By Bousaina Ibrahim and Dominic Bhola
For lifelong resident Lexi Jones, everyone feels like family in North Omaha. She said she’s always had a big and loving family and much of her history has been rooted in the historically Black neighborhood.
Her grandfather was a pastor, and her family has been involved in the community. As she grew up, being at community events surrounded by her aunties, cousins and siblings was a regular part of her day. Whether it was the Native Omaha Day parades or attending church on Sundays, Jones said her childhood was greatly nurtured by North Omaha’s community.
“It was a common thing to be a kid and at these community events,” she said. “There’s not a lot of people I know who don’t have the same memories as me.”
Jones’ remembrance of North Omaha is a stark contrast to what she said her home feels like today, especially on North 24th Street.
But things are changing.
North Omaha’s community has lived through many changes, its landscape evolving over the years. Some residents remember the bustling Black-owned businesses of their youth. Others grew up in an era of violence. And some are just beginning their journey in North Omaha, a community on the brink of revitalization.
Throughout the years, residents and scholars have described North 24th Street as the heart of North Omaha.
North 24th Street’s journey is richly cultured — whether through the jazz clubs of the 60s or the tumultuous years of the 80s or the budding businesses of today. But North 24th Street has been affected by issues spanning generations like racial segregation and poverty. Now the business owners and residents of North Omaha are hoping to rewrite their story and rebuild their community, with North 24th Street at the center of it.
On the heels of the North Omaha Recovery Plan, which allocates over $170 million to support small businesses and provide job training opportunities, the entrepreneurs of North 24th Street hope to restore the glory of the street’s cultural history and honor the legacy of the stories they heard growing up.
The emblematic North 24th street is central to the history of North Omaha, often referred to as “The Street of Dreams.” For many decades, especially in the late 20th century, North 24th Street blossomed with opportunities for business-owners, musicians and creatives. Many of the stories and major events that have shaped North Omaha have taken place on North 24th Street. Now, local businesses along North 24th Street are trying to reshape North Omaha’s future.
A new generation of entrepreneurs
Today, North Omaha’s 24th Street is beginning to mirror the bustling nature of its past. There’s the longstanding Omaha Star newspaper, which continues its legacy of being led by a Black woman. Down the lane, there’s a basketball court, the Fair Deal Village Marketplace, a new theater and murals to enrich the community. Many young organizers, entrepreneurs and other residents are hoping to recreate the vibrancy on 24th Street. At 24th and Lake streets, the famous intersection in North Omaha, is the Fabric Lab, a non-profit that has played a key role in shaping the growth of North Omaha. As these organizations give back to the community, they understand how important it is to honor the legacy of those before them.
“I grew up learning about all the historic businesses that came down here that kind of faded out,” said Imani Murray, a Black business-owner who started a juice and smoothie business on North 24th Street. “And so, when it comes, I feel like I’m honoring that, because I’m a young Black entrepreneur, there’s a lot of Black entrepreneurs down here.”
Murray said she would like to see more young entrepreneurs inspiring change along North 24th Street. She said she hopes more businesses and more events will bring the community closer together — helping North Omaha to feel more connected.
Murray’s shop is a bright part of 24th Street; a mural is painted on the storefront, with tropical fruits and a smiling Black woman adorned in a yellow dress. The colorful drive-through business reflects Murray’s Jamaican roots. Murray said she hopes Ital Vital will serve all the generations of North Omaha.
With her business, Murray said she feels like she’s honoring the legacy of the historic Black business-owners who built and enriched the community of North Omaha. In particular, the legacy of her father, who was the first art director of Love’s Jazz and Arts Center.
“It’s really like a full circle moment to be in North Omaha, to be specifically on North 24th Street, because of my dad,” Murray said
Love’s Jazz and Arts Center was integral to the history of North 24th Street. Since 2005, it has featured the rich musical history of North Omaha, honoring the contributions of Black musicians and artists in Nebraska’s cultural heritage. The center was named after Preston Love Sr., a jazz legend from Omaha.
Murray said she sees herself as a part of the younger generation that is reimagining what 24th Street can be.
“I think it’s really important to have the young people have a say in what is going to happen because they’re the future,” she said.
The city of Omaha ended its lease with the center in 2020 and it will be reopened as the North Omaha Music and Arts, which will be will be a creative academy for the youth of the community, with its education rooted in the arts and music. The leaders of the new academy say they hope to elevate the legacy of Preston Love Sr.
Gentrification and erasure of North 24th’s culture
Jones has watched North 24th Street change over the years, and her overall sense of community is far less tightly knit than it once was. For Jones, the North Omaha that exists today is not the same place she grew up.
“It just felt more vibrant as a kid,” she said. “The way that everything looked, the people that you would see — the energy was just a lot different.”
Jones, like many North Omaha residents, is concerned by the changes she’s seeing in her hometown. She said major corporations — often owned by white investors — are purchasing North Omaha’s neighborhoods and businesses, without fully understanding the area’s cultural and historic importance.
Jones is describing gentrification — which simultaneously erases the culture of North Omaha and unravels the tightly knit community. Spaces that once felt familiar, like North 24th Street, are being rapidly changed through urban development.
Jones said she can tell many areas of North Omaha have already been gentrified, including community gathering spaces like North 24th Street. She said beloved Black-owned businesses are being bought out.
The exact number of Black-owned businesses in North Omaha is inconclusive and may have been too few to be recorded in recent Nebraska Census data. However, Jones is likely correct in the trends she’s noticing. In the past five years, the amount of overall small businesses has increased in Nebraska — but the amount of minority-owned businesses has decreased. While minority-owned businesses are gradually recovering, the numbers are still lower than they were in the mid-2010s by several thousand.
Jones said the supportive environment she remembers in her childhood changed as organizations and businesses owned by Black people disappeared on 24th.
Gentrification is often a byproduct of urban development, where new businesses and residents move into existing neighborhoods, changing or erasing the culture of an area in the process.
There’s always a certain degree of displacement associated with gentrification — Jones has watched it happen to local businesses in North Omaha. She said she thinks the Black community now has less control and sense of belonging along North 24th Street.
Despite the ongoing gentrification, North 24th Street continues to be a rich source of culture for the North Omaha community. Throughout the years, the Black-owned businesses along North 24th Street have been pivotal to North Omaha’s history, social movements and economic growth.
Most North Omaha residents agree — to build a new future, one must first understand the past.
North 24th’s history
A part of North Omaha’s history that is often overlooked is the vibrant Black community in the area that was created and sustained during the early 1920s. Throughout America, the Harlem Renaissance was awakening Black neighborhoods to their dreams and capabilities. In North Omaha, and especially on North 24th Street, this influence was prominent in the homes, grocery stores, social halls, newspapers and music.
Community members supported one another, and the economic growth gave the street its nickname: “The Street of Dreams.” The street and its surrounding area became a district of its own, and segregation furthered the separation from the rest of the city.
But traumatic events changed the community. During the Omaha Race Riot of 1919, Will Brown, a Black man, was lynched by a violent white mob that destroyed the downtown area.
The city was under martial law following the rioting, and U.S. Army troops were assigned to protect Black Omahans and their property, particularly on 24th Street. Eventually, the state-sanctioned separation set up the foundation for a new system of segregation: redlining. Throughout the 1920s, real estate agents, politicians and insurance agents collaborated to draw red lines on maps of the city. Black Omahans could not invest in property, insurance or businesses outside of the redlined areas, which was mainly the North side.
Redlining impacted other city services, including Omaha’s public schools; schools within the redlined areas were exclusively Black. According to research by Creighton professor Palma Strand, the federal government deliberately funded housing segregation, the expansion of white suburbs and disinvestment in Omaha and across the country.
Traditional residents who remember the era of segregation and systemic discrimination have played an active role in the revitalization of North Omaha. Among, them is a community leader and elder, Preston Love Jr. who has been committed to his community since the very beginning.
Love, who has lived in North Omaha for most of his life, centers his work on his community’s access to historical education, political participation and economic development. Now at 80 years old, he said he’s grateful to see the change the younger generation is creating. Love said it’s important for an intergenerational dialogue to take place during an area’s growth, and he wants to be a central voice to provide guidance. As an elder and professor at the University of Nebraska-Omaha, Love said it’s important to recognize the good, bad and ugly parts of Omaha’s history.
Community leader and elder Preston Love Jr. discusses the historical events that have shaped North 24th Street.
“We were glorious in so many ways,” Love said. “We were glorious in commerce, we had lots of businesses. We were glorious in community, we were unified, and we stuck together. We were glorious in church, we were glorious in our social network, and in music and everything, everything that accentuated our culture, we were glorious.
But after a series of historical negative events to our community, that community has been devastated for over 40 to 50 years.”
The negative events included the murder of Vivian Strong, a 14-year-old Black girl growing up in the Fontenelle Housing Projects, which no longer exist today. Strong’s home was on 24th Street, and the projects were predominantly Black due to race-restrictive housing policies. On June 24, 1969, a group of young children were enjoying music in a vacant apartment. The night’s course changed abruptly when police arrived after a call reporting an alleged robbery. At the sight of the police, the young children tried to flee. It ended tragically when Strong was shot in the head by white police officer, James Loder.
The anger and hurt from the injustice rippled throughout the community and resulted in violent fires and extensive damage to the businesses on 24th Street. For three nights, businesses on 24th Street were burned to the ground. Alan Vaughn, who grew up with Vivian and was there the night she was shot, said the buildings were never rebuilt but instead represented the traumatic legacy of Vivian Strong and her innocence. Love says until now, the community never really recovered.
Reinventing the future of North 24th
Reinvention of North 24th Street is exemplified in the Fabric Lab, a multigenerational project run by Black creatives in the 24th and Lake historic district. Clarice Dombeck, the urban development assistant, said the Fabric Lab is dedicated to supporting Black architects, planners, creatives and cultural entrepreneurs who are shaping North Omaha’s future.
The Fabric Lab is part of the encompassing “Fabric Project,” which is designed to support entrepreneurs and reinforce the rich heritage of North 24th Street. The project ties together five commercial businesses and three apartments specifically dedicated to supporting the growth and career of artists in the community.
Dombeck said the Fabric Lab is also trying to heal the community through the North Omaha Trail, which runs adjacent to Highway 75. Dombeck is currently working on a project about the detriments of Highway 75; hundreds of Black homes, businesses and other institutions were destroyed in 1975 to create a highway. The leaders of the Fabric Lab hope to “stitch the wound” of the past. The trail spans five miles and connects an economic, recreational, and public health link through several of the neighborhood’s anchors. Dombeck said creating community-based connections is a priority for the organization.
The Fabric Lab serves as a community space to inform and connect the residents of North Omaha. Dombeck said they hope to empower business owners and entrepreneurs along North 24th Street, “stitching together the urban and community fabric of our city.”
A contributing part of that fabric is Love’s North Omaha Legacy Tours. The tour’s bus drives through 24th Street and into the 30th Street corridor of North Omaha. With Love as a guide, the tour provides participants with rich historical and cultural context of North Omaha. Love said at least 60 percent of the tourists make stops for lunch and surrounding business establishments, such as Big Mama’s restaurant and Revive Center Omaha.
In September, the North Omaha Legacy Tours celebrated its 100th tour since the beginning of the year. Love said the impact of the tours is their educational and economic value to the Omaha community.
“We need to share our history and the richness of our culture,” he said. “And dispel myths, misinformation, and biases that are embedded. We’re serving a very needed function. And that function could not have been done until now.”
Preston Love Jr. talks about the future of North Omaha and the projects bringing new vitality to North 24th Street.
It seemed fitting that in May 2022, dozens of North Omaha residents gathered at the Fabric Lab to the discuss the future. Among the topics: potential displacement, affordable housing and the impending development of North Omaha.
This came a month after the landmark “Omaha Recovery Act” was signed, allocating around $250 million to “improve conditions” in North Omaha — the community collectively recognized the opportunity to improve social relations, recover from historical economic impacts, and address disparities in public health.
Around 39% of the funds — more than $170 million — will be allocated to supporting small businesses and providing job training opportunities for individuals in North Omaha, including the business owners of North 24th Street.
Like Jones, many residents of North Omaha are concerned that increased development would erase the culture and historic background of their community — especially as large corporations try to buy out smaller businesses or as high-price housing developments threaten to drastically alter the landscape of North Omaha.
For most residents, it is important to acknowledge and honor the cultural history of North Omaha, while still improving conditions for longtime residents.
That’s exactly what state Sen. Terrell McKinney, who is at the helm of the North Omaha Recovery Plan, hopes to do.
“One of my main things is just trying to ensure that these dollars are utilized in a way that people from the community benefit the most from it, and not outside entities,” McKinney said.
Other programs and development projects have tried to “revitalize” North Omaha in the past, with varying levels of success. None have been as large-scale, encompassing or ambitious as the North Omaha Recovery Plan, which is why residents say it is even more imperative to document and respect the history and traditions of the area.
McKinney said North Omaha has already come a long way after decades of poverty, crime and drug issues. He said fewer individuals are going to prison or jail or committing offenses. The community has flourished into a secure, more hopeful environment. Now, the challenge is changing the perception of North Omaha for residents new and old.
“I am hopeful that if this is executed properly, we put a jolt of hope into the community and our youth and our young adults can see that, you know, they don’t have to settle for less,” McKinney said. “And that they could live and grow within the community and don’t have to worry about living in poverty and things like that.”
For the lifelong residents of North Omaha and business owners along North 24th Street, the recovery plan is more than revitalization — it’s the next chapter of their lives.