Old School is the New School
May 23, 2019 12:13PM
By Charlie Litton
Upholstery may not immediately conjure visions of inspired passion—but give it a minute. Even better, take Kathy Foust’s upholstery course at Metro Community College’s Lost Arts space in the New North Makerhood District. Jen Schantz gave it a whirl about 18 months ago, and then she did it again, and kept going. With Foust at her side, Jen recalls the time when about half a dozen mismatched, old and shabby chairs circled her living room.
“Our living room looked like a group therapy meeting,” Jen’s husband, Caleb, says.
Foust laughs. So does Jen. Caleb vigorously nodds for emphasis.
But Jen likes old chairs. It turns out she also loves giving them new life: “They have great bones.”
What began as a curiosity has blossomed into a full-blown passion, and now Jen—a full-time nurse at the Omaha Veteran’s Administration—has a healthy side-hustle as an upholsterer. She’s booked solid for four months.
Regardless of the apparent demand for good upholsters, the craft is close to becoming a lost art—at least it was, until Foust teamed up with Metro Community College.
Metro’s 6,000-square-foot Lost Arts Center—located on 11th Street about two blocks north of TD Ameritrade Park—is a small piece of a grander vision for North Omaha. Long a disused and nearly abandoned eyesore, the northern edge of downtown is undergoing a remarkable transformation.
Jen says the transformation brings to mind the simple delight of “seeing the potential in things” that she finds in her upholstery work. She sees the same appeal in the fledgling New North Makerhood District. “It’s like upholstery,” Jen says. “We can revitalize an old building, and bring it new life.”
That’s exactly what Lyn Wallin Ziegenbein, spokesperson for the 501(c)(3) named New North Makerhood, had in mind. An Omaha native and emerita executive director of the Peter Kiewit Foundation, Ziegenbein was troubled by what she saw in the area. In her youth, North Omaha was a vibrant community. Her Swedish immigrant grandfather owned and operated a small electrical service shop in the area. The shop was razed decades ago, its place now occupied by a pylon supporting the I-480 overpass.
Routing I-480 through what was then the middle of downtown and closing 16th Street for a hotel in the late 1960s was a double-whammy. It essentially wedged downtown into two halves.
One side thrived. The other did not. The divide remains a sensitive wound with plenty of hard feelings to go around. Ziegenbein found a way to breathe new life into the long-neglected area.
Taking inspiration from similar artistic hubs in other cities, Ziegenbein championed the idea of a makerhood district. It didn’t take long for others to join her vision. Eventually 12 Omaha businesses, families, and individuals lined up, each contributing between $100,000 and $2 million to get the project off the ground.
“It is so Omaha. And so humbling.” Ziegenbein says. “It’s people who love Omaha and understand the mission of a makerhood.”
The New North Makerhood District is a roughly 20-block area north of Cuming Street, bordered by 10th, 12th, Izard, and Seward streets. It covers 30 acres of land with 16 buildings and more than 175,000 square feet of interior space.
All of those buildings were in need of TLC and expensive upgrades. A few had become centers of bottom-of-the-barrel operations such as chop shops. Retro-fitting the old and sometimes decrepit facilities was, and continues to be, an expensive endeavor. One friend asked Ziegenbein why didn’t she just knock it all down and start over?
It’s the “grit” that makes the area special, she says. The area is uniquely Omaha, and tearing any of it down sanitizes an important part of the city’s history and character. Tearing it down was not an option, Ziegenbein says.
“It’s gritty, but students love it,” says Gary Girard, executive director of Continuing Education at Metro Community College.
One of the biggest challenges is meeting market demand and finding qualified instructors to teach the courses.
“You can’t go out and get another upholstery instructor because they don’t exist,” he says. “So we grow our own.”
That person of their own is Stephanie Keene. She was another of Foust’s students who reprioritized her life to make room for upholstery as an instructor.
“Kathy put herself out there,” Girard says. “Now she’s changing lives.”
Foust says one student told her the course helped the student get through chemotherapy treatments. Another student said she planned to place her newly re-upholstered chair in a place of pride and prominence: right next to her law degree.
Still, the greater point of pride for Foust might be the bigger picture of the Makerhood District.
“It almost brings me to tears,” says Foust, who has been in private business for nearly 40 years. “I’m so happy because I get to be a part of it from the beginning. I’m just so proud and grateful that I can be a part of this.”
There remains a lot of retro-fitting and rehab to bring the full breadth and scope of the Makerhood dream into vivid reality. But there is evidence that the area is crystalizing into Omaha’s artistic heart.
The makers span the spectrum of imagination and artistic expression—painters, potters, glassblowers, leatherworkers, silversmiths, printmakers, photographers, and more. Anchor tenants in the area include Johnson Deconstruction, a salvage and repurposing wood craft operation with several craft sub-tenants; and Bench, a public woodworking shop and “artisan hub.”
Incidentally, Bench is where Jen and three friends rent space for their new side-business: Sitting Pretty Upholstery.
“Which has been nice for our living room,” Caleb says.
Visit the Continuing Education area of mccneb.edu for more information about New North Makerhood District.This article was printed in the June 2019 edition of B2B. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.