Omaha’s original federally-funded public housing projects were cut from the mould. Built as long, low terrace-style apartments and as tall towers, they were well-cared for when they were filled with white people, and poorly up-kept and deeply despised when filled with African Americans. Regardless, they were home to thousands of families striving for something more, something closer to the American dream.
Once upon a time, there was a massive public housing project located at the intersection of North 24th and Paul Streets in the Near North Side neighborhood. Originally named the “Northside Village Public Housing Project,” the name was officially changed in honor of the famous Omaha tribe leader Logan Fontenelle.
Starting in the late 1970s, these projects were unofficially known as “Little Vietnam”. They were called that in reference to the Vietnam War because of the violence that plagued the area for more than 25 years of their existence. They’re gone now, and many African American and white people act like they’d rather forget they ever existed. Here is a short history so they won’t be forgotten.
Before there was a Logan Fontenelle Housing Project, there were houses, churches and other buildings filling this section of the Near North Side neighborhood. Located immediately north of downtown Omaha, the Near North Side is a historic district that was originally home to many European immigrant families, eventually becoming the center of Omaha’s African American culture, commerce and religious communities.
The original half of the Logan Fontenelle Projects was opened in 1938. Located at North 24th and Paul Streets, the second half was finished in 1941, finishing the final section to Clark and North 20th Street. At its peak, there were more than 550 units in the projects for more than 2,100 residents.
Built by the federal government, these projects were originally the home to hundreds of new immigrants to the United States who were coming primarily eastern European countries, including Czechs, Slovaks, German Jews and others. Fleeing the oppression of the Nazi empire, these people desperately needed places to live and the government was trying to employ people through its Depression Era agency, the Public Works Administration.
Designed for utility, the projects were built as long, two story buildings. They were wrapped around a central courtyard with a playground owned by the City of Omaha. The Omaha School District maintained the Kellom Elementary School along the southern side of the projects.
These units were applauded for giving equal housing opportunities to whites and Blacks when they first opened. However, even early on, Logan Fontenelle was called “the ghetto.”
Designed to be temporary housing, when residents couldn’t escape the tension of poverty, they were originally charged more to stay. Eventually that practice stopped, and more and more the boundaries of the projects formed barriers to move out of, instead of opportunities to move beyond.
As the European immigration ended after World War Two, white inhabitants of the projects continued to become better paid and moved out of Logan Fontenelle. The projects were still necessary though, and conditions became worse. In the 1950s, labor problems at the Omaha Stockyards and Black migration from the South brought a new rush of African Americans emigration to Omaha. The segregation that had kept Black families out of Logan Fontenelle Projects ended; however, it was replaced by segregation within the projects. There were separate units for Black families and white families, and kids weren’t allowed to play together.
Within a decade, the projects were almost entirely African American. By this point, the projects were the only modern homes available to Blacks in Omaha. Obvious from the surging Civil Rights movement in Omaha, the families in Logan Fontenelle were increasingly unhappy with the segregation, neglect, and racism they faced everyday in their neighborhood. Omaha’s police department notoriously over-policed the area, working to ensure Blacks stayed within carefully decided lines drawn by the city’s real estate, insurance, and bank industries. The neighboring Kellom school became entirely segregated shortly after African Americans moved into the projects, too.
Conditions got worse at the projects over the years. Buildings weren’t kept in good condition, as the need for low-income housing became greater, the units got packed. Too many people living in too few places in a confined area created a boiling pot of violence and righteous indignation. Despite struggling with this issue for decades, the Nebraska Legislature and Omaha Housing Authority couldn’t manage to relieve the situation.
The projects led many people to achieve and succeed, escaping the clutches of community depression, racism, and white privilege. Baseball player Bob Gibson grew up in Logan Fontenelle, just like media titan Cathy Hughes of Radio One.
Others never made it out.
Police Violence and Riots
In 1969, a police officer shot an unarmed Black youth in the head near the projects. Vivian Strong, a 14-year-old who lived in Logan Fontenelle, came to see a neighbor getting arrested by police. When police called at her and her friends, they ran away. An officer pulled out his gun and shot her dead.
After a judge found the officer not guilty, youth from the projects and surrounding neighborhood descended on the North 24th Street commercial district and started rioting. Firebombing a dozen buildings, the riot took several days to stop, with armed National Guard members eventually sending all the protesters and rioters home. This was one of four major riots that ate away North Omaha’s commercial and cultural heart.
Citizens in the projects regularly clashed with police, who alternately ignored Logan Fontenelle and over-policed the area. In a recent memoir, one Omaha policeman bragged they were allowed to keep their practices after being suspended by a chief for these practices. “Luckily for me that chief of police did not last much longer.” [*] A
Alternately though, police regularly ignored the neighborhood too. In 1988, The New York Times reported on a part of Logan Fontenelle called the crack corner for its drug deals.
With remorse by few and no obituary, the Omaha Housing Authority began demolishing the projects in 1991, and finished completely in 1995. Today, there is no plaque where they stood. There’s little acknowledgment anywhere beyond the Wikipedia article I wrote.
After being forcibly kept in the projects for more than 40 years by racist policies and practices, a group of African Americans sued the federal government for disallowing them to move from Logan Fontenelle. In 1994, they won a US Supreme Court trial called Hawkins v. Cisneros that called on the federal Housing and Urban Development agency and the Omaha Housing Authority to development options to the segregated projects.
Since then, the area was redeveloped with suburban-style single-family homes, New Urbanist-type houses, and businesses.
- A History of the Spencer Street Public Housing Projects
- A History of the Near North Side
- A History of the 24th and Lake Historic District