Archive

Archive for the ‘South Omaha’ Category

Art and community meet-up in artist’s public projects; Watie White mines urban tales

September 24, 2014 Leave a comment

Omaha-based artist Watie White is making a name for himself in part through his public art projects that reflect the stories of urban neighborhoods and communities.  This is a Reader (www.thereader.com) piece I did about his 2014 public art projects in Omaha.  You can find on this blog a story I wrote last year about a similar project he did.

 

 

Watie White Exhibit

 

 

Art and community meet-up in artist’s public projects; Watie White mines urban tales

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

 

Omaha artist Watie White’s humanist public art projects reveal the narratives of transitional urban neighborhoods. The dynamics of locations and the people living there shape his site-specific works.

Three 2014 projects, one completed and the others in-progress, all connect to community organizations whose social justice missions “align” with his own.

“The kind of organizations I am most attracted to are the ones who make a splash with a handful of incredibly passionate people that affect the lives of many families,” he says.

His new All That Ever Was, Always Is exhibition at two abandoned homes slated for demolition in northeast Omaha continues his work with Habitat for Humanity. In 2013 he repurposed an empty home in the same area with original paintings symbolizing the family that lived there and the neighborhood it was part of. He installed prints in the window frames. After the exhibit came down, the condemned house was razed. A vacant lot sits in its place awaiting a new build.

Habitat executive director Amanda Brewer says White’s projects add depth to the agency’s blight remediation work: “They celebrate the rich history that comes with older homes and neighborhoods. The time and respectfulness he puts into getting to know the neighbors, the history of the neighborhood and involving neighbors in his project strengthens Habitat’s efforts to involve the entire neighborhood in our work.”

The house(s) Habitat loans him – for his new project he tackled side by side houses at 1468 and 1470 Grant St. – become cultural excavation sites and art canvasses. He insinuates and immerses himself by doing interviews with neighbors and, where possible, with folks who lived in the dwellings, combing through contents for artifacts and narrative clues, taking photos, using subjects as models.

All of it inspired 51 original paintings he made for the two current structures. Acrylic vinyl prints were installed since July 19 and remain up through year’s end. The houses will then be razed for new homes to go up in their place. His assistant Peter Cales salvaged materials to make benches and tables as communal gathering spots. White’s planning public dinners and conversations at the site.

Dialogue’s a hoped-for by-product of the The Wheels Keep Turning murals Justice for Our Neighbors-Nebraska commissioned him to create. The agency provides legal, education, advocacy services for immigrants. The murals will go in immigrant-rich areas in South Omaha, North Omaha, Benson and Little Italy. White describes the subjects as “inspirational people every day making a positive influence in their neighborhood.”

 

 

 

 

 

Elisha Novak. JFON program director and mural project coordinator, says the murals are intended to shine a positive light on immigrant contributions and to empower more immigrants to share their stories.

“We will also host a series of public meetings, discussions and lectures around the unveiling of the murals to engage the public in a constructive dialogue about immigration-related issues. Additionally, we hope to increase awareness of immigrants and their needs, while incorporating a path to services through JFON.”

Among the models are 78-year-old Mexican immigrant Ramona Silva Gonzales and South Sudan refugee Mary Aketa George, a program officer with the Southern Sudan Community Association. White’s drawing on Ramona’s recollections of her and her cousins picking flowers in the fields of the farm she grew up on and singing ranchera songs. He’s incorporating Mary’s memories of the harsh refugee camp life she endured and how the experience motivated her to help people.

White hopes his murals, including one up at JFON, 2414 E St., “shifts the perception of what the immigrant and new Nebraskan face is.”

He’s placing the murals near where the subjects’ live. Ramona’s will be at the Intercultural Senior Center she’s found a second home at.

White’s inCOMMON Community Development project, You Are Here, will feature Park Avenue district murals and prints along that mid-town drag, plus a 100-foot tall banner mural on the Park North public housing tower, 1601 Park Ave., all reflecting diverse residents’ lives. Jay’s an itinerant musician with dreams of his own nightclub. Anthony’s a street activist-poet spitting do-the-right-thing rants.

inCOMMON director Christian Gray says the art’s meant to reduce the “disconnection and marginalization” public housing residents often feel,” adding, “This goal connects closely with InCommon’s mission of uniting and strengthening vulnerable neighborhoods in its effort of including-incorporating public tower residents within the life of the surrounding community.”

 

 

 

White knows the banner mural will draw much attention.

“It’s a resident community and people walk that neighborhood and this thing is just going to be gigantic. It’s going to loom over that neighborhood. It will inevitably be what everyone takes out of that community. It’s going to be so much louder than anything else. It will be the largest thing I’ve done. It feels like a lot of responsibility.”

His challenge is finding the right aesthetic-content balance. He wants the banner to feel of the community, not imposed on it. Neither too rosy, nor too negative but a “powerful” evocation of “personal, lived experiences – I want it to have that feeling their voice is in it.”

Park Avenue’s similar to the North Omaha section he’s worked in. Both feature compromised, underserved neighborhoods. He came to do houses in North O when he couldn’t find suitable mural spaces there.

“I was wanting to work in that community but there aren’t traditional walls to work on.”

When Habitat offered him condemned homes, he says, “I was like, ‘Yes, that gets me there, I can do something with that.'”

Paintings in the studio become something different installed behind broken glass in the distressed neighborhoods they reflect and inhabit.

“There is no way to see them in the same way when you drive through the neighborhood to get there. You park, you maybe say hi to the people sitting across the street, maybe people come over. All that changes those paintings a lot.”

Once in place the images generate questions and conversations, For him, it’s about connecting to the neighborhood and adding benefit to it.

“There’s a distinct shift in the community that starts with the people that had something to do with it. They then kind of own that space and that neighborhood in a way they didn’t before. For the models there’s a certain self-esteem boost from having their head be five feet tall in some capital A art that ends up in the paper. Part of this process is getting people to tell me their stories they don’t think are important and then have me treat them as important.”

The resulting media coverage gives subjects, their stories and neighborhoods a new currency, he says.

“All those things I feel like make this project better.”

As a white affluent artist dropping in on black poverty, he relies on partner organizations with deep stakes there to open doors for him.

“It gives me legitimacy in a community that is not mine. it allows me to have conversations with these people.”

 

 

Watie White Studio's photo.
Watie White Studio's photo.
Watie White Studio's photo.

 

Still, it takes time to build trust and rapport.

“It took the people on that 1400 block of Emmett a little while to kind of warm up to me and tell me those more true and awkward stories. It was several interviews in before I heard about the Hell’s Angels on the block and the role they played. They provided a safe space, they threw these parties and events that built community. The people really liked them. There was never a problem or racial issue with them.”

A neighbor, Miss Maybel, was inspired enough to start her own motorcycle club.

White traced the 1468 house to the family that last lived there, the Tribbles, whose matriarch, Jessie Tribble, was a single mother with aspirational dreams for her children.

Not everything White uncovers is positive.

“In doing these I feel like as an artist I have an obligation to express as much of the truth as I can find. Inevitably that leads me having to figure out what to do with unpleasant things.”

A daughter, Oretha Walker, confided a brother’s in jail for murder. White expressed in images positive and negative things about him. InCOMMON’s Gray says White’s careful handling of personal narratives like this dovetails with its own community listening approach.

“We believe under-resourced neighborhoods are rich with people who have dreams, talents and stories that can be leveraged toward community change and transformation. Watie has a highly unique talent for calling out these dreams and stories from within the communities he works.”

White also put in images discoveries from the 1470 house. An absentee owner rented it out as a daycare, then it was abandoned, then gutted by fire. A 1918 playbill from the long defunct corner Grand Theatre shows up as cinema bathing beauties. A piece of wall paper with John White penciled-in – the artist’s father’s name – gave Watie White permission to integrate his father and son in images.

Follow the artist’s projects at watiewhite.com.

Omaha’s Vinton Street Creativity Festival Celebrates a Diagonal Cultural Scene

July 2, 2013 1 comment

Street festivals are as emblematic of America as anything and my hometown of Omaha has it’s share of them.  A newer one, the Vinton Street Creativity Festival, is an urban pastiche that’s part carnival, part fair, part block party that takes its name and cue from the funky diagonal street where an eclectic assemblage of venues comprise Vinton’s historical business district.  This story appeared in advance of the recently held 2013 fest.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Omaha’s Vinton Street Creativity Festival Celebrates a Diagonal Cultural Scene

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in El Perico

 

The resurgence of both the Vinton Street Commercial Historical District and the greater Deer Park Neighborhood it resides in is impetus for the second annual Vinton Street Creativity Festival.

The 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. May 18 event is a free celebration of youth and community organized by the Deer Park Neighborhood Association, Habitat for Humanity and the City of Omaha. Vinton Street merchants are helping sponsor it.

The festival, whose hub is 18th and Vinton, will include live music, a street art throwdown, extreme skateboarding, breakdance performances, children’s  activities, arts and crafts displays, walking tours and a Victory Boxing Club demonstration. Food can be purchased from the district’s many eateries.

The Hector Anchondo Blues Band will headline the on-stage band lineup, which  also includes Pancho & the Contraband and Midwest Dilemma. Mariachi Zapata and Ballet Folklorico Xiotal will perform traditional music and dance, respectively.

The Omaha Creative Institute will present Elmo Diaz in a blacksmithing demo, Tom Kerr drawing caricatures and a watercolor station for kids to paint.

Linda Garcia will teach the Mexican paper cutting craft, appeal picado banderas, in creating miniature decorative flags.

Among a few dozen commercial historical districts in the nation, the Vinton strip is singular for its diagonal layout. The narrow, meandering road, with low-slung, century-old buildings set close to the street, follows a ridge line that may have been a trail or country road before the area’s late 19th century development.

Noted photographer Larry Ferguson, who’s long maintained a studio and living space in the Daniel J. Jourdan Building at 1701 Vinton, says as a result of the street’s serpentine shape “you have a lot of different vistas as you move along and through those curves – it’s like a piece of sculpture that way.”

Festivalgoers will come upon a commercially thriving district whose 14 historically significant buildings have been largely untampered with and house a diverse mix of service-based businesses. Many small business owners there are Hispanic. Their enterprises include bakeries, restaurants, a meat market and clothing stores.

The area is far livelier then when Ferguson moved there in 1987. “It was a derelict part of town. It was really bad,” he recalls. “Nothing but vacant storefronts and six bars. Very little street and pedestrian traffic.” He says as the South 24th business district filled “it was a natural progression for the Latino community to move up into this area to rebuild. That led to a big influx of property changes and people changes. To the point now we have constant traffic on the street during the day. A lot of new businesses have come on board that are making Vinton happen. The new businesses are just hopping.”

 

 

 

 

One of the biggest changes is the influx of families with young children. Deer Park Neighborhood Association president Oscar Duran says, “There are hundreds of young kids in our neighborhood.” In his work as a Neighborhood Revitalization Specialist with Habitat for Humanity Duran’s enlisted youth as volunteers and as participants in urban art competitions and mural projects.

“I saw we had a local asset of urban artists within the neighborhood, That started us asking ourselves what other ways could we outreach to our youth in the South Omaha area. How can we bring together a mash of different counter cultures and communities that celebrate youth being active, involved and a part of  something?

“So we invited some of the urban artists and break-dancers we’re familiar with as well as the nonprofits that do outreach-mentorship to cross pollinate with each other and celebrate what each of them is good at.”

Duran says the resulting youth and community-centered event is an attempt “to separate us from other neighborhood festivals because Deer Park itself is a very unique neighborhood. It’s a collection of smaller neighborhoods. It’s a melting pot. You go down Vinton Street and you have an internationally known photographer (Ferguson) who’s been there since the ’80s right next to a carniceria (meat market) who’s been there for ten and right across the street you have a pasterleria (bakery). Then there’s all the restaurants, the boutiques, the Capitol Bindery, Gallery 72.

“I think it’s really cool. It’s something that’s very organic to our area.”

New additions to the melting pot are The Apollon, a multi-genre arts event-dining space having its grand opening during the fest, and The Pearly Owl curio shop.

Apollon co-founder Ryan Tewell says the district is becoming known as a “friendly up-and-coming arts and dining destination without all the traffic and congestion and higher prices that come with it.”

Grants are assisting some owners with sprucing up the facades of their buildings. Duran says improvements to the surrounding area include the recent razing of condemned homes, the rehab of others and the construction of new residences.

“That revitalization brings new people, higher property values,” Ferguson says. “I’ve got 26 years here of watching this neighborhood transform, which has always been my dream. I’ve been trying to champion this street for a long time. It’s very exciting to see it happen.”

Ferguson and Duran view the festival as a showcase for what the area offers.

“There’s a really good core of people here,” Duran says. “A very strong sense of work ethic and community was already here and it’s not going to go away. There’s really an environment fostered here that people want to help each other.”

“Vinton’s becoming more unified,” says Ferguson. “It’s a real celebration of it. We’re totally jazzed and excited.”

Tapestries to celebrate Omaha neighborhoods; Theater by any other name

May 21, 2013 4 comments

 

The Great Plains Theatre Conference in Omaha is always looking for new ways to connect with audiences and in the following story for The Reader (www.thereader.com) I share the latest attempt to bring theater to where people live.  The conference’s PlayFest is presenting Neighborhood Tapestries in two well-defined inner city communities that don’t always have the kind of access to theater that other communities do.  The idea of these tapestries is for people of these communities to share various aspects of their neighborhood’s art, music, culture, and history.

 

Tapestries to celebrate Omaha neighborhoods; Theater by any other name

©by Leo Adam Biga

Soon to appear in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

The play’s still the thing with the Great Plains Theatre Conference but organizers are making a concerted effort to expand theater’s definition in order to connect more people to it.

The May 26-29 PlayFest is the Metropolitan Community College conference’s answer to making theater more accessible. That means staging works at nontraditional sites, including one along the riverfront, and, new this year, holding Neighborhood Tapestries in the inner city.

The inaugural tapestries, a cross-between a chautauqua, a street arts event, a storytelling festival, a salon and a variety show, will happen outdoor on separate dates in North and South Omaha. Each neighborhood’s art, culture and history will be celebrated through a loose program of music, poetry, stories, dance and other creative expressions. The performers will include professionals and amateurs.

On May 27 the North Omaha tapestry, directed by Denise Chapman, will interpret the area’s African American experience at the Union for Contemporary Art at 2417 Burdette Street.

 

 

 

Union for Contemporary Art

 

 

Chapman, an actress and stage director, is the Omaha Community Playhouse education director and a Metropolitan Community College theater instructor. She’s worked with a team to produce the event.

“We’re creating a thread,” she says. “We are thinking of our show as a block. So who are these people on the block? Borrowing from Sesame Street. who are the people in your neighborhood? We want to have this musical and movement throughline with these transitional words and the sharing of these stories as people get up and talk about community and food, growing up on the North Side, memories of their mothers and just all these different people you might encounter on a street in North Omaha.

“That thread allows us to plug in people as we get them, as they see fit. Who knows what could happen with the evening. We’ve got that flexibility. It’s not a rigid the-curtain-opens and this-series-of-events needs to happen for the show to make sense and come to some conclusion. Instead it’s this nice woven piece that says here are some things that happened, here are some reflections, here is some music , here’s a body in space moving. Hopefully at the end you’re like, Oh, let’s get around this circle and have a conversation.”

 

 

 

Denise Chapman

 

 

She says GPTC producing artistic director Kevin Lawler gave her a “very open” script to take the event wherever she wanted.

“I’m excited about this project because it allows us to explore the concept that we’re all performers with this urge to tell a story or to share this happening or to recount this thing that happened to us. But where’s the platform for that? When do we get together and do it? What we’re doing is throwing some artists and musicians and actors in the mix. It’s engaging us as theater practitioners to not be so static in our art form and it engages the community to understand that theater isn’t this other thing that happens on the other side of the city.”

Featured storytellers include Nancy Williams, Felicia Webster, Peggy Jones and Dominque Morgan, all of whom will riff and reflect on indelible characters and places from North O’s past and present.

Jazz-blues guitarist George Walker will lay down some smooth licks.

Member youth from the North Omaha Boys and Girls Club will present an art project they created. Works by Union for Contemporary Art fellows will be displayed.

Chapman sees possibilities for future North O programs like Tapestries that celebrate its essence. She says such programs are invitations for the public to experience art and own it through their own stories.

“Then you start having those conversations and then you realize the world is a lot smaller than you think it is,” she says. “It just starts to close the gap. So yeah I think there’s a real possibility for it to grow and create these little pockets of reminders that we’re all performers and we all need our platforms for creation.”

 

 

 

Collin Field

 

 

The May 29 South Omaha tapestry will take a similar approach in fleshing out the character and personalities of that part of town. The site is Omaha South High’s Collins Stadium, 22nd Ave. and M Street. Director Scott Working, the theater program coordinator at MCC, says he’s put together an event with “a little music, a little storytelling, a little poetry to let people know some of the stories and some of the history of the neighborhood.”

He says he got a big assist from Marina Rosado in finding Latino participants. Rosado, a graphic designer, community television host and leader of her own theater troupe, La Puerta, will also emcee the program. She led Working to retired corporate executive David Catalan, now a published poet. Catalan’s slated to read from three poems written as a homage to his parents.

Rosado also referred Working to artist and storyteller Linda Garcia.

“I will be doing a storytelling segment based on my Abuelita (Grandmother) Stories,” says Garcia. “The story I am telling is an actual story of my abuelita, Refugio ‘Cuca’ Hembertt, and my exposure to her insatiable reading habits. That led to my discovery and connection with languages and the power of words.*

Even Louie M’s Burger Lust owner Louie Marcuzzo has been marshaled to tell South O tales.

Also on tap are performances by the South High School Louder Than a Bomb slam poetry team, Ballet Folklorico Xitol, the Dave Salmons polka duo and a youth mariachi band. Working also plans to bring alive an El Museo Latino exhibit of Latinos in Omaha. Individuals will read aloud in English the subects’ bios as a video of the subjects reading their own stories in Spanish plays. He says his inspiration for the evening’s revolving format is the Encyclopedia Shows that local artists and poets put on.

 

 

 

Scott Working

 

 

“It’s a combination of like standup and poetry and music and theater,” Working says. “It’s relaxed, it’s fun. Plus, I don’t think I could get David Catalan and Louie Marcuzzo to come to six rehearsals to get it right. I trust them.”

Rosado embraces the format.

“I believe in the power of art. Music, dance, literature, theater and all cultural expressions can change a person’s life. That’s why I am so excited about the event. Scott has a genuine interest in showcasing the best of our community. Tapices is the word in Spanish for tapestries and I can hardly wait to see the unique piece of art that will be made at the end of this month.”

Catalan feels much the same, saying, “Stories told as a performing art leave lasting impressions on audiences and motivate many to learn more about heritage and ancestry.” He applauds Metro for its outreach to inner city Omaha’s “rich cultural history in the transitional ethnic populations.”

Lawler says Tapestries enables the conference “to be more rooted in the community,” particularly underserved communities. “I wanted to go further into involving the community and being something relevant for the community. That’s why I want to generate these stories from the community. It’s kind of a lifelong quest I have to keep looking at the art form and saying, ‘What are we doing that’s working but what are we doing that’s not working very well’  That’s part of the reason the whole PlayFest is free. Theater is just priced out of society’s ability to go. That doesn’t work.”

Just as Chapman feels Tapestries can continue to mine North O’s rich subject matter, Working feels the same about South O. He adds that other neighborhoods, from Benson to Bellevue, could be mined as well.

Both the North O and South O events kick off with food, art displays and music at 6:30 p.m.  Storytelling begins at 7:30.

For the complete PlayFest schedule, visit http://www.mccneb,edu/theatreconference.

Salvation Army Kroc Center and Omaha Conservatory of Music Partner to Give Kids New Opportunities

January 28, 2013 Leave a comment

 

Nonprofit organizations that share similar missions can find greater efficiencies and impact more people when they partner, sometimes even reaching new audiences and delivering new services in the process.  That’s what’s happened with the partnership between the Omaha Conservatory of Music and the Salvation Army Kroc Center that’s expanding music education and performance opportunities for youth thanks to agency one lending its expert instructors to students at agency two.  My Metro Magazine story about this collaboration follows.

 

 

Salvation Army Kroc Center and Omaha Conservatory of Music Partner to Give Kids New Opportunities

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in Metro Magazine

 

A perfect fit

Last fall a meant-to-be match became reality when the Omaha Conservatory of Music began offering music classes at the Salvation Army Kroc Center in South Omaha. OCM provides top-notch instructors and instruments and the Kroc eager students and first-rate facilities.

OCM’s been looking to do more outreach with underserved populations and the Kroc Center’s been seeking to expand its music offerings. So why not bring the Conservatory’s resources to the Kroc?

“It was kind of a perfect fit because the Salvation Army needed a music piece to offer the community and the Omaha Conservatory of Music had expertise in that.

It made sense,” says Mike Cassling, a Kroc advisory board member who brokered this marriage with OCM board member Betiana Simon. The pair got the two organizations talking and before long a full-fledged program was designed and launched for youth ages 3 to 18. Cassling, CEO of Cequence Health Group, helped fund the program.

“We didn’t have the instructors in house for the music, and music is something the Army loves, so it seemed like it would be a good fit if they could provide instructors and we could provide students,” says Major Catherine Thielke, the Kroc’s officer for program development.

The classes are free to Kroc Center members and $10 for nonmembers.

“Parents are loving the fact this is available to their children and that it’s not breaking their pocket,” says Kroc Center arts and education manager Gina Ponce, who adds that music is a vital part of Hispanic culture and having affordable classes right in heart of the community is a welcome addition.

OCM executive director Ruth Meints says there’s good congruence between the center’s community focus and the conservatory’s mission of building artistic community through education and performance.

Thielke agrees, saying, “The Salvation Army’s mission and purpose here at the Kroc Center is to inspire people to discover their God-given talents and to develop those talents. We saw that the Conservatory was helping kids start very young in finding their giftedness in music.”

Music adds enrichment

“I’m a huge proponent that the arts, which music is a part of, are a wonderful way to increase self-esteem, well-being and self-worth,” says Kroc arts and education coordinator Felicia Webster. “The classes are just perfect to introduce young people to music and to help them feel good about themselves.”

Where the Salvation Army has a long tradition of brass band music, it’s lacked much in the way of woods and strings.

“We’re about finding out what children’s spark is, and that expands much broader than a brass band and into the strings and other types of instruments,” says Thielke. “We’re just very excited to be partnering with the Conservatory and we’re really glad Mike and Betiana saw what benefit this would have to both groups.”

“They’re very visionary people who helped it become a reality,” adds OCM’s Meints.

 

 

 

 

Classes strike a chord and fill gap in music education 

The classes have proven more popular than anyone imagined. Ever since the first round began in early September sessions have filled, new spots have been created and waiting lists have formed.

Meints says there’s been “overwhelming response” and she adds “it’s great to see so many people get involved right away.” She expects enrollment for the next round of classes in January to increase.

In January a new guitar class will complement the brass, cello/bass, percussion, violin/viola, woodwinds and voice beat-boxing classes.

“In the Hispanic community the instruments that are very prominent for mariachi are violin, trumpet and guitar and so that will be a very neat addition,” says Meints.

More classes may be in the offing.

At the conclusion of each six-week class a concert’s held featuring student performers from both organizations. The first concert, on Oct. 27, was packed.

Meints says the individualized instruction offered youth helps them grow faster musically. Some Kroc students are already showing great potential and may be eligible for OCM scholarships, according the Meints, who’s excited about nurturing  this previously untapped talent.

Officials with both organizations say the classes for very young children fill a vital need because music education doesn’t start until middle school. Studies show getting kids started early in music can improve cognitive development and academic performance, says Meints. She and Thielke emphasize that the Sprouts class promotes family interaction by requiring parental-guardian participation.

For details and to register, visit http://www.omahakroc.org or call 402-905-3579.

Saving One Kid at a Time is Beto’s Life Work

January 24, 2013 Leave a comment

He goes by Beto.  Though middle-aged now Alberto “Beto” Gonzales can relate to the hard circumstances youths face at home and in the barrio because he faced difficulties at home and on the streets when he was their age.  He knows what’s behind kids skipping school or getting in trouble at school because he did the same thing to cover his pain when he was a teen.  He can talk straight to gang members because he ran with gangs back in the day.  He knows what addiction looks and feels like because he’s a recovering addict himself.  His work for the Chicano Awareness Center, the Boys and Girls Clubs of the Midlands, and other organizations has netted him many honors, including a recent Martin Luther King Jr. Legacy Award from Creighton University.  Beto is a South Omaha legend for the dedication he shows to saving one kid at a time.  My profile of him for El Perico tells something about the personal journey of transformation he followed to turn his life around to become a guiding light for others.

Alberto “Beto” Gonzales

 

 

Saving One Kid at a Time is Beto’s Life Work

©by Leo Adam Biga

Soon to appear in El Perico

 

Alberto “Beto” Gonzales believes working one-on-one with youths is the best way to reach them. His work as a mentor and gang prevention-intervention specialist has earned him much recognition, most recently the Martin Luther King Jr. Legacy Award from Creighton University.

Gonzales grew up in the South Omaha barrio he serves today as a Boys and Girls Clubs of the Midlands counselor. He does outreach with truants, many of whom come from dysfunctional homes. He knows their stories well. He grew up in a troubled home himself and acted out through gangs, alcohol and drugs. He skipped school. He only turned things around through faith and caring individuals.

“I was just an angry kid,” says Gonzales, who witnessed his father verbally abuse his mother. Betro’s internalized turmoil sometimes exploded.

“At 17 I almost went to prison for 30 years for assault and battery with the intent to commit murder. Then I got hooked on some real heavy drugs.”

“My mother prayed over me all the time and I think it’s her prayers that really helped me get out of this. I just decided to give my life to the Lord. “

When he’d finally had enough he completed his education at South High at 20.

The Chicano Awareness Center changed his life’s course. A social worker there saw potential in him he didn’t see in himself. Then he was introduced to a nun, Sister Joyce Englert, who worked as a chemical dependency counselor.

“She heard me out,” he says. “I talked to her about my drug addiction, how I couldn’t keep a relationship and all kinds of crap going on. What’s cool about that is she asked me if I would go talk to kids about the dangers of drugs and alcohol even though she knew I was an abuser. She said, ‘I think it’s important kids hear your story.’ I found myself crying right along with the kids as I shared it.

“She told me I had a passion for this and asked what I thought about becoming a counselor. Well, I’ve done a lot crazy, dangerous things in my life but the most frightening and hardest thing was to tell the truth that I couldn’t read or write that well.”

Sister Joyce didn’t let him make excuses.

“With her help I got a chemical dependency associates degree from Metropolitan Community College, which led me into working in the schools with adolescents dealing with addiction issues, and I loved it, I just loved it.”

He also got sober. He has 33 years in recovery now.

Beto reaching out to kids, ©d2center.org

 

 

Then he responded to a new challenge.

“When the gangs started surfacing I changed my career to working with gang kids,” he says. “That’s been my passion.”

He worked for the center until 2003, when he joined the Boys and Girls Clubs.

Having walked in the shoes of his clients, he commands respect. He uses his story of transformation to inspire.

“I had a faith my mother blessed me with, then I met a woman of faith in Sister Joyce who gave me my direction, and my job now is to give kids faith, to give them hope.”

He says it comes down to being there, whether attending court hearings, visiting probation officers, providing rides, helping out with money or just listening.

“It really takes a lot of consistency in staying on top of them. All that small stuff really means a lot to a kid who’s not getting it from the people that are supposed to be doing it for them, like mom and dad.

“Gangs ain’t never going to go away. The only thing we can do as a society is to find the monies to hire the people that can do the job of saving one life at a time. That’s what Jesus did. He then trained his disciples to go out and share his word, his knowledge, and they saved one life at a time. That’s all I’ve been doing, and I’ve lost some and I’ve won some.”

His job today doesn’t allow him to work the streets the way he used to with the hardcore kids.

“I’m not out there like I used to be.”

However, kids in his Noble Youth group are court-referred hard cases he gets to open up about the trauma, often abuse, they’ve endured. Talking about it is where change begins.

In a high burn-out field Gonzales is still at it, he says, because “I love what I do.” It hasn’t been easy. His first marriage ended over his job. Then tragedy struck home.

“There was a time in South Omaha when we were losing kids right and left and one of the kids killed was my cousin Rodolfo. It’s painful to see other people suffer but when it’s in your own family it’s a different story. Rodolfo was a good kid, I loved him, but he was deep in some stuff. When he got killed I lost it. That was a struggle. I told my employer, ‘I can’t do this anymore.’ I took a sabbatical, I just had to get away. I did a lot of meditation and praying and it only made me stronger.”

He’s not wavered since.

“I’ve got my faith and I’ve learned you’ve got to hand everything over to God, Don’t try to handle it yourself because you will crumble.”

Beto and family

Community-builders Jose and Linda Garcia Devote Themselves to a Life Promoting Latino Art, Culture, History

September 30, 2012 1 comment

 

Jose and Linda Garcia live and breathe Latino art, culture, and history, devoting much of their lives to researching, collecting, exhibiting, and preserving it.  This Omaha couple embody a passion and magnificent obsession in what they do.  The following cover story for the New Horizons keys off their most ambitious program to date, a month-long celebration of the Day of the Dead or Dia de los Muertos that they’re calling Music to My Bones.

A montage of Jose and Linda Garcia’s passion

 

 

Community-builders Jose and Linda Garcia Devote Themselves to a Life Promoting Latino Art, Culture, History

©by Leo Adam Biga

Now appearing in the New Horizons

 

Jose Francisco Garcia and Linda Garcia are one of those meant-to-be couples you rarely meet in real life. They’ve very different people in some ways and clealry alike in others but what they have at their core is an abiding respect and appreciation for each other.

Call them simpatico.

These retirees are two of the busiest people you’ll ever know. They immerse themselves in community activities that seek to enrich, educate and entertain.

Both bring diverse experiences and gifts to their relationship and to their community-centered work. Jose, 67, has business and organizational acumen from his years as an activist, program developer and corporate officer. He also brings a certain discipline from his stint in the U.S. Army. Linda, 66, is a artist, storyteller, teacher and former children’s librarian, with a fine aesthetic sensibility and keen intuition.

He’s the fly-in-the-ointment agitator. She’s the smooth-everything-over nurturer.

Though he says he’s a loner by nature, he doesn’t mind public displays and isn’t shy about promoting himself or Linda or their work. That’s not the case with her. You won’t find the many awards she’s been honored with displayed in their home.

“I’m not a commodity. I don’t want to be. I have a real hard time tooting my own horn,” she says. “To get people to pull stuff from me is real hard. I don’t like to be in the limelight that much. There for a while I couldn’t even sign my artwork because it’s not really just me, it’s a gift that comes through me. I really feel that.”

The multimedia artist works with lots of recycled materials, including cardboard and paper, to create sculptures, cutouts, toys and dolls.

She says she gets so lost in her work that “time is distorted,” adding, “I could be working on a project thinking it’s only been an hour and it’s been six hours.”

“The real world means nothing to her” in those creative reveries, says Jose, who credits whatever aesthetic awareness he’s gained to her.

Each is knowledgable and passionate about the art, culture and history of their shared Chicano roots. They’ve spent countless hours studying Mexican art, traveling to exhibitions, workshops, conferences. For decades they’ve collected Mexican art objects and materials and shared them with the public.

“We’re Chicanos. What we do is we share art history and culture – that’s what Chicanos do and we’ve lived by that credo,” says Jose.

Their largest scale event to date is Music to My Bones, an exhibition and celebration of Dia de los Muertos or The Day of the Dead that runs October 6 through November 12 at the Bancroft Street Market in South Omaha.

In addition to displaying original artwork by contemporary artists from the metro and Mexico the multimedia event features art presentations, art classes and live music and dance performances.

“We’re showing all those aspects of the Day of the Dead, from the traditional to the modern, and how people in the United States and in other regions, especially artists, have embraced the Day of the Dead,” says Linda. “It’s crossed cultures, it’s crossed religions, it’s crossed ages, it’s crossed regions as an expression of death, of talking about death in a positive way.”

The exhibit is dedicated to the memories of Isabel “Chavela” Gonzales Hernandez and the Barrientos brothers – Vidal, Juan and Panfilo – and their musical contributions to the community. Linda’s designed a large music ofrenda installation in honor of those two families and other Latino artists.

“We want it to be multidimensional for people who honestly want to know the tradition and culture of Dia de los Muertos.” says Jose. “We’ll have everything from ofrendas to presentations to kiosks to musical groups. We want to blanket it as best we can. And we have so much material we can put into action. It’s going to be relevant and traditional and not made up. The art’s going to be primo.

“We have a collection of metal works – candelabras – from Mexico. We have a huge collection of calaveras sugar skulls. Dioramas. So it’s a chance for us to utilize our collection.”

Jose will also be drawing on his huge Spanish music archive “to give body to the work.”

The dozens of artists and musicians participating in the show were “hand-picked” by Linda. “I want to highlight these artists and musicians. I feel like a mom to them,” she says.D

Among the featured artists she’s adopted is Bart Vargas, who’s come to appreciate what she and Jose contribute to artists like himself.

“Personally, I am very pleased to be working with Jose and Linda,” he says. “As a mixed blood artist I have often struggled with having a metaphorical foot in two worlds, never quite feeling a sense of belonging to either. As a child I had very little exposure to half of my origins, often feeling like an immigrant to my own Mexican heritage. I am excited to work with Jose and Linda because the upcoming exhibit is the first time that I get to work within the context of my own cultural heritage. Both Jose and Linda are very generous, knowledgeable and approachable. I have already learned much from them and look forward to working with them again.”

Much as the Garcias collect art, they collect artists, whom they work with over and over again. The exhibits the couple curate flow from their collection, which they began accumulating shortly after marrying in 1977.

“She didn’t become a material collector until I come around,” Jose says of Linda. “She was a spiritual collector. Everything was here,” he says, indicating her head.

Many of their acquisitions come from trips they’ve made to their ancestral homeland. They’ve now amassed private holdings that would be the envy of any museum. Their multi-story Bemis Park neighborhood home, whose oak-finished interior is in the Craftsman style, is filled with art and artifacts from basement to attic.

“We surround ourselves with our collection,” Linda says. “You’ll see we don’t take care of some household things because we spend all our money on art and books.”

Off-site storage units contain the rest.

At one point they did operate the Las Artes Cultural Center in South Omaha as a venue for showing some of their vast Mexican wares. More recently they formed the Mexican American Historical Society of the Midlands as a kind of extension of their collection. They now serve on the board of the organization, for whom they curate exhibitions and programs.

They often dip into their collection for presentations and workshops. Linda is an artist for the Nebraska Arts Council Artist in Schools and Communities residency program. She just finished a three-month summer residency at the Omaha South Branch Library, where she taught Mexican folk arts. She covered repujado (metal embossing), pinturas de amate (bark painting), nichos (Mexican decorative boxes), papel picado (Mexican paper cutting art), pinata making, printmaking and yarn painting of the indigenous Huichols and wood carving and painting of the indigenous Oaxaca people.

Maria Teresa Gaston, emeritus director of the Center for Service and Justice at Creighton University, has had the pleasure of being taught by Linda.

“One of my favorite experiences with Linda was attending an art workshop she led when she and Jose had Las Artes. She taught us how to make Mexican-styled cut metal ornaments from soda cans. I loved being in her presence and being led to connect with ancient traditions and release my own creative spirit. I have often thought of that Saturday morning and longed for more of that mentoring.

“She has a way of teaching that calls out beauty and belief in all who are with her.”

Gaston’s also enjoyed Garcia’s storytelling talent.

“This past summer I had the opportunity to hear Linda present stories and lead 50 young Latinas in hands-on artwork and personal exploration as a part of the Latina Summer Academy. Linda had the girls in the palm of her hand. They listened so attentively as she presented folk stories of love and beauty.”

Linda also teaches at Granville Villa Retirement Center, the South Omaha Boys and Girls Club, the Joslyn Art Museum and other sites.

Whatever the program or subject or theme, the Garcias likely have a ready archive or reference or example at hand to give the project depth or perspective. If they don’t have what they need themselves, they get it.

“We’ve used our material to design exhibits and as teaching materials. I use it a lot to teach,” says Linda.  “Anything we do, whether an exhibit or a talk, we do a lot of research. That’s the reason we have a collection, because we use it.”

Jose says the sizable library they’ve cultivated invariably contains books that “bubble up whenever we have a project.”

Their teaching and research often lead to new collecting interests.

For example, as soon as the couple began teaching about Oaxacan wood carvings, Jose says they had to have them, and so they collected them. “Now we own about 15 Oaxacan wood carving objects. Thats’ the story of our lives.” Thus, the collection ever expands as they add new elements. Their hard cover book collection alone numbers in the thousands.

Linda’s not alone in presenting the material. Jose, a trustee with the Nebraska State Historical Society and a former Douglas County Historical Society board member, also does his share of presenting and teaching. Gaston can attest to his ability to hold an audience.

“I fondly remember a presentation Jose gave on the life of Frida Kahlo (the Mexican painter and wife of Diego Rivera). Jose is a great  teacher and his words were accompanied by the power of the images he presented and the beautiful papel picado hanging behind him – works of Linda’s hands.”

Jose has also taken it upon himself to document Omaha Latino life through photographs. He makes a point of showing up and snapping pics, these days mostly with a digital camera, at countless community events. He posts the images to his Picasa web albums on Google-Plus. Sometimes his photos are published in El Perico and other local publications.

Gaston says, “I love seeing Jose around the community at events of all kinds.”

“You can call him a community photographer,” says Linda.

He also searches out documents and photos that illustrate the long, rich history and culture of Latino Omaha. Just one of his discoveries is an original framed poster printed in Spanish promoting a 1935 Cinco de Mayo celebration in Omaha. The event was sponsored by the Sociedad Mutualista Mexicana or Mexican Mutual Aid Society, founded in 1928. He says the society operated a school called Lazaro de Cardenas, where English was taught to Mexican immigrants, and took a census.

What’s important to know, he says, is that “we had neighborhoods that had experiences with our ancestral artistic and historic culture that was relevant to American history but we weren’t being taught it, we never learned it in public school. We learned from our own community. There was a Mexican community.”

He says most of the local Mexican population then was based in South Omaha. The railroads and packinghouses were their main employers.

“The history and contributions of Mexican-Americans to Omaha is such an important part of our story,” says Gaston, “and Jose so reverently, professionally and passionately keeps this history alive for Latinos and non-Latinos. He presents the courage and beauty and also the luchas (battles) and sufferings of La Raza (Spanish-speaking peoples). His leadership and advocacy on behalf of the Latino community have inspired young and old.”

She says the Garcias are nothing less than “community builders,” adding, “Jose and Linda’s incredible dedication to the well-being of the Latino community and the Omaha community deserves great thanks.”

Both Garcias are on the Speakers Bureau for the Nebraska Humanities Council. She’s a storyteller with NHC’s Prime Time Family Reading program at the South Branch Library.

Because of the amount of material in the Garcias’ possession, ranging from sculpture to fabric to paper objects to books, only a fraction can be displayed at any given time. So they bring out small selections to present with their talks and programs, et cetera.

“We don’t have a gallery, so our gallery is the community,” says Jose, and for Music to My Bones their gallery is the Bancroft Street Market.

The fall exhibition, which has been made possible by grant funding, “is a Jose and Linda Garcia production,” he says. “We’ll receive no compensation for our activities. It is all in benefit of the Mexican American Historical Society and to keep this historical objective going.”

 

 

Photo
Jose Francisco Garcia

Linda Garcia

 

 

These life partners enjoy collaborating on projects.

“Some people say relationships are like rivers and you’re within the same bank but with us it’s more than that. We’re a symbiotic relationship,” he says. “She’s kind of like my Jiminy Cricket. I’m very aggressive, I’m in your face, I’m an attack dog, that’s what I do. And she reels me in.”

Linda admires his tell-it-like-it-is style.

“You may not like what he says but he speaks up and says it in front of you. One thing I really learned from Jose is to speak out and not be this timid girl. I saw the respect people would give him because he would ask for what he wanted.

I’ve learned to ask for what I want.”

She believes they make an effective team. “I think to an extent we balance with each other. I think we do blend well.” And they genuinely enjoy each other’s company.”We like to spend time with each other. We share a lot of things. We have stacks of stuff we’ve written together. Some of it’s real personal.”

Jose, who grew up in Kansas City, Mo. and lost his mother at age 6, lived a kind of vagabond life until he wound up in Omaha and met Linda. He was going through a divorce at the time and he and Linda were just friends at first before becoming serious. He appreciates what he found in her.

“Linda is a very natural creature of her element,. She’s like an angel without being blessed. Everything is full of life and energy and she just can’t wait to tap into it, to share it. Linda has never brought a negative or bad influence into our relationship or into our domestic life or into the way that we raised our family.”

The couple have two grown sons, Che and Carlos Garcia, and two granddaughters, London and Elliette.

Photographs at the Mexican American Historical Society of the Midlands

 

One of the key things that brought them together in the first place and that keeps them together after 35 years is their shared Chicanoness. They both got caught up in the Chicano Movement of the 1960s and 1970s and for them the movement’s aim of empowering and immersing U.S. citizens of Mexican descent in the richness of their shared heritage has never ended. Indeed, the Garcias have devoted their retired years – she’s a former Omaha Public Library children’s librarian and he’s an ex-Union Pacific Railroad officer – to preserving and displaying their heritage.

“The Chicano movement was about identity,” Jose explains. “Yes, we were American and yes we knew English and yes we were third generation and yes we had college degrees but there was a certain disconnect between our life experience as Mexican Americans and George Washington. And then when the Chicano movement started welling up…Rev. Robert Navarro was the seminal guy, the match that lit the Chicano movement here in Omaha. Then all of a sudden nothing made sense, especially when you started hearing about all of this art and culture that had a thousand years of equity – the Mayans, the Aztecs – that was never even approached in our educational experiences. It drove Linda to find out what was going on.”

It drove Jose to find himself.

“I suppose part of the motivation to seek out an identity began way back on the 31st of January, 1966. At my Army induction-swearing in ceremony, I had a copy of my birth certificate I had never seen. On it my name was listed as Jose Francisco Garcia. This was an identity taken away from me by my kindergarten teacher Miss Margaret, when she changed my name to Joe Frank. So I enlisted in the US Army as Jose Francisco Garcia. To this day everyone in K.C. that is family knows me by Joe Frank.”

He served one tour in Vietnam with an engineer battalion operating in and around a support base, Dong Tam, near the city of My Tho. He was apolitical entering the service but he came out highly politicized.

“Emotionally, I changed and became obsessed with ending the war when I returned stateside. To this day I see every environment I am in as a possible threat and am under constant alert for intruders, danger, checking for escape routes, just in case. The Vietnam experience literally buried the joy of being alive and changed it into the anxiety of living.”

Back home he not only joined the antiwar effort he intersected with the burgeoning Chicano Movement. Much of his activism centered around the two colleges he attended in his native Kansas City.

At Penn Valley Metropolitan Community College, he says, “I connected with every radical group on the face of the planet, including the Weathermen, SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee), the Brown Berets, the Black Panthers. Always a loner, I gathered my causes in a singular manner and marched as they say to my own drums. After a stint on the student council, I organized Libra, an alternate bookstore.

“My first action as a student activist was taking over our chancellors’ office because he refused to install a ramp for a veteran that had been wounded in action and for other handicapped people.”

He says at the University of Missouri Kansas City he organized a group called United Mexican American Students and “became involved in West Side actions, blow-outs, marches, demonstrations.”

After getting his bachelor’s degree from UMKC he worked as a program developer with the Kansas Council of Low Income Peoples and Migrant Workers in Garden City, Kansas. He made several trips to D.C. to negotiate proposals for housing and health services.

Before coming to Omaha in 1976 he married and worked a series of jobs. He was employed at Xerox, twice, he became a hypnotist helping people lose weight and reduce stress,, he sold cemetery lots, he sold Kirby vacuum cleaners door to door, he even picked apples one harvest season in Kansas.

“I couldn’t keep a job. Then I came to Omaha and I started the whole thing all over again. I did various things here.”

He eventually got on with the Chicago Northwestern Railroad as a clerk and worked his way up to training personnel. The railroad was purchased by Union Pacific and years later he took his buy out from them.

Among his early Omaha gigs was serving as director of the Chicano Awareness Center. It’s where he met Linda, who was already active in the organization.

Omaha Latino activist Abelardo Hernandez says then as now Jose and Linda were a force to be reckoned with.

“She helped us with our art classes and later joined us in our folkloric dance troupe. She sacrificed a lot of her time to help the young kids understand the arts and traditions of our people. Linda has never let up in our struggle for knowledge.

Jose was able to identify with what we as Chicanos were trying to attain. He has managed to find some great archives that people have entrusted unto him.He has also given a lot of his time towards communicating with city and state officials. He seems to know what buttons to push when working in our behalf.”

When it came to relationships, Linda says she was dead set against marriage and had a whole rationale worked out to justify her attitude.

“I knew clear back as a girl that nobody was going to make me happy. I wasn’t going to give that responsibility to a person, no matter who it was,. Happiness does not come from outside, and I knew that when I was in the third grade. I don’t know what it was. I tell people I was born with old lady eyes. I was an old soul.”

Jose was immediately taken by her beauty and spirit. Linda, on the other hand, says, “I didn’t want a thing to do with him. I was involved with somebody else at the time anyway. Besides, I just didn’t think it was in the cards for me. I was older, kind of set in my ways being single. I wanted to do my own thing.”

She began warming however to this newcomer. He intrigued her.

“It was more curiosity about each other. We found out we could talk. Love and all that didn’t come until much much, much later, and I don’t even think we spoke it then. We just both knew we’d be together. He was one of the few people I could talk to and he really listened and he really looked at you and he had opinions.” We were compatible.”

 

 

Poster for the Garcias’ Music to My Bones exhibition and celebration

 

 

Just as Jose did, underwent her own identity catharsis.

“When I went to Mexico my senior year at College of St. Mary I came back very disappointed knowing I had taken four years of art history and the only time      anything Mexican was mentioned was one period, and it was just four muralists, and they were all male,” she recalls.

Mexico opened a whole new world to her she was eager to explore.

“In the marketplace I’d watch the women grab a piece of material and roll it and before your eyes came out a doll. It was amazing.”

She was enthralled by the handmade art, some of the techniques going back centuries, she came upon. Then there was all the history she discovered.

“It hit me really hard when I came back. First, it was a cultural shock. It was like, ‘Why didn’t anybody ever tell me this?’ And the answer was because it wasn’t up to them to tell you in any way, it’s up to you. But how do you know to look?

“I just became really hungry for getting my hands on this and the Chicano movement. It was like an awakening. That happened to a lot of people. What was awakened was the art, literature, of becoming who you are as a Chicano. I’m not really Mexican, I’m an American, but the combination made me a Chicana, which means I seek knowledge, but it’s not enough to stop there, you must transmit it to other people and share it. In other words, be a teacher.

“It’s not enough to collect and learn and keep it all to ourselves. Thats’ the reason for this place,” she says, referreing the Mexican American Historical Society.

It’s the reason for Music to My Bones.

“It is stuff to people, it’s more than that to us. It’s more than leaving things to people, it’s leaving the story. Without the story it’s absolutely meaningless.

“I made the commitment to show the kids I was teaching that there’s so much more. I just started digging. In the process of learning you have to do the research, you have to go out there and dig.”

There’s also the matter of leaving and passing on a legacy.

“I think everybody wants to do that in a way – to say, ‘I was here, I want to leave a mark.’ Like with the Day of the Dead they say there’s three deaths: the first death is the physical and then when you’re buried and nobody can see you, but the worst death is to be forgotten.

“We want to leave a legacy, OK, but it’s more than that, it’s trying to teach the community. They also have a legacy and they also have a responsibility to carry their family traditions and to know how to take care of photographs and keepsakes.”

About their role as historians, curators and culturalists, they say, “Somebody’s gotta do it.”

Their work is far from done in their estimation. They’d like to form a free research and public library containing their catalogued and digitized collection. They’d like to have a permanent exhibition space.

“We don’t have a million dollars but were Chicanos, we’re going to do what we have to do to get it done.,” says Jose.

And these two will do it together as long as they can.

“We’ve become two old souls together,” he says.

For Music to My Bones details call 402-651-9918 or visit http://www.bancroftstreetmarket.com.

 

Documentary Considers Omaha’s Changing Face Since World War II

August 15, 2012 1 comment

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.

 

 

©jeanmason.com

 

 

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.

Jobbers Canyon before

The Jobbers Canyon razing underway

 

 

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.

 

 

Omaha’s downtown riverfront today

 

 

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 3,288 other followers

%d bloggers like this: