The Changing Face of OmahaFeb 23, 2018 01:00PM ● By Max Sparber
A lot can change in 35 years, even in Omaha, a town where some places look like a glacier flowed over 2 million years ago and only unfroze a few weeks ago.
Of course, if you’re paying attention, there were decisions that changed the face of the city. Since 1983, the city has razed some of its notable historic structures, most notoriously Jobbers Canyon, a 24-building section of downtown Omaha that was torn down in 1989. It represents the nation’s largest demolition of National Register historic buildings, which remains a sore spot for preservationists.
But there have been subtler shifts. There was an exodus of businesses away from downtown to the suburbs, most visibly represented by the loss of the downtown Brandeis store in the 1980s, which both the razing of Jobbers Canyon and the development of the Gene Leahy Mall (conceived in the 1970s and named after Omaha’s mayor from 1969 to 1973) were intended to address.
The Brandeis move west—the company developed and settled in the Crossroads Mall—was perhaps the most visible “suburban” relocation of its time. Westward sprawl continued apace with additional suburban malls opening afterward, such as Oak View Mall, built in 1991. Now Crossroads, a shell of its former glory, is the city’s most visible evidence of the “retail apocalypse.”
Omaha’s once-upon-a-time peripheral neighborhoods have continued to see retail development, perhaps most notably with the redevelopment of the old Ak-Sar-Ben race track into Aksarben Village.
In recent years, the city’s westward trend has started to reverse itself, with a number of high-profile redevelopments downtown, including the building of the CenturyLink Center in 2003, the construction of TD Ameritrade Park in 2011, a variety of arts venues (including the KANEKO in 2008 and the Holland Performing Arts Center in 2005), new restaurants, and the Bob Kerrey Pedestrian Bridge across the Missouri River (built in 2008). Meanwhile, almost overnight, it seems that Benson and now Blackstone have rivaled the Old Market as the city’s top districts for nightlife.
Additionally, the skyline of downtown has changed considerably in the past 35 years. In 1983, the city’s iconic tall building was Woodmen Tower. It has since been joined by First National Bank Tower, completed in 2002, and Union Pacific Center, completed in 2004.
Some things don’t seem to change much. For example, Omaha has always wrestled with what to do with its riverfront, an ongoing discussion that doesn’t seem anywhere near resolution. The city’s latest riverfront redevelopment proposals could once again change the face of downtown (whether the plans are an improvement remains uncertain).
Omaha’s population has consistently grown in that time. From 1982 through 2017, the city’s population has grown about 42 percent, from approximately 316,000 to 450,000 (according to the U.S. Census Bureau and University of Nebraska-Omaha Center for Public Affairs Research Coordinator David Drozd).
It helps that Omaha has a flexible economy, a product of a surprising legacy. Because the city was founded as the westward terminus for the transcontinental railroad, the city has always been able to capitalize on opportunities provided by the railroad.
One of the more recent opportunities is that railroad lines have offered an unfettered path for laying communications lines.
Early on, telegraph lines went along the railroad, but recently those have been replaced by high-speed internet lines and the like, allowing Omaha and Council Bluffs to serve as communications hubs for the rest of the country. In the ’90s, this encouraged the development of telecommunications jobs, such as the West Corp., which went public in 1996 with 2,000 employees. This later expanded to an entire communications technology industry, and nowadays both the University of Nebraska and Creighton offer degrees in technology and telecommunications.
Omaha’s semiskilled labor industries, especially in meat packing, have long been one of the city’s magnets for new citizens. The plants have, over the years, drawn from relocated African-American workers, rural Southern white workers, and even workers from Japan. While Mexican-Americans have been in Omaha since 1900, the packing plants, in particular, brought a wave of new residents from Latin America in the 1990s, who at first settled around South Omaha.
The Mexican-American and Mexican immigrant presence in Omaha is significant enough that the city has its own Mexican consulate. In 1999, Union Stockyards and the Livestock Exchange Building closed, and the “smell of money” left its longtime home in South Omaha.
Lately, the city’s largest growing population statistic has been its Asian residents, growing 23.5 percent between 2010 and 2015. Some of this increase is due to immigration, with the city becoming home to refugees from Thailand, Myanmar, Nepal, and Bhutan. Even with this growing demographic representation, however, the Asian population of Omaha remains relatively small, about 2.6 percent of the total population according to the last census.
Visit census.gov for more information.
This article was printed in the March/April 2018 edition of Omaha Magazine.