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Minne Lusa House, a North Omaha Sanctuary for Canning, Conversation and Community

September 27, 2013 6 comments

Neighborhoods.  It used to be the norm not the exception that neighbors knew one another and did things together.  A yearning to return to that communal model inspired a pair of Omaha women, Sharon Olson and Beth Richards, to create a neighborhood space that encourages togetherness over a shared passion for people, canning, conversation and community.  Their Minne Lusa House in North Omaha has become a popular gathering spot for folks looking to connect and collaborate.  Read my New Horizons cover story about these ladies and their special house.

Sharon Olson and Beth Richards

Minne Lusa House, a North Omaha Sanctuary for Canning, Conversation and Community

©by Leo Adam Biga

Now appearing in the New Horizons

Close friends Sharon Olson and Beth Richards are the neighborhood moms, porch ladies and activists behind a popular project in northeast Omaha, the Minne Lusa House, totally of their own making.

Without a grant or loan to assist them, they bought and restored an old, run down house in their Minne Lusa neighborhood for the express purpose of making it a place of social engagement. It’s an expression of their shared love for people, conversation, canning and community.

The tan, stucco structure at 2737 Mary St. is a kind of neighborhood clubhouse where folks come for private canning lessons, public workshops and the every Saturday Morning Brew open house. Groups hold meetings there. Writers, artists and others use it as a quiet sanctuary for creative inspiration and meditation.

The women fixed up the house with the sweat equity of friends, neighbors and local contractors, tearing down walls, gutting entire rooms, replacing the attic floor and making many major improvements.

They’ve done it all with their own money and without the aid of a church or community organization or government program. “And never will as far as I’m concerned,” says Olson, who believes in self-sufficiency. “Why wait until you die and give your money to somebody who doesn’t even care what happens when you can spend your money and do things in a neighborhood that maybe will make a change?”

The cozy home includes a pantry with metal shelving units filled with jars packed to the brim with canned tomatoes, bruschetta, spaghetti sauce, salsa, pickled peaches, sweet and dill pickles, relishes, jams and jellies. The pantry has two antique tools used during the canning process – a hanging scale and a pestle and mortar from her druggist grandfather. More shelving units store the pickling spices, flour and other ingredients used in the canning and baking that goes on there.

When truck loads of corn or bushelfuls of tomatoes come in from community gardens and local farms there’s a buzz of activity as folks gather to shuck, peel, chop, boil, spice and can the bounty. It’s a throwback to the canning parties and barn-raisings of yesteryear.

Right-hand gals Diane Franson-Krisor and Diana McIntosh, part of the crew that helped Olson and Richards rehab the house, are regulars at the Saturday brews that feature hot coffee and tea and assorted homemade toppings and spreads to garnish freshly baked biscuits, turnovers and bagels. Richards is the canner and Olson is the baker.

Cover Photo

Millard resident Betsy Scott has become a Saturday devotee.

“Instantly I felt welcomed,” she says. “I just felt at home with Sharon and Beth and Diane and Diana. Every week I kept coming back I got more and more excited to come up. It’s all about the apple turnovers and the fresh biscuits with the homemade jelly, it’s about ,’Here, try my tomato jam.’ It brings people together and that’s never a bad thing.”

Scott says the dozens of people who make it to those coffee klatches are attracted like she is to what Olson and Richards embody

“Their passion for community and for the house itself, their love of canning and their love of people. They make every single person feel welcome when they come in and by the time you leave you feel like you’ve known them forever. I think everyone walks away feeling like they’ve made some new friends. It’s kind of like Cheers but without the beer and without Norm.”

Franson-Krisor grew up in Minne Lusa and she cherishes what the project provides.

“I think it’s wonderful because every neighborhood needs a gathering place and they have really changed this area a lot. I’ve been here 52 years in a house on the corner and growing up was all about neighbors communing. That was the thing to do. All the mothers got together and the kids played. And this is bringing it back.

“Somebody referred to Beth and Sharon as the porch ladies, and that’s how it was when we were growing up. The women talked over coffee and the kids played, and that’s what’s coming back because of this place. It’s like we’re all one little family here.”

Because it’s neutral ground, elected officials and public servants come to hear concerns from their constituency. Everyone from Omaha City Council members to the police chief have visited there. It’s a safe house for children and adults escaping trouble at home. When there’s an issue in the neighborhood, whether illegal dumping or unkempt property or illicit drug dealing, residents view Olson and Richards as the go-to resources to contact the authorities. When there’s something that needs organizing, the “old ladies” at the Minne Lusa House are among the first ones people reach out to to get things done.

Richards says, “Some people who are afraid to call the police will call us and say, ‘This is going on on our block, can you help us out?’ Sharon is great politically. She’ll go to public hearings, listen and make her presence known. I’ll tell you right now when (Omaha City Council District 2 representative) Ben Gray sees Sharon he goes, Oh-oh.’ Sharon puts them to the task. They know her. That’s what it takes.”

“You have to be a tough person to be down here,” says Olson.

Both women are strong, assertive, plain-talking, live-out-loud types. Olson can be sarcastic. Richards is more diplomatic. Richards says they’re just enough different to “make it work because there is a balance between the yin and the yang.”

 

 

Minne Lusa House

Minne Lusa House

Friends say they personify the do-it-yourself independence, give-the-shirt-off-your-back generosity, puff-out-your-chest pride and glad-to-know-you warmth that characterizes Minne Lusa.

Situated between Miller Park and Florence in a tucked away sector east of North 30th Street, Minne Lusa was formed in 1916 by Charles Martin, who designed a neighborhood with California Bungalow-style homes of wood, stucco and brick. The homes were built in what was a cornfield. A pretty boulevard runs through the heart of the area. Many homes and yards are beautifully maintained. The area’s enjoying a resurgence of interest because its character-rich homes featuring natural wood floors, ample windows, fireplaces, generous porches and detached garages sell at highly affordable prices.

Richards says part of the motivation behind their project is “to get the name Minne Lusa out there because nobody before knew where Minne Lusa was. We’re not Florence, we’re Minne Lusa. We’re here to promote the neighborhood and to get people to know each other.”

The house has hosted an arts and crafts show and may host another this fall. It also organizes the annual Trick or Treat on the Boo-Levard during Halloween. Minne Lusa Blvd. is decorated for the occasion.

Efforts are underway to get Minne Lusa designated a National Register of Historic Places district. Olson and Richards support the initiative because they are so devoted to the neighborhood and generating appreciation for it and what makes it different.

These women of a certain age grew up in a time when tight-knit neighborhoods were the rule, not the exception. Olson, a retired phone company employee, resides in the same Minne Lusa house she was raised in and she does all she can to preserve the sense of neighborliness and community she’s valued there all her life.

Richards, who fell hard for Minne Lusa during 15 years as a mail carrier there, bought a house in the neighborhood and the retired U.S. Post office employee has made the area her home ever since. She’s flipped some homes there and she takes pains to only sell her properties to buyers with the same sense of community she has. Much as Olson did Richards too came of age knowing her neighbors, only not in Omaha but in the small town of Garwin, Iowa she grew up in. The friendly people of Minne Lusa made an impression on Richards because they reminded her of how the people in her hometown related to each other and she wanted to be part of that again.

“I really like the people,” says Richards. “There’s something about the people. I just fell in love with this neighborhood. It’s got a lot of promise, it’s got great homes. When I carried mail here for 15 years I knew everybody who lived between 30th and 24th, from Whitmore Street up to Sharon Drive, and I’d think, ‘Well. it’s too bad these people don’t know these people because they’d really get along.’ And so now I think we’re slowly getting those people to know each other.”

 Photo: Thanks to Diane Franson Krisor and Diana Lynn McIntosh, we will be ready to pickle watermelon rind tomorrow!

Among those she got to know on her route was Olson.

“Sharon and I talked a lot and we became friends over time.”

Richards says they both joined the Minne Lusa Neighborhood Association about the same time.

Their idea for the Minne Lusa House was to create an open space that draws people together.

“Our goal always was just bringing the neighborhood together,” says Olson. “People don’t talk to each other the way they used to. When I grew up neighbors spoke to one another. You didn’t have to love them, you didn’t have to break bread with them, but you were nice to them and talked to them. We don’t do that anymore. Well, we do on my block. So the goal was always to bring that back somehow.”

For years Olson held a block party on the stretch of Martin Ave. she lives on.

“I thought that was a good way to get everybody to know everybody.”

Richards says it’s just one of many ways her friend “was working” on strengthening neighborhood and community before Minne Lusa House. For both women it’s a personal mission.

“The old neighborhoods are all fractured because we have issues with landlords that own properties that don’t take care of their places,” says Olson. “We have landlords that rent indiscriminately to anyone and then it just ruins a neighborhood.”

Richards says, “That’s one of the things that drew us together because we’re both angry about what the landlords are doing to older neighborhoods and to our neighborhood.”

They don’t take things lying down either. When renters in a neighborhood house were causing frequent disturbances with loud music and late night partying, Richards spring into action.

“I got the landlord’s name and when the neighbors were partying I’d call the landlord at midnight and leave messages, saying, ‘We’ve got a problem here on Mary, we can’t sleep, the cops have been here, and if we can’t sleep you can’t sleep.’ The landlord finally called me to say they were woking on it and finally those people moved out.”

Richards says the landlord promised to be more diligent about who she rents to.

“They’ve got nice people in there now,” she adds.

Olson says the problem of absentee landlords “isn’t just in our neighborhood, it’s anywhere east of 72nd. People can walk in and buy these houses for $20,000 or $10,000 and they do not put a dime into them and then they’ve got people renting that aren’t going to take care of anything. They don’t better your neighborhood, they destroy your    neighborhood.” She and Richards say that many inner city vacant lots and abandoned homes are owned by landlords who live out of state and wont let go of the properties except for exorbitant prices.

Meanwhile, taxpayers absorb the costs of cutting overgrown weeds or razing structures. Neighbors are left to deal with the blight, eyesores and dangers that come with empty or unattended properties

“It’s wrong, this whole system,” says Olson.

“We’ve talked to Ben Gray about it,” says Richards. “We’re working on it.”

Opened in 2011, Minne Lusa House has become the very gathering spot and conduit for action the women envisioned

“When this house became available it was primary for us to say, ‘Let’s try this and see if it will work,’ and the means to doing that was canning. Canning brought people in. And as you can see there is nothing here that distracts them,” Olson says, referring to the TV-less kitchen, dining room and living room. The office, pantry and finished attic and basement have no TVs either. “People have to speak to one another and when you’re canning you have to talk to each other or you wont have a very good product when you get done.”

“The canning is fun,” says Richards.”The best part is when somebody tries it and goes, ‘Oh my God, this is great.’ That’s reward.”

Franson-Krisor says she’s learned to can, garden and do home improvement projects from working alongside Richards.

 

Photo: Come on by this morning from 9 to noon for coffee and try out our new coffee mugs, compliments of Sue Bigsby. Thank you Sue, these are great!!

 

Olson fondly recalls a woman who learned to can at the house. “She sent the cucumber relish she made all over the country to her family and was the hit at Christmas, so she’s a memory to me.” Then there’s the mother and daughter team who come. The mother insists on sampling everything while the daughter busies herself canning. Upon leaving, the mother beams about how much “WE’VE canned.” The camaraderie is what she’s really after. A surprising number of young people, including families with small children, come to can.

Two more Saturday morning regulars are husband and wife ministers John and Liz Backus, who live across the street and pastor at nearby Trinity Lutheran Church. Lots of laughter and stories ensue.

“Those are things you just can’t put a price tag on,” says Olson.”I think we get more from this then maybe anybody else does. We get to meet all these fun, interesting people. We have a good time with them. We tell people, ‘Don’t come if you don’t want to have a good time.'”

“We’re going to have fun,” adds Richards.

The women didn’t expect all the attention their endeavor’s attracted, including an Omaha World-Herald feature that helped put the Minne Lusa House on the map. As a result the house has become a magnet both for folks in the neighborhood and from well beyond its borders.

“We’ve had people from Council Bluffs, Papillion, Ralston, Gretna come down here for canning lessons,” says Olson.

The way it’s caught on has taken the founders by surprise.

Richards says, “When we started this we didn’t know know where this was going to go. We had no clue. We didn’t see that coming. We were just going to be a little neighborhood house and then slowly spread it through the neighborhood.”

Minne Lusa House captures people’s imagination. Donated boxes of jars and other canning supplies regularly arrive on the front porch. Harvested produce is left for the women to can. Proceeds from the products they make go right back into the house. A Minne Lusa native living in Florida discovered the project and sent personalized coffee mugs.

Olson says, “We have wonderful support.”

 

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She and Richards don’t believe in planning too far ahead or following a strict plan. They just ride the wave and take things as they come.

“Today if you asked us what we would do next year we cannot tell you that. It just falls,” says Olson. “We don’t set goals. I worked 30 years for the phone company. I’m not putting together any business plan. I’m done with that. We fly by the seat of our pants. Too many years of structure, Beth had structure with the post office for God’s sake. We don’t need that. Nobody needs to tell us what to do.”

They’re not sure what the house’s future may be when they’re gone or decide to step down.

If something happens and we have to shut it down, then we shut it down, there’s no pressure,” says Richards.

Olson can’t see it continuing in its present form or with the same name under someone else’s leadership. “I mean, it’s the Minne Lusa House, it’s unique. If we couldn’t do it anymore and somebody wanted to buy it it couldn’t be Minne Lusa House anymore, at least not for me.”

Richards says it’s possible the house could always return to being a private residence. “We set it up that if we failed we’d probably lose money but we could sell it as a home for somebody to live in.”

The 1918 built home was occupied by several families over its history, the longest period, 45 years, by the Joseph and Clella Frolio family, who resided there from 1961 to 2005. The Frolio children left some indelible marks in the home, such as a pattern of BB gun pellet holes in one basement wall and handprints in another basement wall. Here and there are personal touches by Olson and Richards, including a vintage rocking chair that belonged to Beth’s great-grandmother.

A plaque hanging in the home’s front room details the chronology and names of the various people who dwelled there.

The women hope to create a Minne Lusa museum in the attic to display the photographs and articles they’ve collected about the neighborhood they feel such a kinship with.

The pair don’t like the bad rap North Omaha gets and they see the Minne Lusa House as a touchstone where people’s negative attitudes and perceptions about the area can be overturned.

“It’s a concept you have to change and it doesn’t get changed overnight,” says Richards.

“People go, ‘Oh my God, it’s North Omaha, there’s shootings, I can’t come there,” bemoans Olson. “People will not come down here because they’re scared they’re going to be shot. So when we have big groups of people we always say, ‘Do you know where you are?’ This is The Hood.’ Then they see for themselves what a beautiful area it is.”

Richards says, “We’re bringing people from out of the community into the community, where they find out it’s kind of nice up here. It’s by word of mouth and it spreads.” More than anything, she says, “what we’ve accomplished is that every day neighbors are getting to know each other.”

Keep up with doings there at http://www.facebook.com/minne.house.

 
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No More Empty Pots Intent on Ending North Omaha Food Desert

August 13, 2013 3 comments

A food movement is afoot in the U.S. and organizations like No More Empty Pots in Omaha are on the leading edge of efforts to get people to eat healthier by buying fresh, organic and local and growing their own produce in their own gardens or in community gardens.  My story about No More Empty Pots and the women who run it is in the new issue of The Reader (www.thereader.com).  On this blog you can read my stories about related efforts, including pieces on Minne Lusa House, the documentary Growing Cities, and the marriage between the culinary and horitculture programs at Metropolitan Community College.

 

Nancy Williams

 

No More Empty Pots Intent on Ending North Omaha Food Desert

©by Leo Adam Biga

Appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

Addressing the food insecurity problems that nag poverty-stricken northeast Omaha, where access to fresh, organic produce, dairy and bread products is limited, are an array of individuals, organizations, projects and initiatives. Many efforts aim to educate residents on how to grow their own food, cook healthier and eat better. That’s part of the mission of a fairly new nonprofit player in the food mosaic, No More Empty Pots (NMEP).

“I want our community to be healthy, I want people to understand the importance of having healthy, nutritious food, I don’t want this community to not have what everybody else has. I also want us to learn we have a right to know how our food is grown, what is being put in it and how it impacts our body. That’s what drives me,” says NMEP program director Susan Whitfield,

Healthy ingredients are important in that designated food desert area whose residents consume mostly processed, packaged and fast foods and a scarcity of fresh, natural items. Unhealthy eating habits contribute to the disproportionately higher rates of diabetes and heart disease among that community’s African American population.

In a district with high unemployment and spotty education there’s also emphasis by NMEP and others on getting people to achieve economic self-sufficiency through their own food businesses, from urban agriculture and catering ventures to food trucks and small eateries.

Launched in 2010, NMEP is dedicated to supporting existing food systems and creating new ones that reach people where they live and given them tools to help themselves.

There are many moving parts in this landscape of needs and delivery systems but NMEP founder Nancy Williams tries keeping it simple.

“NMEP is a backbone organization in the collective impact process for local food systems development,” she says. “We serve as a conduit when needed and a catalyst when necessary. We are trying to help connect entities and fill gaps. We partner, connect, collaborate, initiate and contribute as needed. We try not to duplicate.

“Our neighbors struggling to survive the effects of poverty deserve to have all of us working together with contributions from everybody to develop and implement strategies that work and gets us to self-sufficiency and economic resiliency.”

Besides her scientific background, Williams draws on her experience growing up in Louisiana. Her family and countless others across America employed communal, sustainable food practices that largely fell by the wayside as people became increasingly dependent on mass production. NMEP is part of a continuum of Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) and farm to table programs that seek to revive food activities once routinely engaged in.

Referring to her parents Jesse and Nancy Webber, Williams says, “They grew food because cash was short and family labor, plus land, was available. Cash was used for wealth creation – buying property, starting businesses, paying for education, et cetera. Their parents and other family members had bought land and property doing the same thing, so they did what they knew, improving what they could for us as they learned better. Nobody was rich but education was a priority and having your own stuff was important.”

WillIams worked the communal gardens her family planted, helping harvest a bounty shared with friends and neighbors. She applied her experience to 4H projects, once winning a national competition. The Louisiana State University science graduate earned her master’s in weed science and plant pathology at Cornell University. A job with Dupont brought her to Omaha, where she and her musician husband raised four children. The couple introduced their kids to gardening.

“It was important for us to garden when our children were younger so that they understand where food came from, how to grow it and harvest it and had access to the same good food I grew up with. Now we enjoy supporting local farmers and farmers markets.”

Her experience and expertise long ago planted the seed for the sustainable food work she does today.

“I actually wrote plans for elements of No More Empty Pots in 1999 before I knew any of the folks that helped to get it off the ground.”

Around that same time she directed Omaha’s City Sprouts program, whose mantra of “sustaining communities through gardens” fit her philosophy. Then she and a group of friends began talking about doing something to help alleviate the disparities plaguing northeast Omaha.

“Seeing little change in our neighborhoods and with residents as a result, we decided to take action.”

Informal meetings led to a food summit and monthly forums. NMEP was born from the discourse and partners with many like-minded organizations, including Tomato Tomato and Metropolitan Community College‘s Institute for Culinary Arts and horticulture program.

“Because we are a diverse community and alleviating poverty is complex, there is ample room for multiple strategies,” says Williams.

 

 

 

 

She says everyone comes to food issues from their own vantage point  “but I think maybe others detect a certain authenticity in me,” adding, “I can speak with authority about food and practices in this way because I have lived it and internalized it.”

“I’m passionate about this because I understand the power of good food,” Williams says. “When you have access to it, when you know how to provide it for yourself, when you consume it, when it becomes available on a wider scale for you and your neighbors, I know the overarching impact it can have in your life and the ripple effect it can have in your neighborhood and community from a self-sufficiency and sustenance standpoint, from a nutrition standpoint, from a brain development-child development standpoint, from an economic development standpoint.

“Because if you have access to good food you have more energy and better capacity to do those things well and you can invest those dollars you would have been spending on food on something else. You can also have income from providing that food to others or you can create a value-added product from the food that comes from someone else. So it is what I see as a perfect system for STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) education and micro enterprise development.”

NMEP or its partners provide everything from cooking demonstrations to food entrepreneurship programs and looks to expand these offerings and add new ones. Everything NMEP does is about education, collaboration and sustainability. Witness one of its new partner programs, Truck Farm Omaha. The mobile garden planted in the bed of a Chevy pickup educates area youth about sustainability. Truck Farm founders-directors Dan Susberg and Andrew Monbouquette, the makers of the new documentary Growing Cities, sees= their project as a perfect fit, just as NMEP sees Big Muddy Urban Farm or Minne Lusa House or Tomato Tomato as natural co-conspirators in this movement toward food security.

“More and more organizations and public entities are asking us to do cooking demonstrations,” says Whitfield. “People are amazed at how simple and easy it is to cook these foods. If you don’t see it, you don’t know.”

NMEP is located in a former Harvester Truck and Tractor sales and service center at 1127 North 20th St., in a mixed used tract of light industrial plants and single family housing units. There are plans to retrofit the 19,000 square foot facility to house The Eleven27 Project, an urban agriculture and food systems innovation zone that will feature shared commercial kitchens, event space, food production, aquaponics systems, workshops, classes and on the surrounding two acres outdoor urban agriculture, hoop houses, raised garden beds and composting.

Williams says 1127 will approach food “from production to processing to distribution to marketing to composting so that we have a full cycle for these products. We will extract the value along that food chain so that we’re maximizing the resources. We will make this sustainable by generating income to cover the education costs as well as the hands on training people are getting while going through the programs. It’s several different levels of sustainability built into this.”

By year’s end NMEP plans to initiate a $3 million-plus fundraising campaign for the renovation.

NMEP has picked a good time to have emerged.

“The universe is conspiring in our favor,” says Whitfield. “Evidence of that is community gardens and farmers markets. There’s been an explosion over the last few years. In supermarkets local foods are starting to take up more and more space. Stores want to reduce that carbon print, they want to know who their small farmers are, they want to know where their food is grown, they want to know what is put on that food.

“People are becoming more and more educated.”

Follow NMEP at nomoreemptypots.org.

 

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