Mural project celebrates mosaic of South Omaha culture
Historically, South Omaha is the city’s receiving community for new immigrants and refugees, though North Omaha plays some of that role, too. Blue collar jobs in the commerical, industrial labor sector have provided the livelihood for succeeding waves and generations of ethnic groups to have settled there. South O once had and to some extent still does have neighborhoods with distinct concentrations of ethnic groups. Traditionally, these ethnic enclaves become communities within the larger community. At one time, there were neighborhoods where Poles, Czechs, Lithuanians, Croats and other peoples of Eastern European origin established their own enclaves. There were also strong Italian, Irish and Mexican contingents. And the Great Migration brought many African Americans from the Deep South here as well. The railroads and packing houses were the main employers for many of these new arrivals. World War II-era manufacturing jobs were lures as well. The residents living in the various ethnic neighborhoods that took shape were bound by their shared birthplace, language, customs, religious affiliation and so on. They had their own churches and community centers that reinfoced their tight-knit connections. Festivals celebrated their hertiage and traditions. Having long ago assimilated and with second-third generation descendants moving to other other sections of the city and with the wartime, railroad and packing house jobs disappearing, those once ethnic-centric areas in South Omaha became more homogenized over time. Today, only trace elements of their once ethnic identities remain. The last three decades have seen the emergence of new emigrees from Latin and Central America, Asia and Africa, thus repeating the patterns that happened with earlier groups in the late 19th century through the late 1920s. All of this is context for an art project now underway in South Omaha that celebrates the different heritages that have made it such a melting pot over time. The South Omaha Mural Project is creating a mural for each of the major ethnic groups that have populated the area. A future mural may also commemorate the stockyards-packing plant epoch that dominated the South Omaha landscape for decades with that industry’s acres of buildings and structures that emplpyed thousands of people and with all the ancilliary businesses that served those workers.
Mural project celebrates mosaic of South Omaha culture
©by Leo Adam Biga
Appearing in El Perico
What began as a one-off neighborhood mural by Richard Harrison and his daughter Rebecca Van Ornam has morphed into a project with several artists depicting historical South Omaha ethnic groups and landmarks.
When historian Gary Kastrick saw the South 13th Street mural Harrison and Van Ornam did illustrating the area’s Czech heritage, it sparked an idea for a mural culture series celebrating South Omaha’s role as a gateway for ethnic immigrant and refugee assimilation.
More murals followed through the help of the South Omaha Business Association (SOBA), who secured grants for a history mural at the Metropolitan Community College south campus and a Magic City Mural at 24th and N. Thus, the South Omaha Mural Project was born.
Artist Hugo Zamorano joined the team for a Lithuanian mural on the Lithuanian Bakery at 5217 South 33rd Avenue. A Mexican mural in the Plaza de la Raza was unveiled July 10. New murals are planned for the Polish, Irish, Croatian, Italian, Jewish, African-American ethnic enclaves that traditionally called South Omaha home. The more recently arrived Honduran, Guatemalan and El Salvadoran communities will get murals, too. There’s talk of one celebrating South O’s stockyards-meatpacking legacy as well.
The Polish mural will adorn a wall of Dinker’s Bar at 2368 South 29th Street. The Irish mural will grace another popular hangout, Donohue’s Pub, at 3232 L Street.
“We’re looking for walls that have good visibility in relationship to the neighborhood,” Harrison said. “Size is a good thing.”
Every wall poses its own challenges.
“When a wall is rough and covered with obstacles like water meters and things we are coming up with solutions of putting up profile cut sign boards with characters and symbols on them, so the wall has sort of a pop-up book, three-dimensional feeling to it,” Harrison said.
Project funding comes from SOBA, the Nebraska Arts Council, the Mayor’s Neighborhood Grants Program, the City of Omaha’s Historical Grant initiative and various community sources.
David Catalan served as SOBA president when the organization decided to support the mural project. He said the project aligns well with SOBA’s mission of “preserving the diversity and heritage of South Omaha.”
Some ethnic organizations hold fundraisers to help underwrite their individual murals. The South Omaha Neighborhood Alliance is a new partner.
Harrison is a project facilitator and a supporting artist. Michael Giron and Zamorano trade-off as lead artist. Kastrick serves as the history consultant. Catalan is an advisor and liaison.
This labor of love entails extensive community engagement and input for each mural. Multiple public meetings elicit information and ideas. The public can view the final sketch projected on a wall and can join community paint days.
“We are connecting with a lot of people in each successive community we focus on,” Harrison said. “We’re happy how fast this connects with people and how much it matters to them. They come to the meetings and share their stories and memories. Everybody we talk to finds it meaningful to them.”
He believes the community taking ownership of the murals explains why none have suffered graffiti.
After the communal paint days, Harrison, Giron, Zamorano and other artists paint for a month or two – working in acrylics to sharpen images and to apply shading and highlights. A clear protective sealer is added at the end.
When a mural’s finished, a public celebration is held.
This community-based approach is much more involved than the private commissions Harrison does under his A Midsummer’s Mural business but he said it’s all worth it.
“What’s really special is bringing the community together to talk about what’s important to them and what memories they have.”
Kastrick, a retired Omaha South High history teacher who leads South Omaha history tours, hopes the murals educate and entertain about South O’s long, unfolding melting pot story.
“It’s about rekindling South Omaha roots in people who moved away and reestablishing those roots with their children and grandchildren. I envision people coming to see the murals and talking about the people and the history they see on them.”
He and Harrison believe the murals can be destination attraction urban maps for residents and visitors wanting to learn about the area’s cultural history.
None of the primary artists working on the project are originally from Omaha and for these transplants each mural is an education.
“There is a lot that I did not know before this project and still more to learn.,” said Zamorano.
The Mexican mural he took the lead on is a perfect example.
“Almost everything I learned was new information to me. I learned about some of the different waves of Mexicans that moved to Omaha, why they moved, and where they came from. I never knew how much the Catholic church and Lutheran church were involved in the community helping people move forward in education and empowerment. The list goes on. I never knew how much history there is in South Omaha alone.”
Fostering appreciation for place is what the project team wants every mural to encourage. Zamorano said Mexican mural images represent “topics and themes about unity, struggle, education, work, identity, education and celebration.” A working couple eats dinner with their family. A “Dreamer” graduates high school. Community anchors, such as the American GI Forum and Chicano Awareness Center, loom large. “In the center,” he said “an ancient Aztec god and two children share a history book to symbolize the past and future.”
Follow the project’s progress at http://www.amidsummersmural.com/for-communities/south-omaha-mural-project/.