The sun shone on an activist as he picked through rubble, aiming a camera toward the destruction. In the weeks after a devastating storm, Omaha banded together to put its communities back together again. That was just as true in North Omaha, but activists like this man said there was a deeper problem here. As one paper put it, “a much quieter disaster that has been playing out for more than thirty years in Omaha: the economic atrophy of the near north side.”
That was November 1997. The activist was former Omaha City Council member Ben Gray back when he was still a TV news photographer. The story, titled “The Abandoned Omaha,” ran in The Reader.
Since then, a lot has changed. But then again, a lot has stayed the same. “Everything is being built up around North Omaha, and North Omaha still looks the same,” Precious McKesson, president of the North Omaha Neighborhood Alliance, told The Reader as protests rocked Omaha in 2020. “That’s the hard part.”
For decades, where you live in Omaha has had a massive effect on the route your life takes. Particularly on the east side of the city, poverty, often perpetuated by systemic racism, has kept generations of people stuck. Meanwhile, the west side has generally been home to decent housing, good schools, low crime and plentiful opportunities.
People have tried to close those gaps. Solutions have come in the form of nonprofits, government initiatives, youth-centered programs and lots of money.
Some things have changed. Others not so much. Our question, which we want to answer with a new, year-long reporting project, is why?
Our answer: investment.
“Our opposition is investing every resource — monetary, social, capital, everything they can, time — to make sure we go back to what they were comfortable with,” activist Ja Keen Fox said in 2020. “If we can’t match that, we can’t win.”
Change isn’t hard to find in Omaha. The suburbs have exploded, the city razed then rebuilt Midtown, and city leaders dug a trench for a waterway park in the middle of downtown only to decide years later to refill it for a public park. When COVID-19 plunged America into economic freefall, the government did the same. In Omaha, local governments and wealthy foundations have put up billions just in the last few years to reshape the city.
But that’s not the reality for everyone.
In poor, minority-populated neighborhoods, people have dealt with many of the same issues for years. Reader headlines from the year 2000 talk about a growing population of Latino immigrants in South Omaha struggling with poor housing, language barriers and citizenship statuses. In North Omaha the same year, residents held protest signs that read, “Omaha talks the talk, but does not walk the walk for minority business.”
In recent years, improvements have been made to incomes, high school graduation rates and employment levels, particularly among the city’s Black community. The city’s also become more diverse as minorities have moved to areas outside of North and South Omaha. However, concentrations of poverty still exist. Some measures, like the rate of homeownership in the city’s Black community, have gotten worse. Poverty in North Omaha has risen steadily since 2000.
Other problems have persisted, like crime concentrating in poor neighborhoods or Omaha police shooting and killing people of color.
“This is home, this is all I know,” said Shan’e Perkins, the sister of Kenneth Jones, who was killed by Omaha police in 2020. “But to keep experiencing this, it’s just kind of like, are things gonna change?”
Omaha’s inequality goes back to maps drawn up in the 1930s that kept mostly poor Black and brown people trapped in their neighborhoods by deeming them “hazardous” to loan money to. Today those zones, identified through a practice now called redlining, are the same that have the highest eviction rates, crime rates, housing code violations and lowest rates of life expectancy, education and employment in the city. Meanwhile, Reader analyses have found majority-white neighborhoods are being flooded with private home loans — $12 billion worth from 2007 to 2017, 45 times that of minority neighborhoods.
“It’s as if some of these places have been trapped in the past, locking neighborhoods into concentrated poverty,” said Jason Richardson, a researcher at the National Community Reinvestment Coalition in 2018.
The realities of systemic racism are true in Omaha even as the city becomes more diverse than ever. Of races with more than 5,000 people in Omaha, the white population grew the least during the past two decades, according to 2020 U.S. Census numbers. Meanwhile, the Latino community nearly tripled, the Asian community more than tripled, and the Black community grew by nearly 25%.
When it comes to addressing systemic racism, the approach sometimes feels scattershot. Even at our small newspaper, we find ourselves playing hopscotch from one topic to another. Building up a small wealth of knowledge on a subject before moving to the next.
In the past few years alone, The Reader’s done stories about the dire state of affordable housing, the disconnect between what causes crime and how we treat it and how investing in a cheap foster care system is hurting kids and families. We’ve looked at the inequitable use of the city’s biggest tool for development, the hoops working families jump through to survive and disparate opinions on how we, as a city, address systemic racism and move forward. Meanwhile, Nebraska, like most of the country, seems more apt to have conversations around inequity than ever before — critical race theory, antiracism and initiatives to address affordable housing are all hot-button topics, even if the debate doesn’t always seem productive.
It’s all a good start, but the further we go, the more questions we have. We can’t answer them, it gets frustrating, and it solves little.
So we want to try something different and ask our small staff to make a big investment.
Through our reporting and community forums, we’ve identified four subject areas that are most integral to the well-being of Omahans:
- Housing and community development
- Criminal justice
- Family, community and health
All of these touch and intersect in unique ways. Where we live, how safe it is and whether we live in fear of eviction affects so much. So do the schools we go to and whether our families have the tools to build wealth, get good jobs and provide a better future for generations to come. And how our city handles crime undoubtedly can stymie or perpetuate inequity.
Our commitment is simple. Our reporters will cover and study each of these topics. I, Chris Bowling, will cover development and criminal justice. Bridget Fogarty will cover education, and Leah Cates will cover family/community support systems. We also plan on collaborating with local media on stories and issues within the project to further the depth and reach of our reporting.
The reporting process will include building rich source lists, filing public records requests, analyzing data and building resource pages. We will publish weekly stories that may be profiles, features, podcasts, data pages and other forms of storytelling.
Monthly we’ll publish investigative stories on deeper issues. At the end of this project, our research will coalesce in a series that will analyze these four topics through the lens of inequity and come up with viable solutions for our community.
All of this reporting will be available at thereader.com as well as a multimedia landing page that will serve as the project’s home.
The framework won’t surprise many. It’s beat reporting 101 with a twist — we’re adding intention to what we believe is the greatest static problem facing our community. And through that deep research, hopefully we can tell stories that combine historical context with reporting that can build better stories.
We’re also hoping to work with our local media partners from television to newspapers to radio stations. We believe our community is best served when we pool our collective talents and experiences. These stories will be free to republish with credit, but more importantly we want to collaborate to reach more viewers together than we could separately.
The most indispensable part of this process? You.
“We have North Omaha. We have South Omaha. We have West Omaha,” Kimara Snipes told us in 2020. “We are extremely segregated here and have been like that since my parents moved here from the South … but we have to listen to the people in these different parts of the city.”
Whether you’re a reader, a community advocate or politician, we want you to be a part of this. Tell us the stories we need to cover, the studies we need to read, the history we need to hear.
We also want you to tell us when we’re wrong.
Because underlying all of this is a central optimism. We love this city. We want our neighbors to succeed. But we can’t do that unless we all face some ugly truths. And the truth is, the American dream does not exist for everyone in Omaha. As hard as we work, our success is often dependent on factors outside our control.
We can’t fix that, but we can inform people, like you, who can.
And those solutions are out there. They exist already in our community, or maybe they’ve worked elsewhere and we have yet to try them. Our goal is to find them and make a case for their application in Omaha.
contact the writer at firstname.lastname@example.org