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A Line or Two: Oh!-maha

The Old Market
The Old Market
It's a proverbial—and by now, pretty shopworn--worry: whenever a major-league team owner is trying to maneuver for leverage over our tax dollars, the fear is expressed by somebody that if Team A or B leaves the Twin Cities metro, we will turn into "a cold Omaha."

Ridiculously unfair to our towns, which are jammed with amenities, of course, and bizarrely counterfactual; does somebody think Omaha is on the equator? Most of all, as I discovered on a brief trip to Nebraska last week, ignorantly unfair to Omaha. The city may once have been a byword for the dullness that unenlightened coastal folks impute to flyoverland, but today it's a lively city displaying some of the smartest urbanism—and best food—anywhere.

Big Art and Good Books

My wife, Laurie, and I headed to Omaha for the express purpose of seeing art. Laurie is a public artist as well as a personal coach, and I'd written an article for Public Art Review in Saint Paul that included an account of an impressive Omaha public art project, the decorating of some enormous abandoned grain elevators with banners designed by an international group of artists. The project was coordinated by landscape architect Anne Trumble--who divides her time between Omaha and teaching duties at Columbia University--via her nonprofit, Emerging Terrain.

We took those in, as well as another massive public project, the beautiful block-long mural Fertile Ground, by Meg Saligman, one of the leading lights of the rich Philadelphia mural scene. And we visited the unique hybrid art space/creativity incubator called KANEKO, created by Omaha art giant Jun Kaneko. As I wrote in The Line a few weeks ago, KANEKO brings artists together with innovators in other fields to see how art-based creativity can aid the wider society. KANEKO has a one-of-a-kind library, shared with the University of Nebraska/Omaha, that's totally devoted to art, design, the creative process, imagination, and the more humane sides of science, with an emphasis on offbeat, large-scale, and otherwise unusual books. We spent hours there.

A Welcoming Market

And elements of the urban fabric of Omaha were impressive too. The city's Old Market is a textbook in good placemaking. Here, in rehabbed warehouses and commercial buildings, there's density and variety that make for excitement: a small restaurant next to a New Age shop next to an art gallery next to a bar next to a vintage clothing store, everything colorful, design-y, inviting. The streets were lively with shoppers, eaters, and buskers even on a Wednesday night. As Laurie noted, the vibe is more like Santa Fe than the urban Midwest—but without the sense you get in Santa Fe that Walt Disney is courting Georgia O'Keeffe.

On Thursday night, on Anne Trumble's recommendation, we made reservations at The Grey Plume. This elegant restaurant, locavore to the core, is lodged in a huge development called Midtown Crossing, a cluster of retail, hotels, and condominiums that, in its ambition and air of sophistication, reminds me of some of the fancy conurbations in West LA. Our dinners—I had the Kobe (wagyu) beef raised in Iowa, with potato puree, tiny asparagus, mushroom tops, tangerine—were simply world class.

And we ran into a charming and ingenious little pocket park created by the city's Chamber of Commerce, built into the corner of a parking lot (see photo at left). There's a humorous work of sculpture—a towering "tin man"—tables with umbrellas, and a bit of reconstituted prairie too. The perfect place to take a break amid the bustle of downtown, and the sort of simple, thoughtful public amenity that makes you remember Omaha.

The Buffett Factor

Before we left we visited Lyn Ziegenbein, executive director of the Peter Kiewit Foundation, which has been funding Omaha's most important projects for decades, including Fertile Ground, the Emerging Terrain projects, and Omaha's Civic Center. "Years ago," she said, "I would go to a conference somewhere, and when I told people the capitalization of the Foundation, they would be very interested in talking with me. Then they'd ask where I was located, I would tell them 'Omaha,' and they would find an excuse to go somewhere else. But in the last five years or so, when I say 'Omaha,' they ask 'Do you know Warren Buffett?'"

So the Berkshire Hathaway sage has become the symbol of an Omaha worth taking seriously. Whatever works. The main thing is that Nebraska's metropolis is dynamic and ambitious, with its share of problems, of course—we saw many a boarded-up building on the city's north and south sides—but also with urban successes from which we might well learn something. At the very least, we can let go of whatever residual condescension we might feel and welcome Omaha into the club of not just cold, but cool cities.

Photo of the Old Market courtesy Omaha Marriott

Photo of the pocket park by Laurie Phillips
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