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 (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
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.
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.”
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.”
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.
“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.
- Artists running with opportunity to go to the next level; Carver Bank resident artists bring new life to area (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Kevin Lawler Guides Ever Evolving Theater Conference to Put More Focus on Fewer Plays and Playwrights and to Connect Deeper with Community (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
Omaha, my Omaha. I have something of a love-hate relationship with my city, which is to say I have strong feelings about it and I always want it to be better than it thinks it can, though the attitude problem or more specifically inferiority complex it suffered from for so long has been largely replaced by a bold new, I-can-do confidence. That metamorphosis is part of what drew me to a documentary some years back that took the measure of Omaha by charting the changing face ofrcityscape since World War II, and what a marked difference a half-century has made. In truth, and as the doc makes clear, the most dramatic changes have only occurred in the last decade or two, when the city poured immense dollars into transforming parts of downtown, the riverfront, midtown, and South Omaha. Left mostly untouched has been North Omaha, where the city’s major revitalization focus is now aimed. The film also deals with one of the city’s biggest missteps – the razing of the Jobbers Canyon warehouse district to appease a corporate fat cat who wanted to put his headquarters there in place of what he called the area’s “big ugly red brick buildings.” Those buildings were historic treasures dating back a century and today they would be home to well-established retail, residential, commercial developments that would be employing people and generating commerce, thus pouring money back into the city’s coffers.
Documentary Considers Omaha’s Changing Face Since World War II
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
Omaha’s evolution into a homey yet cosmo metropolis that’s discarded, for better or worse, its gritty industrial-frontier heritage is the subject of a new documentary premiering statewide on the NETV network. Omaha Since World War II — The Changing Face of the City is a UNO Television production and a companion piece to UNO-TV’s popular 1994 If These Walls Could Speak.
What the new film does particularly well is frame the growth of Omaha over the past 60 years within a social, cultural and political context. Instead of settling for a Chamber of Commerce paean to development, the film makes a balanced effort at showing not only the dynamic explosion in Omaha’s ever-expanding boundaries and emerging 21st century cityscape but also some of the real tensions and costs that have come with that change. Using soaring, sweeping aerial footage shot from a helicopter video mount, the film provides insightful glimpses of Omaha’s famous sprawl and, even more tellingly, of the riverfront renaissance that’s remaking the city’s traditional gateway into a stunning new vista. Like the fits-and-starts pace of most Omaha development, major pieces in the Return to the River movement have taken decades to coalesce, but now that the new riverfront is emerging, it’s shaping up as a dramatic statement about the sleek, modern Omaha of the future.
While most of this period has seen real progress, valid concerns are raised about one neglected area and a pattern of disregarding history. For example, the film focuses on the decline of north Omaha in the wake of the devastating 1960s riots there and the equally hurtful severing of that community by the North Freeway several years later. News footage of burning stores and marching civil rights demonstrators, along with residents’ personal anecdotes of urban ruin, reveal a community in upheaval.
The late Preston Love Sr., ex-Omaha educator Wilda Stephenson and Omaha World-Herald photographer Rudy Smith paint vivid pictures of the jumping place that once was North 24th Street and of the despairing symbol it came to represent. As the $1.8 billion in downtown-riverfront revival continues (development dollars spent in the last six years, according to Omaha Chamber of Commerce figures), it’s apparent north Omaha’s been left behind. Unlike South Omaha, which remakes itself every few decades as an immigrant haven and finds new uses for old landmarks like the former stockyards site, North Omaha still searches for a new identity.
The film also examines how city/state leaders sacrificed the nationally historic Jobber’s Canyon district to the whims of corporate giant ConAgra in the 1980s. A man-made canyon of 22 massive, architecturally unique warehouse buildings closely tied to early Omaha’s booming river-rail economy, all but one Jobbers structure — the former McKesson-Robbins Building, now the Greenhouse Apartments — was razed when ConAgra decided the “eye-sore” must go if it was to keep its headquarters downtown. After seeing homegrown Enron uproot to Houston, Omaha caved to ConAgra’s demands rather than lose another Fortune 1000 company. The canyon was an incalculable loss but, as the film makes clear, the resulting corporate campus served as a catalyst for development.
The filmmakers rightly reference Omaha’s penchant for tearing down its history, as in the old post office, the original Woodmen of the World building, the Fontenelle Hotel and the Indian Hills Theater. Spinning the story in all its permutations are, notably, former Omaha city planning directors Alden Aust and Marty Shukert, architect and preservationist George Haecker, historians Harl Dalstrom, Thomas Kuhlman, Bill Pratt and Garneth Peterson, developers Sam and Mark Mercer and entrepreneur Frankie Pane.
The Jobbers Canyon debacle came at a time when downtown was reeling and in danger of being an empty shell. If not for major investments by a few key players. it may never have come back from the mass retail exodus to the suburbs it witnessed in the 1960s and ‘70s. In a real coup, the film features Old Market pioneers Sam and Mark Mercer, who describe the organic growth of this historic district into a cultural oasis — one that’s served as an anchor of stability.
The longest ongoing story of Omaha’s growth is its westward push. The film explains how this has been achieved by a liberal annexation policy that’s added subdivisions and even entire small communities to the tax rolls. The film touches on the fact that, outside a few developments, this sprawl has created a formless, characterless prairie of concrete and glass. The film also alludes to Omaha’s old neighborhoods, but only highlights one, Dundee, as an example of design and lifestyle merging.
Where the film doesn’t fare so well is in offering any real sense for the personality of the city. To be fair, filmmakers B.J. Huchtemann and Carl Milone didn’t intend to do that. Still, it would have been useful to try and take the measure of Omaha beyond its physical landscape. The only hint we get of this is via the many on-camera commentators who weigh in with their perspectives on Omaha’s changing face. And, to producer-director Huchtemann’s and co-producer-editor Milone’s credit, they’ve chosen these interpretive figures well. They’re an eclectic, eloquent, opinionated bunch and, as such, they reflect Omahans’ fierce independence and intelligence, which is at odds with the boring, white bread image the city often engenders. They are the film’s engaging storytellers.
Still, a film about the city’s changing face begs for an analysis of Omaha’s identity crisis. Mention the name, and outsiders draw a blank or recall a creaky remnant from its past or ascribe a boring blandness to it all. That’s before it had any “Wow” features. Now, with its gleaming new facade, Omaha’s poised to spark postcard worthy images in people’s minds. What is Omaha? What do we project to the world? The answers all converge on the riverfront. That’s where Omaha began and that’s where its makeover is unfolding. The monumental, sculptural pedestrian bridge may be the coup de grace. Interestingly, the film explains how much of what’s taking place was envisioned by planners 30 years ago. It’s all come together, in piecemeal fashion, to make the water’s edge development Omaha’s new signature and face.
So, what does it say about us? It speaks to Omahans’ desire to forge ahead and be counted as a premier Midwest city. No mention’s made of Hal Daub, the former mayor whose assertive energy drove Omaha, kicking and screaming, into the big time. He gave Omaha attitude. The film suggests this bold new city is here to stay.
- From the Archives: An Ode to the Omaha Stockyards (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Book Explores University of Nebraska at Omaha’s Rich History (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- In Memory of a Omaha Old Market Original, Fruit and Vegetable Peddler Joe Vitale (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- George Eisenberg’s Love for Omaha’s Old Market Never Grows Old (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Remembering the Virginia Cafe and the Restauranter Family Legacy of Filmmaker Alexander Payne (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- A Synergy in North Omaha Harkens a New Arts-Culture District for the City (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Everything Old is Newly Restored Again at Historic Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Omaha (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Where Community, Neighborhood and Representative Democracy Meet (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Jane Fonda Comes Home (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Litniks Unite! The Downtown Omaha Lit Fest Brings Writers, Artists and Readers Together in Celebration of the Written Word (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
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.
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.
“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.
I grew up in North Omaha but most of my extended family lived in South Omaha, where my father was born and raised. On visits to South O to see my paternal grandparents, Adam and Anna Biga, the impossible to ignore acrid stench emanating from the stockyards and packing plants located only blocks from their home burned my nostrils and eyes. For that matter, anywhere in South O carried a whiff of the stink, which came to be known as the Smell of Money for the immense commerce those twinned industries represented. I had many relatives work at the packing plants and my father, his brothers, and my grandfather certainly knew their way around the stockyards. Growing up, my only contact with the yards was on a school field trip and my dad driving me and my brothers there a few times to catch the sights and sounds and, that’s right, smells, of that bustling place. By the time I worked as a journalist the stockyards was on it’s last legs, a true anachronism and eye sore in a city trying to break from its cow town past and reimage itself as a progressive, cosmopolitan metropolis. For a while there it looked like Omaha would never have the will and vision to do the necessary reset to rebrnad itself but as the national media has been reporting for a decade now the city got its collective act together and is in the midst of a full-scale makeover. The downtown and riverfront transformation gets most of the attention but the decline and eventual move of the Omaha Stockyards and the closing and razing of the packing houses, followed by the subsequent redevelopment of the huge tracts of land they stood on is every bit as impressive. Where the yards and plants operated are now apartments, businesses, a giant Kroc Center, a booming community college campus, and many more ameneties. The one remnant of that industrial behometh that survived is the Livestock Exchange Building, which has a new life of its own. This story, written and publsihed mere months before the stockyards shut down here and moved to Iowa, recounts all that was lost in this transition from the Old World to the New. The stockyards had to go to make way for the new Omaha but its impact was so vast that its history and contributions to building Omaha should never be forgotten. If you enjoy this kind of history, check out an even more extensive piece I did on the stockyards that I’ve posted on this blog.
From the Archives: An Ode to the Omaha Stockyards
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in the New Horizons
By the turn of the century the historic Omaha stockyards will be gone from the site it’s operated at for 114 years, leaving an uncertain future for one of Omaha’s oldest active businesses. The move, prompted by a city-sponsored redevelopment project, will mark the end of a once mighty enterprise built on brains, brawn, guts and ambition. After surviving ownership changes, world wars and wild economic swings, the stockyards will finally succumb to changing times and attitudes.
A throwback to an earlier era, the stockyards was a male-dominated arena where high finance met Midwestern hospitality. Where a man’s word was his bond and an honest day’s work his measure. Its departure will close a rich, muscular chapter in Omaha’s working life — one whose like may not be seen again. One where men moved a constant flow of animals through a maze of tracks, chutes, alleys and pens spanning 200-plus acres.
“This was a huge, huge operation. A big mammoth place. At one time we employed 350 to 400 people. We stretched from the railroad yards at about 26th Street clear up to 36th Street. We were beyond ‘L’ Street to the north and beyond Gomez Avenue to the south. We ran crews 24 hours-a-day, seven days-a-week. There was always something going on. At times you never thought you had enough help with all the pens and animals to maintain,” said Carl Hatcher, a 43-year veteran at the yards and current manager of the Omaha Livestock Market.
Today, the stockyards is but a shell of its former self. With receipts in steady decline for three decades, it’s systematically shrunk operations to the present 15 acres, dramatically scaled back the market schedule and severely downsized the workforce. Abandoned pens and dilapidated buildings stand as forlorn reminders of its former greatness.
“We’re not the big yards we used to be,” Hatcher, 60, said. “It’s not a thriving business the way it used to be. The only way we’ve been able to keep in business is to reduce the facility in proportion to the reduced demand in the industry.”
Those, like Hatcher, who recall the glory years know there can never be a return to the daily spectacle along “L” Street when livestock-laden trucks arriving from points near and far lined-up in a procession running from 36th to 60th, waiting to unload their mooing, squealing, bleating cargo.
“It was a sight to see,” said the City of Omaha’s official historian, Jean Dunbar, who saw the epic lines of trucks with his own eyes.
James Rosse, 95, a former editor with the Daily Journal Stockman and past executive with Livestock Conservation Inc., recalls a banner 1944 pig crop brought a convoy of hog-filled trucks extending to 72nd Street.
The congestion got so bad that stockmen often doubled as traffic cops to keep trucks moving smoothly on and off the “L” Street viaduct. Truckers at the end of the line waited hours before unloading.
“We would on occasion send out coffee and sandwiches to the truckers,” recalls Harold Norman, 77, retired secretary-treasurer of the stockyards. To try and avert logjams, he said, stalled trucks were pushed to the side. The addition of chutes speeded up the delivery process.
While trucks replaced trains as the dominant mode of transporting livestock by the 1940s, large numbers of animals continued being shipped by rail through the ‘60s. The stockyards even operated its own railway to handle incoming and outgoing loads.
“It was a continuous thing of livestock coming in here one day, being sold and then moving out,” Hatcher said from his office in the Livestock Exchange Building, the grand South Omaha landmark that’s long been the headquarters and hub for the livestock industry here. “Whenever you’ve got thousands and thousands of head of livestock being moved, it’s a real challenge to do that on an orderly basis. You never had a time, even in the wee hours of the morning, that there wasn’t some livestock either arriving or being delivered out of here. It was amazing.”
“We were essentially a hotel for livestock — a place to bed, feed and water,” said Norman, adding the company had no stake in animal sales or purchases, but instead made money from yardage fees and office rentals.
More than a hotel, the yards constituted THE central market for livestock producers and buyers in the region. During its peak years, anywhere from 30,000 to 50,000 head of cattle, 40,000 to 60,000 head of hogs and 10,000 to 20,000 head of sheep arrived weekly via rail and truck. In a single year as many as six million head of livestock were received, with an estimated value of more than half-a-billion dollars. By comparison, a good week’s receipts today total 1,000 cattle and 3,000 hogs.
With such a huge volume of activity, crews had to work effiiciently unloading unruly animals, flogging them down chutes and herding them through alleys into open pens. Once stock was yarded, the real business of the marketplace commenced. Commission men representing producers negotiated with buyers to obtain the fairest price on cattle, hogs, sheep. Once a sale was made, the animals were driven to a scalehouse, weighed, and held in pens until the buyer led them off to slaughter or feed.
Somehow, it all worked like a well-oiled machine. And the next day, the process began all over again. It still works the same way today, only on a much smaller scale.
The bustling market was a melting pot of diverse interests and types. A central gathering point where rural and urban America merged. Where rich cattlemen in gabardine splendor and dapper bankers in double-breasted finery rubbed shoulders with overall-clad farmers and blood, mud, manure-stained laborers. The massive Exchange Building was an oasis where one could eat a good meal, down a few drinks, buy a cigar, get a haircut, send a telegram and dance the night away in its ballroom.
“I’d like to live those days over again,” Rosse said, “because that was exciting. There was always something new.”
For all the market’s staggering numbers and feats, one item bears special notice: Then, as now, livestock deals were made verbally, without a written contract, and sealed with a handshake.
“Millions of dollars changed hands there just on a handshake,” Hatcher said. “It’s not done in other businesses, where you gotta have contracts and a lawyer standing over each shoulder to make sure all the Is are dotted and Ts are crossed.”
“I can’t believe it yet,” said Rosse, who was also struck by the frank manner buyers and sellers transacted business. “The way they talked to each other, you’d think they’d never speak to each other again. They were rather a rough bunch. They didn’t spend much time at it. It was either yes or no, and away they’d go. It was a tough business, and yet they were pals again when they weren’t working. There was a lot of camaraderie.”
If the stockyards supplied the fuel for this powerful industrial machine, then its engine resided in the many meatpacking plants surrounding it. Between the plants’ smokestacks and the waste-ridden yards, an acrid odor formed that carried for miles. The yards, which earned the wrath of neighbors who daily lived with the stench, formed a Stink Committee to handle complaints and find solutions. “The Smell of Money,” as Omaha
historian Jean Dunbar describes it, was a small price to pay as the industry employed thousands and provided thousands more customers for area businesses (bars, eateries, stores) catering to the stock-packing trade.
Said Hatcher, “A lot of businesses sprang up around here and thrived and survived on the people who worked at the market and the packing houses.” Johnny’s Cafe, the noted steakhouse just east of the yards, benefited from the traffic streaming through. “There was just a huge concentration of people moving in and out of the ag business around here. We served meals around the clock to the truckers, the cattlemen, the bankers, the commission men…anybody that had anything to do with the livestock industry,” said Jack Kawa, Johnny’s proprietor and a son of its founder, the late Frank Kawa.
After selling livestock at market many producers spent their profits in South Omaha — on lavish meals or shopping sprees. “It was kind of a culmination and celebration of feeding cattle or hogs for six or nine months,” Kawa said. He adds these hearty men lived hard and played hard and concedes the restaurant’s heavy, masculine, western decor and emphasis on beef reflected their tastes.
The combined purchasing power of the stockmen and packers, as well as their customers, pumped countless millions into the South Omaha economy. Indeed, the community owes its very existence to the stockyards. What was farm and scrub land sprouted into the city of South Omaha soon after the yards opened in 1884. An envious Omaha coveted its neighbor to the south and after much resistance finally annexed it in 1916.
If Chicago could rightly be called the city of broad shoulders, then surely Omaha was its husky little brother. Early Omaha survived as an outfitting haven for Western pioneers and settlers. The growing city continued drawing industry here because of its direct river access and central location. The event that opened Omaha to serious expansion was the transcontinental railroad’s coming through in the late 1860s. With Omaha established as a major rail center, it fast became a convenient gateway for transporting goods and services east and west.
It wasn’t long before a group of Omaha businessmen, led by the formidable William A. Paxton, saw the potential for forming a stockyards that could provide a central market for western livestock producers and eastern packers. At the time, Chicago was the nearest market for western producers, but with further westward expansion it became burdensome to ship cattle so far east.
Paxton, an ex-mule skinner, cattle ranch operator and bridge builder, defended his stake in the venture from powerful interests that prized it too.
“He definitely was a guy who played hard ball. He was a very hard-driving guy. He was truly one of the ground-floor men,” said University of Nebraska at Omaha history professor Harl Dalstrom.
The stockyards deal swung on Paxton securing the backing of Wyoming cattle baron Alexander Swan, who craved a central market for his own vast herds. Together with such local powerbrokers as John A. McShane and John A. Creighton, these men formed what became known as the Syndicate. They bought 2,000 acres south of early Omaha, setting aside 200 for the stockyards and the rest for the community they envisioned developing around it. The Union Stockyards Company opened in 1884 and, just as expected, a full-fledged city soon emerged.
“South Omaha grew up all of a sudden…in less than a generation. It was a boom town,” said historian Jean Dunbar. “It did not create the instant rich men that oil or mining towns produced. South Omaha’s boom produced a lot of good jobs for a lot of immigrants. It was an immigrant community. A mosaic of Czechs, Poles, Irish and others. For them, it was an opportunity to find a new life. It was hard, dangerous work that took a strong, remarkable breed of men, just like the men it took to farm on the dusty, desert-like Great Plains.”
At first the yards served as little more than a feeding station for stock in-transit to Chicago, and would have remained so without meatpackers opening plants. To entice the packers the Syndicate gave away money, land, buildings and shares of stock in the company, and one by one they came, led by the Big Four — Cudahy, Swift, Armour and Wilson.
“The owners of the stockyards paid off these big packers and offered them inducements to do business here,” Dunbar said. “These were big,
powerful men of tremendous personality. Of course they were acting in their self-interest, but they also risked great sums of their own personal fortune to make Omaha a great city and Nebraska a great state.”
With the packers in place, the yards flourished. “The stockyards were only the catalyst. The packing houses were the key. They’re the ones that employed people by the thousands. The one’s the dog, the other’s the tail,” Dunbar said.
But after four generations of nearly unbroken success, the tide slowly turned and the frontier empire that rose up from nothing diminished in size and importance. There are many reasons for the decline, but it really all boils down to economics. It goes back to the mid-1960s, when a shift occurred away from central markets like Omaha’s to a more diffuse, direct marketing system. When the Big Four found their massive multi-story plants too costly to modernize, they closed them and built smaller ones in rural areas closer to producers and feeders.
Large producers soon realized they had no need to ship to a central market, much less consign livestock to an agent, since packer-buyers were eagerly knocking on their door. Instead, producers sold directly to buyers, who also found it a more economical way of doing business. Thus, the traditional role played by a central market like Omaha’s — of bringing together producers and buyers in a competitive arena, became obsolete for most large producers. The need for a middle man had vanished except for the smallest farmers or ranchers.
A concurrent trend found livestock being raised by fewer and fewer hands, as small farmers-ranchers were bought out or went belly up, leaving production in the hands of relatively few mega-producers who dealt directly with packers. Consequently, the stockyards lost much of its customer-base, causing receipts and profits to dwindle, forcing cutbacks, et cetera.
Another factor accounting for the decline was that as the local livestock industry shrunk, it lost the economic-political clout it once wielded. The stockyards also lost any leverage it might have still had when, in 1989, the Minneapolis-based United Marketing Services purchased the livestock operation from Canal Capital Corp. of New York. The deal let Canal retain ownership of all the stockyards’ property and structures, leaving United a tenant subject to the whims of its landlord. Prior to that the stockyards or its parent company always owned the property and buildings it occupied.
Making matters worse, as the stockyards consolidated on fewer and fewer acres, Canal let abandoned grounds and facilities fall into disrepair. The blighted areas gave the stockyards a black eye as the public assumed it owned the problem, when Canal actually held title to the land, including buildings the city deemed “unsafe and dangerous” and had begun condemnation procedures on.
“I think we’re taking the rap for their (Canal’s) bad management. Any of the property we’ve vacated has become an eyesore. It looks bad for the
city. It looks bad for our livestock operation. We would dearly love to have it cleaned up and made presentable,” Hatcher said.
A face-lift can’t save the stockyards now, however. Bowing to pressure, the financially-ailing Canal entered negotiations two years ago with the city for the sale of 57 acres, including all of the stockyards. Last November, Mayor Hal Daub unveiled the city’s plans for an office park at the site — minus the stockyards. Metro Community College plans expanding there and is viewed as a magnet for attracting further development.
Hatcher and his bosses tried convincing city officials to allow the stockyards to remain on-site, even on half its present acreage, but officials wouldn’t budge, leaving the company with a December 31, 1999 deadline to leave. In September, the city completed its purchase of the site. Plans call for all traces of the stockyards to be razed, except for the Exchange Building, which is slated for renovation.
Meanwhile, Hatcher is looking for new office space for himself and his staff, as the Exchange Building must be vacated by March 31, and is searching for a new site the stockyards may relocate on. United is commited to keeping a livestock market in the area, but will only relocate if a new site “makes economic sense,” Hatcher said. The city is legally obligated to help pay the costs of any relocation.
Hatcher is unhappy with the stockyards’ rather ignoble fate, but he realizes why it came about. In part, it’s a sign of the times. As Omaha has moved further from its frontier roots and traditional ag-industrial base, the stockyards is viewed as an unwelcome remnant of the past in what is a politically-correct, environmentally-conscious age. Neighbors and public officials no longer want livestock, or the unpleasant trappings they bring, confined in the middle of a modern city whose mayor is “re-imaging” it as clean, new age, high-tech — not grimy, old world, blue collar.
“People are not tolerant that way anymore,” Hatcher said. “Manure being spilled on the streets is not tolerated today. The smells are not tolerated. The packing houses are not as welcome as they used to be. People don’t depend on them for their livelihood. A lot of the people in the city administration, on the city council and in the community don’t think the stockyards and packing houses pay a living wage. They don’t feel we’re the type of industry they want in their glorious city. And I feel sorry for them and feel doubly sorry for us and for our customers that depend on us.”
For Harold Norman, the stockyards ex-secretary-treasurer, it’s “a feeling of rejection, because the company was held in high repute for many, many years and now it seems like we don’t have any friends anymore. Over the years there were people who opposed us but we were big enough that we could stand our own with them, but today…”
“The negative influences created by the livestock market were not desirable to retain in the future,” said Bob Peters, Omaha’s Acting City Planning Director. “There is a great deal of respect and sympathy for the livestock market and its employees…and a great deal of warm and wonderful memories of the past heydays of the marketplace, however there is a realization that time has passed the market by.”
Hatcher disagrees. “The stockyards is still a viable, profitable business,” he said. “We paid all our bills. We paid our taxes. We had all our permits and licenses. We were not asking anyone to subsidize our business. But the city has told us they don’t want us here anymore. To see this all come to an end and to think…there will be no legacy…no more ongoing central market here in Omaha, yeah, that saddens me.”
He will miss the yards, but most of all the people. “I love the people and this business. It’s been my life. There are still some young people in the industry who would like to see this particular operation continue. There’s still a lot of producers out there that would like to see us continue because they have no other choice to market their livestock. This location is ideal for our customers in Nebraska and Iowa.”
According to James Rosse, “The city fathers have never appreciated what the stockyards meant to them or to the larger agribusiness economy. This was a livestock center of national and international importance, but they’re trying now to eliminate that picture of Omaha.”
However, Peters insists the city does recognize the stockyards’ significance. He adds the use of federal funds for the planned redevelopment requires the city to conduct an historic recordation of the stockyards so “the historical and cultural importance of that site is not lost and will be perpetuated forever in a series of documents, drawings, photographs and essays that deal with its development and its relationship to the development of the city and the region.” The materials will be filed with the Library of Congress.
With the stockyards’ days numbered, perhaps it’s time some thought be given to erecting a permanent display commemorating the enormous commerce it generated and the vital impact it made. Norman has tried unsuccessfully to launch such a display. The city has no plans for one.
“It’s obvious this is a big part of our history and I think it needs to be preserved and interpreted to subsequent generations as effectively as we can,” UNO’s Dalstrom said. Dunbar agrees, suggesting “a Magic City museum could tell the history of a great era in South Omaha.”
Absent any reminder, Omaha may re-cast itself as an ultra modern city but at the expense of sanitizing its rough-and-tumble roots right into oblivion. With the stockyards demise, more than its mere physical presence will be lost. Lost too will be a direct link to Omaha’s frontier heritage. It will join Jobbers Canyon as a casualty to ‘progress,’ leaving one less trace of the burly, brawling, booming industrial center Omaha has been and still is.
Ironically, “stockyards” will likely be part of any name chosen for the office park replacing it. The question is: Will future generations know the rich story behind the name?
The inner city awakening that’s happened in South Omaha may or may not be a model for the long overdue revitalization of North Omaha, but there’s no doubt that the momentum that’s transformed large tracts of land once occupied by packing houses and the stockyards and the resurgence of a business district that was long in decline continues moving forward. The following piece looks at some of what has already been done in South O and projects ahead to what may follow as part of the South Omaha Development Plan.
A South Omaha Renaissance
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in Omaha Magazine
The festive streets, high traffic flow, brisk business and diverse people of South 24th Street are a microcosm of the economic engine and cultural melting pot that South Omaha’s always been. Today, mariachi music plays instead of polka, tamales rule over dumplings and mixed use developments stand where the stockyards and packing plants once stood, but that rich past survives, mixing with a robust present, to keep South O growing.
Now, a Greater Omaha Chamber of Commerce initiative called the South Omaha Development Project envisions a new slate of quality of life improvements to make the area even more desirable for residents, employers, workers and visitors.
Project coordinator Karen Mavropoulos and her board are charged with implementing a master plan two years in the making. Architecture, engineering, consulting firm HDR led the study that informed the plan, unveiled in April to mostly positive reviews.
The 178-page report, which earned Omaha Planning Board approval and awaits City Council endorsement, contains recommendations for transformation.
Before Mavropoulos took the post, she headed micro business training development for Catholic Charities, a job that sold the Venezuela native on South Omaha’s potential.
She said, “There’s a lot of good things the area has to offer. I see the passion of the community, I see all the opportunities that are there.”
Chief among South O’s assets, she said, is its energy. “It’s a vibrant place with a lot of activity. The people are very entrepreneurial.”
“The South Omaha community has a pull-yourself-up-from-the-bootstraps mentality. That is going to happen with this project, even in a recession,” said State Sen. Heath Mello, a project board member.
The area’s already seen a resurgence. The busy South 24th business district features row upon row of small businesses that attract shoppers and diners amid a colorful, carefully designed streetscape.
“There’s been some great things done,” said HDR’s Doug Bisson, who led the SODP design team. “There’s vibrancy on South 24 Street — that’s how streets should be, that’s how they always have been, full of activity. That’s what cities are all about.”
The $75 million Salvation Army Kroc Center on the former Wilson packing plant site represents “a neighborhood changing improvement” that makes “the area much more attractive and safe,” said senior Kroc Center officer Major Todd Thielke.
South High School’s new Collin Field is a showplace stadium. The repurposed Livestock Exchange Building is a full-occupancy, mixed-use success. Metropolitan Community College’s South Campus boasts the new South Omaha Library branch.
The Omaha Botanical Center and Henry Doorly Zoo are established, ever-expanding anchors. The Bancroft Street Market and Leavenworth Art Corridor are emerging cultural hubs.
All of it, said Bisson, points to “the synergy going on in South Omaha right now.”
The project is making neighborhoods-housing, commercial centers-corridors and industry-employment its focused implementation areas. There’s also emphasis on enhancing marketing-tourism and transportation-parking.
Mavropoulos said the project depends on partnerships: “There are a lot of organizations doing very good work. We’re here to see where we can align efforts or create synergies, where we can fit in with expertise to help make things happen.”
Addressing substandard homes and creating new affordable homes are priorities. The project plans a campaign educating property owners about upkeep issues and code violations. She said the project may partner with an existing community development corporation or form a new one to coordinate efforts.
Attracting new industries and filling their labor needs is another priority. “For employers to go into an area there has to be space available, incentives (tax) and a skilled labor force that lives nearby,” said Mavropoulos. Strategies include reusing former industrial sites, tax increment financing and job training.
In addition to large employers, she said, “we’re going to work with small businesses.” There’s strong support for a proposed mercado, an incubator for small businesses and artisans in the Plaza de La Raza on South 24th.
“It seems like everyone feels the mercado would be an exclamation point and really help draw in not just area residents but people from throughout the Omaha metropolitan area and probably points beyond,” said Bisson.
Brick-and-mortar changes will take time. Clearing and cleaning brown fields, for example, can take years.
“It’s a 20-year plan, people have to understand that,” said Mavropoulos. “Development plans are not immediate, you don’t see changes quickly. I mean, some things will start happening, but they’ll have to do more with education pieces that go out to the community, which creates the groundwork for bigger projects. It is a process.”
With the master plan complete, she said, “now people just want to see things happen.”
South Omaha Neighborhood Alliance president Duane Brooks said “there’s almost a wait-and-see attitude on what’s going to come out of this implementation process. There’s an amount of skepticism here in South Omaha because there’ve been so many plans developed over the years.”
Bisson said a vetted plan gives stakeholders and developers confidence to invest.
Mello has no doubt a dynamic slate of new growth will follow.
“We’re going to find ways to implement some of our short term goals of improving housing stock, encouraging better work force development and educational opportunities, maximizing public infrastructure and community parks and trails. Those are tangible, completely doable initiatives,” said Mello. “It’s just a matter of bringing the right people to the table for each individual project and following through on that commitment.
“I feel very confident the people leading this project will help some of these short term initiatives come to fruition as we start working towards our longer term goals.”
Visit the project’s website at www.omahachamber.org/sodp/.
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