Someone asked me what I remember about North Omaha from growing up there. The following is just a stream-of-consciousness response, but I thought I’d share with you.
My family moved to Omaha from Canada, and although my dad’s American, I was born in Alberta, Canada and brought my goofy accent, corduroy pants and cowboy boots to North Omaha with me. Growing up in the neighborhood for a decade afterwards, my family, mentors, friends and others kept me focused on becoming the person I am today, and for that I’m eternally grateful.
Despite anything I share below, I grew up with a lot of advantages and privileges that a lot of the kids around me didn’t. I wasn’t always aware of those things, but even when I was young I knew my circumstances were special. There is much more to my story than what follows, but the following can give you an idea of where I come from.
The free lunch card I used in school was embarrassing to me in high school, so I usually just skipped eating in the cafeteria then and ate government peanut butter on day-old bread from the Wonder bread store next to Phil’s at 30th and Ames. That’s when everyone in my neighborhood was wearing Air Jordans and parachute pants – so fitting in was never my thing. I remember the last day of 8th grade at McMillan, when a rumor that Bloods were waiting to jump white kids on my walk home led me to running almost the entire 1.5 miles back to my house.
The first place we moved into the community were the trailer courts by Sherman. We lived in the back by the railroad tracks, where stories of the Monkey Man and tornado warnings filled my 10-year-old mind with “creative” memories. My older brother and I used to walk to the Sherman Community Center to take a van to swim at Adams Park’s indoor pool. That only lasted until we were jumped a few weeks in a row by a group of East Omaha “ratts” who stole our admission money – $.50 apiece.
When we moved to the Miller Park neighborhood in 1986, the place was changing. The few other white kids who lived around us when we got there were gone within a few years, and things became more tense. I tried tagging along with me older brother and his friends while they went crawdad fishing on the Miller Park pond and race dirt bikes around, but they didn’t want a tagalong, as big kids never do. I also distinctly remember the day my friends and I met at the intersection of North 28th and Fort Streets and decided to stop playing “gang” games we’d picked up in movies – no more “Waddup Crip?” or play-gang signs. It was all too serious, according to the news, and we just stopped.
I took a newspaper route when I was 11, then another and another, and threw 150 papers every weekend and 75 during weekdays for a few years. There was a massive green cart and that ridiculous Omaha World-Herald newspaper bag. I learned all the streets in the neighborhood, rode the buses to spend my money at Family Fun Center, and feasted like a king on ice cream when Phil’s at 24th and Fort closed.
My mom was always a bellwether in our family. She rallied the Girl Scouts in the neighborhood for my sisters, and ran Cub Scouts for my brother and I. Constantly volunteering at school, she was involved in the neighborhood association and beyond, too. She was the secretary at Pearl for several years, where I learned to put together newsletters and watched her type like a machine, too. My mom made our lives work, and very little seemed to faze her.
In the middle of the chaos of our neighborhood, my dad was a distinct kind of rock in my life, too. I learned what resilience looked like as he sat on the front porch and played his Lakota flute at midnight. That juxtaposed against the drive-bys on the block and gangs roaming the streets sticks in my memory. He used to take groups of my brother’s friends and I on hikes around the neighborhood and beyond, leading us like a little Marine patrol through the swamps in East Omaha, along the Missouri River dikes, and through backyards along the boulevard. When he started a Boy Scout troop at Pearl Church, I stayed there for 8 years to earn my Eagle Scout award and become a scoutmaster. I made some great friends in that troop, including one who is still a best friend today, more than 25 years later.
A nonprofit called United Ministries of Northeast Omaha gave me the first job that helped me determine my career arch when I was hired to help teach a youth empowerment theatre program called “You’re The Star!” The man who ran that program, Ernest Nedds or Idu Maduli, was a powerful role model for me who I still admire. I was selected to attend a youth leadership program at the Urban League, and I became really involved in Pearl’s youth ministry work.
I remember going to Four Aces Pawn Shop to buy my first cassette tapes (U2 and INXS); staying up late to walk to 7-11 and play video games all night while drinking Slurpies; getting picked on at McMillan for buying clothes from the American Thrift Store; walking with my family to eat ice cream in a shop that was where Family Dollar is today on 30th; and going to Burger King at 24th and Ames to eat out once in a blue moon.
My mom would take us four kids on the bus to the 1/2 Price Store downtown, or we’d take 4 transfers to go to Crossroads for the day to window shop and share an Orange Julius. I got jumped walking through Miller Park more than a half dozen times, and couldn’t afford to play football at North like I wanted to. I didn’t understand who the other white kids were at McMillan and North, and came to distrust Omaha’s suburbs where a lot of North’s honors students came from in the early 90s. But I also never jumped into a gang and I was no good at basketball, so I didn’t have a lot of friends in my own neighborhood, either.
My family got better situated economically as I got older, and I remember feeling the freedom of driving aimlessly and endlessly around Omaha towards the end of high school. Cruising was banned by then though, so I didn’t really partake in that ritual, proper. There was volunteering at Miller Park school as the Santa for 3 years when I was in high school; sleeping in half-built Habitat for Humanity houses as a favor to Margaret Gilmore to make sure they weren’t broke into; loading and unloading and picking through the food at the Pearl Church food pantry every few weeks; and so much more. All of that instilled a lifelong ethic of serving others throughout my soul, and still drives me today.
At the end of 8th grade I wanted to go to Central for their drama program; I knew I wanted to keep acting. When my mom applied for me to go there, though, I was denied. The school district needed white kids to go to North, and that’ where I had to attend.
I remember sitting on the top of Devil’s Slide in Hummel Park to watch 4th of July fireworks, and roaming through the Old Market like I owned it all – despite rarely buying anything there. Luckily, my friends in high school went along with some of my adventures and we had some fun times. I still feel fortunate to have known them.
When I got enthralled by the history of the Old Market, I started wondering about North O’s old building and asking the old people at Pearl Church about the area’s history. They filled me full of stories about streetcars and shops, trees and nice houses, and frankly it all sounded like a fantasy to me. I carried those stories into my 30s when I started researching North O’s history, and confirmed what they shared and found out a LOT more. When I was younger, Ernest Nedds taught me about the Black Panthers, Afro-American theatre and other features of the community. A mentor of mine from Scouts was Von Trimble, Sr., and he taught me about the success his family made for themselves when he was young. I learned about the strong fabric of the Black community in North O during the 40s and 50s, and carried that with me, too. In high school I dated a girl from the Minne Lusa neighborhood, and she wrote a paper once about the Trans-Mississippi Expo that hung in my imagination, too. I will always remember how kind her family was to me and how tolerant she was of me. There came a point when I consciously decided I wanted a similar lifestyle to hers when I grew up, which I’ve managed to create my own version of.
It was towards the end of high school when I got jumped by a couple of crackheads on a cool fall night. They shouted about a cracker walking through their neighborhood (my neighborhood) while a friend and I were walking out of Miller Park. He just watched though, and they didn’t do anything to him because he is mixed.
After struggling to make sense of life after high school, I eventually moved away from Omaha. Before that, I ran a kids program for UMNEO and took a job loading trucks at Loziers. More and more though, my life took me away from Miller Park and sent me out to the world. Since then, I’ve done a few cool things and seen some great places; met wonderful people and left a mark on the world.
I’m grateful for everything I lived through in North O, and every way the community made me a better person. Its why I’ve spent a decade researching the community’s history; starting more than 300 articles on Wikipedia related to Omaha history; writing my books and website about North Omaha’s history; and why I treat every connection I still have in the city as an important tie… It all matters to me, and I’m trying to give back an iota of what’s been shared with me.
What do YOU remember about growing up in North Omaha? Share your thoughts, memories or anything in the comment section below!