Gene Leahy Mall: Memories Past, Memories MadeAug 29, 2022 03:55PM ● By James Vnuk
The he first time I saw the Gene Leahy Mall, I was an adult visiting Omaha with my then-college girlfriend. We decided to tour the mall late one freezing evening the weekend before Christmas, having just enjoyed a romantic Italian dinner in the Old Market. I vividly recall standing on the footbridge, enjoying the view of the central park plaza under a moonlit sky reflecting softly off the lagoon, holiday lights glowing all around us. I grew up in Western Nebraska, and even then, I knew I had uncovered a fresh understanding—one that would be reinforced and revisited time and again over the intervening 15 years. Omaha was a real city, with life, with culture, and all the things I had imagined only happening somewhere else.
I would learn much later that what seemed to me a timeless fixture of the city had been a relatively recent development. When the then-Central Park Mall was built in 1973, the land it sits on was in steep decline. As local historian and host of the monthly Wicked Omaha tour, Ryan Roenfeld, said via social media: “It was nothing but ‘Bumville.’ Lots of cheap flops, chili joints, and pawn shops.” Famed American photographer John Vachon even derogatorily referred to the area as “one of the ‘hobo’ centers of the West.”
When Mayor Eugene Leahy, along with city planner Alden Aust, set plans into motion to bring people “back to the river” in the late 1960s, revitalizing the area and its reputation were top priorities. The “Central Park” Mall and Plaza was envisioned to provide an experience comparable to the San Antonio River Walk or Hudson River Waterfront to Omaha: a romantic, urbane, and cosmopolitan public space. Yet, change is difficult. Brian Leahy, the mayor’s son, spoke about the concerns redeveloping the area initially drew. “My father loved local history, and had a hard time dealing with the knowledge they’d be taking down these old buildings.”
However, I think back to my initial experiences, and realize what a new place can mean. David Hayden, a lifelong Omaha resident, recalled a relationship to the mall similar to my own: “Even though I was a teenager when the mall went up, it felt like it had always been there.” David spoke fondly of his own memories visiting the mall and working downtown since the 1980s: “I remember going down there to watch fireworks for the [U.S.] Bicentennial celebration. You had a bunch of people out on the green on towels and blankets, and since the lagoon was at a lower altitude, once the fireworks went off this huge cloud of smoke and debris fell right on everyone. Everyone had to keep moving backward a little more, and then a little more.”
Patti Hayden, David’s wife and fellow lifelong Omaha native, also waxed poetic about her favorite recollections. “I would play piano for Mercy High at their Christmas concerts, and I remember one year David came down with this van, and we took all of the nuns downtown to walk the mall and enjoy the lights,” Patti said. They were amused by the cheerful, somewhat silly image the memory painted—a stark contrast to John Vachon’s earlier characterization of the space. “The decision to redefine those spaces made the city what it is today,” David affirmed.
Brian cited how he’s frequently brought his own family to the Mall to celebrate milestones and important events. Chief among them, when the area was christened “Gene Leahy Mall” in 1992. “My dad was a Korean War vet, so at the dedication ceremony they brought out the Color Guard and some of his war buddies spoke. He was so proud of it, and I remember he tried [so] hard not to get emotional, but he was. He had told the crowd ‘God, I’m so happy.’”
Before the former mayor passed in 2000, Brian and his family had taken him to see Omaha’s Millennium Lights Celebration, later known as the Holiday Lights Festival. “He wasn’t doing so great, and he was in a wheelchair at the time, but we took him up to the top floor of the library to see the lights go up.”
As the space transitions, the Gene Leahy Mall will retain its name, but as a part of an expanded “At the Riverfront” space, including Heartland of America Park. The space is changing, but the spirit and mission carries on. As Brian said,“Regardless of what it looks like, the vision remains. The plan accomplished its goal. If my dad was here today to see the changes, I think he’d be tickled to death.”
This article originally appeared in the September 2022 issue of Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.