Art assumes the roles of anthropology, archaeology, and novelization in Omaha artist Watie White’s new public installation that features 30 magic realism narrative paintings adorning the windows of an abandoned North Omaha house. Each image is based on artifacts left behind by the family that lived there to tell the stories of the home and its former residents. The site of the project is a house at 2424 Emmett Street, smack dab in one of the poorest neighborhoods in the city. As soon as the installation is taken down plans call the house to be razed and a new one built in its place.
©by Leo Adam Biga
Now appearing in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
On its face Watie White’s new public art project at an abandoned North Omaha house could be construed as a privileged white guy coming into the black community to impose his perceptions on that place and its people.
But that’s not the case with his All That Ever Was Always Is outdoor installation at 2424 Emmet Street. Enlarged digital prints of 30 narrative paintings he’s made cover the home’s windows. The house serves as a two-story, three-dimensional, wrap-around canvas for his true fiction portraits of the home’s former occupants. He invites viewers to bring their own interpretations to bear.
“I’m really interested in what the people who live next door or live down the block will think when they happen upon this big emotional and intellectual investment in an object that probably most people in this neighborhood don’t feel has much value,” he says. “Each perspective on this house tells its own story of what this house is.”
Don’t wait too long to see it though. Habitat for Humanity will raze the house in March and a Habitat-built new home will go up in its place. Before the century-old house is demolished he’ll disassemble the installation – windows, siding and all – for a future gallery show that he says “will be far more a rarified art experience.”
White’s paintings draw on interviews he did with neighbors, public record searches he and assistant Peter Cales made and a trove of personal artifacts harvested from the home, whose last residents were a black family named Smith. He and Cales also fashioned planters and benches from found objects there. The artists discovered a vast assemblage of strewn items inside that represent a tableaux of lives interrupted. In that suspended animation space White became the anthropologist his parents were.
“It’s like walking into somebody’s life,” says White. “This clearly was not cleaned up, not presented, not edited in any way, and so you walk in and you see all this stuff that feels unvarnished and truthful. They’re things that seem profound because we are reading something genuine about this person’s lived experience here, not things we were intended to see or a character they were playing, which for me makes it all the more intriguing. It becomes something you can trust a little bit because it’s not being catered to or tying to come across in a certain way.”
“All this trash and left belongings became really an incredible generator of content for the paintings themselves.”
He says the ephemera made the house an “active participant” to inform the narrative. Birth certificates, family photos, letters, journal entries and divorce papers helped him piece together four generations of history. He discovered the grandfather, Nathaniel Ware, was a Pullman Porter who moved the family up north from Mississippi. His daughter Janet Ware married Leonard Smith, an Omaha policeman. Janet was active at Salem Baptist Church. A daughter, Candice, followed her heart to Memphis. A son, Michael, may have been the last family member to reside at the Emmet address.
“He appears to have just left and walked away from everything before selling the house to Habitat,” White says of Smith.
What the materials didn’t reveal to White he extrapolated with the help of live models acting out back stories in his studio.
“I got a feeling for who I believe these people were, what they were like, but they’re more fictional characters. It’s more like writing a novel than doing a documentary.”
White purposely didn’t contact the Smith family to avoid being overly influenced. He has many questions for them, however. He’s inviting them to the opening, when he plans presenting them a chest made from recycled materials in the home that will contain the personal artifacts he salvaged.
His work also addresses urban legends attached to the house. For example, he says some neighbors “view it as a shameful place where bad things happened.” Allegedly it was crack house, though he found no supporting evidence. He hopes his project overturns neighbors’ own “narrative that they live in a shitty place to they live next to a place that has the potential to be an amazing thing.”
Viewers have no choice but to see White’s whimsical, soulful images in the context of the structure and its environment. Cales expects viewers to have triggered “that voyeuristic instinct in themselves to wonder what’s on the inside and to wonder about this community.”
“That curiosity breeds curiosity,” says White. “You interrupt the regular flow of life in an area by addressing creatively something that seems like a flaw or a blight and you shift it to make it not that. You change the perception of what that thing is or can be.”
“I think it’s important to bring people to the neighborhood to see the work in this context,” says Cales. “This is an area of the city that’s relegated to, ‘It’s a dangerous part you should never come to’”
“When you stop treating it as a place you have to shun or fear or stay away from then it’s a little less fearful and a little more welcoming,” White says.
Engaging at-risk populations with public art is something White learned under Chicago conceptual artist and radical educator Jim Duignan, whose Stockyard Institute White has a long association with. In preserving everyday people’s stories White does in images what the late iconic Chicago writer Studs Terkel White did in words/ White. who moved to Omaha in 2006, often shows his work in Chicago.
For more about the artist visit watiewhite.com.
- Carver Building Rebirthed as Arts-culture Haven; Theaster Gates, Rebuild and Bemis Reimagine North Omaha (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- When New Horizons Dawned for African Americans in Omaha (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Entrepreneur and Craftsman John Hargiss Invests in North Omaha: Stringed Instrument Maker Envisons Ambitious Plans for his New Hargissville Digs (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Free Radical Ernie Chambers the Subject of New Biography by Author Tekla Agbala Ali Johnson (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Opera Omaha Enlists Jun Kaneko for New Take on ‘The Magic Flute’ – Coproduction of Mozart Masterpiece Features Stunning Designs Setting the Opera World Abuzz (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
Entrepreneur and Craftsman John Hargiss Invests in North Omaha: Stringed Instrument Maker Envisons Ambitious Plans for his New Hargissville Digs
John Hargiss is doing something that a lot more people need to do – he’s investing in North Omaha. He’s actually moved his successful stringed instrument business from booming Benson to a rough trade section of northeast Omaha in need of some love and reinvestment. His faith in the area is strong and it’s just what that community needs, that and people like Hargiss who put their money where their mouth or senitment are. Hargiss is a cool cat who straddles the edgy and contemporary with Old World craftsman values. His new digs include an old theater he plans to restore into a live performance center. It would be a great boon to the area.
by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
The subtle twang in the voice of stringed instrument-maker and roots musician John Hargiss betrays his southern Missouri Ozarks origins. As a boy he learned acoustic guitar under his musician-craftsman-woodsman father’s instruction. As a young man he mastered constructing guitars under “that old man,” the wood harvested from walnut trees the father felled and the son hand-shaped. He feels part of a “lineage.”
Hargiss is the only one in his family who left those backwoods foothills for new horizons. After years scuttling about, working river boats and toiling in factories down South, he settled in Omaha. He worked 9 to 5 jobs, married and raised kids but he always moonlighted making things with his hands and playing in bands. Then he stepped off the establishment wheel to start his own business.
What began in his Country Club home’s garage he built into Hargiss Stringed Instruments in Benson. In a building he owned free and clear on the Maple Street strip he offered a full service luthier shop featuring his hand-made guitars, mandolins and banjos. Customers for his patented traveler’s guitar, The Minstrel, include Grammy-winners Norah Jones, Carly Simon and Judy Collins, the late rocker Dan Fogelberg and Omaha’s own Conor Oberst. His shop survived Benson’s lean years to become an anchor retail presence in that revived business district. He’s led Benson preservation and improvement efforts.
But just as that resurgence has peaked he’s picked up and moved to a ragtag northeast Omaha neighborhood that’s seen violent crime and struggled to attract businesses. His new digs at 4002 Hamilton Street include five connected buildings he’s purchased for a song. He’s spent most of 2012 restoring them, including the former vaudeville and movie theater, The Winn, at 4006 Hamilton, whose interior shell he’s made his temporary living quarters. He plans converting one of many potential spaces in his new dwellings into a finished apartment for himself.
His vision for the 35,000 square feet he possesses goes beyond his corner store and workshop to encompass a school for chartered apprentices, a live performance venue and a courtyard. He pictures a hub for artisans of all types. He calls his mecca, Hargissville, which fits his ultra laid-back Jimmy Buffett-like persona.
“A place like this has got the potential to do anything you want to do,” says Hargiss. “If it doesn’t pan out I’ll turn it into a haunted house.”
Why leave a sure thing in Benson for a transitional neighborhood?
“When I see all this area, I was meant to be and do this for this area,” says Hargiss. “I love this area. I belong here now, I know that.”
He describes how when prospecting the run-down, long-vacant properties he had an epiphany this was the right spot. But that inspiration was tinged by the hard reality of what it would take to get it all in shape.
“I knew it when I first came in. I just didn’t want to do the work.”
Months into a project that’s seen him do most of the restoration himself and that’s taken a toll on him physically – “It’s wiped me out, it’s been stressful” – he says, “I still think to myself, ‘You belong here more than you’ve ever belonged anyplace. This is why you’re here.’ I think it’s what I’d been slowly waiting for. A sign.”
There were times he second-guessed it, especially after undergoing bypass surgery and then weathering another health scare, all the while taking little time off.
“I became my worst enemy because I was trying to keep that (Benson) business running, trying to make this move over here, trying to get this place cleaned out. I mean, the cleaning part was just outrageous.”
He embraces the idea of being more than a custom instrument maker, repairer and restorer “to being able to provide other types of services. That’s exciting.” Offering a community short on amenities a welcoming cultural oasis like a fully functional live entertainment space and a place for craftsmen to play their trades has him stoked.
“My goal is to put this back to a performance center for live theater, music, arts, crafts,” he says picking his way through the in-progress theater, which features a 20-foot high ceiling and many intact architectural elements.
Doing the work largely himself and funding it entirely on his own has proven a beast but he figures the tradeoff is worth it. He’s saving on the restoration cost and preserving his independence. He estimates between the purchase price and the rehab he’s into it for “a couple hundred thousand dollars.”
“I really haven’t put a lot in because I’ve done the labor and everything has been here to work with,” he says. “Anything you see has been all reclaimed. I’m using 100 percent recycled goods out of this building.”
The original tin-stamped ceiling tiles from the theater now adorn the ceiling of his new music store and workshop, which for many years housed Martin’s Bakery and most recently was home to a carpet and an appliance repair store.
He’s accepted some assistance but he resists being beholden to anyone.
“Habitat for Humanity has been an asset to me with discounted supplies,” he says. “There are grants available to restore. I wish I had some foundation donations to do this. But you lose something when you do that. I think you’re obligated to someone else when you do that. Eventually that catches up with you.”
He’s all in with this venture and for the long haul, too. And make no mistake about it, he’s doing it his way, just the way he approaches his luthier work.
“I’m not stuck, I’m not governed by, ‘Well, you can’t do it this way.’ Of course I can. Because the sound that this is going to produce is mine,” he says, fingering a guitar in his Old World workshop filled with vintage tools. “When you get to control it and you wear all of these hats, you’re the CEO, you’re the boss, you’re the luthier, you’re the repairman, you’re the refinisher, you’re the engineer, the architect, you’re all of these things at one time. So it lets me express my creativity 100 percent, and I think you have to. You reconnect with it. God, I hate to say it, but you do become a part of it.”
Since moving his business he’s discovered North O’s bad reputation is overblown.
“I think I had convinced myself I need a bulletproof vest, some guns and dogs because this is going to be bad. Well, I’ve lived here over two months and it’s the most peaceful place I’ve ever lived in in my life. Some of the nicest neighbors you’ll ever met. They’re working class people. You have your share, same as Benson, of panhandlers but for the most part they’re nice people. They stop in regularly.”
He hopes other creatives make their way to North O to invest there the way he’s done. “What would excite me most is to get them to follow me on up here.” He thinks the area’s poised to blossom the way Benson has. “When I got there it was really going down the tube. You had like 10 thrift stores and some bad bars. Nobody would come to Benson because it just wasn’t a nice place to come to. In the last six years it’s exploded. Once a small group of business owners got on the bandwagon the others were like, ‘We’ve gotta get this building cleaned up.’ Now it’s party central.”
He’s not missing out on all of the Benson boom. He still owns a building there and leases it at a premium. But he simply ran out of room for his dreams there. “Then this opportunity came up on 40th Street and that took care of that problem. It’s the ideal place.”
For updates on his plans visit http://www.hargissstrings.com.
- Carver Building Rebirthed as Arts-culture Haven; Theaster Gates, Rebuild and Bemis Reimagine North Omaha (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Guitar maker uses traditional techniques for modern instruments (northcountrypublicradio.org)
- Traditional techniques make modern instruments (northcountrypublicradio.org)
- Free Radical Ernie Chambers the Subject of New Biography by Author Tekla Agbala Ali Johnson (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Handmade guitars put factory brands in shade (hangout.altsounds.com)
- Old Market Pioneer Roger duRand (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Donated violin brings out the best in a string of kind-hearted adults (omaha.com)
- Everyone Remembers Their First: ‘My First Guitar: Tales of True Love and Lost Chords’ (Review) (popmatters.com)
Carver Building Rebirthed as Arts-culture Haven; Theaster Gates, Rebuild and Bemis Reimagine North Omaha
Art meets urban planning meets community engagement in the work of Theaster Gates. The Chicago-based artist and planner is the driving force and facilitator behind a collaborative between his own Rebuild Foundation, the Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts, and the City of Omaha in giving new life to an abandoned building in the inner city. In an era when red lining practices confined blacks to certain areas the former Carver Savings and Loan Association helped them get into homes of their own, where they wanted to live, and now its old offices will be home to black artists from North Omaha as well as to an art gallery and a Big Mama’s sandwich shop. I write about the venture in the following piece appearing in The Reader (www.thereader.com), and allude to how this project is one of several developments in North O that are laying the foundation for the envisioned arts-culture district in the 24th and Lake area. I will be revisiting this story over time.
©by Leo Adam Biga
Soon to appear in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
The former Carver Savings and Loan Association at 2416 Lake St. was Omaha’s first black-owned financial institution. The lender helped black families avoid red lining practices to become home owners. The newly restored site now houses Carver Bank, a combined artists residency, gallery and Big Mama’s Sandwich Shop. In its new life Carver will once again provide “homes,” only this time studio work spaces for North Omaha minority artists. It also means an area once rich in jazz and blues players will again be a haven for creatives.
The endeavor is the brainchild of Chicago-based artist-developer Theaster Gates, who partnered with his own Rebuild Foundation and the Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts in Omaha. Artist-craftsman Sean R. Ward led the construction. Volunteers from North High, Impact One and the FACT design lab at the Univerity of Nebraska-Lincoln assisted.
Gates repurposes vacant inner city spaces for new uses that support artists and engage community. He was brought to Omaha by the Bemis. The Carver Bank idea took shape after Town Hall listening sessions with stakeholders and city officials.
“On one level the city has a problem with vacant buildings and on another level there’s this tremendous need for space artists articulated,” says Gates.
Bemis chief curator Hesse McGraw says his organization’s artists residency history meshes well with what Gates does.
“The Bemis mission is to support artists,” McGraw says, “and Theaster’s ambition is to build up new infrastructures to support artists in places where artists had no support previously, specifically in black communities, in places disinvested or under-resourced.
“There’s so many places where capital has left but value still exists. I think North Omaha is such a place. If you look hard you find incredibly talented, creative visionary young artists that bring a lot of value to their surroundings but have no institutional support. We can support artists in a very focused and strategic way.”
Carver program coordinator Jessica Scheuerman says the project “discovers and recognizes emerging artists who maybe don’t have a platform or a space to present or produce their work.”
The venue’s seen as a harbinger of positive changes for a struggling inner city district poised for redevelopment. The hope is that Carver is a magnet for visitors.
The 24th and Lake intersection is ground zero for a projected arts-culture district. Players in the effort gathered for an Oct. 16 press conference at the adjacent Loves Jazz & Arts Center to announce the city’s $100,000 Our Town grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. Some of the monies support Carver and LJAC programming.
Carver’s the latest building block in what the Empowerment Network, the Greater Omaha Chamber of Commerce, the city and others envision as a revitalized 24th and Lake corridor. Loves Jazz is the anchor. The Union for Contemporary Art and its own artists residency program is a recent addition. The proposed centerpiece is Festival Square. Plans call for new Great Plains Black History Museum and John Beasley Theater facilities.
Gates described his role as “a catalyst or flux to help move things forward and to help deliver a product or opportunity,” adding, “We had to be really sensitive to the fact people made their own plans already for cultural life in the neighborhood and those plans have been approved.” He says he applied to Omaha “the body of knowledge we’ve gained from restoring buildings in Chicago and St. Louis” and a track record for getting buildings occupied and busy.
“Our mission is to be open, to be a beacon,” says Scheuerman. “We’re going to be a space people can reliably come to, where they can encounter the arts, get food from Big Mama’s and really count on us to be part of the social fabric of the neighborhood.
“The (artist) residents will have 24/7 access to their studios, so they’re going to be ambassadors of this project. They’re going to exhibit their work and be part of the community. We’re going to have programming that reflects and challenges and stretches the neighborhood. We’ll bring other elements of Omaha art here to have those cultural exchanges you wouldn’t necessarily imagine taking place on 24th and Lake.”
Gates says it’s all a result of identifying artists who need work spaces with small businesses wanting to grow into them. It required artists and the Bemis and the Empowerment Network and the Omaha Planning Commission to make this one modest intervention happen. But this modest intervention has the capacity to do all this other stuff.” He says he simply uncovered hidden potential and forged new partnerships.
“Sometimes I feel like the work I do is shining a light on the good things already there. It’s really about framing things. Then after a while the work doesn’t need me to do any light shining anymore. Other people will shine the light. I just kind of rang the alarm. Now I think the only thing I have to offer is encouragement.”
The linchpin for the whole project, Gates says, was getting Big Mama’s on board.
“I think having Big Mama’s on the block is going to be huge. People come from all over the city to Big Mama’s. I can envision a lot of people being present who are not currently present on 24th and Lake. I think people might hang out and hanging out is super cool and leads to new friendships and to people to getting hungry and needing to use the bathroom and wanting to know what’s happening next door to the thing they came to.
“People are going to be curious about what’s happening at the Union and Loves Jazz and Carver. People who give to Bemis will have other places to land their generosity.”
He can imagine a larger impact that “will effectively model what culture looks like in North Omaha and that will create a desire for other people to model cultural activity there, which is the part that feels like catalytic work.”
He and McGraw feel Carver adds another element to a growing mix of arts attractions to drive traffic to North O.
“What I often find is that people don’t come to a place because they ain’t been invited or they don’t know something’s happening in that place,” says Gates. “Having these spaces that will have the occasion for people to come – I’m really excited about what that does.”
“I think the synergies are there and all these activities will be stronger in concert with one another,” McGraw says.
Gates believes all the organizations will benefit from working together informally or via a planned North Omaha Arts Alliance. He and Scheuerman say the Bemis provides strong backing. “The Bemis has got reach, history, reputation,” says Scheuerman. “It’s a huge benefit to have that type of infrastructure.”
McGraw expects Carver and its companion attractions are just the start:
“It’s taken a long time to get there but maybe that is a metaphor or analogy to the neighborhood on a larger scale. There has been a lot of small conversations happening and a big vision produced and now is a moment when the city is starting to see aspects of that vision come to life in a tangible and exciting way. When the pieces start to come together in a coordinated way you really begin to see there are huge possibilities within this neighborhood. It’s very exciting for us to be centered around artists and culture, not even so much in a historic or nostalgic way, but in a contemporary and real time way.”
Scheuerman sees mentoring possibilities for aspiring artists and arts managers. Gates sees skilled wood and metalworkers training apprentices to fabricate interiors for new eateries as part of emerging “cultural economies.”
The Carver hosted a December 1 open house as part of the Christmas in the Village celebration. Gates is expected to partcipate in more Carver open house events this month leading up to the project’s anticipated January 2013 launch.
- Here’s the Thing: Theaster Gates’ “Soul Manufacturing Corporation” Asks, What Does It Mean to Make Things? (saltyeggs.com)
- New School Prize Goes to Theaster Gates (artsbeat.blogs.nytimes.com)
- $100K grant will aid plans for arts district at 24th and Lake (omaha.com)
- Theaster Gates – My Labor Is My Protest – Bermondsey 2012 (teanbiscuits.com)
Parenting the Second Time Around Holds Challenges and Delights for Senior Kinship Caregiver Theresa Glass Union, Who Always Puts Family First
Parenting the Second Time Around Holds Challenges and Delights for Senior Kinship Caregiver Theresa Glass Union, Who Always Puts Family First
©by Leo Adam Biga
Soon to appear as the cover story in the December issue of the New Horizons
After raising three daughters in the 1970s-1980s and nearing retirement in the early 2000s, Theresa Glass Union thought she knew what her later years would look like. Even though still working, she envisioned socializing and traveling with friends and family. When she could finally retire it’d mean free time like she hadn’t known in ages.
The Omaha native had just moved back here after more than 20 years in Calif. She was divorced, eager to start a new life and catch up with old mates and haunts. Then a family crisis erupted and her selfless response led her to join the growing ranks of kinship caregivers raising young children.
Reports indicate that upwards of 6 million children in America live with grandparents identified as the head of household. Nearly half of these children are being raised by someone other than the parents or grandparents. The number of children being parented by non-birth parents has increased 18 percent since 2000, according to a report from the Annie E. Casey Foundation.
Some kinship caregivers do it informally, others through the state child welfare-foster care system. Being informed of rights, regulations and benefits takes work.
Theresa is a kinship caregiver to children of a niece who’s long battled drug addiction. The niece is the mother of six children by different fathers, The three oldest variously live with their fathers or their fathers’ people. When the niece got pregnant with each of her three youngest children, now ages 5, 4 and 2, they came to live with Theresa shortly after their births.
It’s not the first time Theresa’s dealt with tough circumstances inside and outside her family. She has a younger sister with a criminal past who happens to be the mother of the niece whose children Theresa is raising. Years spent in social service jobs dealing with clients living on the edge have given Theresa a window into the bad decisions that desperate, addicted persons make and the hard consequences those wrong choices bring.
At age 65 and two-and-a-half decades removed from raising three grown daughters, one of whom is film-television star Gabrielle Union, Theresa’s doing a parenting redux. She never thought she’d be in charge of three pre-school-aged kids again, but she is. She’s since legally adopted the two older siblings, both girls, and is awaiting an adoption ruling on their “baby” brother.
As the babies came to her one by one she found herself knee deep again in diapers and baby bottles, awakened in the middle of the night by crying infants, figuring out formulas and worrying about fevers, sniffles, coughs and tummy aches. Now that the kids are a little older, there’s daycare, pre-school and managing a household of activity.
It’s not what she imagined retirement to be, but how could she not be there for the kids? They were going to be removed from their birth mother and placed in a system not always conducive to happy outcomes. Child welfare officials generally agree that childcare fare better in kinship care settings than in regular foster care.
Kinship caregivers may get involved when the parents are incarcerated, on drugs or deceased. In the case of Theresa, drugs were found in the systems of the two oldest children she’s adopted, Keira and Miyonna. Theresa felt they needed unconditional family love. The girls are doing fine today under the care of Theresa and her brother James Glass. The girls’ brother, Amari, was born drug-free.
With so much stacked against the children to start life, Theresa wasn’t about to turn her back on them. Family is everything to her. She’s the oldest of seven siblings, all raised Catholic – churched and schooled at St. Benedict the Moor, the historic African-American parish in northeast Omaha. It’s where she received all her sacraments, including marrying her ex-husband Sylvester Union.
“The church is central to my family here.”
She graduated from Sacred Heart High School.
She and Union moved to San Francisco during the Summer of Love in 1967 and they returned to Omaha a year later. They both ended up working at Western Electric. Like other black couples then they ran into discriminatory real estate practices that flat out denied them access to many neighborhoods or steered them away from white areas into black sections of North Omaha. Their first home was in northeast Omaha but they eventually moved into a house in the northwest part of the city, where their three daughters went to school.
In the 1970s Theresa, who studied social work at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, worked for Omaha nonprofit social service agencies, including CETA (Comprehensive Employment & Training Agency) and GOCA (Greater Omaha Community Action). After a long stint in corporate America she returned to the non-profit field.
The family left here in 1981 for Pleasanton, Calif., where they lived the sun-dappled Southern Calif. suburban life. She worked for Pacific Bell and completed her bachelor’s degree in human relations and organizational behavior at the University of San Francisco. After her divorce she and her brother James Glass returned to Omaha in 2003. A few years passed before Theresa’s troubled niece came for help. At various times the family tried interventions, once even getting the niece into rehab, but each time she fled and resumed her drug habit.
As a former field worker with Douglas County Health and Human Services and as a one-time Child Protection Service Worker with Nebraska Health and Human Services, Theresa’s seen the despair and chaos that result when siblings are separated from each other and extended family. It’s why when her niece kept getting pregnant while hooked on drugs and unable to take care of herself, much less children, Theresa intervened to ensure the kids would go to her.
“Some of the things children said to me when I was a social worker have just stayed with me,” she says.
On one call she visited three young siblings in a foster home.
“I was like the fifth social worker since they’d been brought into the system. The 8-year old boy said, ‘Please don’t take us away, we get fed three times a day here. ‘Well. that told me they’d been staying with some people (before) who weren’t feeding them regularly. Who does that? The foster parent let him walk me around the home and this little boy was just adamant he be with his brothers.”
In another case several siblings were divided up among different foster families.
“One of the siblings got to see her sisters at school but she no longer got to see her brothers, and she asked me, ‘Can I see my brothers?’Her foster parent had made the request but nothing had happened, so I looked into it and found that each sibling had a different social worker and had been placed at a separate time. I got it worked out that the siblings got to visit each other.”
System shortfalls and breakdowns like these were enough to make Theresa bound and determined to arrange in advance with hospital social workers for her to be the foster placement parent for her niece’s three youngest kids. When Keira and Miyonna tested positive for drugs the state, by law, detained them and they were put in Theresa’s care two days after their births. She did the same with their brother. She simply wouldn’t let them fall outside the family or be separated.
“After Keira was born I was already a resident foster placement and I’d already contacted everybody involved to let them know if there was another baby that ends up in the detention system I want to be the foster parent of choice because I didn’t want these kids to go into the system. My idea is that the kids all need to be raised together. They deserve to have their siblings .
“I was working for Child Protective Service, so I knew all the ins and outs of what was going to happen. I knew how many times we were going to have to go to the doctor before the baby’s cleared. I knew that babies wake up in the middle of the night and children with drugs in them can find it more difficult sleeping, eating. I was prepared for all that. It didn’t happen, I was thanking God that Keira’s and Miyonna’s little withdrawal things were just a few days. The biggest problem we had was figuring out formula.”
Daughter Kelly Union, a senior analyst with US Airways, admires her mother’s by-any-means-necessary fortitude.
“My mom always looks for more solutions, other options, different ways to climb a mountain. That determination helps me when I hit a brick wall at work, in my marriage, with my kids. My mom also sees all glasses as half full. There is a positive in everything and we just need to find it. My mom’s best attribute, however, is being strong against all odds—she finds the strength to hold up everything and everyone, including herself despite what she is up against. I get my strength from her.”
The way Theresa sees it she did what she did in order to “preserve the continuity of the children’s lives, so that they know their family members, the cousins, the aunts and uncles, the lineage back, like my grandma Ora Glass and my grandma Myrtle Fisher Davis, and the head of our family today, Aunt Patricia Moss.”
Theresa hails from one of the largest and oldest African-American families in the region, the Bryant-Fishers, whose annual picnic is 95 years strong.
Her bigger-than-life late grandmother, Ora, the longtime matriarch, lived to 110. Ora gained celebrity as a shining example of successful aging, even appearing on Phil Donahue’s show and running her fingers through the host’s hair. In her younger years Ora was a housekeeper and nanny for some of Omaha’s elite families. One packinghouse owner family even brought her out to Calif. to continue her duties when they moved there. She survived the Red Summer of 1919, when blacks were targeted by racists in riots that wreaked havoc from coast to coast, including Omaha and Orange County, Calif..
“My grandmother had a whole lot of stories,” says Theresa.
In her 70s and 80s Ora “reinvented” herself from a very strict, prim and proper lady with politics tending toward the conservative” to loosening up on things like relationships and social issues, notes Theresa. “She told me, ‘I’m losing so many old friends that I have to make new friends and I have to use new opinions and I have to make new decisions.’ She began reaching out and making new friends and gathering new family to her. She started trying different things. She went to political science classes at UNO. She learned ceramics.”
Even when she had to use a walker, Theresa says. Ora maintained her independence, riding the bus downtown for Mass at St Mary Magdalene’s Church, a repast at Bishop’s Cafeteria and taking in all the sights.
Ora was then and is now an inspiration to Theresa. She carries her grandmother’s boundless curiosity, determination and affirmation inside her.
“She always persevered. She said, ‘Whatever you do you always do it to the best of your ability.’ She said, ‘You can always make more family’ and she always did generate more and more family for herself.”
Ora was godmother to Omaha native Cathy Hughes, founder of the Radio One and TV One media empires, and played a big role in the mogul’s early life.
Ageless Ora ended up a resident at the Thomas Fitzgerald Veterans Home (the military service of her late husband Aaron Glass entitled her to stay there) and Theresa says her grandmother “recruited families from St. Vincent dePaul parish to visit residents there. There were a couple of families she adopted. The kids came and they called her grandma and they brought her gifts.”
It’s figures and stories like these that Theresa didn’t want her three new children to miss out on. The family takes great pains to maintain its ties, celebrate its history and record the additions and losses as well as the triumphs and tragedies among their family trees. Help abounds from loved ones she says because “there’s so many of us. There’s like 1,500 of us (dispersed around the country).”
She values the traditions and events that bind them and their rich legacy and she wouldn’t want the children now in her care to be deprived of any of it.
“We’re called the Dozens of Cousins. Yeah, I do take a lot of pride in that. I get that a lot from my aunt Patricia Moss because she wants there to be the continuity. We do have continuity.”
Regarding the big August reunion, when hundreds gather at Levi Carter Park, she says, “I try to always make it. Since coming back home in 2003 I haven’t missed any, and when I was younger it wasn’t an option, you were there. We have the family picnic, we have family birthdays, we have that kind of continuity and I think children need that to grow in their own maturity and emotional strength,” she says. “It can give them that stability. You’re not going to get that from strangers. And knowing at some point there’s going to be questions about who mom is, I have all those baby pictures and all that stuff. I can give them a sense of who she is if she doesn’t care to come around.”
Having a large family around gives Theresa a ready-made support network.
“I have a supportive family around me. I have everybody lined up that’s going to keep this continuity. My brother James wouldn’t say it before that he’s helping raise the kids, but he’s saying it now. My sister and cousins call and make sure I have break times. My granddaughter Chelsea came from Arizona recently to watch the kids so I could have a break time. When my daughter Tracy has breaks from work she comes in and helps out.
“So I have a support system around me and they’re all kin to these children, so they’re never outside of family.”
Kelly Union says even if there wasn’t all that family support her mother would have done the same thing.
“Without a doubt, she would have been that beacon without all of us supporting her. That is her character, that is the legacy she inherited and the legacy she is passing on to all of us. We have all been known to help someone else, even when it isn’t easy or comfortable and that is a direct reflection of her.”
The respite family provides Theresa has proven vital as she’s realized she’s not capable of doing everything like she was the first time she raised kids. She’s much more prone now to ask for help. Another difference between then and now is that her older daughters were spaced out three or four years, whereas the kids she’s raising today are all just a year or two apart.
“My oldest was 4 before I had my second and then my second was 7 before I had my third. It’s a different experience when you can devote your time to the one child at a time. And then by the time I had the second child the oldest child had more of her own things she was doing that she didn’t need me while I was taking care of this other one. And then the two of them did not need me as much when I was taking care of the third one, so every kid got to be like an only child.”
Things stated out different the second time around.
“‘I found I was now taking care of two kids at the same time, so if I’m changing a diaper the other one’s right there fussing and attention grabbing. and boy that’s more wearing on me. The energy for two young ones is just wearing.
“When I first got Keira and Miyonna I was working, so I got to take them to day care. But I could not keep my mind going well enough during the day to do a social work job. I could not keep up and my caseload was falling farther and farther behind. I even asked for more training, but I just couldn’t manage it. I thought I was super lady but my energy level is not the same as it was, trust me.”
The two girls don’t need quite the attention they did before, which is good because their little brother needs it now.
“We got through that and Keira and Miyonna started doing real good together. I even have them sleeping together in a big double bed. They sleep all night.”
In terms of parenting, she says she’s learned to “let some things go” that she would have stressed over before. For example she doesn’t worry whether the kids’ clothes or hair or bedrooms are perfect. “You do the best with what you have and you gotta innovate,” she says.
Her adult daughters may be the best gauge for what kind of mother Theresa is. The oldest, Kelly, wrote in an email:
“My mother was always the “you can do it”, “give it a try” type of parent. She supported all our whims—Girl Scouts, musical instruments, sports, school plays, dance class. Whatever struck our fancy at the moment, she backed our efforts. No is not a big word in her vocabulary. Not that she was a permissive parent who let us get away with things. But more in the way that she was willing to let us try and learn our own likes, dislikes, pleasure and pain first hand.
“My mom was never really a yelling, scolding type of mom and that worked well for us. Life lessons taught with logic, love and support goes a long way to shaping a child the right way.”
Kelly doesn’t see any marked difference in her how mom parents now than before.
“No, the core is very much the same. My mom is home more with them but the attention, the opportunities, the lessons are all still the same.”
Theresa would like for the children’s birth mother to be involved in their lives but thus far she says her niece has shown little interest. In fact, Theresa’s lost most contact with her niece, whose exact whereabouts she’s unsure of.
“She actually did visitation with Miyonna for the first three weeks of her life and then she back slid all the way and did a disappearance act. We didn’t know where she was.”
The instability and unreliability of the mother were huge factors in Theresa taking charge and getting the kids in a safe home surrounded by family. She says she never wanted to have happen to these children what she’s seen happen to others, such as when kids age out of the system never having been reunited with family, much less visited by them. With their biological mother out of the picture, Theresa saw no option but to step up.
“It’s hard to forge your own identity when your identity has been connected with state administrators,” she says of foster children.
It’s not the first time she’s taken in loved ones in need. When her uncle Joe Glass lived in a Milwaukee nursing home and was going to be transferred to a veterans home near the Canadian border, far from any family, Theresa and her brother James brought him to Omaha.
Growing up, she saw the example of her family take in childhood friend Cathy Hughes when Cathy’s musician mother Helen Jones Woods was on the road. Hughes said growing up she and Theresa thought they were “blood sisters.”
Theresa’s three birth daughters have embraced her returning to parenting young kids again all these years later. She says they’ve all accepted and bonded with their new siblings and go out of their way in spoiling them. “They don’t want for anything,” she says of her little ones.
Kelly speaks for her sisters when she says they all admire and support their mother in assuming this new responsibility at her age but that it doesn’t surprise them.
“That is just my mom. I don’t think she thought of it as parenting at her age, she just saw a need and filled it. Age really didn’t play into it, although she did discuss it with us because doing the right thing would impact all of us. My mom always does the ‘right thing,’ and right doesn’t mean easy and she accepts that whenever she takes on a task, a role, a responsibility.
“My grandmother raised her and this is what my grandmother did and would have done if she was alive. Her opting to raise the kids did not surprise any of us in the least. It is the one characteristic both my parents had and handed down to us: Do what you can, when you can and share of yourself, your home, your belongings and your wealth (regardless of how much money you have or don’t have). It’s the right thing to do to help someone else, especially family.”
Kelly and her sister Gabrielle have each assumed similar super-nurturing roles as their mother. Kelly, who has three children of her own, has acted as a surrogate mom to athletes coached by her husband. Gabrielle is now the adult female figure in the home of her equally famous boyfriend, NBA superstar Dwyane Wade, whose two sons and a nephew live with him in Miami.
Theresa’s justifiably proud of her three grown children, each a successful, independent woman in her own right. Kelly’s a corporate executive. Tracy’s a facilities coordinator at Arizona State University and Gabrielle’s the movie star. Just as she feels she well prepared her older girls for life she hopes to do the same for their young siblings.
“I got my three grown daughters there healthy and educated and then they had to travel it on themselves. Hopefully I can do this another time and the three young ones will be healthy and educated and they’ll be able to move on and enjoy their lives. Nobody has to be famous but you have to be able enjoy and sustain your life. I think my girls have done really well and I hope the next ones do, too.
“This time it’s a different experience and we’re working it out.”
She says most of her parenting the first time happened in the suburbs compared to the inner city, where she, her brother and the kids live today. She’s struck by the stark difference between the two environments and their impact on children.
Gun violence and street gangs were foreign to west Omaha and Pleasanton but the northeast Omaha she’s come back to is rife with criminal activity. Where Pleasanton lacked for no amenities North Omaha has major gaps.
“It’s interesting that this neighborhood doesn’t have the things that we had when we were young. The (black) population has been dispersed throughout the city. Things you take for granted, conveniences you have right there in the suburbs, are not so readily available in the inner city. It’s a lack of resources, lack of everything right in this neighborhood for raising children. So I had to start looking for the village (the proverbial village that helps raise a child). My village is right here. I have Kellom School and I have Educare.”
Gabrielle says the way her mother intentionally seeks out educational and cultural opportunities for the young kids she’s raising now reminds her of how she did the same thing when she and her sisters were coming up. She says her mom’s always been about expanding children’s minds through enriching experiences.
Theresa says the dearth of programs for young kids in northeast Omaha “is what prompted me to join the board of the Bryant Center Association – so we could add things (like recreation activities and counseling services).”
The nonprofit association operates the Bryant Center, a community oasis at 24th and Grant Streets that aims to improve the lives of youth, young adults and seniors. Administrators are looking to expand programming. Theresa recently prevailed upon Cathy Hughes to co-chair the association’s capital fundraising campaign.
In the final analysis Theresa doesn’t consider rearing young children at her age as anything heroic or out of the ordinary. It all comes back to family and doing the right thing. “I don’t call it being a saint,” she says. “You always take care of your own.”
She wants others to know they can do what she’s doing. An aunt or a grandmother or another relation can be the parent when Mom and Dad cannot.
“It is a doable process, especially in Omaha, because there is other help available. There are families out there that could do this with their own because there is support for you in the community. Sometimes you have to really search for it depending on what your needs are. But even if there’s a problem where the natural parents aren’t available to participate, you can raise the children so they are still a part of a family.”
Helping navigate the experience is ENOA’s Grandparent Resource Center. It offers free monthly support group meetings, crisis phone intervention, transportation assistance, access to legal advice and referrals to other services and programs. Participants need only be age 55 or above.
Center coordinator Debra Scott, who is raising her granddaughter, says caregivers need to know they don’t have to do it alone. “Don’t be afraid to ask for help,” she says. “I’m learning I can’t be everything to everybody, I need to ask for help and that’s where this program comes in.”
Call 402-444-6536, ext. 297 to inquire how the center may be able to help you or a senior caregiver you know.
- Agencies work to unite foster, biological parents (miamiherald.com)
- Wanted: Parents willing to take in children (newsherald.com)
- SPITZ: From foster to forever family (metrowestdailynews.com)
- Gabrielle Union Takes Serious Turn in BET Drama ‘Being Mary Jane’ and PBS Documentary ‘Half the Sky’ (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Kinship Celebration Brings Together Community in Support of National Adoption Awareness Month (virtual-strategy.com)
When proclamations start getting made about some new area of my city, Omaha, being a hot new spot my natural cynicism tells me I need to see for myself if there’s anything to the claims or if it’s just manufactured puffery. That was my cautious, cynical first response (in my head) when an editor asked me to write a piece about the purported revival going on in a neighborhood, Benson, I know fairly well from having grown up a mile east of it. Specifically, it is the Benson business district that many proprietors and observers say is undergoing a revival or rejuvenation or transformation that is making this strip a destination place. I must admit that though I had my doubts about it I have now seen it for myself and while I may be giving what’s happening there more credence than it deserves it is clear that something vital is unfolding in Benson that cannot be ignored. The dynamism there is well under way. It’s one part of a redeveloping North Omaha whose next big awakening and remaking will be playing out in the northeast boundaries once known as the Near Northside. It all bodes well for parts of the inner city here that have too long gone to seed. It only shows that with the right care and cultivation these older neighborhoods can be born again to blossom anew.
Revival of Benson Business District Gives Omaha a New Destination Place
©by Leo Adam Biga
Appearing in the Sept/Oct 2012 issue Omaha Magazine
The quaint, sleepy Benson you once breezed through to get somewhere else is suddenly the hip new place to be.
This working class neighborhood’s old-line business district has been made new again as a full-fledged entertainment strip. Music, drinking, dining establishments, along with art galleries, line both sides of Maple Street from 58th to 70th, many attractions housed in historic century-old buildings. The nightlife joints mix with anchors Haney Shoe Store, the Benson Community Center, a U.S. Postal Service station, bank branches, Kremer Funeral Home, thrift stores and Jane’s Health Market.
The activity really picks up at night, when parking’s tight.
Enhanced street lights and historical signs add ambience. Plans call for more amenities and streetscape improvements, including a revamped East entrance, better traffic flow, more pedestrian-friendly walkways and communal green space.
Benson’s revival is reminiscent of when the Old Market went from tired warehouse district to vital arts-culture hub. Some feel it’s already a destination.
“The Old Market has nothing on us,” says Hargiss Stringed Instruments owner and Benson historian John Hargiss.
Few but Hargiss saw this in store for Benson, where six years ago vacant storefronts and empty streets made it a ghost town at night.
“I knew it was coming, I knew it was on its way. It’s hard to keep this little town down,” he says. “I mean it’s seen the worst. It’s seen the Easter Sunday tornado it’s seen annexation, but it’s pretty damn resilient. It comes right back. When I got here in 1987 it was really going down the tubes. And then you saw this weird period when nobody would come to Benson because it wasn’t a nice place to come to.”
“In the last six years it’s exploded. Benson is definitely party town now,” says Hargiss. “There’s a young generation that owns this town in the evening.”
“We’re inspired is what it is,” says Ryan. whose enthusiasm led her to acquire the old Benson Theatre, which she hopes to restore as a multi-use arts-community space. “The news on the street is that Benson’s so much fun. People are really enjoying it.”
Espana restaurant-tapas bar helped make Benson a destination but the real catalyst came when The Waiting Room Lounge and live music venue opened in 2008.
“The Waiting Room was huge. It was the big solidifier for the neighborhood,” says John Larkin, co-owner of Jake’s Cigars & Spirits and The Beercade.
Benson Business Improvement District co-chair D’Ann Lonowski, whose Mint Design Group is in downtown Benson, says “gone are the days when Espana and The Waiting Room were the only two reasons people came down here.”
Indeed, a half-dozen eateries have opened on the strip or nearby, the cuisines ranging from New American (Lot 2, Mantra) to cajun (Ethel Mae’s) to Peruvian (Taita). Some hold-over diners (Leo’s, Joe’s) remain. A gourmet sandwich shop (Star Deli) is coming.
Craft beer bars have entered the scene, including The Sydney and Krug Park, whose owners, Marc Leibowitz and Jim Johnson, are the men behind One Percent Productions and The Waiting Room. New bars, including a brewery, are on tap.
“The bars are the driving force behind what’s happening down here,” says Larkin, but increasingly restaurants are too. Lot 2′s proved a sensation.
Paper Doll vintage clothing store, the Pet Shop Gallery and the 402 Arts Collective. are new entries.
The buzz, affordable property rates, tight-knit community and brisk Maple Street Corridor make Benson a prime site biz location.
Larkin says opening in Benson was a no-brainer because “the price was right.”
Lot 2 owners Brad and Johanna Marr already lived in Benson but now they’ve put business stakes there. “Benson is a great neighborhood and the perfect fit for our concept,” says Brad. “We saw the activity and energy going on and we wanted to contribute to the neighborhood’s progression.”
Community events bring added exposure. The July Benson Days celebrated Benson’s 125th anniversary with fireworks and concerts. Block parties and a weekly farmer’s market bring people out. First Friday art walks initiated by artists Alex Jochim and Jamie Hardy (Pet Shop Gallery) are proving popular.
“I feel like that’s a good example of what Benson is all about,” says Johnson. “That was started by these two artists who wanted to do it and it’s been a huge success. I think a lot of Benson is like that. It’s filled with people who have good ideas and are very community-based. Most of the buildings and businesses are owned by private individuals. There’s no big development group.”
“It’s all done independently, it’s all locally owned businesses,” notes Larkin. “It really creates that sense of pride.”
“For me it’s very much full-circle,” says Ryan. “Benson’s history is based on entrepreneurship. Mom and Pop shops. That’s what it’s always been.”
Today, Benson’s an eclectic community of self-made men and women growing their ventures organically on dreams and sweat equity. Owners like Ryan, Larkin and Johnson have invested so much there they intend staying.
“It’s been exponential growth. We’ve certainly crossed the threshold of making it and I only see this getting bigger and better,” says Larkin.
The various interests representing Benson are collaborative. Benson Neighborhood Association president Liz Muldenhauer says, “Even though we have some distinct personalties these individuals and groups are working together to make positive changes to make our community better.”
Owners say they throw everything they make back into their businesses for restoration and expansion. Several storefronts sport new facades.
Hargiss, who’s reluctantly leaving Benson for a bigger space, feels good about the new blood doing business there: “They put back here as much as they can.”
“It’s really wonderful to see these entrepreneurs coming in and getting behind this community,” Ryan says. “What Benson has going for it is an incredible grassroots spirit. People are so eager to assist each other.”
Marr agrees, saying, “Everybody is very supportive of one another.”
Ryan, who comes from a community development background, opens the PS Collective to meetings, art exhibits and live music concerts.
Being in a self-sustainable neighborhood appeals to Lonowski.
“The first thing I do when I need a service in my building is look for somebody in Benson. I want to support the people around me that support me,” she says.
She’s eager for others to discover all it has to offer. “We want people who maybe haven’t taken a second look at Benson in awhile to come down to see what a diamond-in-the-rough it is,” says Lonowski, who touts its “creative vibe.”
Muldenhauer embraces the creatives community but the “small town atmosphere, character and great value” are what sold her on moving there. “I love it,” she says. “There’s so many good things going on.”
- Documentary Considers Omaha’s Changing Face Since World War II (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- From My Series Out to Win: The Roots of Greatness, A Brief History of Omaha’s Black, Urban, Inner-City Hoops Scene (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- A Synergy in North Omaha Harkens a New Arts-Culture District for the City (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Omaha’s Northwest Radial Highway’s Small Box Businesses Fight the Good Fight By Being Themselves (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Berkshire Hathaway Annual Shareholders Meeting Turns Omaha into Buffettville Destination (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
Omaha, my Omaha. I have something of a love-hate relationship with my city, which is to say I have strong feelings about it and I always want it to be better than it thinks it can, though the attitude problem or more specifically inferiority complex it suffered from for so long has been largely replaced by a bold new, I-can-do confidence. That metamorphosis is part of what drew me to a documentary some years back that took the measure of Omaha by charting the changing face ofrcityscape since World War II, and what a marked difference a half-century has made. In truth, and as the doc makes clear, the most dramatic changes have only occurred in the last decade or two, when the city poured immense dollars into transforming parts of downtown, the riverfront, midtown, and South Omaha. Left mostly untouched has been North Omaha, where the city’s major revitalization focus is now aimed. The film also deals with one of the city’s biggest missteps – the razing of the Jobbers Canyon warehouse district to appease a corporate fat cat who wanted to put his headquarters there in place of what he called the area’s “big ugly red brick buildings.” Those buildings were historic treasures dating back a century and today they would be home to well-established retail, residential, commercial developments that would be employing people and generating commerce, thus pouring money back into the city’s coffers.
Documentary Considers Omaha’s Changing Face Since World War II
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
Omaha’s evolution into a homey yet cosmo metropolis that’s discarded, for better or worse, its gritty industrial-frontier heritage is the subject of a new documentary premiering statewide on the NETV network. Omaha Since World War II — The Changing Face of the City is a UNO Television production and a companion piece to UNO-TV’s popular 1994 If These Walls Could Speak.
What the new film does particularly well is frame the growth of Omaha over the past 60 years within a social, cultural and political context. Instead of settling for a Chamber of Commerce paean to development, the film makes a balanced effort at showing not only the dynamic explosion in Omaha’s ever-expanding boundaries and emerging 21st century cityscape but also some of the real tensions and costs that have come with that change. Using soaring, sweeping aerial footage shot from a helicopter video mount, the film provides insightful glimpses of Omaha’s famous sprawl and, even more tellingly, of the riverfront renaissance that’s remaking the city’s traditional gateway into a stunning new vista. Like the fits-and-starts pace of most Omaha development, major pieces in the Return to the River movement have taken decades to coalesce, but now that the new riverfront is emerging, it’s shaping up as a dramatic statement about the sleek, modern Omaha of the future.
While most of this period has seen real progress, valid concerns are raised about one neglected area and a pattern of disregarding history. For example, the film focuses on the decline of north Omaha in the wake of the devastating 1960s riots there and the equally hurtful severing of that community by the North Freeway several years later. News footage of burning stores and marching civil rights demonstrators, along with residents’ personal anecdotes of urban ruin, reveal a community in upheaval.
The late Preston Love Sr., ex-Omaha educator Wilda Stephenson and Omaha World-Herald photographer Rudy Smith paint vivid pictures of the jumping place that once was North 24th Street and of the despairing symbol it came to represent. As the $1.8 billion in downtown-riverfront revival continues (development dollars spent in the last six years, according to Omaha Chamber of Commerce figures), it’s apparent north Omaha’s been left behind. Unlike South Omaha, which remakes itself every few decades as an immigrant haven and finds new uses for old landmarks like the former stockyards site, North Omaha still searches for a new identity.
The film also examines how city/state leaders sacrificed the nationally historic Jobber’s Canyon district to the whims of corporate giant ConAgra in the 1980s. A man-made canyon of 22 massive, architecturally unique warehouse buildings closely tied to early Omaha’s booming river-rail economy, all but one Jobbers structure — the former McKesson-Robbins Building, now the Greenhouse Apartments — was razed when ConAgra decided the “eye-sore” must go if it was to keep its headquarters downtown. After seeing homegrown Enron uproot to Houston, Omaha caved to ConAgra’s demands rather than lose another Fortune 1000 company. The canyon was an incalculable loss but, as the film makes clear, the resulting corporate campus served as a catalyst for development.
The filmmakers rightly reference Omaha’s penchant for tearing down its history, as in the old post office, the original Woodmen of the World building, the Fontenelle Hotel and the Indian Hills Theater. Spinning the story in all its permutations are, notably, former Omaha city planning directors Alden Aust and Marty Shukert, architect and preservationist George Haecker, historians Harl Dalstrom, Thomas Kuhlman, Bill Pratt and Garneth Peterson, developers Sam and Mark Mercer and entrepreneur Frankie Pane.
The Jobbers Canyon debacle came at a time when downtown was reeling and in danger of being an empty shell. If not for major investments by a few key players. it may never have come back from the mass retail exodus to the suburbs it witnessed in the 1960s and ‘70s. In a real coup, the film features Old Market pioneers Sam and Mark Mercer, who describe the organic growth of this historic district into a cultural oasis — one that’s served as an anchor of stability.
The longest ongoing story of Omaha’s growth is its westward push. The film explains how this has been achieved by a liberal annexation policy that’s added subdivisions and even entire small communities to the tax rolls. The film touches on the fact that, outside a few developments, this sprawl has created a formless, characterless prairie of concrete and glass. The film also alludes to Omaha’s old neighborhoods, but only highlights one, Dundee, as an example of design and lifestyle merging.
Where the film doesn’t fare so well is in offering any real sense for the personality of the city. To be fair, filmmakers B.J. Huchtemann and Carl Milone didn’t intend to do that. Still, it would have been useful to try and take the measure of Omaha beyond its physical landscape. The only hint we get of this is via the many on-camera commentators who weigh in with their perspectives on Omaha’s changing face. And, to producer-director Huchtemann’s and co-producer-editor Milone’s credit, they’ve chosen these interpretive figures well. They’re an eclectic, eloquent, opinionated bunch and, as such, they reflect Omahans’ fierce independence and intelligence, which is at odds with the boring, white bread image the city often engenders. They are the film’s engaging storytellers.
Still, a film about the city’s changing face begs for an analysis of Omaha’s identity crisis. Mention the name, and outsiders draw a blank or recall a creaky remnant from its past or ascribe a boring blandness to it all. That’s before it had any “Wow” features. Now, with its gleaming new facade, Omaha’s poised to spark postcard worthy images in people’s minds. What is Omaha? What do we project to the world? The answers all converge on the riverfront. That’s where Omaha began and that’s where its makeover is unfolding. The monumental, sculptural pedestrian bridge may be the coup de grace. Interestingly, the film explains how much of what’s taking place was envisioned by planners 30 years ago. It’s all come together, in piecemeal fashion, to make the water’s edge development Omaha’s new signature and face.
So, what does it say about us? It speaks to Omahans’ desire to forge ahead and be counted as a premier Midwest city. No mention’s made of Hal Daub, the former mayor whose assertive energy drove Omaha, kicking and screaming, into the big time. He gave Omaha attitude. The film suggests this bold new city is here to stay.
- From the Archives: An Ode to the Omaha Stockyards (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Book Explores University of Nebraska at Omaha’s Rich History (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- In Memory of a Omaha Old Market Original, Fruit and Vegetable Peddler Joe Vitale (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- George Eisenberg’s Love for Omaha’s Old Market Never Grows Old (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Remembering the Virginia Cafe and the Restauranter Family Legacy of Filmmaker Alexander Payne (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- A Synergy in North Omaha Harkens a New Arts-Culture District for the City (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Everything Old is Newly Restored Again at Historic Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Omaha (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Where Community, Neighborhood and Representative Democracy Meet (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Jane Fonda Comes Home (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Litniks Unite! The Downtown Omaha Lit Fest Brings Writers, Artists and Readers Together in Celebration of the Written Word (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
One of the most popular religious figures in Omaha is Rev. Tom Fangman, pastor of Sacred Heart Catholic Church. He oversees a parish that includes the church, an elementary school, and community outreach services offered through the Heart Ministry Center. These and other activities serve the poorest of the poor in poverty stricken North Omaha. A few years ago the historic church underwent a major restoration and in this article for Omaha Magazine I quote the pastor describing just what a transformation this makeover entailed in a neighborhood and community in need of whatever positive change that can come their way. This blog contains other articles I’ve done related to Sacred Heart, Fr. Fangman, and the Heart Ministry Center.
by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in Omaha Magazine
In today’s parlance, everything “pops” now at historic Sacred Heart Catholic Church as the result of a 2009 restoration that Rev. Tom Fangman, pastor of the northeast Omaha parish, likes to call “an extreme church makeover.”
The $3.3 million project made long overdue improvements to the 108-year-old church at 22nd and Binney. Designated an Omaha landmark, the church is on the National Register of Historic Places.
The parish was founded in 1890 at a nearby location. The land for the present church was donated by Omaha business magnate and philanthropist Herman Kountze. The stone, late Gothic Revival style edifice with a 124-foot spire was erected there in 1902.
This long history has been much on the mind of Fangman. The Omaha native has served Sacred Heart for 12 years. As steward of the church, he feels responsible to the rich legacy it represents and for which he is keepsaker.
But a poor parish like his that serves an underprivileged neighborhood has few resources. What little it does have goes to Sacred Heart School and the Heart Ministry Center. Supporting the needs of at-risk youths and adults takes precedence. That reality resulted in letting things slide at the church. Two years ago though Fangman decided repairs could no longer be put off.
“We didn’t do it out of luxury, we did it out of necessity,” he said. “Almost everything was in such dire condition that it needed to be redone or made new. Our stained glass windows had been declared dangerous by three companies because the lead was so old it was cracking and bubbling. The windows were falling apart.
There were cracks across the ceiling, and there were times when I’d be saying Mass and paint chips would fall down.
“We didn’t know how much longer the boiler was going to work.”
The first thing he did was assemble a project team led by: architecture firm RDG; general contractor Boyd Construction; Brother William Woeger with the Omaha Archdiocese; and Sacred Heart members Mike Moylan, a real estate developer, and Stephanie Basham, an interior designer.
Specialists from around the nation were brought in along with local experts, including Lambrecht Glass Studio, which restored Sacred Heart’s exquisite stained glass windows, and McGill Brothers Inc., which did cleaning and tuckpointing.
Rather than do a piecemeal fix over years, the consensus was to tackle the whole job at once. Fangman announced the capital campaign in 2008 and within a year all pledges were secured. “There’s no way our parish ever could afford anything like this,” he said. “We reached out and I spent a lot of that year going out and talking to people.” He made the case and folks responded.
“It’s close to a miracle.”
For Fangman, caring for the building meant respecting the history of the parish and preserving this place of worship for future generations.
“This is an important church in Omaha. It’s pretty sacred to lots and lots of families,” he said. “I just felt like we owed it to the people that started this parish 120 years ago. They built something and gave us something beautiful and lasting, and we have been the recipients of that. I just felt like we owed it to the people that gave this to us over a century ago and we owe it the people that will come next.
“It’s bigger than just what we’re doing today.”
Besides, he said, “Sacred Heart deserved a facelift.”
Years of crud were meticulously cleaned away. Grime, grit, soot. Decades worth cast a dark veil over the exterior, obscuring the pink limestone that, finally revealed again, resembles the subtle pink marble facing of the Joslyn Art Museum.
“The new vividness and brightness is amazing,” said Fangman. “I do feel like I am in the old Sacred Heart, but everything feels so new and preserved. It was very important to the whole team we maintained the integrity of the building.”
Even longtime friends tell him they can “hardly believe it’s the same structure.” “It’s exciting to see the pride that our parishioners have in it and in its beauty,” he added. “I still get choked up when I walk in there.” He said the project seemed to encourage neighbors to do fix-ups to their properties.
Teams of craftspeople took over Sacred Heart during the intensive six-month project. Floor to ceiling scaffolding was put up. Crews worked day and night. To accommodate it all on such a short schedule the church was temporarily closed. Sanctuary items were removed. Services relocated to the school gymnasium across the street. Fangman said area churches were “gracious” in accommodating weddings and funerals.
The project’s comprehensive scope encompassed: replacement of the roof, the gutter, the floors and the heating system; laying a new foundation; installing the church’s first air conditioning system; building a baptismal font; restoring the chapel as well as all the church’s extensive stained glass windows, murals and woodwork, including the pews and confessionals.
Watching it all unfold with curiosity and appreciation was Fangman. “We were under the wire so much, but everybody came through. We had people who were looking out for us.” And maybe a touch of divine intervention. He said a team of workers from New York City came in on their own one weekend, for free, to paint a chapel backdrop not in the budget. He said a craftsman who worked on the baptismal font described having a spiritual experience that prompted him to relocate his wife and daughter here from Florida. The family now attends Sacred Heart. The daughter is to baptized at the very font her father helped fashion.
It’s another example to Fangman of how “there’s so many God-things with this project.”
He said the revitalized church is a visible, tangible sign of Sacred Heart’s good works. He hopes more people come there to worship and to support its social justice mission. He prays it also stands as a symbol of revitalization for a community with great needs and sends a signal that Sacred Heart is there to stay.
“We’ve been here and were going to continue to be here.”
Fangman never knew a makeover project could be so impactful.
“When I started, it wasn’t clear to me what it would mean and how beautiful it would all turn out. It turned out better than I ever imagined.”
On Nov. 23 Archbishop George Lucas presided at the restored church’s dedication and the altar’s consecration.
The restoration project had turned up time capsules from previous events. Just as his predecessors did Fr. Tom composed a letter describing the latest milestone and placed it in a capsule for a future pastor to discover.
One more link in an unbroken chain of faith.
- St. Patrick’s Cathedral Set To Undergo $177 Million Restoration (newyork.cbslocal.com)
- Studio salvages stained-glass church windows (rep-am.com)
- Omaha Corpus Christi Procession Draws Hundreds (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)