When I began working downtown in 1988, Jobbers Canyon still existed.
One hot summer day in late August, my job mentor, Jim Fogarty, and I went to lunch in the Old Market and afterward walked through the empty canyon of vacant warehouses in our jackets and ties. No wrecking ball was in sight, but the decision already had been made — Jobbers Canyon would be cleared to make way for ConAgra’s multi-building office campus.
Fogarty pointed out the shortsightedness of it all, how the buildings could be converted into offices, into multi-residential housing, into anything. Instead of being torn down, Jobbers Canyon could become a nationally recognized example of a repurposed historic district, perhaps even a tourist attraction in a city that badly needed one.
There was vocal opposition to the development by a loud, rowdy few. But a couple of years later, those “big, ugly red brick buildings” (as ConAgra head honcho/blowhard Mike Harper described them) were gone, replaced by “modern” office buildings that had all the architectural charm of a collection of Pizza Huts.
Jump cut 34 years later to a conversation about downtown development with my close friend and hair stylist of the stars. “Can you believe what they’re doing downtown to the main library?” he said while trimming my eyebrows. “Tearing it down to build a new high-rise headquarters for Mutual of Omaha.”
“Wow,” I said, surprised. “I didn’t know you went to the library, let alone that branch.”
“Well, it’s been a while, I guess,” he said, as he leveled my sideburns. “Actually, I haven’t been in there in years. But that’s not the point.” But it was the point, I said. It was the central point.
A couple of days later while waiting in line at the downtown Pickleman’s, the discussion played out again with a lawyer friend of mine, but from a different angle. “Man, I cannot wait for them to tear down that old, ugly library,” he said through a facemask emblazoned with a corporate logo. “I will happily grab my own hammer and lend a hand, ho-ho.”
“Wow,” I said, surprised. “You sound like you really hate the library. How long since you been there?”
“To a library?” he guffawed. I haven’t been to a library in decades, since I was in law school. Who goes to a library?”
“Well, I do,” I said, sanctimoniously. “In fact, I go to that library every couple weeks.”
He shot me a side-eye. “I still want to tear it down.”
So it all comes down to either hating the building’s Brutalism design or loving the idea of libraries in general — even if you don’t actually use them.
I don’t actually use the library, either. I use its books.
Yes, as pretentious as it sounds, I still read books — the kind printed on paper and bound in hard covers. I don’t like e-books or “listening” to novels. But I don’t have the space in my house to buy books. And except for my core collection — which I reference over and over — I have no desire to keep a book I’ve already read. Ever try to give away a book? The only thing more impossible is throwing one away.
I place holds on novels through omahalibrary.org for pick up at W. Dale Clark, right across the street from my office. I go in, grab them, and leave. And when it’s time to return them, I use the outside book drop. As long as I can still order and pick up books at a different branch (or better yet, at a kiosk), I don’t care if they tear it down.
Short-sighted? Maybe. I’m sure others still use that library; I just don’t know who they are. What about the homeless who use it as a warming station or a place to hang out? Yes, that is a problem, but a library isn’t the solution.
As with Jobbers Canyon, there was opposition from a loud, rowdy few who argue their testimony at City Council meetings was not heard. It was heard. It was just ignored. And for the hundred or so vocal protestors at City Hall, there are literally thousands of Omaha citizens who don’t care what happens downtown.
Even more anger was focused on the fact that a small group of people (the enormously powerful Heritage Services, Mutual of Omaha and a handful of developers) has reportedly been kicking this idea around behind closed doors with city officials for some time. My, if all those angry people only knew how many decisions about public property were made without their input.
Big cities demolish, rebuild, and demolish again. It’s inevitable, especially when money’s involved. If we’re lucky, the truly historic structures are spared. But there will always be winners and losers.
Epilogue: As I drove downtown past where the ConAgra campus used to be, I noticed new apartments and condos rising where the Pizza Huts once stood, designed to look like converted old warehouses, just like the ones that used to make up Jobbers Canyon.