Tag Archives: Woodman Tower

The Changing Face of Omaha

February 23, 2018 by
Photography by Durham Museum (provided)

A lot can change in 35 years, even in Omaha, a town where some places look like a glacier flowed over 2 million years ago and only unfroze a few weeks ago.

Of course, if you’re paying attention, there were decisions that changed the face of the city. Since 1983, the city has razed some of its notable historic structures, most notoriously Jobbers Canyon, a 24-building section of downtown Omaha that was torn down in 1989. It represents the nation’s largest demolition of National Register historic buildings, which remains a sore spot for preservationists.

But there have been subtler shifts. There was an exodus of businesses away from downtown to the suburbs, most visibly represented by the loss of the downtown Brandeis store in the 1980s, which both the razing of Jobbers Canyon and the development of the Gene Leahy Mall (conceived in the 1970s and named after Omaha’s mayor from 1969 to 1973) were intended to address.

The Brandeis move west—the company developed and settled in the Crossroads Mall—was perhaps the most visible “suburban” relocation of its time. Westward sprawl continued apace with additional suburban malls opening afterward, such as Oak View Mall, built in 1991. Now Crossroads, a shell of its former glory, is the city’s most visible evidence of the “retail apocalypse.”

Omaha’s once-upon-a-time peripheral neighborhoods have continued to see retail development, perhaps most notably with the redevelopment of the old Ak-Sar-Ben race track into Aksarben Village.

In recent years, the city’s westward trend has started to reverse itself, with a number of high-profile redevelopments downtown, including the building of the CenturyLink Center in 2003, the construction of TD Ameritrade Park in 2011, a variety of arts venues (including the KANEKO in 2008 and the Holland Performing Arts Center in 2005), new restaurants, and the Bob Kerrey Pedestrian Bridge across the Missouri River (built in 2008). Meanwhile, almost overnight, it seems that Benson and now Blackstone have rivaled the Old Market as the city’s top districts for nightlife.

Jobbers Canyon being demolished in 1989

Additionally, the skyline of downtown has changed considerably in the past 35 years. In 1983, the city’s iconic tall building was Woodmen Tower. It has since been joined by First National Bank Tower, completed in 2002, and Union Pacific Center, completed in 2004.

Some things don’t seem to change much. For example, Omaha has always wrestled with what to do with its riverfront, an ongoing discussion that doesn’t seem anywhere near resolution. The city’s latest riverfront redevelopment proposals could once again change the face of downtown (whether the plans are an improvement remains uncertain).

Omaha’s population has consistently grown in that time. From 1982 through 2017, the city’s population has grown about 42 percent, from approximately 316,000 to 450,000 (according to the U.S. Census Bureau and University of Nebraska-Omaha Center for Public Affairs Research Coordinator David Drozd).

It helps that Omaha has a flexible economy, a product of a surprising legacy. Because the city was founded as the westward terminus for the transcontinental railroad, the city has always been able to capitalize on opportunities provided by the railroad.

One of the more recent opportunities is that railroad lines have offered an unfettered path for laying communications lines.

Early on, telegraph lines went along the railroad, but recently those have been replaced by high-speed internet lines and the like, allowing Omaha and Council Bluffs to serve as communications hubs for the rest of the country. In the ’90s, this encouraged the development of telecommunications jobs, such as the West Corp., which went public in 1996 with 2,000 employees. This later expanded to an entire communications technology industry, and nowadays both the University of Nebraska and Creighton offer degrees in technology and telecommunications.

Omaha’s semiskilled labor industries, especially in meat packing, have long been one of the city’s magnets for new citizens. The plants have, over the years, drawn from relocated African-American workers, rural Southern white workers, and even workers from Japan. While Mexican-Americans have been in Omaha since 1900, the packing plants, in particular, brought a wave of new residents from Latin America in the 1990s, who at first settled around South Omaha.

The Mexican-American and Mexican immigrant presence in Omaha is significant enough that the city has its own Mexican consulate. In 1999, Union Stockyards and the Livestock Exchange Building closed, and the “smell of money” left its longtime home in South Omaha.

Lately, the city’s largest growing population statistic has been its Asian residents, growing 23.5 percent between 2010 and 2015. Some of this increase is due to immigration, with the city becoming home to refugees from Thailand, Myanmar, Nepal, and Bhutan. Even with this growing demographic representation, however, the Asian population of Omaha remains relatively small, about 2.6 percent of the total population according to the last census.

Visit census.gov for more information.

Jobbers Canyon, 1929

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

Public Art Primer

June 20, 2013 by
Photography by Chris Wolfgang

One thing never in short supply in this city of ours is public art. Downtown Omaha in particular has a vast collection of pieces—some you’ve surely seen and some that are tucked away. Keep your eyes open this summer for these few pieces in particular and impress your friends with how much you know about public art downtown.

Pioneer Courage Park and Spirit of Nebraska’s Wilderness Park
14th & Capitol and all four corners of the 16th & Dodge intersection

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Both owned by First National Bank, these installations span the width of several blocks. Follow Blair Buswell’s and Edward Fraughton’s pioneers, covered wagons, oxen, horses, and mules through Pioneer Courage Park, watch as they scare off bison who run along 14th all the way to Kent Ullberg’s Spirit of Nebraska’s Wilderness at 16th where Canada geese (each weighing approximately 200 pounds) seem to fly around the intersection, through walls, buildings, even traffic light poles.

The Garden of the Zodiac
Old Market Passageway, 10th & Howard

On the second floor of the Old Market Passageway (itself a unique artistic and architectural element of Downtown Omaha) are several bronze heads mounted on stone bases. This Garden of the Zodiac was sculpted by Evas Aeppli and represents the 12 signs of the Zodiac. Aeppli also created the Fountain of Erinnyesdiac in the lower level of the Passageway across from the V. Mertz restaurant. These three abstract metal heads, which each spew water, represent the Furies: Alecto, Megaera, and Tisiphone, all vengeful demi-goddesses of Greek mythology.

Nebraska Centennial Glass Mosaic
The outside of the Woodman building, 18th & Douglas

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Tom Bartek completed this work in 1967. The mosaic scenes depict Native Americans, pioneers, and Omaha being settled. In 2012, at the age of 80, Bartek released Retrospective, a collection of his works, in three galleries. You can learn more about the mural’s creation at omahamuralproject.org.

Fertile Ground
Eastern wall of the Energy Systems, Inc. building, 13th & Webster

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If you’ve been in the North Downtown area since 2009, you’ve seen Fertile Ground. This 70-foot-tall mural spans 328 feet wide—the length of a city block. It is the largest piece of public art ever installed in Omaha. It’s also the largest mural in the nation to have a single financial backer, the Peter Kiewit Foundation, which funded the piece as a gift to the people of Nebraska and the city of Omaha.

The Omaha Mural Project: Fertile Ground was coordinated by the Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts, which selected Meg Saligman as the artist. Saligman compiled Omaha’s story—past, present, future—in a unique back-to-front approach. Instead of a typical left-to-right treatment, the chronology pushes past events to the background and brings more recent events into the foreground. The painting took a year to complete—June 2008 to June 2009.

The Road to Omaha
TD Ameritrade Park Omaha, 1200 Mike Fahey St.

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You may have seen this piece recently, either in person or on television. This bronze sculpture by artist John Lajba is often a focal point during the NCAA Men’s College World Series every June. The sculpture of baseball players was given to the city by local organizing committee College World Series of Omaha, Inc. The Road to Omaha was completed in 1999 and made the move from Rosenblatt Stadium to TD Ameritrade Park Omaha in 2011.

For more information about public art in Omaha, visit publicartomaha.org.