When someone talks about the history of North Omaha, it is the music, the food and the names that generate the energy, smiles, laughter and unbridled enthusiasm. When long-time residents start waving their hands, pointing down the street and vividly reminiscing about the time when North 24th Street was jumping, it gets your heart pounding and almost makes you feel like you are reliving the moment.
They will tell you about the movie theaters, dance clubs, businesses and so much more lining the streets. They talk about buying ice cream, flowers, suits and shoes. They talk about the sports teams and social clubs. They talk about going to the dentist or doctor right in the neighborhood. But mostly, they talk about the music and food!
24th and Lake and, to some extent, North 16th Street were magnets in the heyday for the top musicians in the country. With limited access to mainstream hotels and music venues, the best of the best played on North 24th Street. For decades, the question has been, “Can 24th and Lake rise again?” Can we create a thriving arts, culture, entertainment and business district? Can we create an economic engine built on the rich history of the area, but based on the contemporary artists, restored buildings and new venues?
Over the past 40 years, numerous plans have been created for the redevelopment of 24th and Lake. Some have had momentary success, while others are still on paper in files covered with dust. In the past eight years, the Chamber of Commerce, Empowerment Network, OEDC and others have gathered public comments and recommendations and introduced comprehensive visions for arts and culture in North Omaha. Finally, the visions are beginning to take shape.
Love’s Jazz and Art Center is the center piece of the revival. The Center is routinely generating crowds of 100+ by bringing in local, regional and national jazz, blues and gospel artists on a regular basis. Under the leadership of Executive Director Tim Clark, Love’s is also partnering to bringing in national exhibits.
The Union for Contemporary Art, founded by Bridgette McQueen, is bringing a new vibe to the area as well. The Union has attracted a diverse audience to large and small exhibits and innovative events.
Though they are in transition at the moment, the Bemis Center for Contemporary Art/Carver Bank Building has featured a wide array of events and activities including many that have brought a younger, hip hop driven crowd to 24th and Lake. The building is used as a public venue for discussions, art exhibits and private events. The Great Plains Black History Museum board has a new vision and direction, and is in discussions about a new venue. The organization currently has exhibit space at Crossroads Mall, but has presented exciting plans for a new, state of the art building. The former Great Plains Black History Museum location, Webster Telephone Company Building, has been purchased and plans are in the works for a major renovation.
While not immediately in the 24th and Lake area, the Malcolm X Foundation now has its own building and hosts numerous cultural events and activities throughout the year. The Center has a bold vision for the future which includes an amphitheater, museum, mixed-income living spaces, urban gardens and more. The potential for the Center is unlimited.
Deb Bunting, Heritage Arts Manager for the Nebraska Arts Council, has consistently reinforced that the best way to revive a community is through the economic engine of an arts and culture district. Her national research showsthe best way to start the movement is by presenting large, successful events. North Omaha is benefiting from
this sound advice.
Stacy Westbrook has also played an important role by helping to expand MLK week activities with well attended Red Carpet Movie Premieres, innovative educational programs, and inspiring musical events.
Christmas in the Village at 24th and Lake has grown into one of the largest events in North Omaha, attracting over 3,000 the first Saturday in December. The new holiday tradition and celebration features a full day of activities, including: carriage rides, Nativity scene with live animals; gospel and jazz music; art displays and hands on activities; food from North Omaha restaurants; merchandise from North Omaha artists; and much more.
Stroll Down Memory Lane held during Native Omaha Days also brings thousands back to North 24th Street to listen to great live music – jazz, gospel, old school, R&B, and more – while also enjoying food and fellowship. Beyond the venues and events, a number of organizations and outstanding artists are generating positive buzz in the community. North Omaha continues to produce amazingly talented artists.
When it comes to gospel, Omaha is richly blessed. Gospel artists like Millicent Crawford, Dani Cleveland, Eric and Doriette Jordan, Rachele Sanders and others grace the stages of events throughout the city. The jazz scene is pumping again with the likes of Ed Archibald, The Last Few and the Potash Twins. R&B is alive and well with R Style and others. WGO Orchestra is a soulful collaboration of men and women who embrace the feel good music from the Motown era.
Another reason for excitement is the emergence of a whole new crew. Felicia Webster and Michele Troxclair and the Wordsmiths are shaking up the city with a mix of spoken word and passion filled songs, with a flavor of inspiration and social justice at their Verbal Gumbo events. Miguel Mason is hosting some of the classiest, most elegant and positive entertainment events in striking settings at top venues across the city. Bird Williams and Flyte have brought a fresh sound to the table to make sure the Hip Hop generation is not left out.
Could you imagine having all of these talented artists and movement creators concentrated in one spot? Periodically, during some large events, you can see and hear them at 24th and Lake. Could you imagine what’s possible if on any given weekend, you could go to the Village at 24th and Lake and experience the amazing, unmatched celebration of African-American culture through all these various venues, music, food and artists?
That’s the vision. Let’s make it happen!