Since the 1870s, the intersection of North 24th and Lake Streets has been home to more than a dozen grocery stores. One of them was an ambitious project to make sure the predominately neighborhood around it had its own modern shopping experience. This is a history of the Safeway store at 24th and Lake Streets.
Before the New Building
Early in 1963, the northeast block of buildings on North 24th Street between Lake and Ohio Streets was demolished. According to student researchers for Omaha Public Schools, the earliest business there was a bakery in 1908. By 1910, the Berenstein Grocery was in two story brick commercial building on the corner called the Hart Building. The rest of the block was built with other one- and two-story brick commercial buildings. Businesses over the years have included L.M. Smith Shoe Repair, Pitler Plumbing, M&N Radio Shop, Eva’s Dress Shop and Carter’s Café.
For more than 70 years a small grocery store was located across the street, but it was small and old-fashioned. When it closed in 1962, the neighborhood was without a grocery store.
Safeway Invades North Omaha
Located on the northeast corner of the intersection of 24th and Lake Streets, the new Safeway store was designed in 1963, and was intended to be a beacon of new economic growth in the neighborhood. The Safeway corporation had a strong hold on the Omaha market in the early 1960s. Deciding to profit off the then-empty intersection, they announced the construction of a new supermarket on the northeast corner of 24th and Lake. Demolishing an entire block of the historic buildings on the corner, they replaced the structures with two new buildings, one housing the Safeway supermarket and the other for a Skaggs pharmacy. In February 1963, neighborhood attorney Ray L. Williams said the intersection was “at its lowest ebb,” and welcomed the announcement of the construction of a major new supermarket there, and Attorney Elizabeth Pittman voice her support too. Safeway said the building “would be the biggest Safeway in Omaha… equal to or better than any other store in town.”
Opening in November 1964, there were a small number of African American employees and prices higher than the neighborhood was used to at the store. Within a month of opening the store was accused of racist hiring practices and price gouging.
North Omaha Strikes Back
Between 1966 and 1968, three riots focused on the Safeway store. According to the newspapers, the vast majority of neighbors around the intersection did not support the rioters or their reasoning; many pointed the finger at young people and said they caused it all.
The first riot happened during a heatwave. On July 4, 1966, people started gathering in the Safeway parking lot. By some accounts, they were all young people; others say it was a mixed-age group. Regardless, there was a 100-plus degree heat wave in Omaha, and the homes in the neighborhoods around 24th and Lake were notoriously unprepared for the heat with no air conditioning and bad insulation. The City of Omaha hadn’t provided many parks in the neighborhood, and the nearest swimming pool was a half mile away. The people started gathering in the parking lot, and the Omaha Police Department started patrolling the area more heavily. Pulling into the lot, police pulled out their bats and threatened the people gathered with violence and jail. In moments the crowd demolished two police cars, and the melee grew quickly. There were bricks thrown through the windows of the Safeway, the store was looted, and the rioting spread fast. Molotov cocktails were sent into vacant buildings and storefronts were demolished up and down North 24th Street. Millions of dollars in damage was caused to businesses, and rioting continued for three days.
The second riot happened later that summer. At the start of this event, rioters again gathered in the store’s parking lot. This time
During a March 1967 conference regarding the rioting, the Safeway store’s parking lot was identified as a major source of problems. Referring to it as “the parking lot problem,” there were calls to both increase police presence there and for acknowledgment that the police presence provoked rioters. Attendees at the conference were mostly government officials, law enforcement, judges and lawyers, with a few North Omaha leaders present. As a group, they advocated a “get tough on crime” approach along with increased training for police focused on police brutality and public perceptions.
While labor riots and white riots were relative common in Omaha’s history, the city hadn’t experienced rioting like this before. This so-called “Negro riot” was driven by determination and angst over a lack of economic investment, educational growth, and recreation in the neighborhood. The city’s media were quick to lambast African Americans for demolishing the neighborhood, while white business owners immediately started fleeing. Safeway stayed though, and continued weathering the challenges.
On July 4, 1968, eight windows were smashed out at Safeway, along with a few windows around the rest of the intersection. According to a news report, the store was broke into around midnight with $550 in food, beer, cigarettes and more taken. Two hours later, a crowd of 200 people broke out the windows at the store, as well as burned out a car, beat a passerby, and damaged nearby stores. Six people were arrested.
The store closed permanently after that, and didn’t reopen.
Put Down and Staying Down
The events of 1966 to 1968 forever changed the intersection of 24th and Lake and the entire North Omaha community.
In December 1968, it was announced that neighborhood business people tried to get another grocery store to move into the space, but it didn’t happen. Instead, tall chainlink fencing surrounded the parking lot and the building was boarded up. Several plans came and went for redevelopment, but few had any actual momentum. For instance, in November 1969, a nonprofit called Good Neighbor Homes, Inc. proposed buying the building to create a youth center. “Using it for skating, bowling and other recreation could keep the area from becoming a ghost town,” said Rev. Edward S. Foust, pastor of St. John’s AME Church and the leader of the organization. This nonprofit had constructed the apartments at North 36th and Lake Streets as a way to relieve the community’s housing shortage. With an all-Black board of directors, the organization was seen as being properly positioned to take action; however, ultimately nothing came of their plans and the building stayed empty.
By 1977, the parking lot at the building was being used for Christmas lighting ceremonies at the intersection. The Omaha Star said, “you will be very proud of your area and the contribution you have to make it a wonderful sight.” Sponsored by the Mid City Business and Professional Association, the 24th and Lake intersection was just one of several decorated by the group.
An $880,000 grant award led to the fencing around the store being removed in 1981. By then the intersection was commonly acknowledging as deteriorating, but people still expressed hope for some kind of revitalization. According to the Omaha Star, part of those funds were to “replace the ‘physiologically disturbing’ barbed wire fence with trees, flowers, benches and ‘good lighting.'”
Opening the Omaha Small Business Network
After sitting vacant for 15 years, in 1983 it reopened as the Omaha Small Business Network for what was called the Business Technology Center. The City of Omaha Planning Director Marty Shukert said that the project would not have been viable four years earlier in the late 1970s. He was quoted saying, “Its not just wishful thinking. Things are different in the neighborhood. It is no longer an outrageous thing.”
More than $1,000,000 in federal bonds, local donations, and other sources was spent renovating the building in 1983. The Omaha Business and Technology Center was projected to host small businesses in retail, manufacturing, and the service sector. City officials expected 100 people would work there, all in low-rent spaces that would encourage small business growth in the Near North Side. After completion, the building had 35,000 square feet of space. With shared janitors, secretaries and building management personnel, it was meant to create an ideal situation for new business development. The goal was to have 25% minority-owned businesses and 50% minority employment at the center.
The Center never really took off the way planners anticipated. There were plenty of small businesses that came through, but with the combined vacancies in the building and the lack of active foot traffic in and out, it felt like the building was a vacuum that didn’t do anything productive for the intersection.
According to the Omaha World-Herald in February 2020, the building was “in an advanced state of disrepair with a badly leaking roof among many other issues.” Omaha City Council member Ben Gray said “There’s no saving that building” and the newspaper continued, “It appears likely to be torn down.”
Demolition and the Future
In November 2019, the Omaha Small Business Network sold the building to the 75 North Revitalization Corporation for $1.45million. 75 North was founded a decade earlier to “facilitate the revitalization of a healthy, sustainable, mixed-income community in North Omaha’s Highlander neighborhood.” However, along the way their vision apparently expanded their vision and acquired the former Safeway building with controversial financial assistance from Susie Buffett and the Sherwood Foundation.
In a perpetual state of debt from their deal with the City of Omaha, the Omaha Small Business Network used proceeds from the sale to pay back loans from the government when the building was rehabilitated in 1983.
According to Ben Gray in a February 16, 2020 article, a “festival square” at the corner was “studied in recent years.” He wanted to see a business incubator there or elsewhere in North Omaha. Eric Ewing from the Great Plains Black History Museum wanted to see the space “include a performance space, maybe an amphitheater.” He told the newspaper, “If the right thing is put there it will help the area to just boom again.” Community activist Preston Love, Jr. said he wanted to see a mixed-use development similar to what was there historically, and was quoted saying, “This is not just an economic piece here, where you buy and sell pieces like a Monopoly board. What’s the plan for the space? Tearing it down is not a plan, that’s an action.” Inside that article there were repeated calls for community members and local neighbors to be involved in the planning process from the start.
An arson started a fire at the building in June 2020.
In May 2022, an organization called Front Porch Investments gave money to Forever North Real Estate LLC to support building affordable housing in North Omaha. Soon after, that organization bought the former Safeway property from SeventyFive North for $315,000. In June 2022, State Senator Terrell McKinney started uncovering the economic motivations behind the redevelopment of the northeast corner. On Twitter, he wrote, “I think I’ve figured it out thanks to the accesors website but it’s Rh land management (Union For contemporary arts), fha, IMA (MLK monument?), city of Omaha (NOMA former love Jazz ), and forever north real estate by way Seventy five north (north end telecom project).” He continued and said, “Four corners with one potential for profit business. How is the epicenter of north omaha full of non profits a business district?”
The building was demolished in 2021. In November 2021, Omaha’s news outlets announced the development of a $41million project on the corner. North End Teleservices began a mixed-use project with corporate offices, housing, daycare, food services, and additional office space. Three women of color were attributed with leading the project, including Carmen Tapio, CEO and president of the company; Juanita Johnson, an IT professional and a member of Omaha City Council, and; Ashley Kuhn with the Blair Freeman group, a female-owned real estate and development company. Focused on bringing profit-making businesses to the intersection, the development was heralded by the media and its leaders.
We’ll see what the future holds.
You Might Like…
- “24th and Lake Streets” by Making Invisible Histories Visible, a project of the Omaha Public Schools
- “North Omaha Recovery Plan” including funds for 24th and Lake by the Nebraska State Legislature.