Tag Archives: Love’s Jazz

Empowering North Omaha

October 13, 2016 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

“Everybody says that it takes a village to raise a child, but what happens when the village really needs to be brought back together in order to do that work?” asks Willie Barney, the founder and president of the Empowerment Network.

This holiday season, Christmas in the Village at 24th and Lake streets will demonstrate the vision cast by Barney and others. The sixth annual community celebration takes place on the first Saturday of December (Dec. 3) from noon until 5:30 p.m. Twinkling lights will spread Christmas cheer along several blocks from the intersection at the historic heart of North Omaha (sponsored by the
Sherwood Foundation).

Free horse-drawn carriage rides will carry passengers throughout the neighborhood. There will be free coffee and cranberry-flavored tea distributed on the streets; free gloves and toys for kids; arts and craft vendors selling their wares; biblical actors from Mount Moriah Baptist Church joining animals from Scatter Joy Acres farm in a live nativity scene; free entry at Love’s Jazz, The Union for Contemporary Arts, The Omaha Star, Carver Bank, and more. Omaha Economic Development Corporation’s brand new Fair Deal Village Marketplace will also be featured.

“The carriage ride is always packed,” Barney says. “That’s why we’ve had to add at least two of them, and we block off the streets so people can walk up and down and enjoy the atmosphere. The live music is in Dreamland Park, so you can hear live music from some of the best gospel and jazz artists singing outside.”

Joyous music up and down the street rekindles 24th and Lake’s former glory as a nightlife district, where the nation’s best jazz musicians once played on a nightly basis. Vendors and restaurants will be serving hot food during Christmas in the Village. Businesses and nonprofits, old and new, will be open to welcome visitors. Last year, Barney says more than 4,000 people attended the event.

“One of our goals is for Christmas in the Village at 24th and Lake to become not just a one-day event,” says Barney. “That’s really our vision: to let people know that you can come to 24th and Lake, that there are businesses and restaurants here. That’s what we are building toward, and we are now starting to see it come to fruition.”

The “village” concept has been an integral part of the Empowerment Network’s philosophy since its inception. In June 2006, Barney met with a small group to discuss building a coalition of community leaders and resident stakeholders. He says their goal was “working together to rebuild the village.”

“That’s really our vision: to let people know that you can come to 24th and Lake, that there are businesses and restaurants here.”

They initially looked at the whole of North Omaha as one village, but they have since broken the geographical region into 12 village areas. The 24th and Lake area is one village. The area of Prospect Hill (also known as the Highlander neighborhood) is another such village area, where nonprofit developer Seventy5North is building a new mixed-use project. The name “Seventy5North” refers to Highway 75, which divides the Highlander neighborhood from 24th and Lake.

Barney was born in Hollandale, Mississippi, went to college at St. Ambrose University in Davenport, Iowa, and quickly rose in the ranks of Lee Enterprises from intern to marketing executive. He moved to Omaha with his wife in 2000 for a marketing manager job at the World-Herald.

“When we were being recruited here, we read about the graduation rate, and about the great business climate, and all the great things that were under development,” he says. “But it was in those first six months to a year (after relocating) when it became apparent that there were some major disparities, and not everyone in this community was participating actively in the opportunities that are here.”

After four years with the World-Herald, he took a job with Salem Baptist Church with hopes of making a difference through North Omaha’s faith community. Two years later, he gathered with a small group to discuss starting the Empowerment Network.

The Empowerment Network formally launched in April 2007 with the involvement of 400 individuals—local residents, stakeholders, and community leaders. Today, the organization consists of more than 3,000 participants.

Aside from Christmas in the Village, the organization hosts several annual and recurring initiatives, including:

williebarney1A Village Community Meeting—on the second Saturday of every month at North High School, starting with free breakfast at 8:45 a.m., followed by speakers, roundtables, and networking.

Omaha 360—a gang violence prevention initiative, every Wednesday at the Omaha Home For Boys off 52nd and Ames streets.

The African American Leadership Conference—a fall event focused on career advancement, leadership development, networking, and strategic initiatives.

Step-Up Omaha!—the largest youth employment initiative in the state, where the Empowerment Network works with community partners and businesses to hire 400-500 youths between ages of 14 to 21 for summer jobs.

North Omaha Cradle to Career Education Strategy—an initiative focused on improving educational outcomes in North Omaha.

They were also active in helping to draw up the North Omaha Village Revitalization Plan in coordination with the City Council, Planning Board, Nebraska Investment Finance Authority, and the OEDC. It was approved in 2011.

“We worked with Michael Maroney (with the OEDC) and other partners to identify what the community would like to see at 24th and Lake. That was the beginning of the North Omaha Village Revitalization Plan, which became the master plan for the area, which led to Christmas in the village and other major developments,” says Barney, noting that Seventy5North also came out of the meetings.

The plan called for new buildings and new infrastructure investments at 24th and Lake, but Barney and other community leaders didn’t want to wait until construction was completed. “Let’s use what we have,” was the consensus, Barney says. “Why don’t we visually show what we mean when we say arts, culture, entertainment, and business district? Why don’t we create something that the community can taste, touch, and feel?” Christmas in the Village is part of the realization of the answer.

Visit empoweromaha.com for more information.

Loyalty and Pride

February 8, 2014 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

When Ron Dotzler asked his future in-laws for permission to marry their daughter, her mother said no.

“No? Why?”

“Because you’re white.”

Dotzler grew up in rural Iowa, in a small town of about 300 people. “No diversity whatsoever until I went to college and played basketball. Met my wife, fell in love with her…” He shrugs. “I had no clue.”

After a few years of a successful career as a chemical engineer, starting a family, and building a brand new house out west, things settled down. Then Dotzler and his wife Twany announced they were moving to North Omaha as a sort of pit stop before serving overseas in missions. “Her mother went off on me,” Dotzler recalls. “‘We did all we could to get our daughter out of the ghetto, and you’re taking her back?’”

They’ve lived in North Omaha 25 years now. The Dotzlers never did make it overseas.

Instead, the couple works alongside a small staff and a large roster of volunteers as the Abide Network. The organization is one of many groups in the North Omaha area working to infuse neighborhoods north of Cuming Street and east of I-680 with new work, new homes, and new empowerment.

Its reputation

JoAnna LeFlore, interim program director of Bemis Center’s Carver Bank art gallery at 24th and Lake, calls these pockets of activity “bubbles.” “Brigitte over at The Union is a bubble,” she says, referring to Brigitte McQueen, director of the artist residency program at 24th and Burdette. “Love’s Jazz is a bubble. The Empowerment Network. We’re a bubble. If you didn’t grow up in North Omaha, you have no idea what vibrancy is here.”

It’s true that Omahans outside of the vague borders of North Omaha have a certain perception of the area. LeFlore recalls an exchange she had with a bank teller from Bennington after she read LeFlore’s business card. “24th and Lake?” the woman asked. “Isn’t that a bad neighborhood?”

“I just…I took a minute,” LeFlore says with a tired laugh. “And I said, ‘Why would you think that?’ And she said, ‘One of my friends is a police officer, and he told me not to go to that neighborhood.’” LeFlore reverted to her default reaction whenever she runs across someone who relates hearsay. “I listened, and I let her talk.” She pauses. “And then I just told her to come down to Carver Bank and get a sandwich at Big Mama’s.”

The sandwich shop next door to Carver Bank’s gallery and studio space is popular with Creighton students. Grace Krause, a graphic design graduate from Creighton University, has been an intern at Carver Bank for a couple weeks. “I grew up in North Omaha, kind of in the Florence area. I’ve always been a defendant of North Omaha. It’s a really great place; it just has a bad rap.”

JoAnna LeFlore is the interim program director of Bemis Center’s Carver Bank art gallery at 24th and Lake.

JoAnna LeFlore is the interim program director of Bemis Center’s Carver Bank art gallery at 24th and Lake.

LeFlore agrees. “Yes, there are things that happen in this neighborhood that are regrettable, but they also happen all over the city.”

Stats collected by the Abide Network suggest that, while violent crimes do happen all over the city, North Omaha still bears the brunt of them. Dotzler keeps a map covered in red pushpins for every murder (“It’s approximately 820 total”) that’s happened in the city in the 25 years he’s lived in North Omaha. “As you can see, two thirds of them take place right here,” he says, pointing to the area north of Dodge and east of 50th Street.

Its goals

However, Krause’s comments reflect another side of North Omaha, one that statisticians can’t discount. “When you meet people from North Omaha, they’re exceedingly loyal and proud of where they’re from,” says Othello Meadows, lawyer by profession, community developer by chance, and North Omahan by birth. “You always have this feeling of, like I owe something to where I grew up.” His work in Seventy-Five North Revitalization Corporation offers what he calls the best of both worlds. “It’s challenging work intellectually, but there’s also this greater good we’re trying to achieve.”

Through Seventy-Five North, Meadows wants to bring three elements of greater good to North Omaha: high-quality, mixed-income housing; a cradle-to-college educational pipeline; and a network of community services.

“Neighborhoods with good economic diversity are more resilient and economically stable,” Meadows says. “And we’ll create that with a combination of for-sale and for-rent homes.” That means multi-family apartments, single-family homes, and duplexes.

“When you meet people from North Omaha, they’re exceedingly loyal and proud of where they’re from.”
—Othello Meadows

The mixed-income housing is probably the closest of Seventy-Five North’s goals to becoming a reality. The organization owns 23 empty acres where a project called Pleasantview stood near 30th and Parker Streets when Meadows was a child. “If you grew up here, you knew about it,” he says. “It was a really tough place.” When he moved back from practicing law in Georgia in 2008, “they were tearing it down. The cost to rehab it was way more than it was to tear it down. Twenty-three acres with nothing on it. Kind of a rare find.” He plans to break ground on a new apartment building before 2015.

Dotzler, on the other hand, says moving away from rented housing is what the area needs. “Seventy percent of these homes are rental,” he says, referring to the neighborhood where Abide Network is based, “owned by landlords who receive money through Section 8 housing. There’s a reason it’s a good business,” he says. “It’s just bad for our community. Fifty-eight percent of rentals are owned by somebody outside of the community.” Dotzler says that rental properties move people around constantly, making a community lack stability.

Interestingly, lack of stability is what Meadows wants to solve as well but with a combination of rental and market-price homes. “Right now,” he says, “you can’t build a house for what you’d be able to sell it. It’s different to have houses that someone can qualify for versus someone who can pay market rate.”

“It’s important for people to have an option to stay here,” LeFlore agrees, though she also would prefer to see more home ownership in the next five years. 
“Jobs, living situations. Anything that celebrates what’s good will keep people living here.” She adds that another item on her five-year wish list for North Omaha is a strong community development organization. “Something like Othello’s doing,” she says, referring to Seventy-Five North. “Other cities do it. They engage the neighborhoods that exist, and they engage the city to redevelop the neighborhood. So I think in five years that needs to happen. There is no excuse. I think it’s urgent.”

For Dotzler, one point of urgency is neighborhood safety. “The police would tell you a cleaner neighborhood is a safer neighborhood,” Dotzler says, “so let’s mow lawns, let’s pick up trash, let’s fix broken windows, let’s paint over graffiti.” To that end, the Abide Network has for the last six years been steadily “adopting” small blocks of neighborhoods, about 20-25 houses with perhaps four people per house.

The red, dotted line indicates the 23 vacant acres where Pleasantview used to stand and where Seventy-Five North Revitalization Corp. plans to break ground with new apartments by early 2015.

The red, dotted line indicates the 23 vacant acres where Pleasantview used to stand and where Seventy-Five North Revitalization Corp. plans to break ground with new apartments by early 2015.

As Meadows says, “North Omaha is a huge geographic area. It’s critical to take a manageable bite. The person who says they’re going to change North Omaha is nuts. You have to say we’re going to go to work in this neighborhood. And then hopefully you can establish a model that’s replicable.”

That’s just what Abide Network is doing. Since that first block six years ago, the organization has adopted about 100 such neighborhoods, visiting at least once a month to address the fixes that Dotzler lists. They’d like to reach over 700.

Its determination

“We see a lot of emphasis on affordable housing, a lot of emphasis on education, a lot on community services,” Meadows says of the various programs working in North Omaha, “but independently, these don’t get a neighborhood to turn a corner and stay around that corner. You can’t implement these things in any kind of isolated fashion. They really have to work together.”

In fact, one of the reasons the old Pleasantview plot was so attractive to Seventy-Five North (in addition to the vacant 23 acres) was the existence of several already-strong community partners. Meadows lists off just a few: Charles Drew, a federally qualified low-income health-care provider; Salem Baptist Church, the largest African-American congregation in the state; and Urban League of Nebraska, which provides services from job training to parent education.

“It’s our role to coordinate the support that our residents can look forward to,” Meadows says. Housing, education, and services—those elements working together, he says, are what will turn the boat around in North Omaha.

“A small organization like Carver or The Union can only do so much,” LeFlore agrees. “To really market an area of the city, it has to be a communal effort. It has to be a commitment from—well, I don’t know who to put at the table. It’s everyone’s job. Find your place and sit there. Get to the table and have a seat.” She laughs but there’s an element of no-nonsense. “Don’t point the finger and don’t be the naysayer.” LeFlore says she’s tired of hearing ‘We tried that 20 years ago, and it didn’t work.’

“Maybe someone who you meet now can you help you do it right,” she says. “You have to be humble to start a movement. Your ego has to be gone.”