Tag Archives: South Omaha

South O Swagger

August 21, 2018 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

If doing-things-your-own-way could be personified it would probably look like Miguel Rocha. Commonly known as Rocha by family, friends, and coworkers, the 30-year-old musician and South Omaha native is no stranger to living life his way, on his time. This is evident the second you see his signature shaggy hairdo and carefree swagger. 

From throwing his own show in a basement at 17 to managing one of Omaha’s more recent DIY venues, Milk Run, Rocha has been a staple in the Big O’s counterculture for close to two decades.

“I really fell for the Omaha hardcore screamo scene in like ’98, ’99. That’s when I was going to shows,” he says. “I see these young kids living life and going on tour and having fun and not living the ‘normal’ life. That was honestly my biggest draw to it. It was like ‘This is living. This is what I want to be doing with my life.’”

The allure of freedom wasn’t the only thing pulling a young Rocha into the music scene, though. Rooted in an upbringing set against the backdrop of the “marginalized South Omaha projects,” he also found a passion for inclusion and community development in the arts.

“That’s [the] best thing about what Milk Run did. We were making mixed-media bills, and when you do that you show people that there is more than what they thought was out there in the world,” Rocha says. “That’s honestly my biggest goal, to make everyone come together because there’s no reason to be separate when we’re all oddities in this world.”

Milk Run, an all-ages, all-inclusive, truly ‘do-it-yourself’ effort, enjoyed a short but sweet three-year stint as a home to poets, artists, and musicians of all kinds. Although it closed its doors in 2017, Rocha believes there will always be a need for grassroots efforts to promote inclusion through the arts. 

“We need it as a community,” he says. “When you don’t have a space where everyone feels comfortable and where everyone can create, it creates little groups that don’t need to exist. They want us to be alone; they want us to be in our small little niche communities. But no, we can actually create a large community of people who are all supporting all forms of art. I think that is the most important thing.”

When he isn’t busy booking local shows or helping the voiceless find a way to be heard, Rocha’s focus is on CBN, an industrial music project that he started in 2009.

“What I’m actually talking about is where I’m actually from. This isn’t an image I want to put in front of you,” he says.”This is my release from that existence. It’s me expressing those things that burden my soul from that bringing up.” Rocha says that the goal of the project is to explore what he perceives as a class war in America, “how the disenfranchised will always stay disenfranchised because that’s the way the game is set up.”

Several years and a few tours later, CBN has transformed into a duo with Rocha and fellow producer and friend, Davy Haynes, also known as TNDR PiNK, joining forces. Fresh off a successful 10-city tour that peaked with the End Tymes Festival in New York, Rocha has his sights set on the future of the duo. 

“I’ve been doing Omaha DIY almost half my life now. I need to take a break,” he says. “I have to take a step back and focus on my career with CBN and see where I can get when I put all my dedication and focus into that.”

While he is stepping away from the Omaha DIY scene to pursue other endeavors, the spirit of doing things himself still rings true for Rocha.

“I think a lot of people don’t understand the actual sacrifice it takes to make things work,” he says. An independent artist in every sense of the word, he is willing to keep making those sacrifices to help his dreams come to fruition.


Find Neblastya by CBN on Spotify.

This article was printed in the September/October 2018 edition of Encounter.

Guest-Starring at Omaha’s First Drive-In

May 16, 2018 by
Photography by Durham Museum
Illustration by Matt Wieczorek

In the summer of 1972, I discovered the power of a flashlight with an orange wand.

Nobody had ever paid attention to me—an undersized 16-year-old—until I worked at the 76th & West Dodge Drive-In and accepted that mighty Eveready-powered scepter. Cars went where I pointed. Sneak-ins crawling out of trunks trembled in the beam and then marched to the box office to buy tickets. The wallop of authority was mine, at $1.35 per hour, ushering at Omaha’s first drive-in theater.

The manager, Gil, and assistant, Sam (fresh from the Navy in San Diego and owner of a new Nova), ran the joint. It had opened in 1948. That was 15 years after the first drive-in theater opened in Camden, New Jersey. The enticement for Omahans (as a local newspaper ad claimed) was privacy and comfort. “Smoke, talk, take refreshments, all without disturbing others!” Adults paid 60 cents, kiddos were free, and no need to rub against all those germy people in a proper theater. Other drive-ins would follow: the Sky View near 72nd Street and Military Avenue, the Golden Spike at 114th Street and West Dodge Road, and the Q Twin at 108th and Q streets.

Besides the glory of receiving my first paychecks, it was a summer of warm nights and hot snack-bar girls. I was smitten with the shy blonde from Papillion. As I remember, she was the projectionist’s daughter. He toiled with those reels as a second job, getting by on little sleep. The box office ladies were earning a little extra for their families, too. The brunette who completed the snack bar staff returned with her boyfriend on a night off, and their Pinto hatchback with wide rear glass let them display their passions.

I reported for work at 6 p.m. Right away one evening, still new at the job, I was asked to replace the bulb in one of the tower flood lamps. The screen tower had its own self-supporting internal structure and was enclosed, providing shelter for the many pigeons that roosted inside, coming and going through an unknown opening. Carrying a large new bulb during the long climb up the internal ladder, I emerged through a hatch onto the narrow roof and had the unprecedented experience of being untethered and confident above the city. When a couple of early-arriving patrons honked in acknowledgment, it was my first starring role.

Catching sneak-ins before showtime was important and returned several times my hourly pay. Obscured by a tree limb, I sat waiting atop the back fence. Cars drove right up to that point; the driver got out and opened the trunk; and one, two, or three people climbed out. Before they could even take a step, I vaulted off the fence, shook my scepter, and exclaimed, “You’re gonna have to pay!” Seeing grown-ups quiver was gratifying. One Carter Lake motorcycle gang-type wasn’t impressed, though. He snatched away my scepter and chucked it, the beam rotating on its own axis, clear to the snack bar’s roof. Then he walked through the theater and got into a car four rows from the front, near the lot’s exit. Gil called the cops, but the subjects drove away too soon.

One night my friend John Fulmer was visiting to see how I ruled over the place. After dark, we got some action when two kids came flying over the east fence. I chased them back over, and with no firm plan in mind, pursued full speed beyond the property into an open field until one of the pursued turned midstride and delivered a shot of pepper spray. For some reason, before fumbling them, I’d been holding onto the keys to John’s blue Malibu. I made it back to the snack bar, where sympathetic Gil oversaw my eye-washing. Meanwhile, John put on his X-ray specs and found the keys.

The B-movies shown that summer were instructive. Reflecting Sartre’s ill effect on cinema, Vanishing Point gave us existential hero Kowalski in a cross-country chase movie. Star actor Barry Newman was a second-rate Steve McQueen, but the Dodge Challenger excelled in its role. And making for an even better movie, a naked hippie girl rode a Honda! The chase ended when Kowalski crashed the Challenger into a Nevada roadblock, and the audience understood that life is meaningless. The plot creaked like the screen tower’s structure in the wind. No matter, though, the movie achieved masterpiece status by holding over a second big week. Popcorn sales kept the snack-bar girls humming.

At my hiring, no one had mentioned cleanup duties. After getting home around 2 a.m. on weekend triple-feature nights, I was expected back at 8 a.m. to poke around with a steel spike on a long shaft and fill trash bags. Patrons left everything on the ground but their acne. Besides snack bar purchases, they dumped ashtrays, beer cans, diapers, and to limit future diapers, family planning measures.

Old South Omaha Joe, the wizened authority of theater cleanup, soloed on weekdays. Come the weekend, three of us split up the lot. In his 70s—I couldn’t believe such a fossil could still work—Joe and his spiked-stick covered about three or four times my territory. Sunday mornings were the worst, and the closer to noon, the more putrid it all was.

When we took a fresh-air break inside the snack bar, indefatigable Joe capered around to the tunes of the Big Joe Polka Show.

Changing the marquee was a Thursday-night ritual. Our big sign sat on a steel structure near the street. Two of us climbed up with boxes of plastic letters that snapped into metal tracks, and we concentrated on our spelling despite the din of honking horns.

Besides Vanishing Point, Omahans had a taste for material that derived from another French writer, de Sade. In their service came my introduction to porn. Women-in-prison films—“Soft young girls behind hard prison bars”—were nearly mainstream in those days. I thought about reminding Gil that I wasn’t old enough to see R-rated movies, then got a grip and entered the sordid world of Roger Corman, starring Pam Grier. My parents had no idea!

Gil and Sam had been awfully nice, so I felt bad about putting down my scepter and going back to school. The lessons from that summer—handling large mowers, directing traffic, kicking ass, and not being a glutton for free popcorn—stayed with me. I can say that I never misused my authority, getting too bossy or smart when marching detainees to the box office or pranking patrons by faking police sirens in their moment of ecstasy. 

The 76th & West Dodge Drive-In closed in 1983, and retail space occupied the site. Until the other day, I thought drive-in theaters were passé. Then Elon Musk said he wants one at a Tesla charging location in Los Angeles. The outdoor screen would display “a highlight reel of the best scenes in movie history,” Musk tweeted. I presume that among them we would not find any from Women in Cages.

But Musk should think hard about the likelihood of Tesla owners being the only people on earth who don’t litter. Just wait. They’ll open their gull-wing doors and throw out herbal tea bags and energy bar wrappers like other humans. And another point: providential managers like Gil and Sam, hot snack-bar girls like the Papio Blonde, and a quick man with a stick like South Omaha Joe are hard to find. An usher with some attitude is good to have around, too. 


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

The Spice Of Guatemala on South 24th Street

May 5, 2018 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

The proprietor of the city’s only Guatemalan restaurant says things have gone so well at Chiltepes that—barely a year after opening in South Omaha at 4833 S. 24th St.—she is already considering opening a second location in Lincoln.

That’s a lofty goal for a restaurateur new to Nebraska’s dining scene. But make no mistake; Floridalma Herrera is no novice to the food industry. She has been sharpening her business acumen since she was in elementary school.

The mother of five remembers breaking down 100-pound bags of beans and sugar into 1-pound packages as a schoolgirl in her native Guatemala City, where her father ran a grocery business as the country’s decades-long civil war raged around them. Once she finished her primary schooling at about 14 years old, Herrera set up shop in a local market, blending and selling juice by the cup.
Her seed capital? Earnings from a cow her father sold to get the fledgling business on its feet.

“I bought two blenders, a food processor, and cups,” Herrera says, noting that 10 percent of every day’s earnings went to pay her father back.

Within about two years, the consummate entrepreneur had grown the business to require a refrigerator and freezer, and she had six employees churning out juice concoctions made from papayas, strawberries, bananas, and beets.

Still, Herrera wanted more, and her next step would cost her some emotional capital.

Herrera endured six months of silence from her father after he learned his only daughter had suddenly left her native Guatemala to pursue a better life in the United States. She was 17 years old.

“My dad finally asked why,” Herrera says, “and I explained that I wanted to learn English and help the family more. I wanted more for him.”

Since then, Herrera has gotten what she wanted, and then some.

She’s realized her dream of opening her own restaurant. And she also gets to spread the cultural influences from her childhood in Guatemala, making her a sort of local ambassador to a pocket of Central American culture.

Immigrants from Central American countries like Guatemala comprise about 10 percent of Omaha’s Latino population, compared to about 81 percent who claim Mexican heritage, according to a 2015 analysis of U.S. Census data by the University of Nebraska-Omaha’s Office of Latino/Latin American Studies.

Though greatly outnumbered by their former neighbors to the north, immigrants from the region are the second-largest group of Latinos living in the city.

As a Guatemalan immigrant immersed in South Omaha’s sea of Latino culture, Herrera only had to look down the South 24th Street corridor to realize a restaurant like Chiltepes has a place in the community.

“On every single corner, there’s Mexican food, but there’s none from [Guatemala],” Herrera says. (Although, Omaha does have a few Central American restaurants serving Salvadoran cuisine.)
Kenia Andrade, Herrera’s 19-year-old daughter who is also on staff at Chiltepes, says her family carefully renovated the space—previously home to a Mexican taqueria—so they, too, could feel at home there.

“We couldn’t see the future in the little space, so we had to remodel everything,” Andrade says.
If financial performance is any indicator, the community has enthusiastically embraced it.
The business plan conservatively projected Chiltepes to pull in about $7,000 a month when it got off the ground in December 2016. It did more than $50,000 in business through its first two months.

Business took off so fast that by the end of the third month, Herrera had to forego hand-cranking the traditional sausage that accompanies Chiltepes’ signature dish, churrasquito chapin.

The charbroiled beef platter served with sides of rice and black beans doesn’t seem to have suffered any from the substitution, however; Herrera says the restaurant sells 60-85 servings of the dish on any given day.

It’s a “dream come true” for Herrera, who came to Omaha in the mid-’90s after spending about five years in Los Angeles. There, she studied for eight months in culinary school before the financial pressure and risk of being an undocumented immigrant forced her to cave on that pursuit.

So Herrera took to working in a hodgepodge of L.A. restaurant kitchens featuring Thai, Indian, American, Italian, and Mexican food. With two children in tow, she eventually left for Nebraska, where better opportunities for her young family beckoned.

Although Herrera detoured into gigs on the lines at packing plants and as a personal chef before running the office for her husband’s construction company for a few years, she held tight to influences from her native culture.

Dishes, such as churrasquito chapin, feature Mayan influences and Guatemalan staples that include avocados and small, thick tortillas made of masa (a traditional corn dough).

“I do this because not many people know our culture,” Herrera says. “You can come in here and eat and…hear the music, see the decorations. I want to know that people understand our culture and experience a different kind of food.”


Visit Chiltepes’ Facebook page for more information at @chiltepesrestaurantomaha.

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

Bill Gonzalez

April 6, 2018 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Chat with Bill Gonzalez for a short while and one thing becomes clear: It really is hard to keep a good man down.

Nearly 20 years ago, Gonzalez was down. In August 1999, while working at an Omaha warehouse, Gonzalez tripped while crossing over a machine. Its drive belt caught his leg, shattering it from his knee down and damaging his back. Despite a handful of operations on his leg and back, Gonzalez was disabled.

“I couldn’t do physical work anymore,” he says, “and I didn’t have the skills to do anything else.”

He was homebound but realized that wasn’t the way he wanted to spend the rest of his life.

“That’s a quick way to die,” he says. “I had to get out of the house and do something other than sitting home eating painkillers and going nuts.”

A newspaper article noting that the Durham Museum was seeking volunteers for its archives department changed all that. Gonzalez thought back to his days at now-defunct Omaha St. Joseph High School when, during his senior year, someone presented photos of Omaha from the Bostwick-Frohardt Collection, then in the possession of KMTV (Channel 3).

“I was just blown away seeing these old pictures of what Omaha used to look like. I always remembered that.”

From the Bostwick-Frohardt Collection, this 1911 image was taken on top of the Union Pacific Railroad Building at 14th & Dodge streets looking east.

Now the collection was on permanent loan to the Durham. Gonzalez, who lives just 2 minutes from the museum, wanted in. He joined the Durham as a volunteer March 15, 2005, working one day a week.

“As soon as I started working here I knew I’d found a home,” Gonzalez says. “I just kept coming back.”

Soon he was working four days a week. After a couple years, the museum hired him on a permanent basis as photo archive associate with its curatorial and education services. Today he oversees collections totaling more than 1 million photographs of Omaha from the 1860s to 1990s—from its rise as a frontier town with shanties on the banks of the muddy Missouri River to a sophisticated metropolis with a bustling downtown straddling those same banks. Many of the photos are digitized and available through the museum’s website. Gonzalez has written many of their descriptions. 

  When a visitor comes to the museum seeking a specific photo, Gonzalez is the man they turn to. He already possesses great personal recall of the city. Though his parents were immigrants from Mexico, 67-year-old Gonzalez was born and raised in South Omaha.

“A lot of stuff, I know what I’m looking at. The younger interns don’t have an idea,” he says of decades-old Omaha scenes and long-gone iconic structures from his youth. “Someone said I’m the organic memory of archives. I guess that’s true.”

Using that memory and his knowledge of Durham’s vast photo archive helps him connect people to pictures, past to present.

“The best part, the part that really gets me high, is when I find a picture that a person has some kind of emotional attachment to,” Gonzalez says. “A lot of the pictures we have are really family pictures of people. They mean something to somebody.”

They’ve got a good man to find them.

Visit durhammuseum.org for more information.

Favorite Old Omaha Photos

What are Bill Gonzalez’s favorite photos in Durham archive? He has many. Among his favorites, he includes: an aerial of Omaha taken in 1947 and looking west from the museum, formerly Union Station. “A spectacular shot,” he says. Another, from the Bostwick-Frohardt Collection, was taken on top of the former Union Pacific headquarters near 14th and Dodge streets and looks southeast. “A lot of what you’re looking at is no longer here,” he says.

This article was printed in the March/April 2018 edition of Omaha Magazine.

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

Brush With Greatness

August 3, 2017 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

People don’t spend much time contemplating the products made by Omaha’s NAGL Manufacturing Company, but many certainly depend on them. Consider NAGL’s top product, the humble nail polish brush. When people apply a fresh coat of color to their toenails or fingernails, they typically think about the polish’s hue and brand, but it is rare to stop and consider the origin or merit of the tiny little brush that applies the paint to make one’s digits pop.

Anyone who has used nail polish in the past 80-plus years has almost certainly used a NAGL-made brush. Carl J. Nagl started the company in the mid 1930s in its original location near Johnny’s Cafe in South Omaha.

“We produce [brushes] for all the major nail polish brands,” says Erica McDonald, controller at NAGL. “NAGL used to make a wider variety of cosmetic brushes, but now we primarily do nail polish brushes and anything that might look like a nail polish brush but is used to apply something else.”

NAGL, currently the world’s largest supplier of nail enamel brushes, produces brushes and/or bottles for beloved brands like CoverGirl, OPI, Revlon, Avon, L’oreal, Sally Hansen, Maybelline, and many others.

“Every nail polish brand, really,” McDonald confirms.

While you would not think of a nail polish brush as a product requiring forward thinking, NAGL does their own development, like their flow-through brush, as well as customizing and creating per customer request. It might not happen daily, but they have created brushes for Essie’s gel couture bottle with a twisted design and Christian Louboutin’s striking, stiletto-esque bottle toppers.

“We are happy to accommodate customer-driven changes that allow for their own take on a brush or product,” McDonald says. “Customers come to us with an idea in mind, then we show them what’s possible within their budget and limitations. We like to give them the flexibility to do whatever they want.”

The company, currently located at 36th and Martha streets, changed hands several times and was eventually purchased in 2003 by Team Technology Inc., which helped NAGL branch into medical, dental, and automotive markets.       

In addition to making 2.5 million brushes every single day, NAGL annually produces more than 84 million oral swabs for use in medical facilities. The company also creates brushes for automotive touch-up paint, model kits, super glue, and antifungal solutions, plus caps, bottles, packaging solutions, a vibrating flosser, and more.    

“If you’d asked me before I started here, I would’ve guessed that this nail polish bottle, cap, and brush came from China,” McDonald says. “But it comes from Omaha, Nebraska. It’s kind of wild that these everyday products that you rely on to enhance your beauty come from here—much less this residential neighborhood.”   

In addition to being made-in-the-USA, the company prides itself on its sustainability practices.

“We distill 100 percent of our acetone and lacquer, and recycle the sludge that remains from distillation. This saves nearly 6,000 gallons of these hazardous substances from going into landfills each year and remains well below EPA requirements,” McDonald says. “We also reduced our waste output by 50 percent, starting in 2014, by implementing a full-facility recycling program. With a very plastics-heavy operation, it’s very important to protect the health and sustainability of our environment.”

Despite changes in ownership and product lines over the years, McDonald says NAGL remains a workplace that inspires employee loyalty. McDonald’s predecessor was with NAGL for 35 years, and human resources manager June Jones has worked there since the 1960s.

“It’s neat to work somewhere you’re actually making the product that you’re selling,” McDonald says. “You get more invested, and our team’s involved in the entire process.” 

Visit naglmfg.com for more information.

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

Dream Team

May 24, 2017 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

There’s a dazzling, eye-catching photo that adorns the bare-bones brick wall inside the photography studio at 1820 Vinton St.

A lovely girl sits in a deep-blue cloud of a dress, highlighted by silver accents. In the background, the grayish sky is streaked with pink-gold clouds. It’s a striking image, and an excellent example of the kind of work one can expect from the gentlemen of Elite, a boutique photography studio based in the historic Vinton Street Business District in South Omaha.

Elite’s Bernardo Montoya and Eric Gutierrez are an impressive pair. Montoya is dressed impeccably in light, subdued colors and wearing a fedora, a signature look for him. Gutierrez, on the other hand, is wearing a simple black T-shirt with dark blue jeans and a rust-colored vest, his brown, gray-streaked hair pulled back from his face.

Despite their contrasting appearances, it’s clear these business partners have an inspiring, deep, mutual respect for one another.

The two met about six years ago at an Omaha Police Department holiday event Montoya organized. At the time, Gutierrez was working in construction, but had long been interested in taking pictures.

“Photography has been a hobby for—the last 20 years,” he says, somewhat questioningly, chuckling a little.

After discovering Gutierrez was an amateur photographer, Montoya asked if he would like to volunteer his services for some of the events Montoya put together. Eventually, they were getting asked to do so much side work, they decided they should try to really make a go of it and invest in themselves and their talent.

Initially, the two worked out of Gutierrez’s Elkhorn home, using his living room, dining room, and kitchen as studio space. But about two years ago, they started working on their brick-and-mortar studio on Vinton Street.

Montoya says when they moved into the space, it was in “awful” shape, so they immediately started renovating.

“Walls were demolished, the false ceiling was removed, original floors were salvaged, and a new bathroom was built,” he says. “Every day we want to continue making modifications.” He said their next project is the façade.

Renovations aside, the neighborhood itself seems like the perfect place for Elite Photography. The developing business fits right in with the community’s burgeoning art scene, and they couldn’t be happier with their location. Montoya says it’s a great neighborhood with incredible potential that he believes the city plans on developing.

Gutierrez agrees: “I think that this street opens a door to, not just the Hispanic community, but to the community in general.”

“I never imagined the possibility of having a photography business like this, because I am a graphic designer,” Montoya said. He previously worked as a reporter in Mexico and in the U.S., taking pictures for articles and other projects as a part of his job. “But this was not my priority,” he says. “I discovered my passion for photography talking with Eric.”

Though Gutierrez had initially chosen a more cautious path, the passion had been there since he was young.

“At some point, when I was going to college, I told my mom that I wanted to be a photographer. She said, ‘No, don’t do that. Just do it as a hobby.’ And that was a mistake,” he says. “I always talk with parents about that. I tell them, you know, you’ve got to encourage your kids to do whatever they want.”

Fortunately, Gutierrez and Montoya have many opportunities to speak with and encourage parents, thanks to a partnership with Omaha Public Schools and the many high school senior and quinceañera photos they do.

Montoya says his inspiration and motivation comes from the looks on peoples’ faces when they first see how they look in their photos.

“We are talking about dreams, the dreams of the people,” he says. “When they talk to you and say, ‘I want to take a beautiful picture…I want to see a picture where I feel beautiful,’ it’s more than taking a simple picture. It’s making a connection with a person—seeing what they want.”

Making those dreams come true is their goal. Which makes perfect sense, since that’s what they seem to have done for each other, something that is very clear when they talk about their life’s work.

“I always say Bernardo was like an angel for me,” Gutierrez says, “because I didn’t know if I was going to do this for a living.”

But while they’ve been fortunate to find each other and develop a successful business, Montoya and Gutierrez have faced plenty of challenges, including Montoya’s recent diagnosis of a rare form of cancer—stage 2 soft tissue sarcoma.

In his typical, always-moving-forward style, Montoya is not letting the disease slow him down.

“Now I can see life with a different color,” Montoya says. “Yes, I have cancer, but it’s like I have the flu. I’m OK right now. I don’t know what will happen with me tomorrow. But you never know what will happen tomorrow—or in a couple of weeks.”

Instead, he says he’s using the diagnosis as a reminder to enjoy life, and his family, friends, work, and the connections he makes with
new people.

“I don’t want to think any bad things,” Montoya says. “I have a future, a plan. I know what I want. I have dreams and I am working toward my dreams.” 

facebook.com/EliteStudioPhotography

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

Florence and the Political Machine

May 10, 2017 by
Photography by Provided by Douglas County Historical Society

This year marks the 100th anniversary of Omaha’s annexation of Florence—the historic and scenic riverfront community on the far northeast reaches of our city. The milestone warrants a look back at this contentious time in Florence’s history, when its rapidly rising southern neighbor unapologetically gobbled up the settlement despite the objections of many residents.

Why Annex Florence?

It helps to understand a bit of the community’s history. Best known as the site of Winter Quarters, the settlement for thousands of Mormon pioneers making their way West during the 1840s, Florence became a “city” in 1855 when Iowa businessman James C. Mitchell and his surveying team platted the land and officially incorporated.

Florence Kilbourn was the namesake of Florence, though her lineage is unclear. She has been referred to as the adopted niece of Mitchell’s wife or the granddaughter of Mitchell’s wife (depending on the historical account).

Mitchell recognized the busy frontier town’s big potential due to its convenient proximity to the Missouri River and frequent ferry service. The river’s narrow profile—at just 300 yards—and its solid-rock bottom just east of Florence also made it the most natural place to build a future bridge.

In the 1860s and ’70s, Florence grew into a bustling, young city. Early industry included a flour mill, brick manufacturing plant, lumber sawmill, and blacksmith shop, to name a few. Its population swelled well above 3,000, and its economy boomed.

Ana Somers, research specialist at the Douglas County Historical Society, says pressure for Omaha to annex surrounding municipalities really began in 1910 with the Greater Omaha Proclamation. “This was a direct response to the growth crises of 1910 that created a need to annex neighboring towns and villages,” Somers says.

But by early 1915, despite high tax levies, Florence began finding it fiscally difficult to meet community needs. Business leaders in Florence began fearing for the financial solvency of the city moving forward. At the same time, Omaha was building a strong reputation as a Midwestern hub of business and industry. Most members of the Omaha Commercial Club, an organization of area business owners and leaders, became proponents of Florence’s annexation for the “great savings to the taxpayers” it would provide through reduced redundancies in government, and they claimed such action would “provide residents with more benefits, not fewer.”

With the Merger Bill of 1915, the State of Nebraska passed a controversial law allowing Omaha to annex neighboring communities unilaterally, providing these areas lie adjacent to current city boundaries, are situated within Douglas County, and have fewer than 10,000 residents.

A legal battle followed, with representatives from Dundee and South Omaha opposing the decision. Omaha was poised to annex Florence, but lawsuits to the Nebraska Supreme Court left the possibility in limbo.

Some in Florence, fearing taxation without representation, were convinced to join the pro-annexation cause after being assured they would have a Florence representative in city government. The Omaha Commercial Club appointed a committee to explore annexation further, then held a public meeting in January 1916. According to newspaper accounts, 76 in attendance voted in favor, while only nine voted against it. Although the club had hoped to complete annexation by the May 1916 election, it took more than a year longer for it to come to fruition.

Even train cars full of anti-annexation protestors from Florence, Benson, South Omaha and elsewhere flooding the state capitol in Lincoln during hearings could not kill the law. The fight dragged on for two years, until Feb. 14, 1917, when the Nebraska Supreme Court finally dismissed a lawsuit on behalf of the once-independent Dundee.

Confirmation of the new law was a welcome development to then-mayor of Omaha James Dahlman, or “Cowboy Jim,” as he was called, who saw it as a prime opportunity for his administration to grow the city quickly and gain tax revenue. The law allowed for the huge expansion of Omaha later that year with the annexation of Florence and Benson on June 6, 1917, while sealing the fate of South Omaha and Dundee.

According to an article in the Omaha World-Herald dated June 10, 1917, city officials reported the annexation of Florence and Benson expanded the city to 38 square miles. For reference, the present-day City of Omaha occupies roughly 127 square miles (according to the U.S. Census in 2010). Boundaries of the former City of Florence had been Read Street, 40th Street, Florence Heights Boulevard, and the Missouri River.

During subsequent years, the annexation law has been nicknamed “Omaha’s secret weapon,” allowing for continual expansion of its city limits, year after year.

The Dissenters

Not all of Florence was convinced annexation was the best option. Among those in opposition: Florence’s mayor, Freeman Tucker, was concerned for the “political integrity of the village.” He vowed to take his fight against annexation all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court (though he never did). Another dissenter was Dr. Carr, a prominent local dentist and investor who feared that annexation would reduce the likelihood that Florence would be the site of a promised river bridge, says Rosemary Allen, a longtime member of the Florence Historical Foundation.

“There were concerns about a lot of promises [made by the city] not being delivered on, including security and safety services, such as a rescue squad. And, in fact, a lot was promised but never materialized,” Allen says.

“As I recall, the citizens of Florence didn’t end up having much to say about it all. It was just sort of pushed through. It was a very contentious thing,” she explains. “I do know there were a lot of residents who weren’t happy about it one bit, with some public meetings almost erupting into fist fights. And even years later, there were those that remained bitter about it.”

Allen says residents of Florence were also fearful that annexation would mean the loss of the community’s identity and important history. And in fact, through the years, many of the historic structures from its pioneer town days fell to ruin from neglect, fire, or normal decay.

Years later, it became the mission of the Florence Historical Foundation to keep its historic sites alive and maintain community pride—a mission the foundation has found great success with, preserving many historic landmarks, including the Fire Barn, Keirle House, Depot Museum, Bank of Florence, and Mormon Bridge Toll House. The foundation coordinates the annual Florence Days every May as well as other entertainment and holiday events.

The independently restored Florence Mill and another community group, Florence Futures, also collaborate on community and heritage initiatives. The neighborhood on North 30th Street has witnessed an uptick in activity in recent years, thanks in part to a lively restaurant scene. Blooming flowers (planted by the Northern Lights Garden Club) accent the booming streetscape.

The North Omaha Commercial Club—no relation to the historic Omaha Commercial Club that advocated for Florence’s annexation—is one of Omaha’s oldest civic groups, where Florence business owners meet regularly to discuss ways to keep the corridor alive and thriving. All celebrate the small-town and family-friendly feel of this unique river city community.

Despite being in the shadow of the Big O for nearly a century, Florence maintains an identity and appeal all its own.

Florence Days takes place on the second full weekend of May, with a parade Saturday. Visit historicflorence.org for more information. Archival resources provided by the Omaha Public Library archives of the Omaha World-Herald (omahalibrary.org) and the Douglas County Historical Society (douglascohistory.org).

This article printed in the May/June 2017 edition of Omaha Home.

Destinations

May 5, 2017 by

AKSARBEN VILLAGE

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

BENSON

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

BLACKSTONE DISTRICT

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

CAPITOL DISTRICT

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

DUNDEE

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

MIDTOWN CROSSING

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

NODO

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

OLD MARKET

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

SOUTH OMAHA/
VINTON STREET

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

NORTH OMAHA/
24TH & LAKE DISTRICT

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

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