This story is part of a package published before the May 2021 City of Omaha General Elections. Read all the personal perspectives on issues ailing Omaha here.
The sun is shining as morning chill wanes into a warm, cloudless spring day. In other neighborhoods birds might chirp while kids ride bikes and adults mow lawns.
But all Manne Cook sees is concrete. All he hears is the roar of cars 20 feet below.
“They destroyed a community and a neighborhood,” said Cook as he stood above Highway 75 in North Omaha. “So when you talk about streets and roads, this is the most prolific and destructive road, probably in the city.”
How Omahans talk about the city’s thoroughfares differs depending on where you live. For some it’s all about potholes. But Cook, a former city planner and lifelong North Omaha resident, said we need to see the bigger picture.
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Highway 75 began construction in the ‘70s and though alternative routes were proposed, the City of Omaha decided to raze homes, churches and businesses in Omaha’s Black neighborhoods to build a faster route. The result was displacement, a near death sentence to the North Omaha business district and a scar that persits to this day.
“It’s one of the reasons why the community doesn’t trust city officials,” he said. “You want to tell me about a good idea? Right. You said that was a good idea.”
Walking around North Omaha, it’s not hard to find potholes that take up more area than pavement, uneven sidewalks that stick out like crooked teeth and narrow bike lanes with giant grates in the middle.
More thought goes into making sure roads are optimized for the fastest possible travel, Cook said. For many Omahans that’s fine. But for others, especially those who don’t have a car, it poses real dangers.
“People aren’t valuing the people who exist in a place, you know,” he said. “It’s my movement over your right to be. That’s the mindset.”
Cook wants to see candidates who understand streets are public spaces. It’s about fixing potholes in a more sustainable way, but it’s also about making Omaha more walkable, bikable and safe.
The problem, Cook said, is not that we don’t know how to do that. The appetite isn’t there.
As a result, many have no choice but to buy and maintain a car, which can cost about $9,000 a year with insurance, gas and repairs, according to AAA. That’s a big chunk of people’s annual income, which in North Omaha can be as low as $16,885.
And that’s not including the cost of a hefty repair, like what you might need after hitting a deep pothole.
“When something like that goes bad, you’re talking about maybe up to half your income per year to keep that car to get to other jobs to continue [this cycle],” Cook said.
While a few candidates Cook likes advanced to the general election, he puts his hope in nonprofits and engaged citizens, not government.
Cook, and all his like-minded city planning colleagues, left government to join nonprofits. It’s nonprofits and citizens that push for progressive policy, Cook said. If they sell the deal just right, they can persuade the city to sign on. In lieu of a total overhaul in leadership, Cook said that’s what needs to happen to fix the issues he cares about.
“[Politicians] could do more, but you know they politic their way out of doing stuff. Right?” he said. “I think that at least in this city, [the public] is what really moves things forward.”