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In Memoriam: George Eisenberg

March 27, 2018 2 comments

In Memoriam: George Eisenberg 

A man intimate with the Old Market’s origins is gone, but his legacy lives on.

©Story by Leo Adam Biga
©Photography by Nebraska Jewish Historical Society
Originally published in Omaha Magazine

 

The late George Eisenberg, 88, appreciated the historic Old Market the way few people do because of his many relationships to it. His experience encompassed the Market’s life as a wholesale produce center and eventual transformation into an arts-culture destination and trendy neighborhood.

He began working in the Old Market as a peddler’s son, manning a fruit stall alongside his father, Ben, and brother, Hymie, in what was then the Omaha City Market. Later, he founded and ran a successful niche business with Hymie supplying national food manufacturers’ thrown-away bits of onions and potatoes. The brothers, known as “the potato and onion kings of the U.S.,” officed in adjoining warehouses their father kept for storage and distribution. Eisenberg held onto the building even after the produce market disbanded and the area fell into decline. As the area transitioned and property rates skyrocketed, he became a well-positioned landlord and active Old Market Business Association and Omaha Downtown Improvement District member.

“He went to the meetings and spoke his mind,” son Steve Eisenberg says. More than speak his mind, Eisenberg oversaw the careful renovation of his building and secured many of the lamp posts that adorn the Old Market.

The Eisenberg property at 414-418 South 10th Street housed many tenants over the years, and today is home to J.D. Tucker’s and Stadium View sports bars.

Eisenberg-on-truck-copy_2

Eisenberg was half of the wholesaler Eisenberg and Rothstein Co.

As the Old Market grew, he became one of its biggest advocates and enjoyed playing the role of unofficial historian. He’s remembered as a gentle lion who proudly shared the district’s past with business owners, visitors, media, and anyone interested in its history. He loved telling stories of what used to be a teeming Old World marketplace where Jewish, Italian, and other ethnic merchants dickered with customers over the price of fruit and vegetables.

“Something he really enjoyed doing, especially in his retirement, was going down there and letting people know where the Old Market came from and where it’s going. Up till his last days, he saw such a bright future for the Old Market and was very proud of what all was going on down there,” says Steve.

“George was just terrific, a real gentleman, also a wonderful character with a great sense of humor and compassion. He was revered as an ‘elder statesman,’” says Old Market Business Association member Angela Barry. “He was very sharp and knowledgeable about the neighborhood’s history. Even in his later years, he lovingly and passionately cared about the business of the Old Market.

“He really was something special. When I heard of his passing, it was a sad day.”

Nouvelle Eve owner Kat Moser will remember Eisenberg for his wise and generous business counsel.

Steve Eisenberg will remember his father as “a very hard worker who, even in retirement, kept busy promoting other people’s businesses and the Old Market area itself.”

The Eisenberg presence will live on there. “My siblings and I promised him we’re never selling the building,” says Steve. “It’s staying in the family, and we’re going to run it like he did.”

With Eisenberg’s passing and his peddler pal, Joe Vitale, preceding him in death a year earlier, the last sources with first-hand knowledge of the Omaha City Market are gone. But they leave behind an Old Market legacy not soon forgotten.

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George Eisenberg’s love for Omaha’s Old Market never grows old

June 19, 2012 4 comments

One of the biggest champions of Omaha’s Old Market and the history of the place has died.  George Eisenberg devoted much of his life to the historic warehouse district.  As boys and young men he and his brother Hymie worked alongside their father, Benjamin, manning a fruit and vegetable stand when the area was home to the Omaha Wholesale Produce Market.  Later, the brothers revolutionized the family business to become niche suppliers of potatoes and onions to major food processors, operating out of offices in the commercial center.  When the wholesale district declined and largely disbanded altogether the area was transformed into an arts-culture haven and George, who never left and owned substantial property there, became a landlord and an active Old Market Association member.  In his later years he was advocate and amateur historian for the Old Market and proudly led an effort to get decorative street lamps installed and other improvements made. He contributed some anecdotes to a section I wrote on the history of the Old Market for a recent book, Memories of the Jewish Midwest: Mom and Pop Grocery Stores published by the Nebraska Jewish Historical Society.  An excerpt with that section can be found on this blog.  George was one of the last of the go-to sources who personally worked in the Omaha City Market.  He enjoyed reliving that history and as he saw it educating the public about a way of commerce and life that is largely no more.  His enthusiasm for the subject will be missed.  I did the following short profile of George about five years ago for Omaha Magazine and now as fate would have it I will soon be writing an in-memoriam piece about him for the same publication.  That rememberance will join one I wrote about another Old Market legend who died recently, Joe Vitale.  You can find the Vitale story on this blog.

George Eisenberg’s love for Omaha‘s Old Market never grows old

@by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in Omaha Magazine

 

Old Market icon George Eisenberg has more than the usual attachment to the historic warehouse district that once was the area’s nexus for produce dealers, buyers and transporters. His late father Benjamin was a peddler in what used to be called the City Market. As boys Eisenberg and his brother Hymie worked alongside their dad in the leased open air sidewalk stalls whose overhead metal canopies still adorn many of the 19th century-era buildings preserved there. Once home to wholesellers and outfitters, the brick structures now house the Old Market’s mix of condos, restaurants, shops, artist studios and galleries.

After serving in the U.S. Army in World War II Eisenberg rejoined his father, delivering items by truck, and by the early ‘60s he’d modernized and expanded the enterprise and bought out papa. In 1972 his brother Hymie partnered with him. Innovations gave the company such a competitive advantage that the brothers were dubbed “the potato and onion kings of the United States” supplying millions of pounds a week to commercial customers across America and into Canada. They made their fortune and retired in 1983. Hymie died in ‘91.

The 83-year-old is proud to be a peddler’s son. He’s also proud of his continuing relationship with the district. He’s a property owner and an active volunteer with the Old Market Business Association and Downtown Omaha Inc.. Eisenberg secured the authentic lamp posts that lend such a distinctive design element to the 10th Street Bridge. He played a key role, too, in making the 11th and Jackson Street parking garage a reality. Downtown Omaha Inc. honored him with its 2007 Economic Development Award.

He’s a model landlord for the tasteful restoration he’s done and solid tenants he’s brought to his 414-418 South 10th Street buildings, properties originally owned by his father for wholesale storage, distribution and offices.

Generous with advice, he’s given counsel to many Old Market entrepreneurs, including Nouvelle Eve/Jackson Artworks owner Kat Moser.

As much as he’s involved in the “new” Old Market’s destination place identity and as much as he supports the emerging SoMa and NoDo developments, he enjoys looking back to the Market’s past. Back when ethnic blue collar produce vendors pitched their wares in the ancient tradition of the open air market. When pockets took the place of cash registers and vendors took a break from 14-hour days by reclining on bales of hay or overturned crates. It was a boisterous, press-the-flesh carnival of men, women and children using sing-song chants to hawk fresh fruits, vegetables, flowers and plants. Shoppers hailed from all walks of life.

A chorus of Eisenberg shouting, “Get your watermelon — red, ripe and sweet watermelon,” blended with the pitch, dicker and banter of hundreds of merchants-customers. Accents were common among the mostly Jewish, Italian and Syrian vendors. “English was the primary language spoken,” he said, but many foreign-born merchants, like his Russian immigrant father, “conversed among themselves in their native tongues. Every ethnic group was represented in one way or another.”

All those peddlers packed in a small space shouting to get customers’ attention created quite a racket. “Our advertisement was our voice,” he said. “It was noisy, yeah.” But that noise was sweet “music.”” Besides, he said, the ruckus and color “were part of the charm of the market.”

Hawking’s not for wallflowers. “If you’re shy you don’t belong in marketing,” he said. Things only quieted down, he said, after a warning from the market master, whose job was to collect monthly fees from vendors and mediate disputes among them. Once gone, the din began again. It was a special time and place.

“It was fun,” Eisenberg said. “There was excitement.”

He said his father steeped him in the market’s history. Ben Eisenberg got into the trade through his father-in-law Solomon Silverman, whose daughter Elsie became Ben’s wife and George and Hymie’s mother. Just as Silverman began as a door-to-door peddler with a horse and wagon, Ben followed suit. Just as Solomon leased stalls in the market, so did Ben. In the early 1900s, Eisenberg learned, a bidding process divvied up the stalls. Some locations were better than others. Getting outbid caused sore feelings and fistfights broke out. The bidding system was disbanded, he said, and exisiting stalls grandfathered in. Ben had four choice spots at the northeast corner of 11th and Jackson as well as his own wholesale house.

In an era before “Thanks for shopping…come again,” he said many vendors lacked good customer relation skills. His dad, though, had a gift with people.

“My dad was a really good salesman and he separated himself from everybody else because he was very polite, businesslike, and his word was his bond. If my dad said, ‘You got it,’ you didn’t need a contract — that’s it.” Eisenberg said.

He said his father “bought and sold in big quantities,” a practice Eisenberg continued. Many of Ben’s grocery-supermarket customers were former peddlers like himself. “My dad knew all the peddlers, so when he got in the wholesale business all the peddlers came to do business with dad. They knew he was going to give them the right price and not insult them.”

Like his father before him, Eisenberg served as vice president of the Omaha Wholesale Fruit Dealers Association, a predecessor of the Old Market Business Association. In some ways he’s still hawking, still looking after the best interests of his beloved Old Market. “I love business. I love marketing. I welcome anybody who wants to hang up their shingle and start their business.” He embraces the growing community there. “That’s the district’s salvation — it’s a neighborhood now.”

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