Report from Omaha: Department of Local Affairs
August 21, 2014
August 4, 2014—this post was sent to us from Omaha, NE, where Bed-Stuy artist-in-residence Chloë Bass has been conducting her project, Department of Local Affairs, at the Bemis Center. A big thank-you to guest contributor Sadé Ayorinde. Her post follows below:
My name is Sadé Ayorinde and I’ve spent the summer working as an educator at the Bemis Center of Contemporary Arts on a project called Urban Design Lab. Twenty teenagers are taking part in the lab, which is being led by Chloë Bass and Teal Gardner. The Bemis Center is an artist-centered organization with a renowned residency program that has been supporting contemporary artists from all over the world for over 30 years.
Bemis Center artist-in-residence Chloë Bass is collecting local information here in Omaha with the help of teenagers who are taking part in a program called Urban Design Lab (UDL). UDL brings Bass together with Omaha artist Teal Gardner and the teen researchers to “read the city” through field research, close looking and listening, and gathering and interpreting data. Bass is also using the researchers as agents in an ongoing project called Department of Local Affairs (DoLA). For three weeks, Bass worked alongside the teen researchers to solicit information from people who live and work in Omaha, asking for their opinions, personal stories, and advice. Information gathered will be turned into a guidebook that will marry the practical information with more personal and poetic reflections.
On the first day of UDL all of the teen researchers had the chance to share their impressions of Omaha with DoLA. The activity opened with a discussion of what people places or things make Omaha what it is. We listed Warren Buffet, University of Nebraska- Omaha and ConAgra’s Heartland of America Park. Everyone was urged to include as many personal details as they could with filling out DoLA worksheets. One researcher wrote a review of an intimate seafood restaurant he and his family have been frequenting for most of his life, another drew a map of the street where all of her aunts live. Earlier that day I tried to walk through the brick-paved Old Market streets in heels. I filled out an advice card warning others about the dangerously uneven conditions and suggested wearing flats to avoid breaking an ankle.
During the following two weeks DoLA was performed outside the Bemis Center in order to collect information from local residents in Omaha’s Old Market district and outside of the historic Carver Bank building in North Omaha.
July 22, 2014: I took a group of researchers out to coffee shops in the Old Market District to collect information from the locals. The teens were asked to find people willing to fill out a pamphlet, write a review, give advice, or draw a map. Some of the researchers were a little slow to start because they were nervous about approaching strangers, but people turned out to be friendly and enthusiastic about taking part in the project. Most participants chose to give advice or leave a review, giving information on restaurants and bars in the area. We were able to find one woman who had the time to draw a map of her neighborhood.
July 29, 2014: The last day for DoLA took place in the North Omaha neighborhood. The plan was to gather information from passersby as we walked through the neighborhood to visit a couple of cultural institutions near Carver Bank. The Carver Bank was the first African American-owned bank in Omaha. In 2012 The Bemis Center renovated the space in partnership with Theaster Gates and the Rebuild Foundation. Now Carver Bank exists as an exhibition gallery and provides studio space for the residency program offered to North Omaha artists or artist wanting to engage with the North Omaha community. (For more on Carver Bank, click here.)
Before starting out, the students were asked to take a second to write about their impressions of the neighborhood. Afterwards we had a lively discussion about their observations. Many of the teens had comments about how North Omaha seemed different from the Old Market area or other neighborhoods they were familiar with. We discussed how other neighborhoods are designed to be more user friendly, providing standard conveniences and places to socialize for their residents. North Omaha is full of people, but there are very few grocery stores, no movie theatres, and little public gathering space. Some of the teens who live in North Omaha talked about feeling very protective of the neighborhood. Omaha is a segregated city and North Omaha has a very large African American population, which often gets a bad rap. The teens said much of the discrimination they felt against the neighborhood came from people who had never visited. They described the area as being fun and alive with people and having a feeling of family and community. They wanted their peers to know it wasn’t as bad as stories they might have heard.
Once upon a time North Omaha was a buzzing entertainment district filled with music, food, thriving businesses, and affluent African American families. Some of the most famous jazz musicians and performers graced the stage at the Dreamland Ballroom, including Duke Ellington, Nat King Cole and Louis Armstrong. In the 1960s much of the North 24th Street area was destroyed by fires and looting during the race riots.
Our walk took us along 24th street first to Love’s Jazz & Art Center (a tribute to Omaha native and legendary jazz musician Preston Love) and then to the Union for Contemporary Art. Both art centers have strong ties to North Omaha and aim to help rejuvenate the neighborhood through education, community outreach and of course, culture and visual art! Doug, our tour guide at Love’s Jazz filled out a pamphlet with two of our teen researchers, Nia and Ta’Ri. Giving an honest critique of the current living conditions, he said, “a lot of people have lost the real culture of North Omaha. The gangs and violence have really changed North Omaha and its people. The education in North Omaha has become really low mainly in young men.” But he also spoke of change and growth pointing out the new streets and buildings under construction, the support from city leaders, the growing number of jobs, and increasing opportunities for teens and artists.
Though there was plenty of traffic on the street, the sidewalks were empty and we did not meet anyone along the way who we could ask to fill out a form. This has generally been my experience when walking along the main streets of 24th and Lake; there just aren’t very many places to go. Many of the buildings are run down or empty. There are very few flourishing businesses, and only a couple of restaurants, none of which are chains. It’s true that the construction going on right at the intersections of 24th and Lake has also had an impact. Some of the sidewalks have been removed and there’s lots of noise that may make walking around the area less pleasant. As a whole it seems most people are in their cars going outside of the neighborhood for many of their daily activities. I was excited about conducting DoLA in North Omaha because from an anthropological viewpoint I was curious about how the reviews and advice might differ from those of people in the Old Market. I wondered if residents in North Omaha would review the same places (North Omaha is geographically close to the Old Market) or if their input would be more neighborhood specific. Would people be as willing to participate? How many children would we get information from? How might their forms reflect feelings of discrimination and segregation from the rest of the city? In the end it turned out that what we didn’t get from North Omaha spoke volumes as well, as the lack of information collected told a story of a place and a community. Thanks to Chloë Bass for this insightful and engaging project!
Read more about the Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts here.