Tag Archives: Omaha City Council

Ben Gray

May 28, 2019 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Ben Gray won’t stop. He has served nearly 10 years on the Omaha City Council (and is currently the president), is the sharpest critic of Omaha’s absentee landlords, and a well-known advocate for his home district in North Omaha—but he shows no signs of slowing down.

Or letting up. No matter if he is advocating for a level playing field for small businesses and the chronically underemployed, civil rights protections for the LGBTQ community, a “Good Neighbor” ordinance for problem liquor establishments, or the soon-to-be North 24th Street Business Development District, Gray has championed a vast, diverse, and dizzying array of social and political issues in his tenure.

Gray doesn’t dwell on perceived accomplishments, forgoes platitudes, loves to talk policy, and actually seems to enjoy the sausage-making minutia of city government. He pulls no punches when the topic of how the business of government should—and too often does not—operate comes up.

“Governments are supposed to protect those who can protect themselves the least,” Gray says. “I think that’s how we should be setting policy. That’s, to me, how you make a difference in the community. I think your station in life should not be determined by what your zip code is. In order to make that a reality, it requires work and understanding of what the problems actually are. That gets the dialogue started with others on how to fix these things.”

It is a conversation Gray began five years ago with the formation of the Omaha Municipal Land Bank. Gray was instrumental in the formation of the OMLB, co-sponsoring the ordinance that created the nonprofit tasked with acquiring and facilitating the return of vacant, abandoned, and tax-delinquent properties to productive use. It has become a linchpin program that tackles head-on those blighted communities starved for re-development.

Gray was skeptical of the land bank idea—at least initially.

Marty Barnhart, executive director of the OMLB, recalls a conversation he had with Gray in 2014. The outspoken city councilman certainly had his doubts, Barnhart says. Gray then went out and did his homework.

He initiated land bank fact-finding visits to programs in St. Louis and Cleveland, and he returned with a clear vision: a correctly managed land bank was exactly what Omaha needed for its distressed properties.

“He was literally willing to put leather to legislation to see if it could happen,” Barnhart says. “And I commend him because what he did made all the difference in the world for testimony, for advocacy, and for putting together a land bank and legislation for a land bank. It made a huge difference.”

Gray is a non-voting member of the OMLB board, serving mostly as an adviser for Barnhart, and as the eyes and ears of the city council. It is a position he doubts he would have been interested in were it not for his deep dive into the land bank programs that served as models for Omaha’s fledgling program.

“A lot of times a land bank will or won’t work depending on how you set your policy,” Gray says.

Barnhart, who took over leadership at the land bank in 2016, has known Gray for years. While he appreciates the councilman’s praise of the OMLB’s work, he adds that success is due in no small part to Gray’s own strategic vision.

“Ben has an understanding of the Omaha community, what distressed property is all about, because he works in it every single day,” Barnhart says. “Ben’s biggest concern always is to give citizens the opportunity to redress their neighborhood and secondly, to guard against gentrification.”

The land bank got off to a rocky start. Early leadership turnover stalled momentum. But by the end of 2018, OMLB had turned over hundreds of properties and was making a dent in Omaha’s run-down property problem.

The sample size is small, but Gray sees the land bank scratching at that public-private gap in inner-city re-development. Nonprofits like Abide, Habitat for Humanity, and the Holy Name Housing Corp. have been eager partners. Private, for-profit land developers, however, have been slow to jump
on board.

Gray points to the Fred and Pamela Buffett Cancer Center on the campus of the University of Nebraska Medical Center—the largest public-private partnership in state history—as a $300 million example of the kind of “catalyst” that will further investment.

“Downtown, Midtown, North Omaha – there’s interest, there’s development,” Gray says. “I think that’s a result of the city’s investment in projects that will further development. It showed the city and private partners and the philanthropic community can all work together and we can do some
amazing things.”


Visit citycouncil.cityofomaha.org for more information about Ben Gray.

This article was printed in the June 2019 edition of B2B. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

City Councilman Ben Gray

Urban Evolution

January 8, 2019 by
Photography by William Hess Photography

Steve and Julie Burgess were enjoying a glass of wine at La Buvette when the idea hit Julie like a ton of old bricks. While admiring the Old Market’s lovely brick buildings, redesigned from warehouses into homes, and imagining the minimalist ease of urban living, it occurred to Julie that she and Steve had access to a beautiful, old, downtown building that they could renovate into their own modern living space.

Automatic Printing Co. has been in Julie’s family for generations, housed in three adjacent buildings at 17th and Cuming streets. In early 2017, Julie, who works at Automatic, and Steve, who does commercial architecture for DLR Group, began the process of redesigning the easternmost building into what is now their happy home. 

“I’m grateful because I just knew it was possible, but I couldn’t see what it would look like,” Julie says. “Steve has that knack; he works with spaces and can see it without it being there.”

Serendipitously, Automatic Printing Co. was looking to downsize its space just as the Burgesses were. The Burgesses, along with Julie’s sister Jana, had lived together in a sprawling Dundee home for 16 years. Despite their substantial investment of time and money in renovating that home, the 6,000-square-foot house situated on three-quarters of an acre ultimately took too much effort to care for and was not ideal for Jana, a traumatic brain injury survivor with mobility issues. 

In April 2017, the family moved from their house on Happy Hollow Boulevard to the Tip Top Apartments, where they would remain during a 15-month detour between homes before moving into their new space on Cuming Street in July 2018. 

The Burgesses partnered with Geoff DeOld and Emily Andersen of DeOld Andersen Architecture to create the new home of their dreams in the old family building. Julie says they were blessed to find DeOld and Andersen due to their experience working with older buildings and willingness to design for the Burgesses’ lifestyle and logistical needs.

“Emily and Geoff visited us at our old house to see how we lived,” Julie says. “They really listened and observed how Jana moved around, how we used our space, and the things that mattered to us.”

Steve came to the conversation with his architectural mindset and relevant examples for reference.

“I combed through images of many historic building renovation projects and collected a handful of pictures to show them the direction we wanted to go,” Steve says.

For DeOld and Andersen, working with Steve and Julie was a dream.

“Steve and Julie were really great to work with—seriously the best clients we’ve ever had,” Andersen says. “There’s a certain language we [and Steve] share as architects and Julie is extremely open-minded. It made the project better and smoother.”

Andersen says they started by using components they knew to be most important to the family—bringing natural light into a space with scant existing windows, accessibility for Jana and the Burgesses as they age, outdoor spaces, and a proper kitchen for Steve, who loves to cook—as anchors for the design plan.

A singular front patio gate inspired by Lebanese design and strategic skylights brought in light; an elevator and second-floor laundry facilities gave Jana the gift of independence; a rooftop patio ably mimics their old Dundee terrace, and the kitchen is spacious and well-appointed enough to satisfy any chef. 

There were also happy discoveries along the way that ultimately informed aesthetics. For example, the Burgesses intended to put in new flooring until a gorgeous Douglas fir wood floor was found under layers of history and alternate flooring. 

“The wood floor informed a lot of the other decisions—the paneling on the wall, the bookshelves, the butcher’s block in the kitchen—all the wood touches started to come out after that,” Steve says. “The texture and history of this place is wonderful.”

“To me, this project was largely about just revealing the existing building, but then also the insertion of the new structural steel frame. It was actually very simple in some regards but complex to execute,” Andersen says, noting that the project’s success depended heavily on a robust team of partners, including contractor Dicon; structural and civil engineers with The Wells Resource; and mechanical, electrical, and plumbing engineers from Alvine Engineering.

Andersen says the project is an example of adaptive reuse—adapting an existing building to a new use—which she notes is key to creating intriguing urban landscapes.

“These can become really cool projects because there’s this existing building with its own history and this overlap of uses,” Andersen says. “There are constraints with that but also the ability to be very creative and develop way more interesting environments—where you have a collection of different types and styles of structures, which ultimately leads to a way more interesting neighborhood and city.”

While their home is on such hallowed, familiar family ground, neither Steve nor Julie had ever lived in new construction until now.

“It’s interesting. In a 100-year-old building, we’re living in new construction,” Julie says with a laugh.

“It’s really a joy to live in a space that you helped design,” Steve says. “You have the opportunity to think through the layout, the circulation, the proximity and adjacencies of spaces…It’s a nice feeling and there’s a real sense of satisfaction in how well it turned out.”

After investing more than $1 million in their new home and finding it the perfect fit, Steve and Julie were disheartened to see that the Builder’s District plan—approved by the City Council in October 2018—shows their home and family business wiped off the map through the power of eminent domain.

Andersen says that result would be a shame. In addition to representing what she calls “a very old model of working within a city” that ignores the need for community engagement and transparency, Andersen believes the demolition of old buildings like this is not ideal for Omaha’s architectural landscape nor its ability to retain talent and combat “brain drain.”

“We need to be thinking creatively about our existing buildings instead of just demolishing them,” she says. “Having urban neighborhoods with a collection of different conditions or types of buildings lends itself to a richer experience than areas that are completely monoculture of the similar scale and generic design. To me, they should be thinking about how they can integrate Automatic Printing and some of the other perfectly OK structures in the area into the current plan, because it would result in a more interesting development.”

In the meantime, as the Burgesses hope to be able to keep their new home in the old family building, they’re enjoying the neighborhood and basking in the memories of years spent in their special space.

“Not only is it beautiful and functional, but I sit in the living room at night and just marvel because I can see the shadows of what used to be here,” Julie says. “I look around and know that, about where Jana’s chair is, that’s where our dad’s desk sat for all those years. I think my dad might say we were crazy to do it, but he would also get it and think it was a pretty neat progression.”


Learn more about the Burgess residence at d-aarch.com/cuming-street-residence.

This article was printed in the January/February 2019 edition of Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

Omaha Land Bank

December 28, 2018 by
Photography by Midland Pictures & Omaha Land Bank

Cities around the United States experience problems with blighted neighborhoods, in which certain houses and lots go from assets to deficits. Such sites often become magnets for vandals and vagrants.

Locally, some of these problems found an answer with the creation of the Omaha Municipal Land Bank in 2014. The nonprofit is funded in part by donations.

“The Land Bank was created for the City of Omaha by the Nebraska Legislature to be a catalyst for community development,” says OMLB Executive Director Marty Barnhart. “Our role is to address these distressed properties. Folks can donate properties to the Land Bank they no longer want to care for, or are no longer able to take care of.”

OMLB matches properties with buyers who demonstrate the vision and means to redevelop sites. Buyers get nine months to renovate a home, or two years to build on a vacant lot. The hope is that revitalization encourages neighbors to improve their own places. 

The first step is to acquire the properties, and that project takes time and money, especially when it comes to clearing a title on properties whose owners can’t be reached. As a subdivision of local government, OMLB has the power to cancel taxes and municipal liens levied against properties. It can bypass red tape to make purchasing and redevelopment go much quicker. It can also sell properties at lower prices, thus reducing the burden on purchasers to establish equity, borrow money, or make improvements.

“If you think about the city and the county, they could do the kind of things we do, but it would take ordinances, public meetings, and a lot of things to put through their boards,” Barnhart says. “It would take a whole lot longer than the Land Bank with our statuary authority.”

OMLB began selling property in early 2017. The available inventory is listed on its website. The 50-plus properties sold through last October went to “a variety of different individuals and partners,” Barnhart says. “We’ve seen single-family houses transformed and reoccupied.”

He acknowledges the sample size is too small yet to show ripple effects in neighborhoods. But there’s no doubt a long-abandoned house at 2002 Country Club Ave. that was an unsafe eyesore got saved from the rubble heap, redone, and reoccupied.

2002 Country Club Ave. (before)

“It was one of the first big success stories of the Land Bank,” says Omaha City Councilman Pete Festersen, who serves District 1 where the house is located. “That had been a problem for that street for 20 years. We couldn’t find the owner. It was condemned. There were holes in the roof. Animals were in there. It never quite made the list, though, to be demolished. Eventually we did get it onto the list, not wanting to demolish it if we didn’t have to because it was otherwise a very nice property. But it was headed towards demolition until the Land Bank stepped in and finally got a response from the property owner, who was very grateful to sell.

“The Land Bank listed it for a fair, reasonable price and a young couple was able to buy it and rehab it. It’s in great shape today.”

Other transformations are in progress.

An OMLB presentation at their church convinced Carol Windrum and Tim Fickenscher to take on a single-family house redevelopment at 3155 Meredith Ave. Motivated to reverse blight, they used the Land Bank as a social entrepreneurship tool. They purchased the century-old property in January 2018 for $12,500. OMLB shepherded them through the makeover process—the couple’s first time renovating. That included helping find a contractor, who, at the couple’s behest, used as many recycled and reclaimed materials as possible.

3155 Meredith Ave.

The house listed for $77,500 last fall, and Family Housing Advisory Services and mortgage lender Omaha 100 are helping identify prospective low-income candidates to get it sold.

In the Park Avenue area, Brenda and Kurt Robinson seized a chance to prevent another “hole” in the neighborhood when, courtesy of OMLB, they rescued a two-story, 130-year-old house at 2911 Woolworth Ave. for $25,000.

If not for their action, this house might have faced the same fate as others torn down in the area.

“It’s a great structure—super sound. There’s very little we had to do except extra bracing here and there. It’s got a lot of cool exterior features—corbels and fascia we’re working hard to keep. Previous owners maintained all the original woodwork, including cased openings. They were pretty sensitive to the original architecture—thank goodness,” says Brenda, who likes having OMLB as a partner.

2911 Woolworth Ave.

“The Land Bank has a mission I can get behind, keeping sturdy old houses alive as really cool places of history as well as homes for the future,” she says.

For greater impact, OMLB targets areas by assembling multiple properties and lots for development. That’s what the organization is doing in the area around 40th and Hamilton streets.

This once-picturesque neighborhood struggled with crime, litter, debris, high turnover, and ill-kept rentals. Since a slumlord relinquished problem properties there and new businesses went in, things have stabilized, says Walnut Hill Neighborhood Association President Murray Hayes. But vacant lots are still an issue.

Walnut Hill is also a focal point due to the Walnut Hill Reservoir, a 16-acre parcel owned by Metropolitan Utilities District. The Land Bank is asking MUD to donate the inactive site for redevelopment. MUD’s weighing what to do.

Omaha City Councilman Ben Gray (District 2), who serves on the Land Bank’s board, says OMLB is ideally suited to be a player in the reservoir’s remaking because the nonprofit’s rules prevent a developer from letting it sit idle.

Barnhart feels OMLB could give a developer a deal that doesn’t require tax increment financing. By assembling and holding properties for developers with the right plans, he says, OMLB protects against speculators.

Gray adds that OMLB is well-poised to address Omaha’s affordable housing shortage in areas of need like this.

“We know we can get nonprofits to do affordable housing, but we’re trying to assemble enough property to entice private developers,” he says. “We’re working on creating solutions to help meet the financing burden developers might face trying to do affordable housing. If we leave it with nonprofits, we’re only going to get so many houses. If we can include the private development community, it increases our ability to get that done at scale.”

Festersen says a proposed city ordinance would create a new relationship whereby the city law department will foreclose on those liens. That will allow the Land Bank to get it back into productive reuse, and on the tax rolls, by purchasing the property. That, and the measures the Land Bank have already taken, are the reasons Gray says, “I think you’re going to see some major developments through the Land Bank in the next two to three years.”


Visit omahalandbank.org for more information.

This article was printed in the January/February 2019 edition of Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

2911 Woolworth Ave.

A New Day Arisen

June 7, 2017 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Kelly Hill stands on the corner of 30th and Lake streets admiring Salem Baptist Church’s towering cross, which looms over the landscape. A member of the church for more than 15 years, Kelly grew up in the now-demolished Logan Fontenelle Housing Projects not far from the area. He can remember a time before Salem sat atop the hill, when the Hilltop Homes housing projects occupied the area.

“I left Omaha to join the military in 1975, and I didn’t return until 1995. I missed all of the gangs and bad stuff in Hilltop,” Hill remembers. “When I was a kid, it wasn’t a bad area at all. Me and my sister would play around there all the time.”

Within those 20 years, Hill was fortunate to have missed Hilltop’s downfall, as it would eventually become one of Omaha’s most notorious housing projects.

A major blight on North Omaha’s image in the 1980s to mid-1990s, Hilltop Homes would eventually be the second major housing project demolished in the metro area after Logan Fontenelle.

Before Hilltop Home’s razing in 1995—which had the unfortunate consequence of displacing many lower-income minority residents—the plague of drugs, murders, and gang activity had turned the area’s housing projects into a localized war zone.

It was a far cry from their humble beginnings as proud housing tenements for Omaha’s burgeoning minority population that exploded in the 1940s.

Edwin Benson

Built around Omaha’s oldest pioneer resting place, the neighborhood takes its name from Prospect Hill Cemetery on 32nd and Parker streets. Prospect Place was repurposed by the U.S. government to house a large influx of minority and low-income residents, mostly African-Americans, who migrated to Omaha seeking opportunities outside the oppressive South during the mid-20th century. Some 700 units of public housing emerged across the city in the 1940s, including Hilltop Homes and the nearby Pleasantview Apartments.

The projects were conveniently situated. Hilltop’s 225 units were positioned in a centralized location along 30th and Lake streets, near the factory and meatpacking plants on 16th Street to the east, with Omaha Technical High School to the south (the largest high school west of Chicago at the time).

Multiple generations of families would come to call Hilltop and Pleasantview their first homes; however, the collapse of the job structure on the north side of Omaha in the late 1960s would be a major catalyst in Prospect Place’s eventual downfall.

Successful factories and stores that kept the area afloat—such as The Storz Brewery and Safeway Grocery Store—closed their doors. At the same time, new civil rights laws prohibiting job discrimination were being passed. Some believe that fear of change, and fear of civil rights era legislations, motivated major employers in the community to move from northeast Omaha westward. A disappointing trend of joblessness and poverty would eventually devolve the community into a powder keg ready to blow.

Multiple riots at the tail end of the 1960s would take an additional toll on North Omaha. Four instances of civil unrest would erupt from 1966 to 1969, decimating the community.

“Too many kids were getting shot, killed, it was pretty bad in Hilltop.” Benson says.

The last North Omaha riot would happen a day after Vivian Strong was shot and killed by Omaha police in the Logan Fontenelle Housing Projects not far from Prospect Place. Rioters would go on to fire-bomb and destroy a multitude of businesses and storefronts in the neighborhood.

The local chapter of the Omaha Black Panthers would stand guard outside of black-owned businesses like the Omaha Star building at 24th and Lake streets in order to prevent its destruction. Many businesses would never recover from the millions of dollars in damages caused by the riots.

These disturbances would mark an important time-frame for Hilltop and Pleasantview’s gradual downfall. The turbulence within the community, spearheaded by systematic racism and poverty would take its toll on the area.

The Prospect Place projects would devolve into a dilapidated ghetto, with even harsher times awaiting the neighborhood as gangs and crack-cocaine would hit the city hard in the 1980s.

Omaha wasn’t a place people would have thought the gangs of Los Angeles, California, would make a strong showing. Quite the contrary,  gang members from the West Coast would eventually discover Omaha’s smaller urban landscape to be an untouched and lucrative territory.

Ex-gang member Edwin Benson can remember the switch taking hold in his later teenage years.

“The Crips came first, I’d say around the mid-to-late 1980s. They took over areas like 40th Avenue and Hilltop,” Benson says. “The Bloods’ territory was further east, big in the Logan Fontenelle projects and up and down 16th Street. So, gang-banging kind of took over the city for a long while.”

The isolated, maze-like structure of Hilltop and Pleasantview, along with the high-rise apartments added in the 1960s by the Omaha Housing Authority, would make them ideal locations for the burgeoning Hilltop Crips and other smaller street gangs.

“I can remember kids from Hilltop coming over to Pleasantview and starting trouble.” Benson recalls. “We would fight about who had the better projects! We fought with our fists, rocks, sticks…whatever was close you got hit with!”

A refuge for illicit activity had sprung to life within Prospect Place in the 1980s. Members of the community, as well as police officers, grew hesitant to venture into the area. Hilltop became a forgotten segment of the city, lost to the surrounding metro’s progress, marred by a decade of violent crime and drug offenses.

Hilltop would see an unfortunate trend of senseless homicides and gun violence that would peak in the early ’90s.

In 1990, two young men from Sioux City were shot outside of Hilltop when they stopped to ask for directions to the Omaha Civic Auditorium on their way to an MC Hammer concert.

In 1991, a 14-year-old boy was arrested for stabbing a 13-year-old boy during a fight. That same year, a local Crip gang member was gunned down at the 7-Eleven on 30th and Lake across the street from Hilltop.

In 1993, the pointless murder of another teenager may have finally spelled Hilltop’s doom. 14-year-old Charezetta Swiney—known as “Chucky” to friends and family—was shot in the head from point-blank range over a parking space dispute on Oct. 22. A sad occasion at the beginning of the school year, Benson High School was gracious enough to host the high school freshman’s funeral with more than 700 people in attendance. She was the 31st person slain in Omaha that year.

Jay W. Green, 27, would eventually be found guilty of Swiney’s homicide, charged with second-degree murder and use of a firearm to commit a felony in the summer of 1994. At the end of that same year, Omaha’s City Council would begin laying the groundwork for Hilltop Homes’ eventual razing in 1995.

Benson, the former gang member, believes Swiney’s murder and the rampant gang activity within Prospect Place were the main reasons for Hilltop Homes’ demolition.

“Too many kids were getting shot, killed, it was pretty bad in Hilltop.” Benson says. “Once the projects were gone, I think the Hilltop Crips just kind of faded out. We would joke and call them the ‘Scatter-site Crips’ since everyone was being moved to the scatter-site housing out west! If you hear someone claiming Hilltop these days they are living in the past.”

The demolition would leave a desolate space in its wake. Fortunately, the barren eyesore would not last long, as Salem Baptist Church would make their ambitious proposal for the site in 1996.

“I can remember me and my sister marching from the old church grounds on 3336 Lake St. to the new site on the hilltop,” Hill says, reminiscing with vivid recollection of April 19, 1998, the church’s groundbreaking. It was a glorious Sunday for church members, led by then-senior pastor Maurice Watson, a culmination of Salem’s proposed “Vision to Victory.”

Salem’s groundbreaking ceremony was heralded, marking the once-troubled land of Prospect Place as an “oasis of hope.” The community witnessed the progress as the newly razed 18 acres of land transformed from a vestige of poverty into a church sanctuary seating 1,300 people, in addition to classrooms, a multi-purpose fellowship hall, a nursery, and ample parking. Prospect Place was undergoing a new renaissance which would continue well into the new millennium.

Othello Meadows is the newest pioneer at the head of changing the image of Prospect Place. Having grown up on Omaha’s north side, Meadows remembers the projects as “a place not to linger if you weren’t from there.” After years away from his hometown, seeing the remnants of Hilltop Homes and Pleasantview Apartments was eye-opening.

“When I came back to Omaha, I was surprised by the disinvestment in the area after the projects were gone,” he says. “It went from housing thousands of people, to a sense of abandonment; like, only two houses were occupied on the entire block.”

Meadows’ words ring true. Other than Salem’s deal with Walgreens, which acquired acres of land for around $450,000, no additional development had taken place for years within Prospect Place. Fortunately, Meadows and the 75 North Revitalization Corp. are looking to reinvigorate the area.

As the executive director of 75 North, Meadows refers to Prospect Place as the “Highlander” area, which helps to separate the land from its troubled past. His goal is to bring life back to the area.

The development company now owns the land where the Pleasantview apartments resided before being demolished in 2008. A plan for a new neighborhood with continued growth is the main focus for the area, and he expects tangible progress in the coming months.

“If you drive down 30th Street between Parker and Blondo, you’ll see real work happening and real things going on.” Meadows says. “We have about 12 buildings under construction that are 50-70 percent complete [as of early February 2017], including a community enrichment center called the Accelerator that is 65,000 square feet, a very beautiful building. By late April to early May 2017 we should have some apartments up, and we already have people putting down deposits and signing leases. People are excited to be moving into the neighborhood.”

When asked about the targeted clientele for the new apartments and retail space, Meadows provides a broad answer: “The motto that we follow is—trying to create a mixed-income community. We’re not trying to recreate the projects, of course, but we also don’t want to create a neighborhood where longtime residents can’t afford to live. We have to balance the prospects of affordability and aspirational thinking.”

Indeed, when looking at the seventyfivenorth.org website, the ambitious vision for the Highlander Apartments is a far cry from the projects. Photo galleries and floor plans envision a renewed community akin to Midtown Crossing and Aksarben Village. The images are cheerful, depicting people riding bikes and walking dogs, even an imagined coffee shop.

In a way, the renewed development, optimism, and potential for economic growth in the Highlander area can trace its roots back to the members of Salem and their desire to build a signal of hope where it once was lost.

But Hill (the former Logan Fontenelle Housing Projects resident who left Omaha in 1975 and returned in 1995) doesn’t think the church is given adequate recognition for its contributions.

“If a person didn’t know this place’s history of violence and poverty before Salem was built, they would only see the progress in this area as simple land development,” Hill says. “Salem doesn’t tend to broadcast the things they do for the area other than to its members, so those on the outside don’t necessarily recognize its lasting influence.”

It’s undeniable that the soaring church spire on the hill is a spectacle to behold on a bright, sunny day. It stands as a symbol of hope and belief. Benson still looks at the former site of Prospect Place with a hint of longing.

“I know it might sound crazy, but I was a little sad when Hilltop was torn down.” he admits. “A lot of good memories were made in those projects. But I love seeing the church up there. I hope whatever comes next is good for the community.”

Visit salembc.org for more information about Salem Baptist Church. Visit seventyfivenorth.org for more information about 75 North.

Salem Baptist Church

Tracking the Controversy

June 23, 2016 by and
Illustration by Jimm Wagner

America’s culture war has entered the most private of public spaces. Enactment of North Carolina’s so-called bathroom bill—House Bill 2 (HB2), aka the Public Facilities Privacy and Security Act—corresponded to a rash of similar proposals across the U.S.

The controversy is tangled in the history of federal anti-discrimination laws, Title IX, and local city ordinances. Supporters of gender-restrictive bathroom mandates have cited defense of women (especially girls in school locker rooms) as justification. Opponents of HB2 (and similar proposals) see a government-sanctioned affront to those who do not identify with their gender assigned at birth; they argue that transgender individuals have a right to use the restroom most closely aligned with their gender identity.

Omaha Public Schools told Omaha Magazine that the local school district remains determined to keep their schools safe for all students, including students of different genders. “Although this has come up on a national level, it certainly is not new to our schools. Our district has been responsive to our students for many years,” says Sharif Liwaru, director of OPS Office of Equity and Diversity.

TIMELINE

1964: The federal Civil Rights Act is implemented to stop workplace discrimination based on sex, religion, race, color, or national origin.

1972: Title IX—part of the U.S. Education Amendment of 1972—extends federal anti-discrimination requirements to public education and federally assisted programs

October 2010: Omaha fails to pass an anti-discrimination ordinance that would add “sexual orientation” and “gender identity” to a list of protected classes.

March 13, 2012: Omaha City Council approves (by vote of 4-3) a controversial ordinance introduced by Councilman Ben Gray that makes it illegal to discriminate in the workplace based on sexual orientation or gender identity.

April 29, 2014: The U.S. Department of Education publishes a 53-page guidance for complying to Title IX. The document states: “Title IX’s sex discrimination prohibition extends to claims of discrimination based on gender identity or failure to conform to stereotypical notions of masculinity or femininity” and “the actual or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity of the parties does not change a school’s obligations.”

November 3, 2015: Charlotte elects a new mayor, Jennifer Roberts, who supports LGBTQ-inclusive changes to local anti-discrimination ordinances.

Feb. 22: Charlotte City Council adds LGBTQ protections to the city’s non-discrimination ordinance.

Feb. 23: North Carolina House Speaker Tim Moore calls for legislative action in response to the “bathroom piece” of Charlotte’s non-discrimination ordinance.

March 23: The North Carolina General Assembly passes HB2 (“the bathroom bill”). Gov. Pat McCrory signs the bill into law. HB2 restricts usage of public restroom facilities to people based on the gender listed on their birth certificates and prevents local anti-discrimination ordinances from protecting individuals on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity.

March 28: The ACLU files a federal lawsuit to overturn HB2 because of its unconstitutionality (failure to uphold the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment) and its violation of Title IX.

April 8: Bruce Springsteen cancels his concert in Greensboro, North Carolina. Springsteen’s protest against HB2 is mirrored in several other entertainers canceling North Carolina events to protest HB2.

April 12: Responding to criticism of HB2, Gov. McCrory signs an executive order preventing state employees from being disciplined or fired for being gay or transgender.

April 19: The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, which also presides over North Carolina, rules in favor of Virginia high school student Gavin Grimm. The transgender student—who was born female—sued the Gloucester County School Board for violating his Title IX right to use the boys’ bathroom facilities.

April 21: NBA Commissioner Adam Silver says North Carolina must change HB2 for the league to hold its 2017 all-star game in Charlotte as scheduled.

April 27: NCAA Board of Governors adopts a new anti-discrimination process for all sites hosting, or bidding to host, NCAA events in order to “provide an environment that is safe, healthy, and free of discrimination.”

May 9: Gov. McCrory files a lawsuit asking federal courts to declare that HB2 is not discriminatory.

May 9: U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch announces that the Department of Justice is filing a civil rights complaint against North Carolina because of anti-LGBTQ language in HB2.

May 13: The Obama Administration and U.S. Department of Education issue guidelines insisting that public schools allow transgender students to use restrooms and locker rooms corresponding with their gender identity.

May 15: Delegates to the Nebraska Republican Convention adopt a resolution calling for a Nebraska bathroom law akin to North Carolina’s HB2.

May 17: Nebraska Attorney General Doug Peterson objects to the Obama Administration’s (May 13) bathroom guidelines. In his letter, Peterson promises that his office will do “everything in its power to resist any attempt to unconstitutionally expand Title IX requirements.”

May 18: More than 200 corporations sign an open letter condemning HB2. North Carolina loses 400 potential future jobs when one signatory, Paypal, withdraws its plans to open a new global operations center in Charlotte.

*Update after press deadline

June 21: Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools revised its policy to protect transgender students in the classroom and comply with Title IX, in defiance of the state law, HB2.

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Against Transphobia

Facts and Figures of Marginalization

RISK FOR SUICIDE

Trans people suffer from an elevated risk of bullying, homelessness, and attempted suicide. According to a 2014 report by the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention and the Williams Institute, 41 percent of trans people have tried to kill themselves at some point in their lives—compared to 4.6 percent of the total adult U.S. population.

SEX OR GENDER?

According to the World Health Organization, “Sex refers to the biological and physiological characteristics that define men and women. Gender refers to the socially constructed roles, behaviors, activities, and attributes that a given society considers appropriate for men and women.”

INTERSEX INFANTS

Most newborns receive gender assignments at birth. But not all. Newborns with ambiguous genitalia are deemed “intersex.” Sometimes intersex conditions do not become apparent until later in life, often around the time of puberty. According to the American Psychological Association, “experts estimate that as many as 1 in every 1,500 babies is born with genitals that cannot easily be classified as male or female.”

* * * * *

To read more about the spectrum of gender identity in Omaha, see the current issue of Omaha Magazine: https://omahamagazine.com/2016/06/engendering-identity/. The author of the article, Dr. Jay Irwin, was profiled in the January/February issue of Omaha Magazine: https://omahamagazine.com/2016/01/trans-logic/

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Jean Stothert

September 20, 2013 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann and Keith Binder

The corridor leading to the Omaha mayor’s office serves as a gallery for a long line of portraits of the city’s past mayors. It is a wall-to-wall boy’s club.

This day, the portrait of the city’s newest mayor is off at a photography studio waiting to be framed. But once it arrives, it will be an image long overdue on this wall.

It’s the first picture of a woman in the hallway on the third floor of the Civic Center.

“It was not an issue in the campaign, and it was not something I thought about,” says Mayor Jean Stothert as she sits at the conference table in her new office. “But yes, there’s no question I’m proud to be the first female mayor of Omaha.

“You get pretty sick of the ‘*-word.’” – Jean Stothert on women in politics

“Some of my biggest influences are those strong, pioneering women who broke new ground. I love Margaret Thatcher. I would love if someone called me The Iron Lady.”

So be it. Jean Stothert—The Iron Lady. It’s a name both friend and foe are likely to find fitting.

Conservative, like Thatcher. Driven. A homemaker from humble beginnings turned successful political figure. A tough, sometimes polarizing figure. A woman who can shrug off, and move on from, the sometimes vile comments only female political figures have to face.

“You get pretty sick of the ‘c-word,’” she says. It isn’t unusual for women in politics to be pushed to prove their “toughness.” So where is the “Iron” in the “Lady?” In Stothert’s case, not only did politics help galvanize her; so, too, did her years as an ICU nurse.

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Humble Roots

Stothert grew up in Wood River, Ill., outside St. Louis, “a refinery town where my dad worked at the refinery.”

He was not in a union, if you were wondering. Like Thatcher, Stothert—as she has proven already with the firefighter’s union—stands in vocal and firm opposition to some union interests.

The specs of her childhood home roll quickly off her tongue. “Tiny house—living room, kitchen, four kids, one bathroom,” Stothert shares. She’s clearly said this many times before. It is a counterpoint raised often in political spheres when people note that she lives with her surgeon husband in often-assumed-to-be-more-affluent-than-it-is Millard.

She walked to school, had a job, did volunteer work. She wanted to be a nurse “because it seemed like a good way to give back to the community.” While many of her friends chose to work in hospitals in more affluent parts of St. Louis, she chose to “be where I was most needed”—with the Trauma Center at St. Louis University Hospital in the heart of the city.

You have to become an Iron Lady to be a nurse in an inner-city trauma center.

“You see it all,” she says. “I’ve done CPR on hundreds of patients. I’ve opened people’s chests and done internal heart massage. I’ve wrapped up bodies and taken them to the morgue over and over again. That’s just how it is.

“I like the challenge of making a critically ill patient well. But sometimes, I’m not going to make that patient well. They’re going to die. The thing is, I never want to get that hard edge. You can do tough work without losing your humanity and compassion doing it.”

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From Homemaker to Politician

It was in this environment that she met trauma surgeon Joe Stothert.

After five years of dating, they married. In time, the couple moved to Seattle with his job. Then to Galveston, Texas, where the couple’s daughter, Elizabeth, and son, Andrew, were born.

Then to Omaha, Neb., “in good part for the better schools,” Joe notes. With two young children and a husband with a job that took him away at all hours, Jean decided she would stay home with her children.

“She has always been strong-willed but wonderful at listening to others and working together with people to get things done.” – Joe Stothert

In little time, being an at-home mom entailed diving into work with her local parent-teacher organization. Joe says it was a natural fit for her.

“She has always been strong-willed but wonderful at listening to others and working together with people to get things done,” he says. “Then, as an ICU nurse, she was working with an immense amount of sophisticated mechanisms. She enjoyed that. I think she was quickly interested in the mechanisms of government.”

Jean and husband Joe Stothert went out in a blizzard to campaign.

Jean and husband Joe Stothert went out in a blizzard to campaign.

Getting Out the Vote

Three years after the family arrived in Millard, three positions opened on the Millard School Board.

“There were 13 people running. A full field,” Stothert says. “I didn’t have much money, so I figured we’d have to hit the streets and knock on as many doors as we could. We won by a good bit. We learned right then how important it is to get out and talk to everyone you can.”

That shoe-leather, door-to-door campaigning with her and her supportive family at its core has been the key to her continued success. She served two more terms on the Millard School Board before her election to the Omaha City Council, which, she says, was a logical step.

“School boards are very much like city councils,” Stothert says. “You manage multi-million-dollar budgets, you have labor negotiations. It wasn’t much of a leap at all.”

During her time on the school board, she suffered her only loss so far in politics: a 2006 bid for the state legislature against Democrat Steve Lathrop.

It was one of the closest races in state history. Initially, it appeared Stothert had won by only a few votes. She celebrated with a small vacation with her husband. When she returned, she found out that after absentee votes were counted, she had lost by 14 votes. Stothert said the final margin—after some votes were contested—was five votes.

“So maybe you should have picked up 10 of your friends and driven [them] to the polls,” she recalls having wondered to herself. “Yes, I thought about it. But I truly believe we did the best we could. I think I learned more in losing than I did in winning. I also truly believe that things happen for a reason.”

She then turned her eye toward the Omaha City Council. She asked Joe if she should run. “I said ‘no,’” he says. “She ran anyway.”

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Taking on the Big Boys

She had no plans to run for mayor when she won her seat on the council, but, in time, she says, she “decided that we needed a change.”

In her race for mayor, her calls for smaller, more streamlined government resonated with voters. Her ground game grew considerably. At its core was a relentless door-to-door campaign by the entire Stothert family.

Joe took 10 vacation days prior to both the primary and the general election. Her son, who is pursuing an advanced degree at the University of South Florida, and her daughter, who works at Union Pacific, also joined in.

Stothert proudly showed off a framed photo of her and her husband in the middle of a residential street during one of the weekend campaign blitzes. The city was socked in by a blizzard that weekend. The Stotherts are wrapped in wet winterwear. Part of Jean’s hair is frozen and cocked sideways. Joe’s right thumb is protruding from a hole in his glove.

It’s a picture of resolve. They knocked on 15,000 doors. She says Joe helped push her on when she grew tired on the campaign trail. Joe insists, “She never would have gone on if she didn’t want to.” It’s also a picture, she jokes, of the Stotherts on a date. “We really have enjoyed those times together,” the mayor says.

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The Ugly Side of Politics

At times, the war of words during the campaign got brutal. Stothert, often characterized as a hardline conservative, can throw fire as well as she receives it. But particularly in the modern world of blogs, tweets, and every sort of website, the personal stabs at those in the public arena are often relentless and outrageous.

Stothert admits that, during the campaign, she failed to heed advice that she avoid reading all the attacks on her on the internet. Also, some of the nastiest—and most sexist—of the insults blew up into campaign issues she then had to address.

She boldly repeats two comments about her—one, a joke essentially about her being gang raped, and another about her being a stripper—that one would not expect to hear verbatim in an interview with the mayor.

“She would get pretty stern. She would challenge me, I would challenge her.” – State Senator Brad Ashford on Stothert

But there is often a flipside to such outlandish attacks. People get angry. In this election, Stothert admits, polls showed that a substantial number of women responded to the sexist attacks by moving into her camp.

Stothert says she’s not afraid of criticism. She invites it, as long as it’s civilized. But she knows now to avoid the constant barrage in cyberspace.

“It’s just not good for your mental health,” she says. “It wouldn’t be good for anyone’s health.” Her husband, as you might imagine, hasn’t handled some of the nastier or more personal criticisms with such a thick skin. “I don’t forgive and forget as easily,” Joe says. “She’s the one who can do that. Early on, she had it pegged. She told me the jabs were going to hurt me more than they would hurt her.”

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Tackling Tough Issues

The criticism is not going to ebb. She will continue to grapple with the powerful and vocal firefighter’s union. While sitting at her office’s conference table, she points to her desk. The gritty specifics of her proposed budget to streamline government “are sitting right over there,” she says.

She promises to cut government and cut taxes while improving government services. There are few political figures who have not claimed they could accomplish this feat. There are few who have.“We are going to succeed,” she says. “I have no doubt about that.”

If anyone can pull off this trick, it might be Stothert. State Sen. Brad Ashford, who ran against Stothert for mayor while also working with her on several issues on the state government level, says Stothert, while always civilized, is a tough and driven negotiator.

“She would get pretty stern. She would challenge me, I would challenge her,” Ashford says. “There’s nothing wrong with that. In the end, that’s how you make good policy.” In Ashford’s mind, Stothert’s best chance to save money while improving services will come “if she’s committed to consolidating” many services that both the county and city provide.

Jean and Joe with their family.

Finding Equilibrium

To keep a sense of balance, Stothert says, she knows she has to guard her personal time. She has a life outside the demands of the mayor’s office. “I love my home,” she says. “I’m pretty good at getting there, calming down, and shutting things off for a while.”

Her day is fairly regimented, as you might expect. She’s up at 5 a.m. After a usually healthy breakfast, she walks for 30 minutes on her treadmill, then takes her Australian Shepard, Ozzie (named after St. Louis Cardinals Hall of Fame shortstop Ozzie Smith), for a one-mile walk.

Back at home, she watches little television beyond the news. Instead, she relaxes by reading “a lot of fiction.” Her favorite books: one from her childhood, To Kill a Mockingbird, and comedian Tina Fey’s Bossypants (the cover of which inspired our magazine cover concept and, yes, the mayor enthusiastically “suited up” for the photo shoot).

If she has the time, she loves to get in the kitchen. “My friends and I used to get Bon Appétit magazine and try things all the time,” she says. “I would consider myself a gourmet cook now. I enjoy any time I can cook something myself.”

“I’m pretty good at getting [home], calming down, and shutting things off for a while.” – Jean Stothert

If she can’t, she’s also a fan of numerous Omaha restaurants. One stands out though, she says, perhaps because she fell in love with the fresh fish dinners she ate during the family’s time living in Seattle.

“The Twisted Cork has wonderful halibut and salmon,” she says. “I just love the food of the Pacific Northwest when it is done well.”

Then it’s five hours or so of sleep, the morning exercise, and off to another day as The Iron Lady.

“I’m a very black-and-white person,” she says. “I’m a very determined person.”

Meaning?

“We will achieve better services for less money,” she says. “We are not reducing city service, and we are going to balance the budget. This is what the people of this city have asked me to do, so that is what we’re going to get done.”