While customers filled up their cars with gas, I filled up on a five-course meal and knocked back glasses of fine California wines. A gas station is the last place most people would go for fancy dining, but once a month local food and wine lovers gather around tables—set up just beyond the racks of Slim Jims and smokes—at the Old Market Cubby’s to savor elegant dishes paired with wines.
It’s not uncommon these days to find good, affordable bottles of vino at convenience stores, but few offer wine-tasting dinners like Cubby’s has for the last decade. The downtown Omaha convenience store, which includes a deli, produce section, and meat counter, hosts the popular wine dinners on the third Wednesday of the month. Cubby’s kitchen crew prepares the food on-site, and the menu, designed to appeal to a wide range of tastes, changes each month.
Whether guests are casual wine drinkers or connoisseurs, the dinners provide a chance to enhance their knowledge—perhaps my favorite aspect of the event. At a recent dinner, fine wine specialist John Ursick of Omaha and others were on hand to describe the nuances of each wine and answer questions. The dinners are a relative bargain at $30 per person. Portions are generous, and so are the pours.
On my visit, the first course featured a flavorful flatbread layered with dried apricot and figs, prosciutto, and fresh arugula. Edible flowers scattered on top provided an extra pop of color, while the sweetness of the dried fruit combined perfectly with the saltiness of the prosciutto. Also good was the accompanying glass of smooth, fruity chardonnay from The Crusher Wines.
A textural and visual delight, crostini topped with olive tapenade and sliced prosciutto was a satisfying blend of crispy, salty, and savory, but I would have preferred the prosciutto shaved thin. A juicy, easy-drinking red blend, also from The Crusher Wines, complemented the dish beautifully.
I also enjoyed a plate of plump, tender crab cakes that had a generous amount of lump crabmeat and a crispy, golden brown exterior. A glass of full-bodied Chardonnay from B Side Wines on California’s North Coast delighted with its crisp finish.
Shrimp scampi arrived buttery, lemony, and just garlicky enough, but the accompanying pasta was slightly overcooked. It came paired with a Don & Sons pinot noir from Sonoma County, in the heart of wine country.
For dessert, a version of frozen s’mores delivered all the flavors one would expect from the classic childhood treat: graham cracker, chocolate, and marshmallow. A scoop of homemade bubblegum ice cream in the center was luscious and creamy, but the flavor clashed with the other ingredients. The dessert’s sweetness paired well with the slightly smoky notes of the Gunsight Rock cabernet sauvignon from Paso Robles.
Although a gas station is no match for the ambiance of a rustic winery or cozy bistro, wine dinners at Cubby’s are a fun way to sample a variety of bites and learn more about wine in a relaxed, casual, and unconventional setting.
Cubby’s Old Market Grocery and Catering
601 S. 13th St. | 402.341.2900
FOOD 3.5 stars
SERVICE 4 stars
AMBIANCE 3 stars
OVERALL 3.5 stars
Visit cubbys.com for more information.
This article was printed in the July/August 2018 edition of Omaha Magazine.
It’s 8:30 a.m. and shoppers are standing by the Ed Welchert Produce stall in Aksarben Village on any given Sunday in the summer. The Omaha Farmers Market won’t open for another 30 minutes, giving Donna and Ed Welchert (and their team of employees) precious minutes to finish setting up the stand. At 9 a.m., it’s time to sell.
The Welcherts have been a staple of the Omaha Farmers Market since it began downtown 25 years ago. The locations and days of the week have changed—and the crowds have grown—as the market gradually evolved into a refined citywide network of markets with corporate sponsors.
Omaha Farmers Market began in 1994 with a small group of vendors in the Old Market. At the time, Ed Welchert had been farming land north of Omaha with his family for decades, selling his produce wholesale direct to stores like Foodway and Baker’s. When the Welcherts heard about the concept of an outdoor bazaar starting in the Old Market, they figured they ought to check it out.
Not knowing what to expect, they sent one employee with a card table and a couple of wicker baskets full of produce. It fit in one pickup truck.
“It was a slow start,” remembers Donna, recalling how their employee brought almost all of the produce back to the farm that day.
“The people started coming, and kept coming, and kept coming,” Donna says. Her husband estimates it was a good 10 years before things really picked up, and when they did, it just jumped in attendance, he says.
Kent Cisar, an Omaha native, started shopping at the Omaha Farmers Market around that time.
“I loved the vibe of the market back then,” he recalls. “I think the early days of the market for me was shopping with friends who were committed to buying local, high-quality items.”
It wasn’t the first time farmers sold their goods in the Old Market. Agrarians originally sold fruits and vegetables wholesale to restaurants and grocery stores at the City Market. It was a bustling trade in the 1880s, but the growth of grocery store warehouses ended the market in 1964. Ed vaguely recalls traveling with his father, Ray Welchert, to the City Market. Ray was a vendor there, as was Ed’s grandfather.
In time, the third generation of Welcherts saw their stand grow along with the Omaha Farmers Market. The Welcherts eventually needed to bring three trucks for equipment and produce.
As Ed Welchert Produce brought more crops, the Omaha Farmers Market added more vendors and locations. The downtown farmers market has expanded to more than 90 booths. In 2010, the Omaha Farmers Market added a second location, Aksarben Village, on Sundays. The Sunday market now has more than 115 vendor booths. A third, smaller Omaha Farmers Market runs on Wednesdays in July and August at Charles Drew Health Center.
Cisar has his favorite vendors. He first bought bacon from North Star Neighbors. When they stopped vending, he discovered Crooked Creek Farms. When they switched to selling only at Aksarben Village, Cisar sought them out there.
“The Aksarben Market is now the better market. There’s more vendors, a bit more space, and since it’s centrally located, on nice days it’s jammed, which I like,” Cisar says. “But if you want to get [specific] items, you better get there before 10 a.m., otherwise [they] may be gone. The Downtown Market isn’t as busy with patrons or vendors these days, but it’s still home. I love the Aksarben area and what it’s done for our city, but nothing can replicate the vibe of brick, old buildings and fresh food of the downtown market.”
Other local farmers markets not affiliated with the officially branded “Omaha Farmers Market” include the Florence Mill Farmers Market (on Sundays at the Florence Mill), the Benson Farmers Market (normally held on Saturdays, but discontinued in 2018 after the loss of the Benson market location), and the Village Pointe Farmers Market (Saturdays).
The Welcherts tried to sell at both the Old Market and Aksarben Village locations, but “it about killed us,” Donna says. After 21 years in the Old Market, the Welcherts switched to just Sundays in Aksarben.
The Welcherts typically sell green beans and potatoes. In recent years, they began diversifying their offerings as they noticed younger customers’ changing preferences.
“The younger crowd is more health conscious,” Ed says.
Donna noticed the shift in customers, too. The first year they brought kohlrabi, she says just the older customers knew what to do with it. “Over the next two years, you saw this huge shift when younger people came and asked for it.”
Count Cisar among the crowd of novelty-seeking shoppers.
“I think my favorite days of shopping at the market are when I go down with an open mind and let the items I see do the talking,” Cisar says. “I’m always attracted to things I haven’t seen before, like a unique eggplant, squash, or [other] vegetable, and I like asking the vendor how to use it, how it tastes—and, if I was successful, I tell them about it
Vic Gutman & Associates manages Omaha Farmers Market, which hosts vendors selling fresh produce at the Old Market (Saturdays), Aksarben Village (Sundays), and Charles Drew Health Center (Wednesdays) in the summer, in addition to other specialty markets throughout the year. Visit omahafarmersmarket.com for more information.
This article was printed in the July/August 2018 edition of 60Plus in Omaha.
Maha Music Festival (Aug. 17-18 at Stinson Park) marks 10 years in 2018, but the all-day, all-night music cornucopia is anything but stale and wheezy. In fact, it’s fresher than ever—and getting Weezer, who will just be coming off their summer tour. The popular band that cut its chops in the 1990s headlines Saturday night. Also taking the stage will be Father John Misty, TV on the Radio, The Kills, and more than a dozen other acts.
Meanwhile, just getting its start in Aksarben Village is the High Vibe Festival, now on its second year. Omaha’s premier yoga, music, and plant-based food festival happens on Saturday, Aug. 11, and features a 5K run, live music, all-day yoga, conscious workshops, and “good vibes.”
It’s back—but you’ll have to go yourself to see if it’s better than ever. We’re talking about Benson Days, the annual get down in downtown B-town set this year for July 28 and 29. The family-friendly summer festival will feature a pancake breakfast, parade, dozens of vendors, art, live music, children’s activities, and more. And back after a year off is The Indie: Scale the Benson Alps, a 5K/10K road race that takes runners past some of Benson’s hot spots. Perhaps best of all, you can feel good giving your green for all that fun—Benson Days proceeds support neighborhood projects.
Know any Nebraska bars certified as a tequileria? If you said Mula in the Blackstone District (40th & Farnam streets), give yourself a pat on the back. Give yourself another if you know what a tequileria is. According to their website, such certification means at least 80 percent of a bar’s staff has studied the history, production, and regulation of tequila—from harvesting the agave plant in Jalisco fields to its fermentation and distillation. That means tequila tastiness for patrons in Old and New World styles. The dedication to perfection extends to Mula’s “street style” menu for lunch and dinner.
Got an hour? Good. Use it to get to know your body—or really, everybody’s body—at the nationally touring exhibition Our Body: The Universe Within. The exhibit runs through
July 31 at 225 N. 12th St. Visitors get a look at the inner workings of human anatomy by presentation of actual human specimens, anatomical displays, reproductions of historic anatomical artwork, and more. If you’ve got the guts, you also have the opportunity to touch a human heart, kidney, liver, and brain. The self-guided tour is $15 per person, with discounts for
seniors, students, children, and military personnel.
Like live music? What about a beer garden? Running? Food? Fun? Then the 18th annual Dundee Day is calling your name. This year’s Dundee Day is set for Saturday, Aug. 25, and begins with the traditional pancake breakfast, early morning Rundee 5K (undies encouraged), and a parade. There’s also an art fair, the Dundee Bank Street Olympics for kids, music from local bands, and a Memorial Park beer garden. Plenty of chow and vendors will be on hand, along with a farmers market.
If no news is good news, does that mean some news is bad news? Not at Midtown Crossing, where there’s been lots of news. The good news is there’s a new place to please your palate, 5168 Brewing Taproom, now open at 3201 Farnam St. (Suite No. 6107). There’s a full lunch and dinner menu to complement 5168’s brews, long popular at the outfit’s original location in Lincoln.
Other good news comes with the announcement of the lineup for Playing with Fire, Midtown’s free summer concert series. The 2018 lineup mixes local and international talent, rocking Turner Park with blues-rock, soul, funk, and R&B. The July 14 jam features five bands, including headliner Jack de Keyzer. On Aug. 25 another five bands kick it, with Paul Reddick Band bringing things to a crescendo.
Typically, the Hot Shops Art Center has an open-door policy. The NoDo studio center is closed in June for repairs. But it’s open for business again beginning in July, with at least three events worthy of getting you down to 1301 Nicholas St.—the Mike Godek and Susan Woodford sculpture show, the Claire Caswell exhibit, and Interpretation, (a group show). Be patient, and you will be rewarded.
Looking for something fresh to do in the Old Market? It doesn’t get much fresher than the Omaha Farmer’s Market. With roots going back nearly 100 years, its current incarnation is now celebrating its 25th year. They’ve been offering fresh, locally grown produce, baked goods, and flowers every year since 1994, doing so on 11th Street from Jackson to Howard streets, with nearly 100 vendors in attendance. Keep an eye out for new additions, including a biscuits-and-gravy booth. This market runs 8 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. every Saturday through Oct. 13.
Chances are, the name Louis Marcuzzo doesn’t ring a bell. Chances are, Louie M’s Burger Lust does. Consider this entry us ringing the dinner bell—and breakfast and lunch bells—for the iconic Vinton Street restaurant that dates it roots to the catering service Marcuzzo began in 1980. Today they serve breakfast and lunch seven days a week and dinner on Fridays and Saturdays. The menu is extensive, showcasing, of course, burgers—nearly two dozen options are listed. But there are also starters, salads, and sandwiches, daily lunch specials, and a plethora of breakfast offerings guaranteed to start your day with a smile.
24TH AND LAKE
All your future adventures in the 24th and Lake district should include a consideration of the past. And there’s no better place to do so than at the Great Plains Black History Museum at 2221 N. 24th St. For more than 40 years the museum has been preserving, celebrating, and educating visitors about the contributions and achievements of the region’s vibrant African-American heritage. Recent offerings include displays on the Tuskegee Airmen who called Nebraska home, a history of the Omaha chapter of the NAACP, and an exhibit on Nebraska football great Johnny Rodgers. More great looks into the past are coming…in the future.
This article was printed in the July/August 2018 edition of Encounter.
Andrew Saladino could work anywhere in the United States, but he fell in love with, and in, Omaha.
The executive director of the Omaha Creative Institute feels pride for his adopted hometown, and he is invested in unifying, fostering, and growing Omaha’s artistic community.
OCI provides professional development, grants, connections, and advocacy for artists. The nonprofit operates out of a small office kitty-corner to the former Bohemian Cafe on 13th Street.
The 29-year-old is not who you would typically imagine leading such an effort. Saladino grew up in Bedford, Massachusetts, a suburb of Boston.
After planning to be a musician, he caught the acting bug and ended up studying theater education at the University of New Hampshire. He landed an internship at The Rose between his junior and senior years, spending his time teaching children’s theater in Omaha.
“I taught all summer long,” Saladino says. “I basically didn’t leave the building.”
The Rose invited him back for a yearlong fellowship program, and he was a teaching artist for another two years at the theater. He met his future wife, Omaha native Jennifer Ettinger, at The Rose after she was hired for the next fellowship.
Saladino followed her to graduate school in New York City for almost two years, but being in such an “exhausting city” made him eager to get back to this “big and small” town.
“I was the one pushing to come back to Omaha,” he says. “This is a great city…I’ve never been in a city that was so active in making itself better.” He was especially attracted to the up-and-coming arts scene, and enjoys spending time at the Bemis Center, KANEKO, the Old Market galleries, and Benson First Fridays.
They moved back in 2015, and he worked at the American Red Cross before landing at OCI.
Watie White, a local artist and OCI board member who was involved in Saladino’s hiring, says the institute needed someone young and talented, “eager for a place to not just call home but a place to really get to grow.” Saladino fit the bill.
“He didn’t come in knowing everything,” White says. “He came in eager to learn everything.”
Since taking over as executive director, Saladino has focused on growing OCI’s programs and the service it provides for artists working in the community. His primary work is long-term strategy, sustainability, fundraising, and the nonprofit’s finances.
One area where Saladino has focused his efforts is growing OCI’s grant program, building off an initial grant funded by donations from an Omaha Gives! campaign to create an established program with funding committed to keep making awards.
OCI currently has a twice-a-year grant cycle, giving four unrestricted artist grants of $3,500 each, with one earmarked for a working parent and one for a new American immigrant or refugee; two public project grants of $5,000 each; and $6,000 in emergency grants, given on an as-needed basis within 48 hours.
Angie Seykora, an artist living and working in Omaha, received one of the 2018 unrestricted grants. She says that she used the money to pay for an assistant, an art history graduate who relocated from New York for a few months to gain experience in a studio environment.
With the assistant’s help, Seykora says she was able to speed up production of her artwork and have more time to refine her pieces.
“It is giving artists an opportunity to make their practice a little more sustainable,” Seykora says. “This grant program has allowed me to organically make my work.”
Promoting more sustainable, authentic careers for working artists is what OCI seeks to do each day. Under Saladino’s leadership, the nonprofit will continue to value artists’ careers in Omaha and provide support for their contribution to the community’s culture.
Visit omahacreativeinstitute.org for more information.
This article was printed in the June/July 2018 edition of B2B.
It’s the end of the Gene Leahy Mall as we know it. And Omaha civic leaders feel fine, apparently. Representatives of Mayor Jean Stothert’s office and the Missouri Riverfront Revitalization Project declined to comment on specific plans for the mall when contacted by Omaha Magazine and B2B.
“The project team is in a critical review phase of the preliminary master plan, including a review of plan elements with study consultants in San Diego,” explained Stephanie Rittershaus of HDR in an email response to a media query submitted to the Missouri Riverfront Revitalization Project. “That will be followed by a full committee meeting in late April to review and approve the updated master plan. Until that process is complete, there isn’t a finalized plan to review.”
The Missouri Riverfront Revitalization Project is a public-private initiative working to revitalize the local riverfront in five zones: the Gene Leahy Mall, Heartland of America Park, and Lewis & Clark Landing in Omaha; and across the river along Council Bluffs’ riverfront (encompassing River’s Edge North and River’s Edge South). ConAgra’s campus is conspicuously absent from the declared scope of the comprehensive riverfront planning.
At public consultation meetings for the Riverfront Revitalization Project, preliminary architectural drawings showed that the Gene Leahy Mall’s man-made river would be filled with land; development zones covered the new ground from the city’s main library eastward to the Heartland of America Park. Meanwhile, the W. Dale Clark Library (a post-war brutalist building of architectural significance that has been subject to speculative redevelopment interest for years) was labeled a “development opportunity.”
The Gene Leahy Mall is only one part of the latest riverfront revitalization plans. The mall (previously known as Central Park Mall) holds special historical significance for the city’s past half-century of riverfront redevelopment plans. Originally built in the 1970s, the mall was the first phase of Omaha’s effort to reinvigorate the urban core at a time when a legacy of heavy industry and lead-polluted land separated urban downtown from the Missouri River.
Fundamentally changing the Gene Leahy Mall’s riverine landscape would overhaul the most iconic backdrop to Omaha’s urban skyline. Likewise, a drastic reshaping of the Gene Leahy Mall could mean removal of the downtown park’s public slide that is a popular draw for families.
But the park’s overhaul could also make crossing from the Old Market to the Holland Performing Arts Center easier for pedestrians while invigorating the space with increased activities that spur other developments. Proposed activity zones in place of the current man-made river and landscaping may include an outdoor amphitheater, a dog park, botanical paths, restaurants, activity areas, and other open spaces.
The president of San Diego-based OJB Landscape Architecture, James Burnett, spoke about the proposed designs on Nov. 16, 2017, at the Riverfront Revitalization Project’s second public consultation presentation. “We think that by connecting the north and the south [lawns of the Gene Leahy Mall], we will have a lot more users in the park, a lot more eyes on the park, and a lot more events so that downtown could have a space where special events can occur,” Burnett said.
The project is co-chaired by Ken Stinson of Peter Kiewit Sons Inc. and Mogens Bay of Valmont. Other members of the advisory committee include Omaha Mayor Jean Stothert, Council Bluffs Mayor Matt Walsh, Doug Bisson of HDR, Brook Bench with Omaha Parks, Michael Alley of Alley Poyner Macchietto Architecture, Gary Gates of Omaha Public Power District, Pete Tulipana of Iowa West Foundation, Mark Warner of ConAgra Brands, Rhonda Ferguson and Jack Koraleski of Union Pacific, and Jane Miller of Gallup.
The project’s consultant team includes the firms OJB, Gensler, Biederman Redevelopment Ventures, Magnusson Klemencic Associates, Applied Ecological Services, The Concord Group, RSM Design, Lamp Rynearson, and HDR.
At the first riverfront revitalization public meeting, held Sept. 11, 2017, project co-chair Ken Stinson explained that the public-private partnership is “a very collaborative process, and part of that is reaching out to stakeholders in the community to get feedback and input.”
One person not approached was Gary Bowen, principal architect at Omaha-based BVH Architecture.
Bowen had helped to design the Gene Leahy Mall during the 1970s with the city’s original plans for the land as civic leaders sought to revitalize Omaha’s struggling central business district.
Bowen and BVH were also involved in a proposed redesign of the Gene Leahy Mall in 2012 that would have maintained many of the area’s most beloved features (such as the man-made river and public slide) while adding an additional pedestrian bridge at 11th Street and an outdoor amphitheater, and expanding activity spaces in ways similar to those outlined in the Riverfront Revitalization Project’s second public meeting/presentation.
“The DID [Downtown Improvement District] was the nonprofit organization driving that project,” says Holly Barrett, executive director of the Downtown Improvement District, referring to BVH’s proposal for updating the Gene Leahy Mall. “It was a beautiful little plan that included updates like improved lighting and access, a brand-new playground to go along with the restored slides and improved lagoon habitat. However, it has always been part of the big picture open space opportunities connected to the riverfront. Given the scope of that concept and the powerhouses behind it, it only made sense to turn our plans over to them and allow them to run with it. The riverfront group was able to take our idea and expand it more than several times what we could have done. We are wholeheartedly supporting their efforts and have been a welcome community member at all meetings every step of the way.”
For the sake of public awareness of alternative proposals for updating the Gene Leahy Mall, B2B Omaha spoke with Bowen at BVH’s Omaha office.
Gary Bowen on the Gene Leahy Mall
How did your work with the Gene Leahy Mall factor into early riverfront revitalization plans?
There are a few of us that go back to the very beginning of what was called the Riverfront Redevelopment Era. I think it was in the late ’60s when the City Planning Department, Alden Aust mainly, formed a group of architects to put together a preliminary masterplan, a guide, a dream for rejuvenating downtown Omaha—and it was labeled “Back to the River,” and the whole theme was linking the central business district to the riverfront. This architectural group developed a preliminary master plan, outlining a number of projects that were kind of blue-sky projects, like a stadium and so on.
BVH was involved with this group of architects. Aust took the preliminary plan and went to the federal government and got a planning grant. Then, for the next step, they hired Lawrence Halprin’s office out of San Francisco, which was one of the premier landscape architectural design firms in the country at that time; they had come into other cities, such as Seattle and San Francisco, and put together plans that helped to stimulate redevelopment in the city core.
So Lawrence Halprin came in, and these same five firms that did the initial grant proposal—Bahr, Vermeer & Haecker (BVH) with Hartman, Morford & Bowen; Leo A. Daly; Dana Larson Roubal (DLR), Henningson, Durham & Richardson (HDR), and Kirkham Michael and Associates—worked with Halprin’s office. Each firm was assigned a specific project to work on. One of those was a park, a mall. It was called the Central Park Mall at that time. At that time, I was with a different firm—Hartman Morford Bowen—and we teamed up with BVH to work on the preliminary plans for the mall. That was our assigned project.
We worked for two years together on that. Then in 1974, after that round of planning was done. The city said, OK, we’re now going to start building something, and the mall was the first development. By that time, I had switched over and joined BVH, and we worked on the Central Park Mall with Halprin’s office. We teamed up with them, and over the next 15 years, developed the mall and built it in five or six phases.
Another key player with this project was a city planner, Greg Peterson, who was the project manager through the entire duration of planning and construction. Without his perseverance and continuity, the project may have never been completed in its final form. It was a very complicated process from the start. The city had to acquire all of the various parcels of property in the six square blocks and haul in dirt to fill the void before any construction could begin in 1974.
The whole idea was to create an open green space that was a link between the CBD and the river. The theme of the park used water as a symbolic river that, because it flowed from west to east, suggested movement to the riverfront.
At that time, Jobbers Canyon was still intact, and we proposed retaining two of the buildings and located them within the mall—the Burlington Building and the former McKesson-Robbins Building. Under great duress, we persevered and kept those buildings in the plan to link the urban fabric of the city to the park. But it was a difficult task because the city leadership at that time didn’t think old buildings were worth saving and basically told us not to show them in the plans or else we would be fired.
You’ve watched this riverfront issue come up over and over again as a longtime resident of Omaha. What’s your take on the recurring discussion of riverfront planning?
To back up a bit, in the late ’60s early ’70s, downtown Omaha was on the skids. When Brandeis closed downtown, that’s when everything hit bottom. So, in retrospect, we can see the whole idea of regenerating the CBD has worked.
The mall and the W. Dale Clark Library were the first projects that went into place. The idea was that if the city made a public commitment, that would stimulate private development. The whole idea worked wonderfully. If you look at where we are now, compared with where we were 50 years ago, it’s pretty amazing.
But one of the biggest negatives of the city’s riverfront revitalization push was the loss of Jobbers Canyon. That was eight square blocks of warehouses. Had they escaped demolition, today they would have been renovated into condominiums and apartments, and the Old Market would have extended all the way to Eighth Street. Right now we are out of warehouses. There aren’t many left to renovate, and this whole movement to save old buildings and renovate them into businesses and condominiums has caught on fire.
What’s happening now is infill projects, the gaps are being filled in—like this building at Ninth and Jones streets where BVH has its offices in Omaha. This was on the side of the old Butternut Building that burned down. If you look around, there is nice mix of new and old.
The other part of Omaha’s historic riverfront redevelopment plans that didn’t work out so well is the area next to the river. There was a restaurant, Rick’s Cafe Boatyard, and later the Storz Trophy Room. But access was a problem. That restaurant location, occupied by different businesses, was one attempt to use an attraction to get people right down on the river that didn’t work out.
Of course, there have been a lot of successes with the riverfront redevelopment projects over the years. The CenturyLink Center has become a major anchor in close proximity to the riverfront, drawing people from all over.
Another major development that has proved beneficial is the Bob Kerrey Pedestrian Bridge, which of course provides a pedestrian link across the river. There wasn’t any access before that. That bridge has stimulated activity from east to west, and BVH came up with the original design for the bridge. We worked with an engineering firm that prepared a cost estimate that was over the budget, and after working for some time to get the estimate within budget, it didn’t work, so the city hired another firm to implement our design and do the final engineering drawings. But the idea, concept, and design are virtually identical to what we came up with originally.
Then, when it comes to generating activity on the riverfront, the Council Bluffs side has made wonderful progress. There’s Tom Hanafan River’s Edge Park, and the casinos have worked wonders.
Everything has been heading in the right direction when you compare Omaha and the riverfront to what it was in the early days of my involvement. It’s been a miraculous turnaround. But there is still a way to go, in my opinion.
How were you involved in subsequent discussions to update or renovate the Gene Leahy Mall?
I recall that there have been two or three redevelopment plans for the mall, and we did one of them. There was an East Coast firm, Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates, that did one in 2006. Omaha By Design hired this firm to produce the plan. The whole idea was to activate the mall because, of course, downtown has changed in the last 50 years from virtually no one living downtown to more than 10,000 people living downtown today.
The city was looking to activate the mall and kind of tweak it. Then, we were hired in 2012 to take a look at the mall after the update plan was not implemented. We looked at it and proposed an amphitheater, a plaza on the west end, an observation tower, a new pedestrian bridge crossing the mall at 11th Street with the idea to create another north-south bridge crossing the water to the Holland Center, and expanding the playground with the slide remaining in place.
Omaha’s Downtown Improvement District was heavily involved in that plan, partnering with the city, and the intent was to raise $20 million from sponsors to do this major overhaul of the mall. There was a personnel change, and then nothing ever happened. I don’t think there was any objection to our proposal, but nobody picked it up and ran with it.
Were you or any BVH parters involved with the latest riverfront redevelopment planning meetings?
No invitation was offered.
I think one of our staff went to those meetings, but I suppose I’ve somewhat distanced myself because of such a close earlier personal involvement—and the fact that no one has reached out to the local architects who worked on the mall in the past.
I think there were open-ended invitations, that everybody was welcome. That’s good. It’s good to get input. But no one has ever approached us concerning the current mall redevelopment proposals. Nobody has come in to talk us about it like Omaha Magazine or B2B has.
It’s good that there is public and private interest in updating the Gene Leahy Mall. There is still work to be done; it’s never finished. But the current planners need to be aware of the reasoning behind what was done 40-50 years ago, because I think some of that is still valid.
Having worked in the original conceptual development of the Gene Leahy Mall, do you feel attachment to its place in downtown Omaha’s environment?
Oh, being part of the creation of the mall was one of my career highlights. Right up there near the top. To help create a project that has had such a big impact and helped turn downtown Omaha around, I take pride in that.
Cities are always evolving and changing, responding to different criteria and influences. I still think the mall is a valid part of downtown Omaha in its present location. Does it need to be revised and updated? Yes, but not with major surgical changes. Downtown Omaha still needs this linkage between the CBD and the river, and it still needs an open green space with activities.
What do you think of flattening and paving the Gene Leahy Mall?
I think that would be a major mistake. Parts of it could be paved, and that was part of our proposal that we did with the city and the Downtown Improvement District. In fact, in the first block, we proposed a level-paved plaza with fountains, gazebos, and a restroom pavilion. Part of that plan was to level the mound on the north side of the mall to create a large lawn where one could kick soccer balls around and play tag football.
I think one of the objections early on in the development of the mall was that it was lowered. That was intentional to create a separation of people from the busy traffic noise on both sides. There were some low walls around the mall, and some of those have been taken out to offer more view and to enhance security.
But I don’t think filling it in is a good idea. Water is a magical attraction, especially in urban areas. It’s refreshing, and I think that aspect of the mall is important to keep.
Part of the issue could be maintenance, realizing that the park is almost half a mile long. Six square blocks of lawn and trees take a lot of money for the city to maintain. I think that has been a challenge, so paving it and flattening it out could save a lot of maintenance money. But you get what you pay for.
Should the mall be updated? Yes. That’s what we were trying to do, too. But to completely wipe it off the map and start over? I would have hoped Omaha had learned its lesson with Jobbers Canyon.
How was the Gene Leahy Mall situated next to Jobber’s Canyon when you were originally involved in developing the project?
Jobbers Canyon was between Eighth and 10th streets, including the McKesson-Robbins Building and its twin to the north. It went all the way to Douglas Street on the north side of the mall, all the way south to Jackson Street between Eighth and 10th streets.
ConAgra came much later in 1986. The first phase of the Gene Leahy Mall was built in 1976, and it was about 10 years in the making before the issue of demolishing Jobbers Canyon came up. In the beginning, part of Jobbers Canyon was proposed to extend into the riverfront park. We were not involved with the Heartland of America Park. But that project completed the link from the CBD to the river.
When we first became involved with the Central Park Mall, that was before Jobbers Canyon or the Old Market had been declared a historic district by the National Register of Historic Places.
In fact, we were actually threatened with losing our commission if we didn’t remove the old brick buildings from our conceptual plans. City leadership did not want to see them on the plan. “Don’t show them,” they said, “Why would you want to keep those?”
Of course, when ConAgra was looking for a site, the city was pretty much willing to put anything on the chopping block in order to keep them. There were several alternative locations offered, and there was even an offer to buy them an alternative site.
During those early riverfront planning days, the powers that be—the business establishment—were quoted in the newspapers saying things like, “Ugly old brick buildings? What do we want to keep those for?” Keeping Omaha’s old brick warehouses was seen as anti-progress.
All the costs to tear the buildings down and the wasted energy, it was just a disaster. Sure, the fact that the corporation was headquartered here in Omaha, and there was lots of new construction, that was all good. But at the same time, it was the wrong location. If we could have managed to keep Jobbers Canyon and ConAgra, that would have been a win-win situation. Now, after everything is said and done, ConAgra’s headquarters have relocated to Chicago after all—and, ironically, they moved into a renovated historic brick building.
Are there things you would like to see different in the Gene Leahy Mall through to the riverfront?
On either side of the mall, there are some gaps that need to be filled in. The Gene Leahy Mall is really like a miniature version of Central Park in New York City, and it would be nice if the areas on both sides of the mall were more urbanized with more concentrations of buildings, big buildings. I think the contrast between the open green space and the architecture on either side would be better. It seems like there are some teeth missing on both sides that need to be filled in. If you look at Central Park or Golden Gate Park in San Francisco—another example of an urban linear park that is very dense and built up on either side—these models were inspirational, something that we had always envisioned and would be beneficial for Omaha.
If you take the area east of 14th Street, which is the beginning of the mall, that is where infill needs to happen. There have been some notable new developments in this regard, like the Landmark Building and the Holland Center, that needed to go in next to the mall.
The mall has been kind of an anchor for this area of east downtown, but it does need to be updated and activated because it has satisfied the purpose for which it was intended. Originally, it was meant to be a catalyst for redevelopment downtown and a symbolic extension of the CBD east to the river. It did that. But in the early days of the park’s development, very few people lived and worked downtown. Now the equation has flipped. Lots of people want to live downtown, and there has to be an open green space with activities in it, like an amphitheater, a bigger playground, play space, soccer fields, and things like that. I would hope that one day something like that happens.
Can you explain some of the proposed features in BVH’s unrealized proposal for the Gene Leahy Mall?
Well, some of our original proposals for the mall in 1972-73 featured shops, restaurants, and development along the fringe of the park, but were never realized.
The original BVH-HMB concept envisioned a park-like setting with many activities and attractions. This original concept established the basic idea of a linear park with its center below street level, with the east-to-west waterway representing a symbolic “return to the river.” The original conceptual plans were the basis for the more detailed master plan that BVH produced in concert with Halprin’s firm, which is what we have today with the lowered waterway, and the retention of the two historic buildings.
In our more recent revisiting of the mall for the Downtown Improvement District, we proposed a new pedestrian bridge over 11th Street in addition to the preexisting pedestrian bridge. Our proposed bridge in the middle had a widened area where people could stop and look down. The whole idea for this new bridge, as with the other bridges, is that they have a shallow profile so one can see past it into the mall from one end of the park to the other.
Chroma design was the Denver-based landscape architect that we worked with to develop the 2012 plans. Some of the other elements that we proposed include: a ranger station; we would have kept the slide; we would’ve put some new structures in; a water element would’ve come through from the south side near the play area; there would’ve been new play structures for kids to get in and climb around; we proposed adding some more pathways and the top of the hill would be flattened and used for lawn events; and the arch was retained.
What did the arch belong to?
The arch was part of a building torn down on the south side of the mall, the former Corey McKenzie Building, which was a big stone structure about a half-block long where the Landmark Building and its parking garage are now located.
Before the Corey McKenzie Building was demolished, I convinced the city to have the arches carefully disassembled, the individual stones numbered, and then reassembled back-to-back in the Central Park Mall. The location on the north end of 11th Street represents a gateway from the Old Market to the park.
How did your involvement with Downtown Improvement District compare to the sort of private investment involved with the current riverfront revitalization plan?
There are politics in any kind of major civic projects, and generally, if the project is privately funded, there is protocol that donors like to go to certain firms or have certain stipulations attached to their donations.
Working with Downtown Improvement District was an entirely different scenario.
But there are private philanthropic entities in Omaha that can virtually raise any money they want, and $20 million wouldn’t have been any problem to them.
I know that Downtown Improvement District did start talking to major players downtown. They showed the plans and said, “This is what we’re thinking. We’re not asking for money yet, but we want to get you acclimated and accustomed to what is being planned, and we’ll be around in a few years to ask for your help financially.” I attended a couple of those meetings.
Did private investment factor into the initial development of the Gene Leahy Mall in the ’70s?
I think it was all funded by federal grants obtained by Alden Aust, the director of city planning, through U.S. Sen. Carl Curtis. This was all federal money, Community Development Block Grant money, urban open space grants, and there were some of the business leaders involved in the early parts of the planning. There were public workshops, a task force that kind of guided the process, and the task force included Omaha residents ranging from business leaders all the way down the social structure to housewives and postmen.
What do you think of the prospect of redeveloping the W. Dale Clark Library?
There has been talk of tearing it down or renovating it, and I don’t know where that stands. The library was built in the early ’70s, designed by a firm out of St. Louis—Hellmuth, Obata & Kassabaum. Over the years, it hasn’t maintained a lot of popularity because of its brutalist design
I don’t think it’s a very open or friendly looking building, and it really occupies a key spot in downtown because it anchors the west end of the mall. It’s one of the stepping stones between the CBD and the mall and the river, a progression of things. It’s got a sunken moat around it, and in today’s world, it doesn’t quite fit into the Old Market architectural vernacular—which is really brick—but that brutalistic style was a popular thing in the ’60s and ’70s.
Would you like to share any additional thoughts on the subject of Omaha’s riverfront revitalization efforts?
I think the Old Market is sometimes taken for granted as an anchor for downtown Omaha and the riverfront. The fact that the Old Market is here, and it has been here since the very beginning—despite all the pressures to tear down buildings—is remarkable.
It was this jewel in a wasteland of vacant and derelict buildings in the ’60s that the Old Market started with the Mercer family buying up many of these buildings and helping to put in place amenities like the French Cafe, M’s Pub, and other businesses.
Over the years, it has persevered through all the ups and downs and is one of the state’s most-visited tourist attractions. It has been the greatest thing to happen to downtown Omaha, in my opinion, in the last 50 years. It’s still here, and it is better than ever.
The ironic thing is that it was never really developed. It was organic. It started growing, and things kind of fell into place. It has never been grabbed onto by a developer and ruined, like some other areas in the country that have flashy buildings and signage. It is still kind of in that organic mode. It was never really planned. Whatever else happened, the Old Market was always there. It was always going to be there, and now everything has kind of grown up around it.
Visit riverfrontrevitalization.com for more information about the Missouri Riverfront Revitalization Project. Visit bvh.com to learn more about the local architectural firm involved with the Gene Leahy Mall’s initial conceptualization and construction.
This article was printed in the June/July 2018 edition of B2B.
Update: After this magazine went to press, the Riverfront Revitalization Project announced that the master plan would be revealed during a community meeting on June 12 (5-7 p.m. at Gallup’s headquarters, 1001 Gallup Drive). The presentation will begin at 5:30 p.m. Free parking will be available in the Gallup parking lot.
Family & More
Gardening season is open in Omaha, and those desiring fresh produce will find plenty of options in the area, along with artisan cheeses, farm-raised meats, freshly baked breads, assorted treats, and craft items.
• Aksarben Village (67th and Center streets) 9 a.m.-1 p.m. Sundays.
• Council Bluffs (Bayliss Park) 4:30-7:30 p.m. Thursdays.
• Gifford Park (33rd and California streets) 5-8 p.m. Fridays.
• Florence Mill (9102 N. 30th St.) 10 a.m.-3 p.m. Sundays.
• Old Market (11th and Jackson streets) 9 a.m.-12:30 p.m. Saturdays.
• Papillion (84th and Lincoln streets) 5-8 p.m. Wednesdays.
• Rockbrook Village (2800 S. 110th Court) 4-7 p.m. Thursdays.
• Village Pointe (168th and Dodge streets) 8:30 a.m.-12:30 p.m. Saturdays.
Laugh, cry and relax with classic movies under the stars this summer. Bring a blanket or chair, and enjoy the show. All movies begin at dusk.
• Flix at the Chef (Behind Dairy Chef in Elkhorn, 3223 N. 204th St.): July 14, Aug. 11.
• Midtown Crossing (Turner Park, 3110 Farnam St.): Mondays through July 30.
• Movies in the Park (Bayliss Park, 100 Pearl St., Council Bluffs, IA): Fridays through Aug. 10.
• SumTur Starlight Movies (SumTur Amphitheater, 11691 S. 108th St., Papillion). Aug. 3, 10.
The Great American Lobster Fest
Through July 1 at Tom Hanafan River’s Edge Park, 4200 Ave. B, Council Bluffs. The Midwest’s largest lobster and seafood festival comes to Council Bluffs. Enjoy live lobster, live music, family-friendly games, activities, shopping, and more. Noon. Admission: $5 adults, free for children 12 and under. 773-754-7105.
Get Fit in the Park
Sundays through Oct. 14 in Stinson Park, 2285 S. 67th St. Enjoy the sunshine and direction of professional fitness instructors with yoga and Zumba classes. 10 a.m. Admission: free. 402-496-1616.
Thursdays through July 26 at Center Court, 120 Regency Parkway. Kids will enjoy a variety of local, family-friendly entertainment Each week is something different. 10 a.m. Admission: free. 402-506-4376.
Midwest Paranormal History/Ghost Tour
Fridays and Saturdays through October at various locations in Omaha. Learn of the macabre legends, lore, and haunted history of Omaha through stories of the sites and reports of paranormal activity. Time based on sunset. Admission: $10-$20. 402-953-9670.
Leashes at Lauritzen
July 2,9; Aug. 6, 13 at Lauritzen Gardens, 100 Bancroft St. Dogs are welcome to explore the grounds and enjoy the outdoors. Heel for family photos, learn about local dog-related non-profits, and enjoy treats/samples. 5-8 p.m. Admission: $10 adults, $5 for children or dogs, free for garden members. 402-346-4002.
Ralston Fourth of July Festival
July 3-4 at Independence Square, 77th and Main streets. One of the biggest Fourth of July celebrations in the Metro area features a fun walk/run, a quilt show, children’s parade, live music, a full-scale parade and fire department water fights. Event times vary. Admission: free (entry fees required for some activities). 402-339-7737.
Red, White and Zoo!
July 4 at Henry Doorly Zoo, 3701 S. 10th St. This special event includes bounce houses, music, and special animal encounters. The first 800 people will receive a free patriotic gift. 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Admission: $21.95 adults 12+, $15.95 children 3-11, free to children 2 and under. $1 discount for seniors, active-duty military, and children of active-duty military. 402-733-8400.
Yoga in the Garden
Every Thursday in July and August at Lauritzen Gardens, 100 Bancroft St. Come to the gardens and practice yoga with a trained instructor. People of all abilities are welcome to participate. Times vary. Admission: $15 for non-members; $10 for members. 402-346-4002.
Omaha Beer Fest
July 6-7 at Horsemen’s Park, 6303 Q St. Enjoy unlimited 2-oz. samples of craft beers, ciders, and meads from 60 participating breweries, along with Beer Academy Sessions and live music. 6-9 p.m. Tickets: $35 advanced, $40 at the door, $75 VIP. 402-731-2900.
July 6-7 at Haworth Park, 2502 Payne Dr., Bellevue. This regional festival has live music, a beer garden, a kids zone, fireworks, helicopter rides, and a state champion barbecue competition. 3 p.m.-12:30 a.m. Friday, 10 a.m.-12:30 a.m. Saturday. Admission: $1. 402-898-3000.
Douglas County Fair
July 10-15 at multiple locations: Village Pointe Shopping Center (17305 Davenport St.), Chance Ridge Event Center (506 Skyline Road, Elkhorn), Metropolitan Community College (10407 State St.). Enjoy food, displays, and attractions at the Douglas County Fair’s new multi-location venues. Organizers are creating an event focused on education and community to blend urban and rural family fun. Parking is not available at Chance Ridge. Shuttles will transport the public from Village Pointe and MCC. Times vary. Admission: free. 402-516-5826.
American Solar Challenge Kickoff Event
July 13-14 at Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail Visitor Center, 601 Riverfront Drive. Teams in the American Solar Challenge will start their 1,700+ mile journey to Oregon in Omaha. Food, music, historical re-enactors, and cultural demonstrations will be a part of the event, along with displays of the vehicles making the trek. 3-7 p.m. Friday; 8-10 a.m. Saturday. Admission: free. 402-661-1804.
O Comic Con
July 13-15 at Mid-America Center, 1 Arena Way, Council Bluffs. Fans can meet actors, artists, and writers. Panels, merchandise and crowds of people dressed as favorite characters will be in attendance at this event. Noon-8 p.m. Friday, 9 a.m.-8 p.m. Saturday, 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Sunday. Tickets: $30-$35, or $55 for a three-day pass. 712-323-0536.
Rhythm Weekend: Omaha Jazz and Tap Dance Festival
July 12-15 at Fraternal Order of Eagles No. 38, 201 S. 24th St. Enjoy a weekend full of workshops, dance battles, showcases, history, and more. Master tap and jazz dancers from around the world will share their passion. Times vary. Tickets: $30-$250. 402-208-3006.
Brew at the Zoo
July 14 at the Henry Doorly Zoo, 3701 S. 10th St. Patrons (21+ only) can sample four limited-edition beers, and enjoy food, animal encounters, and live music. 8-11 p.m. Admission: $70 members, $80 non-members, $120 VIP. 402-733-8400.
The Color Run 5K
July 14 at CenturyLink Center, 455 N. 10th St. The popular traveling 5K comes back to Omaha. Participants run the route, while paint powder colors the streets—and the runners. 8-11 a.m. Runner tickets: $14.99 children 5 and under, $24.99-$49.99 adults. No charge to watch the race. 402-341-1500.
July 14-15, various locations. This family-friendly festival celebrates all things trains and tracks. Locations include The Durham Museum, Lauritzen Gardens, Union Pacific Railroad Museum, RailsWest Railroad Museum, and General Dodge House. 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Admission: $15 pass for two adults and two children. 402-444-5071.
LGBT Wedding Expo
July 15 at Sheraton Omaha Hotel, 655 N. 108th Ave. Browse, mingle, and connect with local wedding professionals and leave with plenty of ideas. 12:30-3:30 p.m. Admission: free. 402-496-0850.
Pinnacle Bank Golf Championship
July 16-22 at The Club at Indian Creek, 3825 N. 202 St. The PGA tour is back with the Web.com Tour, featuring 156 golfers and 72 holes. The top 25 money winners will advance to the PGA tour. Times vary. Admission: $10-$40. 402-991-2525.
Turner Park Night Market
July 27, Aug. 31 at Turner Park in Midtown Crossing, 3110 Farnam St. Omaha Farmer’s Market teams up with Turner Park to feature local artisans, vendors, activities, food, and more. Local nonprofits will also engage in the festivities to showcase their service opportunities. 6-10 p.m. Admission: free. 402-351-5954.
July 28-29 in Benson, Maple St. between 58th and 63rd streets. This family-friendly event celebrates Benson’s creative culture. Activities include a pancake breakfast, a parade, artists, vendors, food trucks, live music, and more. 8 a.m.-5 p.m. Admission: free.
Nebraska Asian Festival
July 28 at Lewis and Clark Landing, 345 Riverfront Drive. Enjoy food, activities, and cultural performances at this family-oriented event about Asian heritage. 9 a.m.-9 p.m. Admission: $5; free for children under 12. 402-216-9081.
New American Arts Festival
Aug. 3 in Benson, Military Ave. and Maple St. Celebrate the arts, ideas, and cultures of Omaha’s refugee and immigrant communities with workshops, performances, art, food, and music. 4-11 p.m. Admission: free. 402-203-5488.
Canvas and Chocolates
Aug. 4 at Lauritzen Gardens, 100 Bancroft St. Participants can paint under the direction of a trained artist while snacking on themed chocolates. Art supplies and treats are provided. Noon-2 p.m. Tickets: $49. 402-346-4002.
River’s Edge Taco Fest
Aug. 4 at Tom Hanafan River’s Edge Park, 4200 Ave. B, Council Bluffs. This festival will showcase 20 of the metro’s best taco-centric restaurants, local and national music artists, and a Chihuahua race. 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Tickets: $20 advance, $25 day of event, $100 VIP.
Aug. 9-12 at Tom Hanafan River’s Edge Park, 4200 Ave. B, Council Bluffs. Barbecue, games, and rides are featured in this event, which includes six award-winning barbecue teams bringing ribs to the riverfront and music by Travis Tritt, Uncle Kracker, the Spin Doctors, and more. Sunday activities include a church service and horse show. 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, 11 a.m.-8 p.m. Sunday. Admission: $5 adults (until 3 p.m.), $10 after 3 p.m.; $5 kids (age 16 and under).
Defenders of Freedom Open House and Air and Space Show
Aug. 10-12 at Offutt Air Force Base, 205 Looking Glass Ave. F-22 Raptor and F-35A Lightning II demonstration teams will headline this show, which is back after a one-year hiatus. 8 a.m.-4 p.m. Admission: free. 402-294-8880.
High Vibe Festival
Aug. 11 at Stinson Park, 2285 S. 67th St. Good vibes abound with activities such as a 5K run, live music, yoga all day, workshops, and plant-based food. 8 a.m.-9 p.m. Tickets: $10-$108. 402-496-1616.
Nebraska Balloon and Wine Festival
Aug. 10-11 at Coventry Campus, 204th and Q streets. Sip Nebraska wines and enjoy hot air balloon launches. 5-11 p.m. Friday, 3-11 p.m. Saturday. Tickets: $14-$19 adults; $7 children under 12; free for children 5 and under. 402-346-8003.
Omaha Comic Book Convention
Aug. 12 at Comfort Inn & Suites Central, 7007 Grover St. Comic book lovers from near and far are invited to present and purchase comic books and collectible items like action figures and trading cards. 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Admission: free. 309-657-1599.
Aug. 16-17 at Omaha Design Center, 1502 Cuming St. The Big Omaha conference continues to promote innovation and entrepreneurship. In tandem with the Maha Music Festival, the conference will include keynote speakers, special guests, networking opportunities, and a notable opening party for the weekend. Party TBA Thursday, conference 8 a.m.-5 p.m. on Friday with music festival afterwards. Tickets: $250-$325.
Omaha’s Original Greek Festival
Aug. 17-19 at St. John the Baptist Greek Orthodox Church, 602 Park Ave. Live music, folk dancing, authentic Greek cuisine, a Greek boutique, and more. 5-11 p.m. Friday, 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Saturday, 11 a.m.-7 p.m. Sunday. Admission: $3. 402-345-7103.
Terrain Racing: Omaha
Aug. 18 at the Bellevue Berry & Pumpkin Ranch, 11001 S. 48th St., Papillion. This 5K and obstacle course allows participants to embrace the mess and enjoy a fun, hands-on workout. 8 a.m.-2 p.m. Tickets: $35-$100. 402-331-5500.
Omaha Fashion Week
Aug. 20-25 at Omaha Design Center, 1502 Cuming St. The country’s fifth largest fashion event features more than 40 designers, 400 models, and hundreds of creations. 6-10 p.m. Admission: $40-$80. 402-937-1061.
Aug. 21-26 at Andersen Park, 136th and Q streets. This full week of activities includes a parade, a carnival, a beer garden, horse shows, and live music. Times vary. Admission: free ($25 for carnival). 402-697-5258.
Aug. 25 in the Dundee neighborhood, 50th Street and Underwood Ave. The day includes the Rundee 5K, a pancake tent, parade, beer garden, vendors, a farmers market, and live music. 8:30 a.m. Admission: free. 678-873-4591.
Starting Aug. 31 at CenturyLink Center Omaha, 455 N. 10th St. Lot D. This “Salute to Labor” festival offers four days of entertainment, educational and artistic displays, a carnival, Omaha’s largest parade, a beer garden, a Kiddie Kingdom, and food. Times vary. Admission: $5 per person, per day. The parade is free to attend. 402-341-1500.
Event times and details may change.
Check with venue or event organizer to confirm.
Thirty-year-old Jennifer Castello lives by a simple philosophy: “Art is power.” As a writer, educator, and actor, the Omaha native has tapped into all areas of her deep imagination to carve out her path. She unequivocally believes creativity was put here to bring out a person’s voice, and that’s exactly what she’s doing.
“I think art has worked best when someone isn’t being listened to, then grabs the audience by the scruff of the neck, and through art that person says, ‘Shut up and look,’” she says. “When I’m teaching, it’s not about me. It’s about making sure that at the end of the session, residency, or workshop, the students are equipped to express themselves—be it in a story, in a song, or just in everyday life. Art is self-advocacy. Art is power. Art is resistance.”
Castello began her writing career at the ripe age of 4, when her grandmother discovered how often she was coming up with original stories.
“She pulled out a stack of papers, stapled them together, and told me to make a book,” she recalls. “The pride she took in the stories I told her made me feel like it was something special to be a writer. She was a teacher, and it was also through her and that pride that I realized I wanted to be a teacher, and make some other kid feel just as special as she made me feel.”
At 18 years old, Castello scored her first teaching job, participating in the Teacher Academy Project program at the University of Nebraska-Omaha, and eventually got her teaching license. Now, she freelances at a variety of local organizations, including the Omaha Community Playhouse.
“I go out into schools and community spaces and engage students in creating something,” she explains. “If that’s creating a clever way to win a drama game, learning how to make their own characters with makeup on their faces, or write their very own script, that’s where my heart is. When I was a kid in Omaha, teachers reached out to me and taught me that my brain had a purpose and a worth, and I’m always trying to pay it forward.”
In terms of her acting, Castello credits her father.
“He signed me up for a class at the Emmy Gifford Theatre,” she says. “Then when the Emmy Gifford turned into The Rose, he made me audition for one of the main stage plays and I got in. It was a community for me to hold onto when things got rough, and I’ll forever be grateful for that community.“
As an author, the Central High School grad was compelled to write The Messiah of Howard Street when she was still an undergrad at DePaul University in Chicago. It was inspired by the colorful characters that have become a staple of the Old Market district.
“I had read My Antonia in my American English class,” she explains. “This wasn’t the first time I read it, I’d read it at Central High my junior year of high school. But comparing and contrasting a Chicago classroom to an Omaha classroom, I realized how fantasized Nebraska is in the minds of people who don’t live here. I mean, there are some obvious stereotypes we’ve all heard, but also the idea that there are rolling fields, and peace, and nature, and all that, it was just weird.”
Like so many other Central High teenagers, the Old Market was Castello’s meeting spot during adolescence. But over the years, she had many other experiences on and around Howard Street that helped shape her life.
“One of my first tastes of freedom was walking down to the Old Market and going to all the shops, getting Ted & Wally’s, and eating way too much spaghetti. Mom would take me to Little King before a dance recital, my best friends held my 18th birthday party as Zio’s, I sang and performed there, and I actually had my first date with my husband at Spaghetti Works.”
Armed with a Master of Science in secondary education from UNO and a Master of Fine Arts in creative writing from Stonecoast at the University of Southern Maine in Portland, Maine, she recently held a one-act festival, finished a semester-long scriptwriting residency at Central High, and has become a member of the Nebraska Arts Council teaching roster. In short, Castello stays busy.
“In undergrad, my professor warned me I might not be able to make a living in the arts,” she says. “But being a teaching artist and an arts educator has been something I truly enjoy. I really appreciate being able to do it every day. I get to help kids play pretend. That’s like…the dream.”
To learn more about Castello’s work, visit jennifercastello.com.
This article appears in the May/June 2018 edition of Encounter.
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Pick of the Week—Friday, May 4 to Sunday, May 6: Why wait until the fifth to start celebrating Cinco de Mayo? South Omaha has been hosting Cinco de Mayo events for decades, and they keep that tradition alive this year with a three-day-long extravaganza open to all who wish to salute the Mexican Army’s victory over France at the Battle of Puebla. Though a minor holiday in Mexico, this day has become a time for the community to celebrate their heritage and traditions. And no, it’s not all about the drinking. (I know that’s what most of you were thinking.) With carnivals, a parade, and even a mariachi mass, this weekend is going to be jam-packed with fiesta vibes. Get the full rundown here.
Thursday, May 3: The Japanese term “jo-ha-kyū” describes a structural aesthetic of forms in motion. The English translation of this concept is “beginning.break.rapid.” The Bemis Center’s exhibit beginning.break.rapid Kenji Fujita and Barbara Takenega looks at two artists—each different but both featuring this aesthetic. New York-based visual artist Fujita makes work out of ordinary materials. Takenega is a painter with printmaking roots. Today only (12:30 p.m.!) Bemis will offer a free, traditional Japanese tea ceremony as well, during which everyone is invited to discuss the relationship between the artists’ work. Enjoy your lunch break and register here now.
Friday, May 4: Ever wondered what it would be like if Snow White went off on the Evil Queen? Or if Napoleon Bonaparte ever clashed with Peter the Great? If these are the types of questions that plague you, then head to The Nerd Roast (Standup) at The Backline. For only $5, you can see some of Omaha’s talented comedians and improvisers hurl insults at each other—as some of your favorite characters, both fictional and real. Learn more here.
Saturday, May 4 and Sunday, May 5: It’s perfect weather for shopping outside, so luckily the Omaha Farmer’s Markets are open again! If you can’t make it to the O.G. downtown one on Saturday (because, Berkshire) you can always head to the Aksarben Village market on Sunday. Help them celebrate their 25th season this year by getting out and supporting your local vendors. Don’t forget to bring your bags and some cash. And don’t worry about grabbing brunch beforehand. The number of vendors with ready-to-eat food (including a rumored biscuits and gravy booth in the Old Market and a confirmed bloody Mary bar from Liv Lounge at the Aksarben location) continues to grow. Find out more about your favorite marketplaces here.
Saturday, May 5 to Sunday, May 6 and May 12 and 13: The 2018 Renaissance Festival at Bellevue Berry Farm is no joke. There will be over 50 vendors, acclaimed joust professionals, historical reenactments, and games of skill. And that doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface of all that is to come. Besides the foraging for goods, there will also be plenty of tasty fare to replenish the body and soul as you traipse through the farm, experiencing the days of yore. To find out more, gallop on over here.
My mom passed away three days before this past Christmas. My friend and former co-worker Justin Swanson passed two days before that. Between the two, I wound up saying farewell to Justin in the ICU before his non-responsive body was unplugged from life support and then later, in the emergency room, grasping for the last warmth in my mom’s newly deceased body.
It was an intense, stomach-twisting week.
But I’m not writing this to talk about death. I’m writing this to talk about the small moments that precede death. So let’s go back to May 2014.
We were hosting the closing party for Big Omaha at House of Loom. Among the frivolity of the full-capacity night was a sea of sweaty entrepreneurs, a random guy playing the accordion to house beats, and one of Twitter’s co-founders getting down on the dance floor. In the history books of that club, it was a legendary night.
I can’t remember why, but my brother was in town, so in a rarity, my mom, dad, and brother all wound up stopping by. As we edged out a spot just above the stairs in the upper lounge, a photographer walked by and grabbed a beaming family photo.
Later that night, my mom experienced two strokes. She was never the same after.
Between dementia and Addison’s disease, we witnessed her expressions, personality, and communication slowly diminish.
There were also frequent trips to the hospital. This past summer, while working just down the street from where she was hospitalized, I took my lunch break to spend some time with her.
She was alone when I arrived, but thanks to the steroids that were pumped into her IV, she was more alert and alive than I had seen her in a very long time.
Given her worsening condition, I knew there was something special about this moment. So I flipped open a voice recording app on my phone, and I began what would become a 40-minute conversation that covered everything from childhood memories, experiences she still wanted to have, and the feeling she got when my 1-year-old daughter—her granddaughter—kissed her.
After I said my goodbye and left the room, I made peace with whatever was to come next. She transitioned four months later.
Cut to Nov. 11, 2017. I had just finished DJing a private party in the Old Market, and after packing everything up, I had enough time to catch last call somewhere. With no agenda on where I’d end up, I aimlessly walked down the street where I saw a group of people gather before walking into Brickway Brewery.
My attention caught, I looked inside the near-empty bar to see Justin Swanson cleaning glassware. I walked in behind the group of people and as the crowd cleared, Justin’s eyes widened and his hands went up in surprise at the sight of me.
See, there was about three years of my life that I saw Justin more than my family. He was a bartender and I was a co-owner at House of Loom. Because of our roles, our lives were inextricably intertwined.
That is, until we closed on Jan. 1, 2017. After that, we took separate paths and mostly lost touch. At the time I didn’t even know he worked at Brickway. So while I sat in a near-empty
bar with Justin, we caught up and conversed like old friends.
This column appears in the March/April 2018 edition of Encounter.
To share your life perspectives—or whatever—with Brent Crampton and Encounter, email email@example.com.