Archive

Posts Tagged ‘South Omaha’

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.

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

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

 

 

The Garcia Girls

August 6, 2012 1 comment

 

Success runs in certain families and most of America loves nothing better than classic immigrant success stories.  That’s what the Jesus and Beatriz Garcia family of Omaha represents.  Their success starts with the now elderly but still active parents who came from Mexico to make a better life for themselves and their six girls, who were all born in Mexico but primarily raised in America.  My story for El Perico focuses on how the sisters have achieved much educationally and professionally, always guided by the hard-working, aspiring example of their parents.  Just as the parents are inspirations to the Garcia girls so are the sisters inspirations to each other.

 

 

 

 

arteabla.ning.com

 

 

 

The Garcia Girls

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in El Perico

 

When Jesus and Beatriz Garcia left Mexico for America decades ago their fervent wish was to give their family a better life. In that, there’s no doubt they succeeded. The couple captured the American Dream by working hard, owning their own home, becoming fixtures at Our Lady of Guadalupe Church and raising six girls.

The Garcias have seen their daughters, all born in Mexico, grow into accomplished women with families and careers of their own. The Garcia Girls carry on their parents’ tradition of serving others. At the 2011 Latino Heritage Awards the eldest, Magdalena “Maggie” Garcia, was honored for her work as El Museo Latino founder and executive director. Baby sister Maria Vazquez, associate vice president of student affairs at Metropolitan Community College, was named Latina of the Year.

“I’m amazed at Maggie’s and Maria’s accomplishments, and at all my other sisters.

They’re all working hard and continuing their education, and I’m doing the same thing,” says Silvia Wells, El Museo Latino managing director.

The sisters have all attended college as nontraditional students. The only one without a degree, Lori Ramirez, is working on it. Some have multiple degrees. Each has a chosen profession. It all stems from strong parental guidance. Maggie recalls, “My father sat me down and said, ‘My responsibility is to provide for you what you need. Your responsibility is to do the best you can.’ He never said you have to do this or that, he just said, you have to do the best you can. The demands were what each one of us placed on ourselves.”

 

 

 

Jesus and Beatriz Garcia

 

 

Education was always stressed. “They put all six of us through Catholic school. They both worked. My dad sometimes had two and three jobs,” says Maggie.

Jesus trained in fine woodworking and construction in Mexico and his expert craftsman’s skills made him employable here. He repaired furniture for Nebraska Furniture Mart. Later, he opened his own shop, Jesse Garcia‘s Repair, at 13th and Vinton Streets in South Omaha, where the Garcias are an old-line Latino family.

He also built custom display cabinets for daughter Maggie’s museum. He closed his shop last year but still keeps his hands busy for select customers.

Beatriz, who learned seamstress skills in Mexico, labored 30 years at Pendleton Woolen Mills. She started as a sewer and retired as a supervisor. A talented cook, she makes her famous enchiladas and burritos for museum and church fundraisers. She marvels at what her daughters have made of themselves.

“I’m so proud of all my girls.”

In turn, the Garcia Girls admire their parents. Beatriz “Betty” Garcia Gonzalez, a licensed clinical social worker and mental health professional with two degrees, is struck by their “humility and determination.” She and her sisters appreciate the effort their folks made taking them to Mexico every summer for two-week immersions in family, heritage and culture. They value their devotion to church and their legendary work ethic. Wells says these values are “deeply rooted” in them all.

 

Maria Vazquez

 

“Those pillars of lessons” says Vazquez, shaped the Garcia Girls. That example now shapes four generations of Garcias, “Mom and Dad are still healthy and they’re still very much a part of our lives. They still encourage us,” says Patty Tello, an Educare Center of Omaha family enrichment specialist..  “They worked so hard so that we could have an education. Always in the back of my head was that I had to make them proud of me because of their sacrifice.”

“I’m very happy my parents had the desire for us to complete our education and go further than just high school,” says Wells.

Maria says, “They’re the smartest people I know. They valued education. They always certainly encouraged us to do our best and to work hard and give back, and with that foundation we were able to do anything.”

Indeed, Silvia says her folks made her feel “I’m capable of reaching any goal I wish to attain.” She can count on “always having their support.” And the support of her sisters. “It is nice to always have someone encouraging you and I think we all encourage each other.” “We’re there for sounding boards,” says Maggie.

Tello says the family always pitches in to babysit as needed.

There’s some sisterly prodding, too. “If I’m thinking, This is difficult, there’s always someone there to say, ‘I know you can do it,’ or, ‘I did it, you can do it, too,” says Silvia. Patty was inspired to go back to school after seeing Silvia do it.

“I think we’ve challenged each other,” says Betty.

The striving continues. Silvia is midday through graduate studies at Bellevue University. Patty is studying for her master’s in childhood education at Concordia (Seward, Neb.) University. Vazquez is going after her Ph.D. in educational administration at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

Betty says the family’s left “a legacy.” “And there’s still more to come,” says Patty, adding, “We’re still pushing the envelope and seeing what more can we do.”

“We all try to be a part of the community we live in and make it a better place to live,” says Silvia.

As the oldest, Maggie led the way by embarking on a corporate career, then becoming the first in her family to attend college.

“Maggie was working full time and married when she started at UNO. I remember her taking me when she registered for classes. She wanted to expose me to that environment, to that other world,” says Maria, who went on to earn degrees from Metro and the University of Nebraska at Omaha.

 

 

 

Magdalena “Maggie” Garcia, right, with her Latino Heritage Award

 

 

Maria Vazquez making her Latina of the Year acceptance speech at Latino Heritage Awards

photos ©2007 – 2010 Barrientos Scholarship Foundation, http://www.barrientosscholarship.org

 

 

 

After Maggie completed her master’s at Syracuse University she was unsure what to do next. “My father told me, ‘Whatever you decide to do you have our support in whatever way we can, but find something that makes you happy and you’re passionate about.’” She fulfilled her dream opening the museum. The whole family’s volunteered there.

As each Garcia Girl’s found success, the whole family’s shared in it. The legacy lives on.

 

 

 

El Puente: Attempting to Bridge the Divide Between Grassroots Community and The System

July 22, 2012 3 comments

 

When people refer to “the grassroots” in communities they are generally describing average men women busy living their lives, working jobs, raising families, and thus mostly disconnected from the official city apparatus, such as law enforcement, in place to protect and serve them.  This is especially true of inner city neighborhoods with a high proportion of residents for whom English is a second language.  There’s often a built-in distrust of The System.  One attempt to bridge he divide in South Omaha’s barrios is El Puente, a joint effort by a local minister, Rev. Alberto Silva, and a local journalist, Ben Salazar, with deep ties to the Latino community there.  This is their story.

 

 

 

photo
Grace United Methodist Church, ©photo by The Bouncing Czech

 

 

El Puente: Attempting to Bridge the Divide Between Grassroots Community and The System

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in El Perico

 

Experience has taught two longtime South Omaha community activists that a gulf exists between some residents and those assigned to protect and serve them.

Nuestro Mundo publisher Ben Salazar and Grace United Methodist Church pastor Alberto Silva recognize the need for a confidential, community-based advisory service that operates independently of police or government.

“It doesn’t take a genius to figure out there is this fear on the part of many immigrants and Spanish speakers to come forward and speak to the police when an issue arises, so we know there’s a void there that we hope to bridge,” said Salazar.

That reality led Salazar and Rev. Silva to form El Puente or The Bridge as a conduit that links community members with professionals. A March 29 press conference at Grace announced the nonprofit, a companion project to the church’s Latino empowerment outreach program, La Casa Del Pueblo. Both are based at the church, 2418 E Street.

The men say many things explain why individuals remain silent rather than contact officials: a person’s illegal or undocumented status; fear/distrust of authority; language barriers; and unfamiliarity with the social service, law enforcement, justice systems.

Salazar and Silva say they and other volunteers staffing El Puente can directly assist inquirers or refer them to experts.

Already, Silva said El Puente’s fielded complaints of racial profiling, discrimination and domestic violence. Tips about criminal activity are welcome. Whenever possible, a person’s identity is kept private. As necessary, information is passed onto authorities or agencies. In many cases El Puente connects people to social and/or legal services.

 

 

 

article photo

Rev. Alberto Silva leading a prayer vigil, ©Omaha World-Herald

 

 

 

Journalists and ministers don’t often work together, but this newsman and preacher saw they could do more together than apart.

“Since we both worked almost exclusively with the Latino community in different ways we knew that if we merged our experiences together in this effort it would be beneficial to the community because we know the void exists,” said Salazar.

Both want the community and police to view each other as allies, not adversaries.

“The whole thing for me is I want to see collaboration between the police and the Latino community,” said Silva. “The domestic violence issue is very prevalent right now, but there’s such a fear.”

As illustration, he said a young Latina at the press conference testified she did not report her former partner’s domestic violence against her because he was a U.S. citizen and she was not. Rather than jeopardize her residency status, her abuse went unspoken. Silva said the woman went on to say she and others in such predicaments would welcome a resource like El Puente.

Silva has a sense there’s a big problem out there. “I have been dealing with a lot of domestic violence cases. People keep calling with these types of issues, especially immigrant women,” he said. Ideally, he said, El Puente can link men or women or families to counseling or shelters or other assistance they need.

 

Nuestro Mundo publisher Ben Salazar, ©nuestromundonewspaper-nebraska.com

 

 

 

The need for a discreet sounding board may be greater than ever because the anti-immigrant climate imposes a chilling effect on people volunteering or reporting things, say Salazar and Silva. They feel the recent “green card” incident targeting South High athletes and fans was a symptom of racist fervor that “gives license” to prejudice.

“My opinion is that discrimination has been holding on fast like Jim Crow for years, maybe just not as blatantly as now,” said Salazar.

“It just went underground for a little bit,” said Silva. “It wasn’t socially acceptable to display it or talk about it like it is now again.”

Silva said soon after El Puente’s launch, several people reported loved ones being detained after traffic stops. Those kinds of incidents, he and Salazar say, diminish trust and discourage some Latinos from expressing their concerns or asserting their rights.

“How are they going to have that trust to come forward when they hear that people are getting stopped on the Interstate and being taken directly to the ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) office and held for deportation?” Silva asked. “People are disgusted with the graffiti problem. They would love to come forward but how are they going to go to the police when you have this immigration enforcement mentality permeating the thought of the immigrant community?”

The absence of an Omaha police auditor office is a barrier to people reporting possible law enforcement misconduct, say El Puente leaders.

Southeast precinct captain Kathy Gonzalez acknowledges that “sometimes people don’t feel comfortable coming directly to the police department.” She endorses El Puente, terming its bridge or mediator role “a huge asset” and “a working partnership between the police and the community. She added, “Sometimes people don’t know where to turn…so it’s just one more step that can assist us with community outreach and it’s one more place they can go to get connected to resources.”

Retired Omaha Police Department officer Virgil Patlan sees El Puente, which he volunteers with, as “an extension” of the community policing efforts of the Nebraska Latino Peace Officers Association he headed up. “We can work with people in ways the police can’t,” he said. “It’s just better to have someone not in uniform that the community may feel more comfortable with. He frees up the police also.”

Patlan, Silva and Salazar say they have ample street credibility but “building trust” is an ongoing process. Silva said it’s critical people know what they say will be held in strictest confidence. Patlan said he and his El Puente compadres each bring something unique to the task: “We’re not from the same mold and yet we all complement each other in certain ways. We just love the community, there’s no doubt about that.” Each boasts extensive community connections.

Despite not being immigrants themselves, Salazar said they don’t feel “completely removed” “because our parents and grandparents were a part of that experience. And it’s not purely an immigrant experience per se we’re responding to. It is a Latino experience of living in this country. Discrimination is not limited to legal status. Often times even Latinos who are second-third generation born here are treated as outsiders, as immigrants, as not fully a part of the Anglo society.”

El Puente contact numbers are: (Silva) 650-0848, (Salazar) 731-6210 and (La Casa) 614-2820.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 3,288 other followers

%d bloggers like this: