As far as I’m concerned, the history of Omaha’s Near North Side neighborhood is the richest in all of Omaha. It has been home to working class families, poor people, and the wealthy; northern Europeans, African Americans, and eastern Europeans; Lutherans and Catholics, Jews and Black Muslims; slums, family homes, and mansions; looked like a pioneer town, had country gentleman farms, been a suburb, and had slums; professional offices, warehouses, manufacturing plants, local storefronts, printing presses, training centers, supermarkets and pop-up shops; giant churches and synagogues, and tiny storefront temples and more. So much has happened here, and clearly its story is still being written…
With the first houses in this neighborhood emerging in the decade after Omaha was settled, the Near North Side is one of the city’s oldest neighborhoods. Because of its 150+ years of existence, it has almost seen some of the most dramatic changes in Omaha history. This is a history of the Near North Side neighborhood in Omaha.
Establishing the Near North Side
Early on, the Near North Side was a place for the city’s newcomers of all stripes. Early settlers in the Near North Side included Germans, Scandinavians and Irish.
Spanning from Omaha’s North Downtown neighborhood boundary at Nicholas north to Locust, the Near North Side spans from Highway 75 on the west to the cliffs on the east next to North 16th. There are several neighborhoods today that identify their space within the Near North Side, including Conestoga Place, the Long School Neighborhood, and others. Note that the Near North Side used to start at Cuming, but that area has been re-aligned with the North Downtown Omaha redevelopment.
The first homes in the Near North Side belonged to wealthy businessmen who dotted their country estates around the area. They generally built large mansions in a variety of styles, including Queen Anne, Italianate, Gothic and Eastlake, When they moved out, early developers built houses all the way around the outskirts of their land, and then filled them in. That’s the reason why this neighborhood has a lot of odd-sized rectangular blocks. Still in this area are historic “shotgun houses” from the 1870s, along with industrial buildings from the 1880s.
The first schools in the Near North Side included the Izard School (1871), the Lake School (1874), the Paul Street School (1876) and the Webster School (1888). Students attended these schools from kindergarten through eighth grade. Few went onto graduate from Omaha High School, which today is called Omaha Central High.
A lot of early businesses in Omaha got their start in the Near North Side. One of the largest was the Storz Brewery Company, which started at the northeast corner of North 18th and Burdette Streets in 1886. After moving to North 16th, they became a major player in the regional beer market until the 1970s, when the brewery was permanently closed.
In 1913, the East Sunday tornado destroyed much of the neighborhood and killed more than 100 people within its boundaries.
The Jewish Community
There were many Jewish institutions in North Omaha, including an Old Folks Home, several synagogues, and the Jewish Funeral Home.
For many years, the Near North Side was synonymous with Omaha’s Jewish community. Starting in the 1870s, Omaha’s Jewish community was established and gained ground quickly. With businesses, synagogues and other Jewish institutions throughout the neighborhood, Jews came in droves to the Near North Side from Eastern Europe and Russia. By 1920, the area was renowned for its Jewish population. After 1910, an area was even called Little Russia for the number of Russian Jews who lived there.
Homes throughout the area were used by Jewish families, hosting religious gatherings and spiritual activities for the entire history of the neighborhood through the 1960s. There were many Jewish businesses in the Near Northside, too, as kosher meats, fish and poultry were important, as well as groceries, clothing and shoe stores, hardware, furniture, and more were needed by everyone living there.
The Near North Side became a bastion of working class and middle class stability starting at the turn of the century. Schools and churches of all kinds filled the neighborhood, with the convenience of urban living benefiting everyone. North 24th became wildly popular, and all of the businesses along the strip grew in stature and success from 1900 through 1929, and even beyond.
The Knights of Ak-Sar-Ben, Omaha’s premier philanthropic and social organization, was founded in North Omaha in 1895. Its roots in the Near North Side shown through the construction of the first Ak-Sar-Ben Den at 2221 North 20th Street in 1906. Ak-Sar-Ben built upper class bonds of business, family and community that continue driving the entire city of Omaha to this day. However, their Den didn’t last: in 1927, a conspicuously advantageous fire burnt the building to the ground. It was conspicuous because it allowed the organization to built its new facility on a huge slice of land in west Omaha starting the same year.
Several Black churches were started and grew in the Near North Side neighborhood, including the Zion Baptist Church; Grove Methodist Episcopal, which became Clair United Methodist; St. Phillips Episcopal, which became Church of the Resurrection; and Pilgrim Baptist.
Churches continued growing in the Near North Side during this era, too. The Salem Baptist Church congregation moved; St. John’s A.M.E. built a fascinatingly beautiful building starting in this era; and many other congregations steadied during this time.
As early as 1890, there were successful Black entrepreneurs and professionals who lived and worked in the Near North Side. African Americans doctors and lawyers lived in exquisite homes, kept offices and built strong families for years. Holding social events at spaces like Dreamland Ballroom, the Mecca Hall and other social spaces, they also had middle and upper class social clubs based in the Near North Side, too. The churches and social clubs formed a cultural backbone that reinforced and strengthened ties across generations for decades.
The Near North Side was a stable, warm and strong neighborhood for nearly two decades, until a conspiratorial calamity blasted the area with contempt and hatred.
Redlining and Segregation
In the 1920s, white flight started to take hold of the neighborhood as African Americans were redlined there after the Red Summer of 1919. After the lynching of Will Brown in downtown Omaha, white mobs moved north to attack African Americans in the Near North Side neighborhood. They were met there by US Army soldiers from Fort Omaha, who drew a line around the neighborhood and told African Americans if they stayed inside those lines they would be protected. Those lines became entrenched when city leaders, real estates agents, bankers, and insurance agents colluded to keep African Americans within them. This was called redlining.
These parade pics are all from the Near North Side. They show parades in the 1930s, 1950s and 1970s.
In short order, many white people fled north and west out of the Near North Side. The quality of the neighborhood quickly deteriorated as the City of Omaha strategically underserved the infrastructure there. They indifferently bulldozed high quality homes and apartments for the next 75 years, and discouraged white people from investing in the area in a variety of ways. Through silent complicity, they continue allowing bad homeowners in the area. The quality of schools, businesses, parks, and other civic infrastructure deteriorated.
The federal government built a low-income housing project in the Near North Side neighborhood in 1937, and doubled its size the next year. For the next 50 years, the Logan Fontenelle Housing Projects held many African Americans in a cycle of poverty and depression that was hard to break.
Omaha’s white population apparently couldn’t continue its interest in the neighborhood. Industries, businesses, and other institutions that helped white people thrive in the Near North Side community began divesting from the neighborhood. Several hospitals closed by the 1940s, while the University of Omaha moved away in 1937. Industries that had allowed some African Americans to establish a foothold in the middle class became harder to access when streetcar service slowed in the 1950s.
Starting in the 1920s, the African American community flourished in the Near North Side neighborhood. Developing black-owned businesses, black churches, black social clubs and other community infrastructure, the Near North Side reflected the energy and vitality of the Harlem Renaissance happening 1,500 miles away.
The Near North Side’s African American culture had many touch points, including the popular Carnation Ballroom, Jim Bell’s Club Harlem, the famous Dreamland Ballroom and others. Between these North Omaha institutions, generations of famous performers played, including Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, Count Basie, Louis Armstrong, Lionel Hampton, and a young James Brown.
One of the great writers of the Harlem Renaissance, Wallace Thurman, grew up in the Near North Side, along with jazz legend Preston Love, political leader George Wells Parker and military hero Alfonza Davis. Omaha’s strong civil rights movement began emerging in the 1920s with the rise of Black Nationalism in the area. Malcolm X’s father was a minister in North Omaha, and an advocate of Marcus Garvey’s work. His involvement led to Omaha’s KKK to firebomb young Malcolm’s home, forcing the family to flee the area. In the 1940s, a group of white college students at Creighton University worked with African American community members through the De Porres Club. They picketed and boycotted many businesses in the Near North Side to increase the hiring of African Americans. Their successor organization, called 4CL, worked in the neighborhood to challenge discrimination and racism across the whole city.
Inverted Power Struggle
By the 1960s, the twisted fabric between white Omaha and the African American Near North Side ripped. The Civil Rights movement, although active in Omaha for 40 years, didn’t yield equality for African Americans. Instead, the City of Omaha routinely neglected to provide basic civic services for the neighborhood, and upward economic mobility had encouraged a growing number of African Americans to move from the neighborhood.
Working with the federal government and the State of Nebraska, the City of Omaha also ran the North Freeway straight through the Near North Side, which once extended to North 30th Street. This divided the economic, social, religious and cultural strength of the neighborhood with a literal physical boundary that continues to affect the entire North Omaha community today.
At the same time, economic pressure suffocated the neighborhood. The Storz Brewery, a major employer in the community, closed in 1966. Unemployment within Omaha’s African American community was at a high point in the 1960s, when at first, overt discrimination allowed white employers to not hire people because of the color of their skin. When that became illegal, the same companies moved from northeast Omaha to west Omaha, creating a successful transportation barrier for many African Americans in the Near North Side neighborhood.
The outcome of this reality was almost four years of riots in the neighborhood between 1966 and 1970. White police shot African Americans. Protesters demanding more services, rights and opportunities from the City government, as well the end to discrimination from Omaha’s white population, picketed and rallied frequently. Omaha’s Black Panther leaders were framed for an explosion that killed a police officer. Radicals arose, police abused, and peaceful gatherings turned to firebombings, beatings, looting, and a lot of other violence.
Businesses fled the Near North Side during and after the riots, and both African American and white people moved away. The neighborhood has lost dramatic numbers of residents since 1969, and has never recovered.
Tepidly Calling It A Comeback
For more than four decades after the riots, the city seemingly pursued a policy of benign neglect toward the Near North Side and much of North Omaha. Streets crumbled, business didn’t come back, schools kept underperforming. There were many tokenistic gestures during this time, including selective community forums, occasional empowerment trainings, and a few street lamps replaced on major streets. More than a few plans were made that never came to fruition.
Today, there are more plans than ever. Public announcements and private investments are being hinted at, and some people feel positive about the future. As the North Downtown area continues to be invested in with new developments and its historic properties rehabilitated, there’s a sense that prosperity has to creep northwards next, positively affecting the Near North Side neighborhood. Suggestions about the redevelopment of the Webster Telephone Building sound plausible, and the creation of a 24th and Lake Historic District seems imminent.
However, a lot of residents seem to believe its more of the same. Burned out from decades of seemingly false optimism, some folks decry every positive news announcement about the neighborhood as a farce. They’re used to seeing their same neighborhood blasted as violent, gang-ridden and drug-filled by the same news sources. If you believe everything the internet says, it seems like the rest of the city agrees with them, both white and black.
Let’s tepidly say the Near North Side is going to make a comeback. With more new homes, historic preservation and economic investment happening than ever before, it looks like change is going to come. Only time will tell…
Omaha’s Historic Near North Side Map
The following are landmarks listed on either the National Register of Historic Places or designated as Omaha Landmarks in Omaha’s Near North Side neighborhood. This is also the key to my map of the Near North Side’s historic places map.
- The Memmen Apartments built in 1889 at 2214, 2216, 2218, and 2220 Florence Boulevard
- The Broomfield Rowhouse built in 1913 at 2502-2504 Lake Street
- Jim Bell’s Club Harlem, near the intersection of N. 24th and Lake Streets
- The Webster Telephone Exchange Building built in 1906 at 2213 Lake Street
- St. John’s African Methodist Episcopal Church built from 1921 through 1956 at 2402 North 22nd Street
- The Dreamland Ballroom built in 1923 at 2221 North 24th Street
- The Sherman Apartments built in 1897 at 2501 North 16th Street
- Zion Baptist Church built in 1913 2215 Grant Street
- The Apartments built in 1929 at 2514 N. 16th Street
- The site of Robinson Memorial Church of God in Christ, built in 1920 and demolished later at 2318 North 26th Street
- The Margaret Apartments built in 1916 at 2103 N 16th Street
- The Strelow Apartments built from 1905 through 1916 at 2010 N 16th Street
- Omaha Star Office built in 1923 at 2216 N 24th Street
- July 4, 1966 Riot started at the intersection of N. 24th and Lake Streets
- August 1, 1966 Riot started at the intersection of N. 24th and Ohio Streets
- Vivian Strong killed by Omaha Police officer James Loder near 21st and Paul Streets
- Logan Fontenelle Housing Projects built from 1938 through 1941 between N. 24th and Florence Blvd, from Paul to Clark Streets.
- The Kellom Elementary School was opened as the Paul Street School in 1892 at 1311 N. 24th Street
- The site of the B’nai Jacob Anshe Sholom Synagogue was opened in 1909 and closed in the 1950s at 1111 N. 24th Street
- The site of the original DePorres Club at 1904 N. 24th Street
- The site of the Diamond Moving Picture Theatre at 2400 Lake, destroyed by the 1913 tornado.
- Mt. Moriah Baptist Church built in 1934 at 2602 N. 24th Street
- Jewish Old Folks’ Home was located at 2504 Charles Street
- Lake School was at N. 20th and Lake Streets from 1888 to 1976
- Charles Street Bicycle Park, N. 18th and Charles from 1886-1887
Unmarked: The site of the Ak-Sar-Ben Den at 2226 N. 20th Street
You Might Like…
- A History of North Omaha’s Jewish Community
- A History of North 24th Street
- Video: A Street of Dreams
- A History of North Downtown Omaha
- A History of North 16th Street
- A History of Ak-Sar-Ben in North Omaha
Do you have any additions, questions, concerns or considerations? Leave them in the comments section below!