Tag Archives: Omaha Civic Auditorium

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

Lights Out

October 15, 2015 by

Twilight has come for the Omaha Civic Auditorium. The main ring is empty of events, its website taken over by some sort of erotic online service out of Asia. The city put the building up for sale last year, seeking someone who would both demolish the cement-and-glass entertainment venue and develop something new in its place. The once massive structure, seating as many as 10,960 people, has become overshadowed by CenturyLink Center, which can seat close to 19,000. The arena once known for sex, drugs, and rock ’n roll may soon become home to the suits and ties of corporate America.

The auditorium should not pass without comment. This was, after all, where Elvis Presley performed one of his most disastrous late-period concerts. It’s where a vice-presidential debate between Democrat Lloyd Bentsen and Republican Dan Quayle entered the history books.

The auditorium opened its doors in December 1954, built by the city at a cost of $6,500,000, according to an Omaha World-Herald ad for the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, the first act to appear in the auditorium’s smaller music hall. The New Year’s Day edition of the World-Herald was filled with ads from local businesses congratulating the city on its new auditorium. Peter Kiewit Sons’ ad stated “Omaha can be justifiably proud,” saying the auditorium will “stand as a symbol of a forward-looking leadership of our city.”

According to newspaper records, the first major event in the civic auditorium was a “boxing blitz,” the Golden Gloves Omaha City Tournament in January 1955 and the Midwest Championship in February, which promised “entertainment—with plenty of socks appeal!” The auditorium would often welcome sporting events, including Bluejays men’s basketball, Creighton women’s basketball and volleyball, the UNO hockey team, and the current Sacramento Kings NBA basketball team, known as the Kansas City-Omaha Kings between 1972 and 1985.

The arena served as the longtime stomping grounds for Omaha wrestling, with a record 10,310 people filling the stadium to see the taping of WWF Superstars of Wrestling on April 26, 1989. This event featured such legends of wrestling as Hulk Hogan, Andre the Giant, and Randy Savage.

The popular music venue held concerts by the Rolling Stones, who appeared in July 1966, and Bob Dylan, who appeared in 1978. Virtually every band known to draw a large audience appeared at the civic, including REM, Van Halen, KISS, and, more recently, Beck, and the Foo Fighters.

The building also contained an exhibit hall and events venue that served as one of the epicenters of Omaha arts and culture—if that is what one calls the Guinness Book of World Records 1983 bean-eating contest. Better examples include coin shows, cat shows, and antique sales.

If something happened in Omaha, and it had any sort of following, there was a good chance it wound up at the civic auditorium. That building houses 60 years of memories, which people will hold on to long after the deconstruction is finished.

Notable Civic Auditorium gigs

April 19, 1963: Yetta Wallenda, a member of the famous Wallenda family of circus aerialists, performed a daring feat that involved “skirting on the borderline of eternity.” She climbed to the top of a 45-foot fiberglass pole and stood on her head. Losing her balance, she tumbled all the way to the ground. Doctors pronounced her dead by the time she reached the hospital.

March 4, 1968: Civil rights protestors confronted segregationist governor George Wallace. Upon arrival, they suffered violence from counter-protestors, then the police, resulting in the shooting of one protestor, a high-school student. The aftermath nearly incited a riot quelled by community leaders, including future state senator Ernie Chambers.

March 25, 1972: Council Bluffs heavyweight boxer Ron Stander lands a title match against world champion Joe Frazier. The resulting mayhem was brutal, with a ringside doctor stopping the fight after the fourth round, when Stander required 32 stitches.

June 19, 1977: Elvis Presley plays his second-to-last touring show. The suffering King of Rock and Roll notoriously forgot the lyrics to songs he performed for years, and died a few months later. The legendarily terrible performance was filmed for the television special Elvis in Concert, shown posthumously. Bootlegs of it circulate to this day.

November 8, 1988: Vice presidential hopefuls Dan Quayle (Republican) and Lloyd Bentsen (Democrat) faced off in a heated debate. Irritated by Quayle comparing himself to John F. Kennedy, Bentsen snapped: “Senator, I served with Jack Kennedy. I knew Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy.”

Civic

The DoubleTree Building

December 25, 2012 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Blueprints were in the planning stage in the mid-1960s when Hilton Hotel developers told city leaders they wanted to build a new hotel in Downtown Omaha. Their target site was between 15th and 17th streets near the Omaha Civic Auditorium.

They needed two blocks of downtown land owned by First National Bank to build what would be Nebraska’s largest hotel, Hilton developers said. What’s more, they wanted to build smack in the middle of 16th Street. This brought gasps of dismay.

“At the time, 16th Street was the main conduit to North Omaha,” says Mike Kosalka, director of operations for the DoubleTree by Hilton Hotel that now occupies the space. “Many people were upset the street was closed and said that this would cut North Omaha off from the downtown area.”

In 1968, when workers showed up to begin work on the new Hilton Hotel, the downtown area had lost a number of its old buildings as city leaders prepared for urban development. The Omaha Auditorium, where 19th-century actress Sarah Bernhardt performed and Caruso sang, was torn down in 1963. The older auditorium had been replaced in 1954 by the Omaha Civic Auditorium, which now, itself, faces closing.

“We reintroduced the grande dame to the city. Every room, every public space was modernized.” – Stephan Meier, general manager

The Fontenelle Hotel, a social center for Omaha when built in 1914, was razed in 1983. It had closed in 1971. The elegant old Omaha post office at 16th and Dodge streets was razed in 1966. Preservationists protested but couldn’t rescue the red sandstone post office.

“The western half of the hotel development was built on the site of that old post office,” says Bill Gonzalez, photo archivist associate at The Durham Museum.

The 414-room Hilton Hotel opened in 1970. It became the Red Lion in 1980. Today, the hotel is the DoubleTree by Hilton.

The hotel’s exterior looks as it did the day of the 1970 ribbon-cutting. But an all-new hotel is inside thanks to a $20 million renovation, said General Manager Stephan Meier. In October, the renovated DoubleTree held a gala event with Omaha mayor, Jim Suttle, and other dignitaries on hand for a ribbon-cutting. “We reintroduced the grande dame to the city,” says Meier. “Every room, every public space was modernized.”

Stephan Meier

Stephan Meier

Then and Now Since 1970

Over the years, considerable changes have taken place inside what is now Nebraska’s second-largest hotel. In 1970, doors were opened with a key. A card with a magnetic stripe was introduced in 1980. An RFID, a scanner code, became the way to open doors in 2012. “We’re the first in Omaha to have this new technology,” says Meier.

Then there was hardwiring. “Hardwire is now less safe. Wireless is the way to go,” Meier says. “Guests have laptops, iPhones, iPads, and other electronic gear. We tripled outlets.” Previously, rooms had clunky televisions with few channels. Now, they have flat-screen TVs with 150 channels.

Then, there was a rooftop restaurant with a revolving barroom floor—the Beef Baron in the 1970s, replaced by Maxine’s in the 1980s. Today, the 19th floor is an executive meeting center.

“There’s more need now for company meetings,” says Meier. Dining is now on the first floor. “Once brunch was ‘owned’ by the hotels. Now, every little café has a brunch.”

Gluten-free? Low fat? Chefs in the 1970s rarely prepared special foods. Now, guests demand them. “People then didn’t worry about cholesterol,” says Meier. “Today, my son worries about his cholesterol. And he’s 7 years old.” The new emphasis on health is also served by the hotel’s high-tech fitness center and swimming pool.

Then, people didn’t know what “carbon footprint” meant. Today, going green is part of the hotel’s business plan. What happens to the shampoo and soap that are half-used when guests leave?

“We work with an organization called ‘Clean the World’ that collects all our discarded soap bars and shampoo bottles for a fee. They are recycled to create hygiene kits that are provided to third-world countries and organizations helping underprivileged children,” says Meier.

“Our green-team committee looks for ways to reduce our carbon footprint. We recycle all trash. We bought 100 percent-recyclable cups. And we just banned Styrofoam, which sits in the landfills for hundreds of years.”