Neighborhoods find their voice at conference

The City of Omaha hosts its first national Neighborhoods USA (NUSA) Conference May 24-27, when 800-plus neighborhood doers are expected to attend talks, workshops and tours highlighting grassroots revitalization in the places people call home. Some South Omaha doings will get their due among featured local neighborhoods and initiatives.

Coordinator Roxanne Nielsen said NUSA connects “neighborhood leaders, activists, supporters and government officials to build a stronger community and more vibrant city through the sharing of ideas and information.”

Talks and workshops at the CenturyLink Center and Hilton Omaha will cover case studies, resources and concerns. Tours will visit neighborhood success stories.
Vic Gutman and Associates designed the conference with input from numerous stakeholders.

Janet Bonet is helping put out the South Omaha welcome mat. This strong advocate for the area founded the Spring Lake Park Team that spurred major environmental work at Spring Lake Park. She’s leading a tour viewing various “accomplishments” by the team and others. She said “the star of the show” is the park’s restored lake.

“We’re going to talk about how we got the lake back into the park and stocked by working with the CSO (Clean Solutions for Omaha) program and by having a lot of community input,” she said. “We’ll talk about the partnerships that helped make that happen.”

Omaha city planner Norita Matt, who pushed for NUSA to come here, said the Spring Lake story illustrates a trend seeing “more communication than there’s ever been with city government and neighborhood leaders.” Matt added, “I think it has a lot to do with resources like ONE Omaha and neighborhood alliances that help neighborhood associations find their place in this maze of working with people in government and nonprofits.”

“It used to be top-down – we’d come into your neighborhood and tell you this is what we’re going to do, but now it’s from-the-bottom-up,” Matt said. “Neighborhoods are coming to us and saying this is what we want, this is what we need, what can you do to help us make our neighborhood stronger and healthier.”

Bonet said her team took action because the park “was becoming a trash pit – it looked like an unkempt wooded area.” Funding was found to make the park a public asset again. “It’s a focal point for the community. It gets a lot of use now and that was the purpose in pushing for it in the first place. It’s just a fabulous place people are going to respect and take care of. That’s the lesson – if you work hard and take advantage of opportunities when they appear and if you’re prepared you can accomplish a lot. But you have to lay the groundwork.”

The team remains in place to ensure continued improvements and park maintenance.

The tour will discuss still more South O projects. Bonet said community pressure led to lids being placed on Missouri River wastewater treatment plant trickling filters to control an odor problem. Her team worked with engineers and planners to add a walking trail to a bridge. Another stop will visit the mixed-use development that replaced meatpacking plants and stockyards. She said residents are concerned an abandoned portion of the site is transitioning in the wrong direction.

A drive down South 24th Street will point out its rebirth from a dying Euro business district to a thriving Latino hub. “The prime example,” Bonet said, “being the old Polish Home becoming El Museo Latino.”

A separate NUSA tour will focus on the South 24th and Vinton Streets commercial districts. Activist-historian Jose Garcia will deliver a keynote speech about old-new crosscurrents between core urban South O and North O neighborhoods, including community gardens as bridges of commerce, culture, education and health.

NUSA, Matt said, is a “showcase” for how far Omaha’s come in growing its community gardens, murals and “taking back” once deteriorating neighborhoods. “We have strong young leaders becoming very active active in their neighborhood associations.”

Bonet’s eager to share South O’s past and present. “This is our chance. There’s a resurgence of pride and a building of new relationships across racial and ethnic lines. We’re going to show off the things we did but the lesson we want people to take away is the importance of forming solid, positive partnerships.”

Artist Richard Harrison practices community engagement with the South Omaha Mural Project. In a workshop and tour he’ll discuss how collaboration resulted in the project’s ethnic murals.

“We are believers in community-built projects’ ability to be a catalyst for promoting neighborhood relationships, pride and renewal,” he said. “We believe projects like ours help communities express their identity and build bridges neighbor to neighbor and across neighborhoods – connecting them to businesses and organizations that will partner with them in other projects.”

A South Omaha Neighborhood Alliance tour of the burgeoning South 10th Street corridor will retrace “Little Italy’s” explosion of redevelopment guided by the Dahlman Neighborhood Association, Old Market South, non-profits, real estate developers and residents.


Omaha ONE program manager Julie Smith said,
NUSA’s “a one-stop shop” with “a lot to offer if you want to make a difference in your community.” She called it “an incredible chance to network with neighborhood activists.” She predicts attendees will “leave feeling more confident and better equipped to take action.”

Said Matt, “We want this to have a lasting impact.”

Conference registration is closed but event information is available at http://www.intheneighborhood.org/.

Read more of Leo Adam Biga’s work at leoadambiga.com.

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