Down for the Cause, Not Down for the Count

How North Omaha’s history will impact its direction in a pivotal moment for development


Photo collage by Ken Guthrie.

By Chris Bowling for the Omaha Star

More than 150 years ago, wagon trains carrying westward travelers crested the last hills along the banks of the Missouri River. Across those waters they viewed an expansive new land they hoped would hold opportunity and freedom. And through hardships of cold and arid weather, the hearty stock of pioneers turned prairieland into bountiful fields, bustling cities and, most importantly, a home.

That’s one telling of Omaha’s history.

Another follows a different set of pioneers, ones that also came for opportunity, if they arrived willingly at all, but met hardships rooted in the color of their skin.

Over the past six months, The Omaha Star has endeavored to follow that story through the years and this story aims to summarize those efforts to inform existing patterns of discrimination and how that influences modern issues, like gentrification, particularly as the area sees escalating interest in investment and development. As one of the first organizations awarded a $25,000 Community Network grant from the Facebook Journalism Project and the Lensfest Institute for Journalism, The Star tasked itself with digging deep into the community’s roots to seek solutions — to determine what people can do to identify which projects will benefit their community and which are hiding gentrification behind glossy language.

The Star found no simple answers; however, they did find a core group of people committed to fighting for their community. Chief among their values: the culture, history and families of North Omaha. They are down for the cause, committed to the long-term vision of this community that includes them, their children and future generations.

At heart of The Star’s series and that fight is the pivotal moment facing Omaha’s North neighborhoods. It’s a moment ripe for change as decades of work in community organizing and concerted efforts to attract investment dollars have positioned the area for serious redevelopment.

It’s a story about a community invested in its neighborhood’s future. Lifelong residents, their parents, their children and the lives of every generation that’s lived here and that is yet to come. It’s about sizing up the community, coming together and asking, “What do we want this place to look like in another decade or half century?”

Beginnings

From its beginning, Nebraska offered a stark contrast between its ideals and practices. In 1854, Congress created the Nebraska Territory in the Kansas-Nebraska Act with the legal caveat that it remain free of slavery. However, the first census counted 13 slaves among the 2,732 who ventured into the territory that summer. Until that point the only other recorded African Americans in the area were York, a slave on Lewis and Clark’s journey, and slaves who lived at Fort Lisa, a fur trading outpost in what is now North Omaha.

Map created in 1856 showing the breakdown of free and slave states after the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854.

In the following years, free African Americans moved into Omaha, including its first Sally Bayne as well as Bill Lee who opened the first barbershop at 1301 Harney St.

As it looked toward statehood, Nebraska proposed a state constitution that limited voting rights to “free white males.” This came one year after the end of the Civil War and several years after the emancipation proclamation. Congress admitted Nebraska in 1867 on the condition that it grant non-white men voting rights, overriding President Andrew Johnson’s veto.

The following decades saw Omaha’s black population build as millions fled the South. In Omaha they found jobs, largely in meatpacking plants, and built a home for themselves, starting businesses, reform-minded organizations and churches, including Saint John African Methodist Episcopal Church, which still stands today. 

By 1920, more than 10,000 African Americans lived in Omaha, about 5% of the burgeoning city’s population and the largest such population among any Western American city, second only to Los Angeles. And while the minority group thrived, gaining delegation to the Legislature by 1892 and a lawyer in the bar association by 1895, tension also emerged.

1890 Portrait of Matthew Ricketts, the first African American elected to Nebraska’s State Legislature.

“It did not go unnoticed that the rising numbers of Black workers and their families caused alarm for Omaha’s White citizens,” wrote Terri L. Crawford, University of Nebraska at Omaha Black Studies Adjunct Professor, in a story for The Star.

In 1919, a white mob lynched 41-year-old Will Brown and burned his body outside the Douglas County Courthouse. In 1921, the Ku Klux Klan founded its first Nebraska chapter in Omaha. A few years later, the group had 1,100 members statewide intimidating black families, like the Littles, who fled Omaha with their infant son, Malcolm.

Nowhere to go

By 1930, the movement had receded, but discrimination persisted. New struggles emerged in housing and mobility.

Already, black Omahans were forced into the neighborhood now known as North Omaha with strict instructions not to leave. Following Brown’s lynching, U.S. Army soldiers blocked off the area as a safe zone from white mobs.

The soldiers drew a line between the neighborhoods and told the Black residents they would be protected if they stayed within those lines,” Crawford wrote. “Those first ‘lines of protection’ became symbolic and substantive demarcations of redlining efforts in Omaha.”

The ‘30s and President Franklin Rosevelt’s New Deal, however, reduced their economic autonomy and ability to leave.

One of the pillars of Rosevelt’s New Deal was to increase homeownership across the country, but it failed to do that equitably. In deciding how to dole out home loans, a federal board overseeing the task asked the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation in 1935 to map 239 cities based on financial risk. Neighborhoods ranged from most safe, shaded green, to most risky, shaded red.

North Omaha, which had become a neighborhood of immigrants and African Americans, was shaded crimson — a designation now known as redlining. Over the years, this limited many black Omahans from owning homes or moving to new neighborhoods, halting upward mobility, perpetuating segregation and sustaining poverty.

The Home Owner’s Loan Corporation Map of Omaha created in 1937 that “redlined” certain neighborhoods making it nearly impossible to receive loans.

During this time, black Omahans did find homes in the Logan Fontanelle housing project. Built in 1938 with the capacity to hold 2,100 low-income residents, the modest red-brick homes were at first legally segregated through the 1950s, keeping black Omahans out in favor of low-income European immigrants. Eventually, the Czechs, Slovaks, German Jews and other residents moved west and black residents moved in.

While Logan Fontanelle was meant to serve transitioning working-class residents, tens of thousands lost their jobs in the railroad and meatpacking industries in the ‘50s and ‘60s, and the projects swelled.

“Within the decade, Logan Fontenelle became synonymous with neglect, racial segregation, isolation and overpolicing,” Crawford wrote. “As the need for public housing increased, more families packed into those few housing units, escalating already tense conditions.”

Breaking point

Years later, in 1990, black residents of Logan Fontanelle sued the city and the Department of Housing and Urban Development alleging Omaha’s public housing was racially discriminatory. The U.S. Supreme Court determined that Omaha had violated the U.S. Housing Act and the Civil Rights Act of 1968 in developing and administering Omaha’s public housing. 

But before justice shined a light on Logan Fontanelle in the ‘90s, crime and poverty established a deeper foothold in the community in the middle of the 20th century, contributing to growing frustration and disillusionment with city officials. It came to a head the night of June 24, 1969. That summer night, police came to Logan Fontanelle on a call of suspected robbery. Inside a vacant apartment, teenagers had been dancing to records but fled out the back door when they heard officers were outside.

As he watched the crowd running away, a white police officer raised his revolver and shot 14-year-old Vivian Strong in the back of the head, killing her. Riots broke out along a nine-block area in North Omaha as residents burned businesses along N. 24th St., the only way the community could express such hurt, frustration and anger. The flames only continued when the courts did not charge the officer with murder and freed him on a $500 bond. In a trial for manslaughter, he was found innocent and returned to the police force where he worked until retiring in 1971.

This was four years after Malcolm X was assassinated. Four years after the Voting Rights Act was passed. A year after Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy were shot. The same year Congress passed the Civil Rights Act.

“You talk about justice and it means one thing to you. We talk about it and it means something else to us,” said now-state-senator Ernie Chambers in the 1966 documentary A Time for Burning, as he gave a haircut in Goodwin’s Spencer Street Barbershop on N. 24th St. “And it will always be that way.”

Omaha Star stories in the weeks after Vivian Strong’s death. Publishing dates from left to right: June 25, 1969, July 3, 1969 and July 10, 1969.

The mark left on North Omaha from redlining and years of terroristic and systematic racism has yet to fade. In 2018, the National Community Reinvestment Coalition found three out of four redlined neighborhoods continue to struggle economically today. Indeed, their map highlighting today’s clusters of race and poverty matches almost exactly the one drawn by the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation 80 years ago. 

In your backyard

In April 2018, the Environmental Protection Agency found those in poverty are 1.35 times more likely to have facilities creating pollution in their area. Black Americans are affected 1.54 times more than other demographics.

“Scholars and experts conclude that these choices reflected the desire to avoid the deterioration of White neighborhoods when Black neighborhoods were available as alternatives,” Crawford wrote. “Hazardous conditions and risk of harm to Black life were not considerations in the policymaking decision.”

In Omaha, that was evidenced by the American Smelting and Refining Company lead plant along the Missouri, which closed in 1997 after 110 years of operation. Due to its toxicity, the site became part of Omaha’s massive, federally designated Superfund cleanup site, which stretched 8,000 acres of East Omaha and prominently affected North Omaha.

Smokestacks abound and smoke rises from the lead smelting and refining plant in this photograph showing Capitol Avenue to Douglas Street and the Missouri River. From the collections of the Omaha Public Library.

Disregard for black neighborhoods also showed in the construction of the North Freeway. Originally slated to pass through the Dundee-Happy Hollow neighborhood in 1977, that community protested. When it was rerouted through North Omaha, protests were ignored. Four years later, the city finished the freeway at the cost of 57 buildings, among them homes and businesses that altogether displaced 56 families.

“It destroyed historic neighborhoods, businesses and decades of homeownership for longtime residents,” Crawford wrote.

A shift and an opportunity

If the first three quarters of the 20th century saw the deterioration of North Omaha, the last few decades have been characterized by efforts to rebuild. New buildings and businesses are taking shape, the product of a decades-long effort from an outspoken community learning to use its voice to secure dollars and make palpable change.

However, getting there required carving out their own seat at the table.

In 1975, the city razed the Omaha Typesetting Company at 11th and Douglas, the first step in a $30 million project — the equivalent of $143 million today — to carve out a winding green space and lagoon from blocks of old buildings. Construction of the Gene Leahy Mall signaled the start of an urban revitalization trend already occurring across the United States, especially in cities like Omaha, which were gobsmacked by the rapid rise and fall of industrialization.

But North Omaha residents were skeptical of the movement from the beginning, voting down three separate attempts to establish an urban renewal agency between the ‘50s and ‘70s. Their fear was their neighborhoods would be bought and sold to private investors.

That changed with Community Development Block Grants, which gave cities dedicated federal money and impetus to address these issues as well as urban renewal as a whole. In 1974, the Department of Housing and Urban Development established what’s now one of its longest-running programs to fund affordable housing, anti-poverty organizations and infrastructure development.

Over the years, that money, as well as subsidies from tax increment financing, was used to transform parts of the city, from building Aksarben Village to TD Ameritrade Park and the CHI Health Center.

Through these grants, the Omaha Economic Development Corporation, an economic and community development organization in North Omaha founded in 1977, was able to lead efforts such as redeveloping Kellom Heights commercial and residential districts.

Al Goodwin (seated) and Michael Maroney are the former and current presidents of the Omaha Economic Development Corporation. Photo by Lynn Sanchez.

“The plan was to draw upon the expanding economic development to the east and south and transport that over to the north by jobs and housing and community development,” said former OEDC president Al Goodwin.

From the ground up

Officials also focused their attention on North Omaha. However, in the ‘70s they were starting from scratch, said Marty Shukert, who started in the Omaha Planning Department around this time and went on to serve as director of that department and the Mayor’s Office of Economic & Policy Development.

“The city really had no organizational infrastructure internally and no neighborhood infrastructure externally to do a very good job administering those funds or even figuring out what to use them for,” he said.

They identified three major projects: Kellom Heights, the Conestoga Place subdivision, which would replace Logan Fontanelle, and redevelopment of 24th and Lake streets. While each project had varied success, Shukert said it became clear the city needed to shift its attention to filling vacant lots and providing more affordable housing.

Nonprofits, like Holy Name Housing Corporation and Gesu Housing, have led that charge for decades  — building, remodeling or selling subsidized housing. Others also point to the Highlander Project as signalling a renaissance in the city. In the works since 2011, the project, once completed, will offer 280 residential units, 60% of which will be for low- or middle-income people.

In building a sustainable plan, organizations also rely heavily on neighborhood groups, like the North Omaha Neighborhood Alliance. Precious McKesson, president of its board, said these groups play a big role in empowering the community with one voice. The implications are far-reaching, from neighborhood camaraderie to having a seat at the table when it comes to city planning and policy.

“It always comes back to canvassing,” McKesson said, “knocking on the doors and asking them what do they need?”

Another route toward sustainable housing is the Omaha Municipal Land Bank, a private-public partnership established six years ago that acquires vacant or dilapidated properties and pairs them with developers who represent sustainable community interests.

That organization, made up of seven voting board members and six non-voting board members representing districts across the city, has been plagued with vacancies and inconsistent leadership. As a result, the Land Bank has built up properties but had trouble doling them out until recently, said non-voting member and City Councilman Ben Gray.

“For a period of time our staff lost focus,” he said. “I think they lost focus, and we were starting to be more ambassadors and getting out to various communities rather than doing the kind of buying and selling that we needed to do.”

Learned hesitance 

But even as the community faces down hundreds of millions in revitalization efforts, old anxieties that led to voting down an urban renewal agency three times through the ‘50s and ‘70s have never left. The only difference is in recent years, a common name has arisen for the fear of self-serving private investors and whether the community will reap the benefits of this revitalization: gentrification.

Last November, leading housing advocates gathered in North Omaha to discuss barriers to affordable housing and community-building. Erin Feichtinger of Together Omaha said Omaha is not at a point where it believes housing is a human right. That’s seen in the use of tax subsidies to prioritize development that builds luxury amenities to attract new people rather than programs that support the existing community.

Patrick Leahy of Missing Middle Housing Campaign advocated for the city to capitalize on low-hanging fruit, like changing city code, to allow for more housing types, which would increase quick, affordable options. Because the threat of gentrification is not abstract, he said. According to Governing magazine, 12 Omaha census tracts experienced gentrification, meaning they were low income and experienced significant increases, especially when compared to other tracts, in home values and population from 2000 to 2015.

“There are things that are happening right in front of us, and we really have not even learned how to articulate it to deal with it,” Leahy said. “We know something bad is happening.”

Navigating toward a new North

Over the course of The Star’s reporting, they found no clear answers. These problems span centuries, stretch across the United States and exist in complex terms.

The Star did, however, find workable solutions, chief among them community involvement.

At the center of almost all the progress in North Omaha is grassroots activism and local people getting involved. Leading the charge has been the Empowerment Network, which started as a clean-up project but grew into an inclusive organization that listened to 8,000 of its residents and built a roadmap toward success. Since then they’ve connected community organizations, local businesses, area churches, state legislators, city government officials and neighborhood groups to impact policy and initiatives as well as get everyone from the top down on the same page.

In the last decade, the community’s seen gains in the number of people obtaining bachelor degrees, employment and household incomes. The poverty rate for black Omahans dropped 4.2 times more than the national average, according to data reported by the University of Nebraska at Omaha and the Empowerment Network at the latter’s “State of North Omaha Summit” in January. Some of that progress can be attributed to Empowerment Network initiatives, such as Step Up Omaha!, which connects teens with local businesses, and partnerships with organizations and businesses, such as Heartland Workforce Solutions and North End Teleservices. There’s still progress to be made in homeownership, closing the wealth gap and catching up to Hispanic and white Omahans in several other categories. But the improvement has bolstered opinions that change is possible.

“We can’t do it all at once,” said Willie Barney, founder of the Empowerment Network. “But we can do it if we work together.”

Beyond getting involved in local organizations, the next step is to show this community is worthy of investment. Though the Highlander Project has received a lot of attention and attracted millions in investment, Cydney Franklin said Seventy Five North, which is administering the Highlander project, never set out to change all of North Omaha.

The neighborhood is projected to need between 1,800 and 3,900 new homes over the next 20 years, according to a Forever North Study for N. 24th St. conducted by the Omaha Planning Department and the Metropolitan Area Planning Agency. That’s going to take a lot of public and private investment, and while projects like Highlander strive to make gains, they’re only the first step.

“We’re hoping to make a footprint and serve as a catalyst by investing in this one neighborhood and helping to attract the right partners to maintain affordability in housing that’s also high quality,” Franklin said.

Still others are looking at an even bigger picture. They see a conversation that links Omaha’s disparate neighborhoods, one that connects Midtown to North Omaha, gets people out West to care about what’s happening on S. 24th St. Other cities are engaging in these kinds of talks to build policies, but Omaha seems behind the times, said Creighton University Law Professor Palma Strand.

Strand directs the 2040 Initiative in Creighton’s Negotiation and Conflict Resolution Program, which focuses on the intersection between looming social change, largely rooted in race and shifting demographics, law and politics. Nebraskans seem hesitant to discuss race, she said. But if you want to build a better future, one that’s equitable and takes care of all Omahans, you have to start back at the beginning.

Who are we?

What does Omaha mean to me?

What do we want our city to look like in the next 100 years?

“The way these connections get built, people are invited, and they show up,” Strand said. “To me, that’s where you start.”

***

To read the entire series check out the The Omaha Star.


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