We drove north along 72nd Street headed to Ames Avenue where we took a right and sped into the heart of North Omaha on a sunny Sunday afternoon. The purpose: To snap photographs of a building just listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
It being 3 p.m., we both felt a jolt of coffee was in order. There is no better pick-me-up than a cold latte on a warm afternoon. I took out my trusty iPhone in an effort to track down the coordinates of a nearby Scooters, Starbucks and / or Blue Line equivalent by typing the word “coffee” into my Google Map. Zing. Zap. Snap. Spin. The only result on my phone’s screen-map was our blue location dot, slowly moving to the right. Odd.
So I opened Yelp and searched the “coffee and tea” category, but got the exact same result. Nothing. The nearest coffee was located way over in the Slowdown complex. Though it is nearly impossible to drive 100 yards in any other part of Greater Omaha without tripping over a coffee kiosk, there didn’t appear to be a single coffee outlet anywhere throughout the entirety of North Omaha other than a McDonald’s. How is that possible?
It is here where I stop writing and reread what I’ve just written and realize it is the epitome of First World Problems or White Whine. Here we were, driving through neighborhoods where yellow abandonment signs and broken windows appear alongside election yard signs, driving in a 2014 Subaru with the satellite radio blaring classic New Order and our chief complaint was that the nearest Scooter’s drive-through was located on the other side of town.
Certainly there are more pressing matters in North Omaha than the lack of quality coffee options. I get that. Just finding somewhere to buy groceries in North O can be a challenge. When a new Walmart opened on Ames Avenue, it was hailed as a salvation of sorts for the neighborhood. Compare that to the four grocery stores between Northwest Radial Highway and Center Street huddled along Saddle Creek Road.
What else is missing from North Omaha? What other retail options do we take for granted living in midtown that are scarce along north 30th Street? And why? Doesn’t everybody drink coffee?
Clearly people in North O spend money, but there’s a reason everyday businesses have avoided the area. Are they afraid they can’t make a profit, or are they afraid of something else? If it’s something else, why is that fear allowed to exist when it wouldn’t be tolerated in any other part of the city?
I’m not a politician. I don’t know the answers. I don’t know if anybody does. But in this political season where we are bombarded with one political commercial after another, I’ve yet to hear a single politician express any ideas about improving areas of Omaha that are in need of redevelopment.
The closest I’ve seen was a recent commercial by one of the gubernatorial candidates lauding how he gave money to keep a North Omaha catholic grade school open, while the same commercial labeled the neighborhood the school resides in as “one of the worst parts of town.” Some of the residents of that neighborhood complained about the characterization. The candidate pulled the commercial.
No one wants to be told they live in one of the worst parts of town. But was the characterization wrong? The person in the ad who made the statement (not the candidate) at least (probably) lives in the neighborhood.
The fact is, the voters targeted in that commercial probably haven’t stepped foot in North Omaha in years and have no idea what it’s like other than how the millionaire running for governor has characterized it.
The rest of Omaha always has closed its eyes to North Omaha. Despite the constant reporting of drive-by shootings and random acts of violence that plague that area, North Omaha might as well be in another state instead of a 10-minute drive from wherever you’re reading this right now. If we don’t drive through it, it doesn’t exist. Out of sight, out of mind. Call it racism. Call it apathy. Call it willful ignorance.
I would tell you to take a drive through North Omaha and see for yourself, but I know a lot of you are too afraid. You’re afraid you’ll get shot at or attacked or car jacked. I can say with a great deal of confidence that none of that is going to happen.
Just like the rest of the city, there are some scary parts of North Omaha. And there are some amazingly beautiful parts of North Omaha. The scary parts will never become beautiful until someone does something about it. Who will it be? An ambitious politician with vision that goes beyond his or her own neighborhood? Don’t hold your breath. The fact is, people are doing amazing things to improve North Omaha right now. You’re just not hearing about it. It’s easier to simply believe the stereotype.
But there’s still a lot of work to do before businesses we take for granted start looking at North Omaha as a viable place to launch a commercial venture. A lot of broken glass still needs to be swept up; a lot of abandoned buildings need to be torn down. The shootings have to stop, and the politicians have to quit labeling it as the worst part of town. Maybe then I’ll be able to buy a latte along Ames Avenue.
Over The Edge is a weekly column by Reader senior contributing writer Tim McMahan focused on culture, society, music, the media and the arts. Email Tim at firstname.lastname@example.org