Another of the unforgettable characters I have met in the course of my writing life is the subject of this story for The Reader (www.thereader.com). Jim Hendrickson is a Vietnam combat vet who went from looking through the scope of a rifle as a sniper in-country to looking through the lens of a camera as an art photographer after the war. His story would make a good book or movie, which I can honestly say about a number of people I have profiled through the years. But there is a visceral, cinematic quality to Jim’s story that I think sets it apart and will be readily apparent to you as you read it.
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
Combat sniper-turned-art photographer Jim Hendrickson is one of those odd Omaha Old Market denizens worth knowing. The Vietnam War veteran bears a prosthetic device in place of the right arm that was blown-off in a 1968 rocket attack. His prosthetic ends in pincer-like hooks he uses to handle his camera, which he trains on subjects far removed from violence, including Japanese Butoh dancers. Known by some as “the one-armed photographer,” he is far more than that. He is a fine artist, a wry raconteur and a serious student in the ways of the warrior. Typical of his irreverent wit, he bills himself as — One Hand Clapping Productions.
The Purple Heart recipient well-appreciates the irony of having gone from using a high-powered rifle for delivering death to using a high-speed camera for affirming life. Perhaps it is sweet justice that the sharp eye he once trained on enemy prey is today applied in service of beauty. For Hendrickson, a draftee who hated the war but served his country when called, Vietnam was a crucible he survived and a counterpoint for the life he’s lived since. Although he would prefer forgetting the war, the California native knows the journey he’s taken from Nam to Nebraska has shaped him into a monument of pain and whimsy.
His pale white face resembles a plaster bust with the unfinished lines, ridges and scars impressed upon it. The right side — shattered by rocket fragments and rebuilt during many operations — has the irregularity of a melted wax figure. His collapsed right eye socket narrows into a slit from which his blue orb searches for a clear field of vision. His massive head, crowned by a blond crew cut, is a heavy, sculptured rectangle that juts above his thick torso ala a Mount Rushmore relief. Despite his appearance, he has a way of melding into the background (at least until his big bass voice erupts) that makes him more spectator than spectacle. This knack for insinuating himself into a scene is something he learned in the Army, first as a guard protecting VIPs and later as a sniper hunting enemy targets. He’s refined this skill of sizing-up and dissecting a subject via intense study of Japanese samurai-sword traditions, part of a fascination he has with Asian culture.
Because his wartime experience forever altered his looks and the way he looks at things, it’s no surprise the images he makes are concerned with revealing primal human emotions. One image captures the anxiety of a newly homeless young pregnant woman smoking a cigarette to ward off the chill and despair on a cold gray day. Another portrays the sadness of an AIDS-stricken gay man resigned to taking the train home to die with his family. Yet another frames the attentive compassion of an old priest adept at making those seeking his counsel feel like they have an unconditional friend.
The close observation demanded by his work is a carryover from Vietnam, where he served two tours of duty. “With sniping, you had to look at the lay of the land. You had to start looking from the widest spectrum and then slowly narrow it down to that one spot and one moment of the kill,” he said. “You got to the point where you forced yourself to look at every detail and now, of course, I’m doing that today when I photograph. I watch the person…how they move, how they hold themselves, how they talk, waiting for that moment to shoot.”
Shooting, of a photographic kind, has fascinated him from childhood, when he snapped pics with an old camera his Merchant Marine father gave him. He continued taking photos during his wartime tours. Classified a Specialist Four wireman attached to B-Battery, 1st Battalion, I-Corp, Hendrickson’s official service record makes no mention of his actual duty. He said the omission is due to the fact his unit participated in black-op incursions from the DMZ to the Delta and into Cambodia and Laos. Some operations, he said, were conducted alongside CIA field agents and amounted to assassinations of suspected Vietcong sympathizers.
As a sniper, he undertook two basic missions. On one, he would try spotting the enemy — usually a VC sniper — from a far-off, concealed position, whereupon he would make “a long bow” shot. “I was attached to field artillery units whose artillery pieces looked like over-sized tanks. The pieces had a telescope inside and what I would do is sit inside this glorified tank and I would rotate the turret looking through the telescope, looking for that one thing that would say where the Vietcong sniper was, whether it was sighting the sniper himself or some kind of movement or just something that didn’t belong there. I’d pop the top hatch off, stand up on a box and then fire my weapon — a bolt-action 30-ought-6 with a 4-power scope — at the object. Sometimes, I’d fire into a bunch of leaves and there’d be nothing there and sometimes there was somebody there.” When the target couldn’t be spotted from afar, he infiltrated the bush, camouflaged and crawling, to “hunt him down.” Finding his adversary before being found out himself meant playing a deadly cat-and-mouse game.
“You look at where he’s firing from to get a fix on where he’s holed up and then you come around behind or from the side. You move through the bush as quietly as possible, knowing every step, and even the smell of the soap you wash with, can betray you. I remember at least three times when I thought I was going to die because the guy was too good. It’s kind of a like a chess match in some sense. At some point, somebody makes a mistake and they pay for it. I remember sitting in a concealed location for like three days straight because only a few yards away was my opponent, and he knew where I was. If I had gone out of that location, he would have shot me dead. So, for three days I skulked and sat and waited for a moonless night and then I slipped out, came around behind him — while he was still looking at where I was — and killed him.”
His first kill came on patrol when assigned as a replacement to an infantry unit. “I was the point man about 50 feet ahead of the unit. I heard firing behind me and, so, I turned to run back to where the others were when this figure suddenly popped up in front of me. I just reacted and fired my M-16 right from the hip. I got three shots into the figure as I ran by to rejoin the patrol. The fire fight only lasted two or three minutes, By then, the Vietcong had pulled back. The captain asked us to go out and look for papers on the dead bodies. That first kill turned out to be a young woman of around 16. It was kind of a shock to see that. It taught me something about the resolve the Vietcong had. I mean, they were willing to give up their children for this battle, where we had children trying to evade the draft.”
As unpopular as the war was at home, its controversial conduct in-country produced strife among U.S. ground forces.
“Officers were only in the field for six months,” Hendrickson said, “but enlisted men were stuck out there for a year. We knew more about what was happening in the field than they did. A lot of times you’d get a green guy just out of officers’ school and he’d make some dumb mistake that put you in harm’s way. We had an open rebellion within many units. There was officer’s country and then there was enlisted men’s country.”
In this climate, fragging — the killing of officers by grunts — was a well-known practice. “Oh, yes, fragging happened quite a lot,” he said. “You pulled a grenade pin, threw the grenade over to where the guy was and the fragments killed him.” Hendrickson admits to fragging two CIA agents, whom he claims he took-out in retribution for actions that resulted in the deaths of some buddies. The first time, he said, an agent’s incompetence gave away the position of two fellow snipers, who were picked-off by the enemy. He fragged the culprit with a grenade. The second time, he said, an agent called-in a B-52 strike on an enemy position even though a friendly was still in the area.
“I walked over to the agent’s hootch (bunker), I called him out and I shot three shots into his chest with a .45 automatic. He fell back into the hootch. And just to let everybody know I meant business I threw a grenade into the bunker and it incinerated him. Everybody in that unit just quietly stood and looked at me. I said, ‘If you ever mess with me, you’ll get this.’ Nobody ever made a report. It went down as a mysterious Vietcong action.”
He was early into his second tour when he found himself stationed with a 155-Howitzer artillery unit. “We were on the top of a gentle hill overlooking this valley. I was working the communications switchboard in a bunker. I was on duty at two or three in the morning when I started hearing these thumps outside. I put my head up and I saw explosions around our unit. Well, just then the switchboard starts lighting up.”
In what he said was “a metaphor” for how the war got bogged down in minutiae, officers engaged in absurd chain-of-command proprieties instead of repelling the attack. “Hell, these Albert Einsteins didn’t even know where their own rifles were,” he said, bellowing with laughter. What happened next was no laughing matter. In what was the last time he volunteered for anything, he snuck outside, crossed a clearing and extracted two wounded soldiers trapped inside a radio truck parked next to a burning fuel truck.
“First, I started up the fuel truck, put the self-throttle on, got it moving out of the unit and jumped out. Then I went back and helped the wounded out of their truck and got them back to where the medics were. Then, another guy and I were ‘volunteered’ to put a 60-caliber machine gun on the perimeter fence. We were on the perimeter’s edge…when I saw a great flash. A Russian-made 122-millimeter rocket exploded. The man behind me died instantly. The only thing I remember is the sense of flying.” Hendrickson’s right arm and much of the right side of his face was shredded off.
As he later learned, a battalion of Vietcong over-ran a company of Australians stationed on the other side of the hilltop and attacked his unit “in a human wave.” He said, “They ran right by me, thinking I was dead, probably because of all the blood on me.” The attack was knocked-back enough to allow for his rescue.
“I remember starting to come around as my sergeant yelled at me…I heard an extremely loud ringing noise in my ears. I knew something was extremely wrong with my right arm, but I didn’t know what. I couldn’t really see anything because my eyes were swollen shut from the fragments in my face. About that time the medic came along. They put me on a stretcher and pulled me back to a hold. That’s when I was told my right arm was blown off.
“I was just thankful to be alive at that point. Then, the rockets started coming in again and people were running around getting ready for the next human wave attack. I was lying there with the two guys I’d saved. Then I saw this big bright light in the pitch black. It was a chopper coming in to pick us up. The medics carried us up, threw us in and the pilot took off. As we lifted, I could hear bullets ripping through the chopper. We were taken to the nearest hospital, in Long Binh, about 50 miles away.”
While recuperating, Hendrickson was informed by his captain that of the 100-plus-man strong unit, there were only five survivors – the captain, Hendrickson, along with the two men he saved, plus one other man. “Apparently,” Hendrickson said, “the unit had been hit by a combination of rocket and human wave attacks that night and the day after and were eventually wiped off the earth. Years later, the historians said this was a ‘retreating action’ by the Vietcong. If this was a retreating action, I sure as heck would hate to see it when they were serious and advancing.” He said his fellow survivors are all dead now. “Those are four people whose names should be on that wall in Washington. Unfortunately, they’ll never be recognized as casualties of war, but yet they are casualties OF THE war.”
He spent the next several months in and out of hospitals, including facilities in Japan, before undergoing a series of operations at Letterman Hospital in the Presidio of San Francisco. Afterwards, he said, he entered “a wandering period…trying to find myself.” He made his home in Frisco, becoming a lost soul amid the psychedelic searchers of the Haight-Ashbury district. “I tried to resume a life of somewhat normalness, but it was like a whole separate reality.” He enrolled in City College-San Francisco, where he once again felt out of place.
Disillusioned and directionless, he then came under the guidance of a noted instructor and photographer — the late Morrie Camhi. “Morrie made that connection with me and started me on a pathway of using photography as a kind of therapy. It was a really great relationship that evolved…He became like a second father.” Years of self-discovery followed. Along the way, Hendrickson earned a master of fine arts degree from the San Francisco Art Institute, married a woman with whom he got involved in the anti-war and black power movements and, following years of therapy in storefront VA counseling centers, overcame the alcohol abuse and post-traumatic stress disorder he suffered from after the war. While his marriage did not last, he found success, first as a commercial artist, doing Victoria’s Secret spreads, and later as an art photographer with a special emphasis on dance.
Helping him find himself as an artist and as a man has been an individual he calls “my teacher” — Sensie Gene Takahachi, a Japanese sword master and calligrapher in the samurai tradition. Hendrickson, who has studied in Japan, said his explorations have been an attempt to “find a correlation or justification for what happened to me in Vietnam. I studied the art of war…from the samurai on up to the World War II Zero-pilot. I studied not only the sword, but the man behind the sword. In the Japanese philosophy of the sword it’s how you make the cut that defines the man you are and the man you’re up against.” He said this, along with the minimalist nature of Haiku poetry and calligraphy, has influenced his own work.
“I try to do the same thing in my photography. I try to strip down a subject to the most essential, emotional image I can project.” He has applied this approach to his enigmatic “Haiku” portraits, in which he overlays and transfers multiple Polaroid images of a subject on to rice paper to create a mysterious and ethereal mosaic. While there is a precision to his craft, he has also opened his work up to “more accidents, chaos and play” in order to tap “the child within him.” For him, the act of shooting is a regenerative process. “When I shoot — I empty myself, but everything keeps coming back in,” he said.
A self-described “vagabond” who’s traveled across the U.S. and Europe, he first came to Omaha in 1992 for a residency at the Bemis Center for the Contemporary Arts. A second Bemis residency followed. Finding he “kept always coming back here,” he finally moved to Omaha. An Old Market devotee, he can often be found hanging with the smart set at La Buvette. Feeling the itch to venture again, he recently traveled to Cuba and is planning late summer sojourns to Havana and Paris. Although he’s contemplating leaving Omaha, he’s sure he’ll return here one day. It is all part of his never-ending journey.
“I see photography as a constant journey and one that has no end until the day I can’t pick-up a camera anymore,” he said.
- How Snipers Succeed by Missing Their Targets (theqco.com)
- In the shadow of Vietnam: A close encounter with Karl Marlantes, US marine turned literary giant (independent.co.uk)
- Full Metal Jacket: history unzipped (guardian.co.uk)
- Darpa’s Super Sniper Scopes in Shooters’ Hands by 2011 (wired.com)
- Snipers targeting children in key Libyan city: UN (cbc.ca)
In case you read any new posts added earlier today (Sunday, August 29) on my blog and found that the stories ended rather abruptly or not at all, it’s because I thought I had copied and pasted these previously published print pieces in their entirety, only to find out that I hadn’t. Excuse the unfinished and interrupted work you came upon. I have since corrected the issue and the stories now read as they should. If you have no idea what I am referring to, then you obviously didn’t come upon those articles, in which case stop reading here and find a story or two on my blog to pass the time with.
Shardea Gallion, ©photo Girls Inc. Omaha
The following story I did for The Reader (www.thereader.com) appeared as its go-getter subject was on the verge of womanhood, nearing her high school graduation and looking ahead to college. Shardea Gallion has lived up to the promise she showed as a star member of the Girls Inc. or Girls Incorporated club in Omaha, where she grew up and where she became the poster girl for the mentoring, youth development program’s Strong, Smart and Bold slogan.
I spoke with her last year and I’m pleased to report she’s well on her way to achieving her goal of a media career, studying film and television at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and working on video projects outside of class. Like many of the girls served by the nationwide nonprofit Girls Inc., Shardea comes from a disadvantaged background, but with support and guidance she’s gone far to to position herself for a life and career that might have seen improbable a decade or so ago. I have a feeling I will be writing about Shardea again some day, and this time she will be a professional film or television director/producer/writer. You go, girl!
Shardea, ©photo bt Greg Nathan, UNL Communications photographer
Strong, Smart and Bold, a Girls Inc. Success Story
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
“Strong, smart and bold” is the Girls Inc motto but it may as well be the personal creed of Shardea Gallion, an Omaha girls club member since age 5. In a life full of tests, Gallion, 17, has shown a resilience, intelligence, moxie and what she calls “old spirit” that belie her age and make her dream of a broadcast journalism career plausible. Already the host of her own cable television show – Those in Power – on Cox Communication’s community access channel, this poised hip-hop teen from The Hood makes like a young Oprah conversing with local movers-and-shakers on topics ranging from police-community relations to reparations for black Americans.
Besides holding her own with adults, the devout black Baptist excels at mostly white, middle-class Catholic Marian High School, where she’s a senior honors student, features page editor for the school paper and leader on multicultural-diversity committees. She also volunteers for her church, the YMCA and Girls Inc. In 2002 she was one of eight recipients of the national Girls Inc $2,500 college scholarship award and in 2000 was among 40 school-age girls chosen from 1,000 applicants to participate in the Eleanor Roosevelt Girls Leadership Workshop in Val-Kill, NY. An upcoming issue of Black Enterprise Magazine will profile her.
Two recent stories she penned for her school paper, The Network, hint at her audaciousness. In one, she asked non-Catholic Marian students to reveal what it’s like being a minority there. In tackling the story she defied administrators, explaining, “I want them to understand that, yes, there are other voices at Marian and my voice as a Baptist is just as important as those other students’ who are Catholic.” The other story explored the implications of teens getting hitched. “I hear a lot of talk about girls designing their wedding dresses and picking out their rings and I’m like, ‘This is ridiculous — you don’t even have your college picked out.’ I just wanted to send a message to girls that maybe you should wait and think about it.” Gallion, who said she “doesn’t want to throw away my dreams” by starting a family right out of school is herself the product of a young union.
One of six kids born to a teenage single mother, she endured a chaotic first five years before she, her sister and four brothers were taken in by their maternal grandparents. Ultimately, she and her siblings were placed in foster homes. She is still troubled by the fact they were adopted by separate families. “That’s when I was kind of crushed forever,” said Gallion, who’s been in counseling over the severing. “I never understood why we were separated or why my sister couldn’t join me.” She’s tried putting it behind her. “I know I can’t dwell on being separated because that would have just bring me down.”
Regarding her mother, whom she’s seldom seen since the split, Gallion chooses her words carefully. “I didn’t always have that solid foundation…of someone that was going to be there no matter what. At school, everything was fine, but the thing that gave me the greatest trouble was home life. When things are not OK at home, you’re not OK inside. I guess I always had to rely on myself. My mother was rather young. She has regrets. She does wish things would have played out differently.”
Through it all, the one constant in Gallion’s life has been Girls Inc, a sanctuary and activity center for a largely poor black membership. Located in the former Clifton Hill School building at 45th and Maple, the club is where a young Gallion found the stability and direction she lacked outside its red brick walls. “Girls Inc takes into consideration that all parents don’t teach their children everything they should know, so it steps in and is another mother to the girls here, and that’s exactly what it’s been to me,” Gallion said. “It’s helped me through all the times in my life. When situations come along where I’m the only female or I’m the only minority, I am constantly reminded that I am strong, smart and bold — no matter what.”
The girls club is where Gallion found a flesh-and-blood parental figure in Angela Garland, Girls Inc program director. Better known as Miss Angie, this cool, posh black woman was a confidante and mentor to Gallion before assuming guardianship over her three years ago. In Gallion, Garland saw “a very talented” girl who had “to grow up fast” and “take on adult responsibilities” and who, without the right support, might go the wrong way. “There were a lot of things going on in her home — teenage angst and all the rest — and I just kept thinking, ‘Oh, surely somebody will step in,’ and when that didn’t happen I told her she could stay with me. I honestly thought it would be temporary…that things would kind of work out.” When no one else filled the void, Garland made it official by becoming her legal guardian. Living together has taken some adjustment on both their parts.
For Gallion, it meant the woman she never heard a cross word from and whom she idolized as “independent” and “gorgeous” was now Mom. “She’s someone I really looked up to, not that I don’t now, but since taking on a parental role for me I have to look at things a little bit differently,” Gallion said. “I know it was a transition for her to go from me being Miss Angie at Girls Inc to being the parent at home that had guidelines and expectations,” said Garland. “We would go round and round about, you know, ‘Get off the telephone’ or ‘Turn the television off — get your homework done.’ One time, I just had to say, ‘Look, this is my house, this is not Girls Inc — do it because I say so.’ These are things she had never heard before growing up.” Amen, Gallion said. “There were so many things that were so foreign to me. I never had to study. She helped me discipline myself.” When Gardner married, Gallion had to adapt again. “I’ve never been in a household where there was a mom and dad — a husband and wife — and so that’s been an eye-opener.”
Gallion felt self-imposed pressure “to be this perfect person” for Miss Angie. “For a long time I was discouraged,” she said, “because I was doing things for others. The only reason I kept going is because people invested a lot in me. But Miss Angie lightened my burden when she told me I really don’t owe her much except to be the best person I can be. That made things so much easier. I realize she’s taken on a huge role and I do not want to let her down, but now I do things for me first.”
Sometimes Gallion tried so hard to please her guardian that Garland finally told her, “‘Honey, just be a kid — you’ll be grown up soon enough.’” Garland’s only wish for her young charge is for to reach her potential. “All I want is for Shardea to be the best she can be. I always encourage her to dig deeper and to not limit her options.” The experience of shaping a young life has been transforming for the 20-something professional. “It was a tremendous shift for me because when Shardea first came to live with me I was in graduate school and it was like I was an instant parent. But she’s really been a blessing to me. I think she’s made me more passionate about my job and a true advocate for kids. She’s made me respect parenting and she’s helped to kind of give me a new perspective — that there’s more to life than going to work and having things. I realize how blessed I am to be able to pay it forward and say, ‘Now, you go do it.’”
Girls Inc. Omaha
Often taken for older than she is, Gallion has some mature goals. “I plan to get into journalism but, from there, branch out. My ultimate goal is to work with people.” Among the colleges she’s considering is the University of Missouri in Columbia and its prestigious journalism school. Those around Gallion fully expect her to reach her goals. “Her passion is going to get her where she wants to go,” said Marsha Kalkowski, a journalism instructor at Marian. “She’s one of the most enthusiastic student journalists we’ve had here. I see her in front of a camera and I see her making a positive difference in the community.”
Gallion began hosting Those in Power, a project of the Edmonson Youth Outreach YMCA, at the tender age of 14. “Well, at Girls Inc you learn you just gotta take chances and jump in, and so that’s what I did,” she said of her precocious TV debut. She views the program as part of her education. “Once I get involved in a topic I don’t want to learn it just for the show,” she said, “I want to actually know about it so I can carry on a conversation and sound half-way intelligent. I always feel I don’t know enough and I just keep striving to learn as much as I can.”
With college on the near horizon, Gallion is focusing now on her studies and on applying for various scholarships. When things are more settled, she plans reconnecting with her blood roots. “My biological family can never replace Miss Angies’s family — I feel like that’s my family now — but I just want to know who they are. I don’t want to close the door on that. You never know what could become of it. It’s just not a huge priority right now. I feel like I have to get on with my life.”
- Share your career passion and inspire greater Indianapolis girls! (socialactions.net)
- Tabby Biddle: Why Mentoring Young Women and Girls is Important (huffingtonpost.com)
- Crenshaw High Kids Struggle And Succeed, Despite Post-Traumatic Stress (huffingtonpost.com)
- Inspire Greater Indianapolis Girls! (socialactions.net)
- Omaha Native Steve Marantz Looks Back at the City’s ’68 Racial Divide Through the Prism of Hoops in His New Book, ‘The Rhythm Boys of Omaha Central’ (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Tyler Owen – Man of MAHA (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Super Saturday with Girls Inc: Perseverance, Believing in Yourself and Girly Pushups (womentalksports.com)
- Walking Behind to Freedom, A Musical Theater Examination of Race (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Back in the Day, Native Omaha Days is Reunion, Homecoming, Heritage Celebration and Party All in One (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
For years Omaha suffered from no image or, if it had one at all, an unflattering image that connoted a dusty prairie town and not the cosmo metropolitan center it has pretensions of being and is in fact becoming. Part of the city’s transformation on the image front is the dramatic remaking of its riverfront and downtown, and more recently, of some of its midtown and inner city districts. A few years ago I sat down with three men who at one time or another held the title of Omaha City Planning Director to get their input on the emerging new Omaha taking shape, and the following article for The Reader (www.thereader.com) is the result.
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
As Omaha embarks on a series of lofty urban developments that promise transforming the city in the most dramatic fashion since the early 1900s boulevard system, The Reader caught up with the burg’s three most recent planning directors for a roundtable discussion on Omaha’s newly emerging face.
Former Omaha City Planning Directors Bob Peters, Marty Shukert and Alden Aust are friends and former colleagues. Meeting in the 11th floor Civic Center office of Peters on the very May afternoon he announced his retirement, Peters looked around at the men who held the same job before him and said, a little wistfully, “This is family.” He suggested the three of them be referred to as “the X-Men.” Aust, now 88, called Peters and Shukert “my two best hires.”
Peters helped oversee the Omaha By Design initiative whose progressive, uniform, community-based New Urbanism planning guidelines and standards have been adopted as master plan policies by the city. He also saw the fruition of long-held plans for redeveloping the riverfront that began with his predecessor and mentor, Aust. Peters and Shukert, another Aust protege, collaborated on 1980s near downtown projects — Town Terrace and Pierce Point — that incorporated features of the New Urbanist design movement. That movement, which advocates pedestrian-friendly, mixed-use, integrated village concepts that make dense urban spaces inviting gathering spots and destination points, is at the core of what’s happening here and what’s happened in places like Portland, Ore. and Minneapolis, Minn., two cites that are models for Omaha’s renaissance.
Shukert, a principal and partner with local RDG Planning and Design, served on the Omaha By Design Advisory Committee. He’s contributed to plans for the Millard Town Center Project and prepared urban designs to many other communities.
Aust, whom Peters refers to as “the grandfather of the city.” is credited with making Omaha’s ‘60s-era Return to the River campaign more than a slogan. He pushed through, over much resistance, the creation of the Central Park Mall, renamed in honor of the late Gene Leahy, one of six mayors he served under. Love it or hate it, the mall, which is slated for extensive renovations, reshaped and reenergized a decaying downtown and gave Omahans a new perspective on what their city could be. More importantly, the mall was the first conduit to what eventually became, thanks to additions that extended it eastward to 10th Street and later linked it to the Heartland of America Park, Omaha’s new public connection to the riverfront. As recently as a decade ago, the same riverfront that’s now home to Rick’s Boatyard Cafe, Louis and Clark Landing, Qwest Center-Hilton, the National Parks Division headquarters, the Gallup training complex and newly under-construction high-rise condos, was an industrial wasteland.
The X-Men have been involved in a decades-long process, whose latest and most dynamic chapter is the grassroots Omaha By Design effort, to reimagine and retrofit the city as a true urban center drawing people and activity together. Much of what the X-Men have worked towards is articulated in recently announced plans for multi-million dollar developments around Mutual of Omaha-Turner Park, the Ak-Sar-Ben property and north downtown or No-Do. Similar revitalization is being realized on the riverfront and the north-south sides of town.
They’ve seen Omaha stagnate and sprawl, aspire and achieve. They’ve been there for its missteps and inspirations. While not in the city’s direct employ anymore, the X-Men act as consultants. Each shares a personal and professional interest in what’s gone on before in urban design here and each is curious about the shape of things to come. Their strong views on what Omaha can be reflect their passion for the city. They’re optimistic about the prospects of Omaha finally metamorphosing into the cosmo cityscape it’s been haphazardly flirting with for generations. They feel its maturation, in aesthetic design terms, has the city poised to shake off the image problem that’s always dogged it. They say it’s a matter of confidence.
“Image is a very hard thing to change,” Shukert said. “You don’t have control over it. But it’s not impossible. There are places that have transformed their image. Baltimore, for example. Indianapolis. Frankly, our image is that we are a cow town. And there will be people in various parts of the country who will have a hard time thinking of us as anything different. Part of what’s important is our own image of ourselves. When we stop seeing ourselves as that way, but as a different and transforming place, then that image is going to be communicated to other places.”
“I think it’s happening now,” Peters said. “First of all, there’s a pride I’ve never seen exhibited so visibly in this community. It’s been a difficult romance, but residents have finally fallen in love with Omaha. Some of the events along the new riverfront have a big city atmosphere. That doesn’t happen except in those circumstances when things click. And things click for a reason. I mean, we’ve got new clothes. Great cities are defined by their cultural arts and the corporate leaders in this community recognized that quite some time ago, and what’s been developed here is significant and wonderful for visitors and residents. We have the Western Heritage, the botanical gardens, the zoo, the Joslyn, the Qwest Center, the new Holland Performing Arts, the riverfront. We’ve got great neighborhoods. We’ve got great bones to build on. They’re environments and experiences that are probably unexpected, and I think that’s what Urbanism is about.”
“I don’t know who it was that defined Urbanism as a place that provides a high probability of unplanned positive encounters,” Shukert said, “but that’s it.”
Alden Aust and Bob Peters
Historically, Omaha’s city-led design approach was an isolated process with no overarching, codified standards and little public input. That resulted in Omaha having some of the barest, “ugliest streets,”imaginable Peters said. Basic elements of good design were ignored. “City streets were put in” with no corresponding plan “to plant trees and to do median landscaping,” he said. “Simple, inexpensive measures that would make a world of difference.” That’s changed with Omaha By Design and the related Destination Midtown. These corporate-neighborhood association led-actions have opened the process up to dialog, review and goal-setting by everyone from small business merchants to CEOs to home owners in making things like streetscape improvements and green spaces a matter of policy.
“The sea change with Omaha By Design is that it’s privately funded. It is a buy-in by the private business and neighborhood community as opposed to a planning director saying, ‘Oh, I think we’ll put $100,000 in the budget this year and do an urban design plan.’ And here’s why that’s important: Not that many years ago the standards proposed in that process would have been dismissed as socialism or as unnecessary frills or maybe as good enough for the East Coast but not something we need in Omaha,” Shukert said. “Now, we’ve evolved to the point where it is the corporate community and not pointy-headed planners who are in fact demanding and enforcing those standards. And when that happens those standards actually become law and owned by the community.”
To Shukert’s dismay, not everyone embraces Urbanism. He said, “Some question spending $25 million on the proposed Missouri River pedestrian bridge, but spending $120 million on an elevated (West Dodge) expressway is no big deal.” “To get through two stop lights,” Peters said disdainfully. “That’s the most God-awful expenditure I’ve seen in this city in a long time,” added Aust.
“There are projects and features that do tend to drive us apart and be the enemy of Urbanism,” Shukert said, “and those things are obstacles. And sometimes they’re our own fault. We still in this city live very far apart. We have people who’d like to live further apart yet. Who’s image is very anti-urban — it’s an acreage out in the country. There are neighborhoods that believe a commercial development or a lower-priced home will depress property values, and so they build walls.”
Shukert said those that question “the need” for something like the pedestrian bridge to link Omaha and Council Bluffs just don’t get it.
“Chicago didn’t need the Millennium Park. New York didn’t need Central Park. The St. Louis Arch wasn’t necessary. But, in fact, those elements make a city great. We’re getting to the point where we’re realizing the value of making the place great as opposed to functional. One thing we’ve seen clearly is an elevation of community standards, expectations and acceptance. A critical point has been reached. We’re not all the way there yet, but we’re getting there,” he said.
What set the stage for this heightened design awareness here?
“For one thing, lifelong or long-term Omahans have traveled and seen places they like and wonder why those places don’t exist here,” Shukert said. “Then there’s the demand for a higher standard that people new to the city bring from other places they’ve lived. Finally, some of the major corporations, like First National Bank and the Omaha World-Herald, have made huge investments in top quality design. They, in effect, said, We’re establishing this standard that everybody else should live up to, and so they become standard-bearers.”
“I think it’s a reflection of what the community has always desired but there wasn’t a discussion that became so public as to coalesce and congeal those desires,” Peters said. “The transformation of the riverfront was the linchpin of that. It focused everybody’s attention on a relatively few projects that changed the physical makeup of the city forever.”
Shukert described “three transformational projects, all related to Mr. Aust’s original vision of downtown Omaha,” that showed the way. “The first of those was the Gene Leahy Mall. You don’t know the struggle to get that thing done. When it was finished people said, ‘This doesn’t look like Omaha.’ It was the project that showed Omaha it could be something else. Project number two was the ConAgra campus. There are still those who argue whether it was the right design or the right use for that land or whatever, but it certainly changed the nature of the debate and, for the first time. it engaged the city with its river.
“The third project that really kicked things into high gear was the riverfront development north of the I-80 bridge — the Qwest Center, Hilton and everything else. It’s begun to make downtown Omaha a west Omaha-type development real estate market that is a self-sustaining market people invest equity in.”
The X-Men agree that proposed new developments, along with others envisioned around the 72nd Street corridor and a stretch of inner city Dodge, fit nicely into the new Urbanism scheme, which isn’t so new after all.
“New Urbanism is to some degree very skillful packaging of what always used to be,” Shukert said, “and that’s Urbanism. Neighborhoods like Dundee and Benson and some elements of Millard and Florence are in some ways a model for what New Urbanism is trying to recreate. There are certain patterns that describe an urban environment. They deal with public space, with connectedness, with scale and intimacy, with how people experience a neighborhood or district in its variety of social functions and interactions. And there are many ways to skin that cat.”
Being sensitive to and taking advantage of an area’s unique attributes, he said, is key. ”Different solutions are appropriate in different areas.” If there’s a unifying principal, however, it’s connectedness. “That involves having civic spaces where people meet each other as opposed to being compartmentalized in cars or having a mix of uses not cordoned off one from another,” Shukert said. “Ultimately what we want to try and be about is the creation of great places and experiences that are connected to one another.”
Shukert said a lack of design standards allowed the suburban strip mall scene to get out of hand here — in areas like 132nd and Center and 144th and Maple. “Despite tremendous investment, they developed in a sort of piecemeal, separated way. They never quite came together as a destination” He said a response to those mistakes is seen in projects like Village Pointe, Shadow Lake and Twin Creek. “While not perfect, they attempt to pull elements together. It’s a realization that some commercial developments really are activity centers and really need to function that way and should not just be individual, separated buildings that surround parking lots and that impose bewildering traffic patterns.”
Omaha missed an opportunity to create connections on an epic scale by never completing the original park and boulevard system designed by Horace Cleveland and by not building new linkages between neighborhoods and attractions. “It’s important we don’t make that mistake again,” said Shukert. “A characteristic of a great city is a progression of districts and features that make it a rich experience. That’s why things like the pedestrian bridge and trails are important, because they link things together.” Even “greening the streets,” he said, can give a sense for “being part of a greater whole” and “reinforcing” core aesthetic design elements.
While the park-boulevard system wasn’t fully realized, Peters said, what there is of it provides a “seamless” approach that anchors areas and give them identities. “The health and vibrancy of the neighborhoods north and south along that network is directly related to that system. It created interconnectedness and an image.”
Now on the drawing board is nothing short of a complete make-over of the city, including mammoth redevelopment plans, streetscape improvements and public works projects. Old neighborhoods and business districts are in line for rebirths. There’s no telling yet which projects will reach fruition. Developers and funding must be found for some.
“It’s never been done in any city on a comprehensive basis. Other cities have done a downtown plan or an open space plan or a riverfront plan, but no city has taken from the civic, neighborhood and green perspectives and remodeled and created what that city is going to be from that point forward,” Peters said.
“One of the only other purely privately funded planning efforts of this magnitude I can think of is the 1909 plan of Chicago,” Shukert said. “And what did that accomplish? It accomplished the city of Chicago as we know it today.”
The X-Men said developments and amenities in Omaha will still be in isolation from each other unless an organic linkage solution is found. Public transportation is one possibility. Alden Aust proposed an elevated rapid transit light rail system back in the ‘70s. It found scant support then and later attempts to revive such plans fizzled. Studies show the costs to build and maintain a system of that sort is prohibitive in a market where projected ridership numbers are deemed too low to sustain it. The most likely form a connecting public transit system will take, Peters said, is a trolley system like those floated in recent years.
“If it happens,” Peters said, “the first modeling of it will be to link destinations-attractions. Rosenblatt with the zoo with the botanical gardens with Western Heritage with Joslyn with the Old Market with the Qwest Center. By doing that, you’re creating the boulevard system of the 21st century. The old system connected pastoral locations that became a network of parks where eventually neighborhoods developed and linked to it. If the corporate leaders ever decide to support a transit system linking destinations, the neighborhoods adjacent to those attractions will explode. It will be a renaissance along those streets.”
Omahans may not have long to wait, Shukert said, if plans for No-Do come to life in the mix of restaurants, live music venues, movie theaters, shops and residential units that Blue Stone Development and other developers envision there. “It’s building a neighborhood that connects the Qwest Center and the riverfront with Creighton (University). It’s a linkage concept entirely. Pedestrian and transit facilities then become the spine that can create stronger neighborhoods.”
Peters acknowledges Omaha has moved slowly in reaching an urban design consensus that heralds reformation, but he said acting cautiously has let it study what similar-sized cities have done right and wrong. Now, he said, an Uber Omaha is primed to arise. “We’re going to surprise the hell out of people”
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