Omaha at Human Scale: The Wayfarer’s City

27 Nov

Dr. Erin Feichtinger is a social worker and recently elected representative to the Board of Governors for Metro Community College.

It is Thursday at 12:30, so I am quickly finishing my lunch and making sure I have my headphones. I leave out the back of our converted warehouse. The yard is either filled with vegetables or dirt depending on the season and lately it’s been consistently packed with cars and trucks and shouting from the apartment building they’re renovating next door. I have a feeling the price point of these one-bedrooms will make them out of reach for most in the neighborhood. We recently had some light arson from a disgruntled client which is too bad for the shaded picnic table.  Further evidence of the lack of accessible mental health resources in our community. I put on Bill Callahan and turn the corner to head up to 25th and Leavenworth. I don’t know what the daycare to my left is called, something with “Precious” in the name, and there’s always one employee yelling from above the dirt patch the kids use to get outside time.

Burnt picnic table

Traffic is backed up on Leavenworth. I’ve only recently seen the fruits of whatever road improvements they were trying to make. The construction cones are still in the street, forcing everyone left – bright orange tyrants beaten by accidents and bumps and weather who are guarding nothing of consequence. The  work seems finished. People inch their cars east toward downtown, hopefully being vigilant around the intersection because there are always a lot of people congregating and making questionable pedestrian decisions. This is what happens when you have more liquor stores than community resources, and our favorite maybe-slumlord renovated hundreds of low-income studio units in a city where there is nowhere else to put people who need help. Old ladies smoke outside the 11-Worth Café, waiting for kids or grandkids or rides. One Honda CR-V shouts “GMAZ KDZ.”

I head west, fiddling with the volume of my music. I should listen to the sounds of the street, but I listen to people all day. My coat has deep front pockets which I like and is a preference developed over a decade in Chicago of walking and biking and riding the train and bus. I don’t know how people manage without them but I guess you just put stuff in the front seat of the car and then grab what you need when you park and run into wherever. The car-to-wherever lifestyle is probably why people don’t dress appropriately for the weather here.

Leavenworth St., I’ve learned over a year of making this trip on foot, is full of the strangest combination of businesses. It’s like the street where anything goes and so if you have an idea for a business and don’t much care about accessibility or parking then you can open it up right here. Daycare, a general manufacturing building where people actually make furniture, a rotating cast of ethnic grocery stores, the Fruteria that is gone a week after you think to yourself, “next week I’m going to check it out,” the grocery store that you wouldn’t notice coming down Leavenworth or heading west on St. Mary’s but that has the best prices for avocados and a 2 Enchilada lunch special. One time outside the Kohll’s Pharmacy that has never stopped advertising CPAP machines, I saw an old man sleeping and worried he was dead because it was so hot and there isn’t any shade to speak of on Leavenworth. I wouldn’t have noticed him from a car. I don’t think people notice him anyway and I chew on that as I pass the food truck parked every day in the gravel lot across from the uniform store. The store must only cater to enforcer-types or else tough-looking burly dudes is a universal advertising theme for uniform stores and in any case both are curious.

Crossing the entrances and exits of the interstate you have to be really deliberate here about making your presence known. I do a lot of shouting and waving here since Leavenworth is a one-way heading east at this stretch and so if you’re coming off the exit ramp you are only looking west. Passing through the intersection that I’ll probably die in one of these days, I check in with the gentleman flying a sign there. He’s always got something to say about the traffic and when it’s hot I try to remember to bring a bottle of water. I think a lot of people try to avoid eye contact with him and have said as much. Only sometimes it bothers him, if he’s having a bad day like when he got his stuff stolen at the shelter.

I have questions throughout this walk that hit me at random intervals. There is a fancy men’s clothing store with a black edifice on 27th that you wouldn’t ever think to see and I think it’s by appointment only so maybe that’s the point. What is the purpose of the Primary Purpose Hall? How much are the apartments just west of the interstate, because there are a lot of well-groomed dogs and a fancy restaurant across the street? There was a coin laundry that I saw them repainting dark gray one month and now it looks like it is intended to attract hipsters. Who goes to Bud Olson’s bar? Who did the mural on the VFW? Why did Mother India close? Did the patrons of the Down Under where my beautiful friend hosts open mic night ever go there before walking down to the bar past the Family Dollar and Kwik Shop? I should go to open mic. I should be a better and more attentive friend when this campaign is over.

Primary Purpose Hall – purpose, unknown.

I do a lot of walking every day. I’ll leave work at 3 and go knock on strangers’ doors in neighborhood all over northeast Omaha trying to get their votes. But this is the only walk where I have the time to think about everything in my life and the lives of everything around me, that doesn’t have the stress and anxiety of an interaction where the premise is that I am possibly disturbing the sanctity of someone’s home. I can think about the people in the property management building and if they’re wondering how to make money off the people we serve or if they’re concerned as to how to help them. The two antique stores only two blocks from each other and whether their owners get along. What a beautiful thing it is for the Kent Bellows studio to exist and to have a mentoring program and to have trees outside along the walk. A nice park. The guys working in the nondescript Cyrgus building who sit in the open garage door in between shifts opening big blue barrels labeled “Swine Fetus for Research”, wearing leather aprons of the sort you see in period pieces when the nobility turning up their noses in the village. It smells like formaldehyde every time I walk past here and if you look you can see a big bloody table in the back and guys transferring balls of blood and sinew at the end of meat hooks so that doctors and students across the street at UNMC can work on the cleaner versions later. The construction workers who look startled and then annoyed that I’m walking through their space. I don’t want to be here either, guys, but it’s either this or walking through the gigantic game of chicken going on every minute on Leavenworth since you closed the sidewalk with no warning and there aren’t safe crosswalks anywhere in this city except maybe in Dundee and select parts of Benson.

My destination is on the left – a low building that takes up the block and is full of people who work every day to notice the ignored in our community much like my starting point back on 24th. When I get there, I will pass the designated smoking area where clients gather to find a moment of peace in the often chaotic realities of a life on the brink struggling with mental illness and poverty in a city that prioritizes neither. I will get in a Subaru in a few minutes, load up the trunk with water bottles and socks and granola bars and hygiene items if we have them and blankets and gloves and handwarmers if it’s cold, and I’ll sit in the backseat and listen as people who have been doing this far longer than me explain their frustrations and their triumphs and we look for people who might need help, trying to notice the places where people who are unnoticed might be.

In walking you notice more, wonder more, understand the necessity of pockets. And all the people you see are more than just a passing feature and they are all their own daily wonderment and bewilderment and they all matter. So I think sometimes that walking this route is a rebellion against instant gratification and against our propensity to ignore what we pass at 40 mph and against the tyranny of orange cones and glass-strewn sidewalks and short-sighted urban planning and maybe it is a reminder of every little daily act of humanity that we can notice or forget.

3 Responses to “Omaha at Human Scale: The Wayfarer’s City”

  1. ctefft@mac.com November 27, 2018 at 8:29 am #

    Great blog post! You are so right about people not noticing things when they drive by. About 6 weeks ago I took one of my clients (a psychiatrist) on a walking tour of 72-78th and Dodge area and along the Keystone trail to show where homeless people hang out. Person was amazed that things looked so different when walking …..and that there were places homeless hang out in plain sight that aren’t noticed when driving by. Thank-you for the work you do, Erin.

  2. Clyde Anderson November 27, 2018 at 9:32 am #

    Wow! Such a powerful and well-written essay! I walk, bike and ride the bus a lot in our community, but I seem blind compared to Erin’s observations. I notice that roofers are still busy replacing hail-damaged roofs in Benson, the beautiful holiday lights in Fairacres on my way to UNO, and the litter, ALL THAT LITTER! My thanks, too, Erin!

  3. Mary Bamesberger December 1, 2018 at 6:47 pm #

    Thank you for your essay, Erin Feichtinger. I used to bike this area many years ago when I was a pre-teen. I felt safe, yet like I was venturing far from home, which was near 36 & Poppleton. Thanks for the posts from ctefft and Clyde Anderson sharing their observations.

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