask me, ‘Are you sure we’re still in Omaha?’ And I always say, ‘Oh yes, this is Omaha. It’s Omaha Public Schools [for neighborhood kids], and we’re really just minutes from downtown.’”

The understandable skepticism begins along John J. Pershing Drive heading north, as the two-lane road follows the Missouri River. Turning left onto a road that leads to Hummel Park, surprised travelers immediately experience the wonders of nature, especially in late summer when the flora and fauna reach their peak of beauty and diversity. 

They find themselves under a canopy of trees so lush that rays of sunlight barely reach the pavement. Emerging from that dark tunnel, visitors then navigate deeply rutted, unpaved roads—with no street signs—that keep twisting and curving up a steep grade. 

Their journey ends at a smooth concrete driveway and a two-story natural stone house sitting high above the Missouri River Valley.

Built in 2011, the Zaiss (pronounced Zayss) home combines a classic, timeless design with contemporary materials.

Contractor Mick Smith of Mick Smith Construction used rough-cut, split-face stone with copper tones on the exterior. Long rectangular copper tiles, now a shade of green due to aging, accent the roof. The look complements the home’s rustic setting.

“We knocked down the original house on the property and built the new one around the same spot,” says Smith, now retired and working part time. He also installed a geothermal heating and cooling system underground “because there’s no natural gas up there.” 

Everything about the house and the setting still stands out in his mind. 

 “I’m telling you, that area is unbelievable, right in the middle of the park,” Smith says. “It would cost a fortune to build that same house today.”

Although Design Basics of Omaha drew the blueprints, Zaiss (who started her own marketing and research firm, Zaiss and Co., in 1989) and her husband, Rick (a social worker by profession and avid bird-watching hobbyist), came up with many ideas. 

For instance, Zaiss salvaged the thick red bricks from the original driveway to create a path that leads to the home’s long, arched entryway. “I wanted the front doors recessed to minimize the amount of mud people track in but it has never really worked,” she says with a laugh.  

As if to preview what vistas lie beyond the entryway, each of the two heavy wooden front doors has a window with the image of a rising sun etched into the glass. When opened, they reveal a magnificent expanse.

Sunlight streaming in through a bank of floor-to-ceiling windows along the back wall draws the eye into the wide-open living room. Even the freshly tuned grand piano in a corner of the room seems small under the vaulted ceiling. 

The wood-burning fireplace on the west wall features the same stone motif as the exterior of the house. A large oil painting takes up most of the space above the fireplace mantle. Titled “Wheat Fields,” it depicts birds flying above wind-swept acres of golden wheat. 

But the artwork doesn’t outshine the view behind the Zaiss house. Make no mistake: the land is the star of this show. 

Ten acres of deep, untouched woods extend as far as the eye can see, sloping downward to the river. The land teems with the green of cottonwood and black locust trees, the same variety that form the leafy cathedral at the entrance to Hummel Park. Apple trees laden with red fruit grow close to the house. Wildflowers and wild turkeys abound, as do fawns wobbling gingerly along the sizable backyard. When nighttime brings a blanket of deep darkness, Zaiss says she listens to the stillness. The only sounds come from nature and the only light comes from stars that shine exceptionally bright far from the city’s glare. 

Zaiss and her husband met while students at Hastings College and married in the ’70s, shortly after graduation. They felt particularly lucky in 2006—while living in their longtime home near 108th and Harrison streets—when a house with a stunning view came on the market in an area of North Omaha that rarely sees a “For Sale” sign. They took their time planning their dream home, while using the original structure as a weekend getaway and entertainment hub.

“This house is a result of five years looking at architecture and home magazines, getting design ideas,” Zaiss says.

Her thorough design exploration resulted in a three-bedroom, three-and-a-half bath, 4,714-square-foot home that maximizes enjoyment of its natural surroundings.

Borrowing heavily from architect Frank Lloyd Wright’s Midwest-inspired Prairie style, the house features an open floor plan with free-flowing spaces and lots of windows as focal points. The windows don’t have coverings, except in the guest bedroom and bath. 

Lighting brings another architectural impact in the living room. The wall lights shine either up or down toward the floor to avoid any glare on the windows. 

Sliding glass doors in the back of the kitchen provide easy access to a concrete patio that spans the width of the house. 

Glass doors also open to a separate screen-enclosed eating area off the east side of the kitchen, “which we can use about nine months out of the year,” Zaiss says. “It’s always fun to have guests and eat out here.”

The kitchen sink, installed inside the granite-top center island, faces the patio door, providing scenery to the lucky person tasked with cleaning up. 

A large pantry next to the formal dining room contains a second, fully functional caterer’s kitchen with open shelves that display colorful dishes and serving pieces. 

The garage holds another of Zaiss’ innovations. A third garage door in the back of the structure allows the riding lawn mower to zip in and out with ease. 

“So much of what we wanted to achieve up here was comfort,” Zaiss says quietly. 

Mission accomplished.


This article was printed in the November/December 2018 edition of OmahaHome Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

Curly Martin

July 29, 2018 by
Photography by Sarah Lemke

If Curly Martin has something to say, you can best believe you will hear it if you’re within earshot. 

“Man, tell me who came up with this idea for a story about the Chitlin’ Circuit, I know it had to be a white boy,” Martin says during a boisterous conversation. “First, make sure he gets it straight; it’s not chitterlings. It was called the Chitlin’ Circuit!”

While chitterlings—chitlins for short—are a soul-food staple made from the small intestines of pigs, the Chitlin’ Circuit refers to venues in the South (and into the Upper Midwest) that supported traditional rhythm and blues acts. Martin finds the term as repulsive as its namesake.

“I know they think the Chitlin’ Circuit was for the mediocre musicians, but let me tell you, the Blues and R&B Chitlin’ Circuit was different from the Jazz Chitlin’ Circuit. Jazz players ruled Omaha and always stayed sharp. We dressed like pimps and players because that was our clientele.”

There are still jazz heavyweights living on Omaha’s northside, and Martin is testament to the fact. In the music room of his modest home, nestled near Belvedere Point, he collects an assortment of recording equipment and memorabilia: a 1972 Fender Rhodes keyboard, albums worked on with smooth-jazz innovator Grover Washington, and an award for the 2017 Best Jazz Musician in Omaha from the Omaha Entertainment and Art Awards.

“They told me I would have to pay to pick it up, but somehow it wound up here,” he says of the OEAA award. 2017 was an eventful year for Martin. In addition to the local award, he was also nominated for a Grammy for Best R&B Album alongside his world-renown, West Coast producer/songwriter son, Terrace Martin.

“Grammy-nominated for Velvet Portraits and Homer’s didn’t even have the album,” Martin recalls. “I brought Terrace to Make Believe Recording Studios to record that album, but these fools in Omaha won’t acknowledge it! There’s even a song named ‘Curly Martin’ my son did with Robert Glasper. Now that’s a tough tune.”

When asked if there are remnants of the jazz scene he once knew in Omaha, Martin scoffs.

“The ‘decision-makers’ on the music scene don’t like me because I’ll tell them to their faces they can’t play,” Martin states unapologetically. “I don’t think Omaha artists have enough range, and they’ll get mad at me for telling them the truth!”

One of the few people Martin considers an ally is Kate Dussault, founder of the Hi-Fi House. After hosting a series of successful Jazz Labs with Martin, she acknowledges him as an unappreciated artist in the local music scene.

“Curly is a hoot, but he is passionate about passing his knowledge on to the younger generation,” Dussault says. “He is more akin to a mentor than an academic teacher. I can recall him saying that you can go to class all day and do your homework, but where is the inspiration?”

“They don’t even know that I sold out the Holland Center back in February, man,” Martin asserts. “I brought out some of the best guitarists in the world that still reside in North Omaha like Wali Ali and Calvin Keys or saxophonist Hank Redd. These guys have worked with The Temptations, Stevie Wonder, and Tony Bennett. Musicians around here aren’t as diverse as we were, so they can’t compare to back in the day.” 

Martin goes on to describe the Jazz Circuit lifestyle: thousand-dollar diamond rings, mohair suits, and alligator shoes that had to match the belt. They would play seven days a week traveling between the Blue Note in Minneapolis, Allen’s Showcase in North Omaha, O.G.s in Kansas City, KC Lounge in Denver, and the BTW Hotel and Lounge in San Francisco.

“Man, we rotated through those clubs throughout the ’60s,” Martin reminisces. “Mr. Allen at the Showcase let a lot of us jazz players get our feet wet, but there was also Alice’s Lounge, Shirley’s, and the Black Orchid in North Omaha. Even for the white folks, if they wanted to hear the baddest of the bad they had to come to the northside and downtown!”

Morning breakfast dances from 6-10 a.m. on holidays, Sunday jam sessions, and good music playing on every corner is the North Omaha jazz mecca that Martin remembers.

“I was probably 14 when I started drumming for my first band, Daddy Long Legs and the Rocking Nighthawks. I even had a gig downtown at Mickey’s with a checkerboard band called Danny and the Roulettes because mixed-race bands were popular. We were jamming downtown when the so-called riots of ’69 went down. After that uprising, our era started to wind down.”

These days, Martin focuses on the future. With a new album in the works and another project with Dussault upcoming, he is eager to give back to his community. 

“They tried to get me involved with WeBop, but I’m not trying to be a babysitter,” Martin says, referring to the early childhood education program. “I want to get kids when they’re serious about their craft, and show them that North Omaha has a rich background. I can’t let them bury our history; this generation can see me and say, ‘If Curly lived this wonderful life then I can do it, too.’”


Terrace Martin produced Velvet Portraits and is producing his father’s upcoming album. Follow @terracemartinmusic on Facebook for updates. 

This article was printed in the July/August 2018 edition of Omaha Magazine. 

Wanderings Of A Wordsmith

May 2, 2018 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Frank S. O’Neal published his first book of poetry in 2010 at age 62. In 2017, the Nebraska Arts Council exhibited his surrealist poetry video (a collaboration between the scribe and cinematographer Jason Fischer) for O’Neal’s poem “I Do Not Use The N-Word.”

The African-American wordsmith uses his craft to actualize activism as a historian and North Omaha resident.

The versifier is also a voyager: “Had I not traveled, I would not be able to write,” O’Neal says.

He started globetrotting in 1968 when he enlisted in the U.S. Coast Guard. He trained in the medical field and traveled with the Icebreaker Support Section. The seafarer sailed across the North Pole and the South Pole. During the return journey from his cruise to the Antarctic, he and his fellow Coast Guard members were pleased to learn that they would be coming through Rio de Janeiro during the famed Carnival—but Lady Luck was not on their side that night.

“We had to wait,” O’Neal says. “The last night of Carnival, we were sitting there, in Rio, waiting on a ship. By the time we got ashore—it was over. We got them back, though. My commander had us stay there three extra days.”

After his discharge from the Coast Guard in 1974, he worked for Bethlehem Steel in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, as an industrial paramedic driving an ambulance from the work sites when an injury or accident was reported.

O’Neal relocated to Omaha in 1978, but not for long. In 1980, he traveled with his then-girlfriend to Dallas, Texas.

“I figured it was a good opportunity,” the lighthearted lyricist says. He found a job with a hospital, and in 1983, he switched careers and began to work in communications installation for Motorola.

He also began to rework himself into a rhapsodist. At age 35, O’Neal began to write as a way to reflect on his experiences. He’d been in and out of relationships, of homes, of cities, and he saw a world that engaged and perplexed him.

“I think he’s a talented writer. He writes with honesty, authenticity, and courage,” says Lisa Pelto, president of Concierge Marketing Inc., the company that has published his books.

In 1990 O’Neal switched from a salaried employee to a contract position at Motorola. After the corporation secured a contract to provide a mobile-communications network in Kuwait, O’Neal joined the team arriving in Kuwait City one week after the U.S.-led military liberation of the Persian Gulf state in early 1991.

“We went through Kuwait…seeing all the broke-down cars, all the tanks, fires,” O’Neal says with a shake of his head. “I thought I was in hell.”

In a scrapbook filled with mementos, a fiery mushroom cloud rises over an oil field on the first page. Other photos in the book show the newly liberated city at its worst…and best.

“That was an experience I needed to have as far as the circle of life,” O’Neal says. “The beauty of working overseas was being able to hear stories from people in other countries.” 

During his time in Kuwait, he toiled 12-hour days, setting up the infrastructure to put in a computerized communications system for oil wells. It was a grueling job, but one O’Neal worked with his signature confidence, and not much sleep.

O’Neal’s time in Kuwait enabled him to float further. In 1993, he traveled to Jamaica to be part of the crew creating the infrastructure for a new communications system.

He waxes poetic about embracing the culture, and he picked up the Jamaican patois language within a couple of months.

“It was beautiful being on the island for that long,” O’Neal says. “You can take seeds of any kind, and within the germination period the plant will grow. I’ve never seen soil so fertile.”

He now considers Jamaica his second home. He contentedly adventured through the U.S. on communications assignments until 2006, when he returned to Omaha to help his ailing parents. He spent time with his father, Frank Seavron O’Neal, in the last three weeks of his father’s life gathering family history, listening to stories he never heard before…and garnering advice that would impact his life.

“Frank Sandy, finish it,” he says, recalling his father’s advice (both men had the middle initial “S.”). O’Neal had shown his father a collection of poems that would eventually appear in his first book of poetry.

He took his father’s advice. Three years later, O’Neal’s first book came out in print, and he began reading at poetry engagements, meandering the Omaha metro. He has assembled four anthologies, is regularly petitioned to perform, and he could not be happier.

“He has a voice that is worth listening to,” says Pelto, his publisher who is white. “Initially, when I read the poems, I thought it was a good peek into the life of a black man.”

Each step of O’Neal’s story reads like a chapter in a book.

“This has been a beautiful journey,” he says. “I enjoy my life to the fullest, because every bit of my life has had a purpose and a meaning to it.” 


Visit Frank O’Neal’s Facebook page, @franksoneal, for more information.

This article was printed in the May/June 2018 edition of Omaha Magazine.

Free Space

February 11, 2018 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Eli Rigatuso has a knack for uncovering beauty. He has been known to stop his car to investigate a particularly exceptional flower in somebody’s yard. He is a man who happily recounts being stopped in his tracks by an unexpected patch of wildflowers blooming through the underbrush.

This devotion to the smallest of details in life has characterized Rigatuso’s unique vision from a young age. “I was always fascinated by trying to capture little things,” he says of his earliest explorations of visual art as an 8-year-old with a camera. Prints of close-up photos of the wonders of everyday life, as seen through his personal lens, stacked up as he developed an artistic eye for the unexpected.

Walking into Rigatuso’s North Omaha home is like encountering a surprising glimpse of a lilac decorating your route to work. Now a professional photographer and videographer, his affinity for finding the unexpected extends to his growing collection of works from local artists.

Rigatuso welcomes visitors on a guided exploration of his 21-piece collection. “I’ve had people walk in here who have said the energy in this place is unbelievable,” he says, gesturing to the massive, awe-inspiring painting of a young man with soulful eyes that greets guests. Equally impressive is the drag queen painted on a plastic shower door that divides the living room and kitchen. Next to that are the elegant photos of the annual Metropolitan Community College Intertribal Powwow. The entire collection radiates a peaceful energy that’s undeniable.

Perhaps that energy is a hopefulness—a sense of truthfulness that can only be communicated through the work of local artists. Rigatuso uncovers art everywhere, and throughout his tour, he reiterates that his collection is defined by the profound story behind each piece. His voice trembles as he recounts the moment he first encountered the centerpiece of his collection—the young man with the soulful eyes. “It just literally took my breath away. The moment I saw it, I started crying.” He later learned the subject of the painting was a friend of the artist’s who had died of AIDS.

The artist, John Muñoz, was happy to negotiate with Rigatuso to ensure the work would be displayed in a home where it would be appreciated. When Rigatuso unrolled the painting after purchasing it, he was surprised to discover a second painting in the bundle. “I felt like it belonged to you, too,” explained the artist. Now hanging next to the young man in the living room, the painting is a complementary representation of a mother nurturing her children. It turns out, the paintings are both done on repurposed canvas posters from Muñoz’s day job at Whole Foods.

Many of Rigatuso’s pieces showcase repurposed materials. The collection also contains art done on particle board, a cabinet door, rescued pieces of discarded plastic, and sheet music. The artists run the gamut—a local coffee-shop owner, students, DJs, and everything in between. Each tells a unique story.

Another central piece to the collection features a mysterious woman in shades of blue hanging in the bedroom. It was painted by a stylist who cut Rigatuso’s hair on a day he spent celebrating his trans identity. On the mantle rests a painting of a fiery girl. It was purchased from a 20-year-old he happened to follow on social media. There is even photography from Rob Gilmer, owner of Council Bluffs’ famous home-cooking hot spot, Dixie Quicks.

Rigatuso’s diverse collection has got people talking. He has witnessed his home transform into a museum of Omaha artwork. “Everybody knows that I’ve got a lot of cool art. It’s kind of become a thing.”

But the private museum is about much more than buying art; it’s about cultivating community. “I want people to be encouraged by the fact that people see what they do as something that they want to own.” Rigatuso says. The real goal is “to be able to create an environment for people to come
and be a part of.”

This desire to create a welcoming space for all types of artists comes from a place of love rooted in Rigatuso’s own experience. “I’ve had an extraordinary life,” he declares with a laugh. “For the first 50 years of my life, I was something that the rest of the world could accept, and I was dying inside. And when I came out as trans, I feel like I set myself free.”

By creating a space where even beginning artists can feel their vulnerability is welcomed, Rigatuso hopes to free them of any doubts about the value of their creativity. “I really think that when you’re engaged in art, we’re engaging a part of ourselves that is true vulnerability,” he says. “When you paint or you photograph or you capture something and you have the courage to share it, you’re actually sharing a piece of yourself. And that to me is huge.”

As his collection grows, Rigatuso says he hopes to curate an art show next spring or summer. “If anything, I want to leave a legacy of art.”

Visit elirigatuso.me to find out more. 

This article was printed in the January/February 2018 edition of Encounter.

The Buffalo Bill House

December 24, 2017 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

It was built in 1895, four years before the Trans-Mississippi and International Exposition made its temporary home on Omaha’s north side. It’s rumored that one of the expo’s directors lived there; the location offered convenient access to the massive 184-acre tract just down the street.

Today, the Victorian mansion at 2438 Manderson St. stands as an example of what’s possible when restoration tops demolition as an option. The home’s revitalization story begins with Dave Jeffers, owner of Shamrock Waterproofing in Omaha.

Back in 2013, he was in the neighborhood doing roofing work for a Habitat for Humanity home when he first noticed the property. “It was vacant, the yard was full of weeds, and there was a condemned sign on the door,” he says.

It got the history buff and preservation enthusiast thinking. Dave’s brother, Nick, was looking for a place to live in Omaha, and the home’s restoration would give Jeffers a chance to honor one of his favorite historical figures—William Frederick Cody, better known to many as Buffalo Bill. The American scout, bison hunter, and showman brought his Wild West Show to Omaha for the 1898 expo.

“I’ve always been interested in preserving homes, and this project fulfilled a lot of needs,” says Jeffers, who lives in the Bemis Park neighborhood.

The house is located in North Omaha’s Neighborhood Action and Fact Association, an active group that lobbied to make the home a tour stop during the 2017 Neighborhoods, USA Conference held in Omaha last May.

Intrigued by what he saw, Jeffers headed to the Douglas County Assessor’s Office to do research. Following some negotiation, he bought the property for roughly $4,500 with a mandate to address the existing code violations. Years of neglect were evident throughout the once-grand Victorian beauty (built to impress with its tall, slender footprint, bay window, decorative woodwork, and wrap-around porch).

“By the time I took possession, the furnace had been stolen, but a previous owner had blown insulation in the walls, so the house was well insulated,” Jeffers says.

On his fix-it list: an entire kitchen “do-over,” warped floors from leaking hot water radiators, damaged windows on all three floors, and the most daunting task of all—a roof in severe distress. “The whole reason this house went into disrepair is because of the roof—it’s large, steep, dangerous, and expensive to fix,” Jeffers says. “If you fall off it, you’re finished.”

Back inside, all of the period light fixtures were missing, and decades of paint had to be stripped from the original woodwork—a gorgeous tiger oak with an incredible patina.

On the first floor, the fireplace room was the perfect fit for one of Jeffers’ most cherished finds, a Victorian fireplace mantel he bought at an antique store 40 years ago. It rises majestically from floor to ceiling and would easily fetch five figures on today’s antique market. “I knew it was special when I bought it, and I’m glad it finally has a home after all these years of being in storage,” Jeffers says.

A grand, L-shaped staircase off the front entrance leads to four bedrooms and two baths. A giant bison head mounted above the first landing seems to monitor foot traffic.

Upstairs, one bedroom serves as an office, and the others are named for Buffalo Bill, Sitting Bull, and Annie Oakley. The female sharpshooter’s room, not yet finished, runs the width of the house. Generous in size and decorated in a rich red-and-gold paint pattern that mimics period wallpaper, it features a bedroom, a charming sitting room area, and two circular windows overlooking Manderson Street.

When it came time to begin furnishing and finishing the home, Jeffers turned to his love of antiques and is trying to stay as period as possible. “It’s hard to find early American oak furniture, but I’ve learned the art of the bargain—it’s just a matter of being patient,” he says. “I only shop during sales. That’s where I save money.”

And although most of the major restoration tasks have been finished, there’s always something to do with a home this size. A first-floor bathroom is in various stages of completion, the large wrap-around porch has yet to be tackled, and plans call for replacing the existing fence along the sidewalk with period-like wrought iron railing.

“So often we see homes that have no business being on the demolition and condemnation list; places that have easily fixed code violations end up at the end of the wrecking ball instead of being promoted for sale,” says Kristine Gerber, Restoration Exchange executive director. “There are people like Dave who have the skills and desire to turn these homes around and keep the character of the neighborhood intact. Let’s continue to support efforts by places like the Omaha Land Bank to get these homes back on the tax rolls instead of becoming empty lots that do nothing for our older neighborhoods.”

Visit the Omaha Municipal Land Bank at omahalandbank.org for more information about condemned and distressed properties waiting for a new lease on life. A version of this article was originally published by Restoration Exchange Omaha at restorationexchange.org.

This article was printed in the January/February 2018 edition of Omaha Home

Encounter Destinations (Nov./Dec.)

November 6, 2017 by
Photography by Debra S. Kaplan

Kelly Newell had a great idea—a consignment-style retail store—and needed a great location for it. She whittled her options to two bays, one in well-established Dundee, the other in Omaha’s redeveloping north downtown. “That was really promising,” Newell says of the latter choice. “Lots of potential.”

She climbed into her car one night by herself and drove between the two sites. Somehow, the choice became clear for where she would launch Scout: Dry Goods & Trade. “Dundee was hands-down the winner,” she says. “These are my people. There was already a community established, and I felt great movements could really be started here. There are so many innovative people here—and the walkability of the neighborhood and how pretty it is—and so much a thriving neighborhood.”

That was 10 years ago. Now, Scout is thriving right in the midst of its beloved home. “We just finished up our best summer ever and are really excited about the future,” says Newell, whose store has been named best clothing consignment shop in the Best of Omaha contest each year since 2012.

Scout (5018 Underwood Ave.) isn’t strictly a consignment store, but pretty close to one. The store buys modern and vintage men’s and women’s clothes and accessories from its customers, paying them in cash or store credit on the spot. That means no waiting for items to sell.

It took a while to get the concept rolling. “It was pretty bare-bones when we first opened,” Newell says. “I just had clothes from friends of mine. Pretty sparse.”

Now, Dundee and folks from throughout Omaha have embraced the store, as evidenced by the more than 23,000 Facebook and 15,000 Instagram followers (Newell does all her own social media) and the long lines that form outside the store most Sundays for its popular “Dollar Sale.”

“There’s so much more of a community built up around it,” Newell says. “To have so many people have knowledge about Scout and really love Scout. It’s just really people taking it into their lives. That means a lot.”

ilovescout.com


AKSARBEN VILLAGE

Don’t be that guy—the one who waits for Christmas Eve to start his Christmas shopping. Rather, get it done early at Aksarben Village when it hosts the annual Physicians Mutual and WOWT Omaha Holiday Market Dec. 2 and 3 from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. both days. The family-oriented, German-inspired outdoor market will feature 50-plus vendors and local artisans hawking gourmet jams and jellies, cheeses and baked goods, jewelry, arts and crafts, and more. That includes holiday tunes, gobs of seasonal eats, and you-know-who visiting Dec. 3 from 2-4 p.m.

aksarbenvillage.com

BENSON

Yeah, Benson rocks on the weekends. But they can crush weeknights, too. That’s especially so at Reverb Lounge (6121 Military Ave.), which hosts its next Music Crush Wednesday, Nov. 18 (admission $10). Held three times each year, Crush puts the spotlight on up-and-coming singers, rappers, and producers. Fresh sounds on a weeknight—nice.

reverblounge.com

BLACKSTONE DISTRICT

The Blackstone District might have a great history, but its future is looking even better. That much was clear in late summer when GreenSlate Development and Clarity Development announced they were bringing more growth to the district—the $22 million Blackstone Corner apartments and shops at 3618 Farnam St. The six-level structure will include 112 apartments, underground parking, and street retail space, all ready by 2019. That’s one year after two other big projects should be complete. First to the finish line this spring should be GreenSlate’s $2.2 million Blackstone Knoll with lofts and retail/office space at 39th and Farnam. Later in 2018 comes the $8.3 million Blackstone Depot, a GreenSlate/Clarity project featuring 56 new apartments, mostly studios and one-bedroom units, near 38th and Harney.

greenslatedevelopment.com

CAPITOL DISTRICT

There are 333 rooms in the Capitol District’s brand-spanking-new Marriott Hotel, but at least two don’t require an overnight stay to enjoy the first full-service hotel to be built downtown in 10 years—Society 1854 and Burdock + Bitters. The former, led by executive chef Brent Hockenberry, offers a regionally inspired menu featuring American cuisine with frothy goodness on tap from local breweries. The latter is Marriott’s bar and lounge with a lineup featuring an international collection of whiskey, seasonal and local beers, and handcrafted cocktails. Who knows? After all that fun, you might need a room after all.

downtownomahamarriott.com

DUNDEE

When does anything these days happen ahead of schedule—let alone on time? Well, it’s happening at Dundee Theater, the 92-year-old icon Film Streams has been renovating all year. According to plan, the doors should open before 2017 says adieu. The next generation of Dundee moviegoers will be treated to numerous updates: state-of-the-art projection and sound technology; a second entrance on the theater’s north side with an outdoor gathering space; a 25-seat screening room; and a community-centered lobby featuring delicious fare from Kitchen Table.

filmstreams.org

MIDTOWN CROSSING

The new art at Midtown Crossing’s optometrist Definitive Vision is getting lots of second looks—especially from those who see the world in black and white, so to speak. A Midtown centerpiece since 2011, Definitive Vision renovated and doubled its space at 3157 Farnam St. this year. The new digs were unveiled Aug. 1 at a grand reopening bash. The highlight was the debut of a large-scale version of a functional Ishihara Color Test plate, used to determine if someone is color blind. Omaha artist/illustrator Joe Nicholson created the mural and now Definitive Vision GM Dan Florence is checking with Guinness World Records to see if it’s the world’s largest such eye test at more than 10 feet in diameter. “I don’t want people to just go to the eye doctor,” Florence says. “I want them to have an optical experience.” Seeing is believing.

mydefinitivevision.com

NODO

Want to score BIG with your art-loving friend or family member this year? Get the oh-my-gosh-it’s-perfect-for-them gift at the Hot Shops Art Center’s 17th Annual Winter Open House Dec. 2 (Noon to 8 p.m.) and Dec. 3 (Noon to 5 p.m.). More than 80 artists will be on hand and at work pouring bronze, working clay, forging iron, and blowing glass in the 56 studios and shops. Drawings, paintings, sculptures, pottery, and much more will be on sale. See more in person at 1301 Nicholas St.

hotshopsartcenter.com

NORTH OMAHA/
24TH & LAKE DISTRICT

The future of the 24th and Lake District is bright—but it will be just a bit brighter Saturday, Dec. 2, thanks to the holiday lights making for a very festive Christmas in the Village at 24th and Lake. Now in its seventh year, the holiday tradition and community celebration is presented by the Empowerment Network, OEDC, North Omaha Arts Alliance, Family Housing Advisory Services, and Love’s Jazz and Arts Center, in partnership with more than 80 organizations, businesses, ministries, and community groups.

empoweromaha.com

OLD MARKET

Jumpstart your holidays the best way we know how—with a Thanksgiving night kickoff to the annual Holiday Lights Festival featuring more than 40 blocks lighting up Downtown Omaha. The fun begins at Gene Leahy Mall, 14th & Farnam.

holidaylightsfestival.org

SOUTH OMAHA/
VINTON STREET

Gallery 72 is still going strong after 45 years. Now located in the heart of the Vinton Street Art District, the gallery was launched in 1972 by Roberta and Robert Rogers. It exhibits and represents established and emerging artists, offering a wide range of contemporary art and fine-art prints in 1,800 square feet of gallery space under state-of-the-art lighting. Visit Gallery 72 in person at 1806 Vinton St.

gallery72.com

This article was printed in the November/December 2017 edition of Encounter.

Destinations

August 31, 2017 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

AKSARBEN VILLAGE

Everyone knows drinking beer is good for you, right? Turns out when you have a cold one, it’s good for others, too. You can prove that Sept. 7 at the 11th annual Brew Haha, supporting Habitat for Humanity of Omaha. Some of the Big O’s best breweries and restaurants will distribute samples from 5-9 p.m. in Aksarben’s Stinson Park. Tickets are $50 in advance, $60 day of event.
aksarbenvillage.com

BENSON

The pizza gods taketh and the pizza gods giveth. It didn’t take long for Benson pizza partisans to have that giant hole in their pizza-loving hearts filled after the March closing of longtime favorite Pizza Shoppe. Satisfying the void at 6056 Maple St. is Virtuoso, operated by David and Brenda Losole. If the surname founds familiar, it should—David is a member of the family that runs South O’s Lo Sole Mio restaurant. He knows Italian fare, but he really knows pizza as the only certified pizzaioli—pizza maker—in Nebraska to graduate from Tony Gemignani’s International School of Pizza. Virtuoso is promoted as Omaha’s sole artisan slice house—you can only get the stone-baked pizza by the slice.
facebook.com/virtuosopizza23

BLACKSTONE DISTRICT

Emerging as one of Omaha’s most popular street festivals, the Blackstone District’s Farnam Fest blows up the neighborhood Saturday, Sept. 16. The annual event celebrates the district, its patrons, and all the businesses that call it home. The fun starts at 11 a.m.—music at 4 p.m.—in the parking lot behind Mula at 3932 Farnam St. The 2017 slate features local and national acts, including Timmy Williams of the Whitest Kids U’ Know, Shannon and the Clams, White Mystery, Miwi La Lupa, and BOTH. Craft beers, food, and fun also on tap.
blackstonedistrict.com

CAPITOL DISTRICT

A place to park. A place to visit. A place to live. What a difference the change from spring to summer made in the Capitol District, which opened three facilities in June. First came the 500-stall parking garage along Capitol Street between 10th and 12th streets. Then the Capitol District Apartment models opened and pre-leasing began. The 218-unit structure offers tons of first-class amenities, including wicked views of Omaha. Finally, in July, the district’s anchor feature opened its doors—the 12-story, 333-room Omaha Marriott Downtown at the Capitol District.
capitoldistrictomaha.com

DUNDEE

Kevin Alexander knows burgers. That’s why thrillist.com sent the food and travel site’s “national burger critic” on a year-long odyssey to find the best beef between buns. He hit 30 cities and downed 330 burgers. Alexander’s stops included Omaha, where he crowned the cheeseburger at Dario’s Brasserie in Dundee as No. 1 in O-town. No wonder given the creation’s “salty-and-peppery outer crust,” Gruyère cheese, caramelized onions, and toasted bun. Don’t buy it? Go try it: Dario’s is at 4920 Underwood Ave.
dariosbrasserie.com

MIDTOWN CROSSING

“Night, the beloved. Night, when words fade and things come alive. When the destructive analysis of day is done, and all that is truly important becomes whole and sound again.” Okay, chances are French novelist Antoine de Saint-Exupéry wasn’t talking about the Turner Park Night Market when he wrote that. But Turner Park will come alive Sept. 22 when it hosts a mash-up of live music, games, a mini food festival, and arts, crafts, and produce vendors.
midtowncrossing.com

NODO

UPDATE: After the September/October issue went to press, the Stoned Meadow of Doom Fest moved to Sioux Falls, South Dakota.

It will be a couple of really loud nights Sept. 29-30 at Slowdown for the second annual Stoned Meadow of Doom Fest. The name originated with a YouTube channel that features the world’s largest subscriber base for underground rock artists. But why stream when you can get it live? Stoned Meadow of Doom Fest will feature 26 independent, underground, and metal bands from across the United States. The lineup includes Bongripper, Cambrian Explosion, Telekinetic Yeti, Year of the Cobra, and others blasting away at Omaha’s premier music venue.
theslowdown.com

OLD MARKET

Nothing on the calendar for Sept. 1 or Oct. 6? Then book the Old Market’s First Friday art crawl right now. The free event is held 6-9 p.m. on the first Friday of each month and celebrates creativity with a visit to galleries and with artists. Get creative while exercising.
facebook.com/OmahaOldMarket

SOUTH OMAHA/VINTON STREET

The oracle has moved to Vinton Street. No, not that oracle (the one with billions). Rather, Oracle Art Supply, which opened shop at 1808 Vinton to provide artists of all levels and abilities everything they need to get their Bob Ross on. They also offer a book-lending library—with free checkout—and one-on-one customer service.
oracleartsupply.com

NORTH OMAHA/24TH & LAKE DISTRICT

Put on your walking shoes and take a trip down the historic “Street of Dreams” in the 24th and Lake District. The North 24th Street Walking Tours begin at 11 a.m. at Dreamland Park at 24th and Lizzie Robinson Drive. Hosted by Restoration Exchange Omaha, the tour features more than two dozen points of interest, including the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Cornerstone Memorial, Love’s Jazz and Arts Center, the Carnation Ballroom, the Omaha Star, and plenty of other stops where history was made—and still is. Tour cost is $10 per person or $15 per couple.
restorationexchange.org

Fair Deal Village MarketPlace

August 23, 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.

Baseball and Soul Food

July 3, 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.