Walkable Midtown in Summer

One of the delightful joys of summer is spending some time walking around Omaha. I have the great pleasure to live in the Dundee neighborhood in Omaha and have been enjoying walking around the area with my kids on a few of the more mild summer days. In the past week, I have taken the opportunity to walk down both California and Cass streets between 30th and Saddle Creek. This is about a 15-block area on both streets.

In the midtown area, there has been quite a bit of construction. People in Omaha might know that the Gifford Park area has seen a huge resurgence in the 10 years since Mutual of Omaha helped to revitalize the area with an investment called Midtown Crossing. New business and residential construction here was a major part of the increase in property values over that time. In my own four years in Omaha, I have seen the areas of Gifford Park, and the “gold coast” area on the ridge between 38th and 40th street start to rebound as owners are putting love into the gardens and exteriors of homes, some of which are over one hundred years old. On one side of this ridge, 40th street, the Joslyn Castle and St. Cecilia’s Cathedral anchor the neighborhood, the latter’s towers distinction to Omaha skyline from as far west as 72nd street. On the other side, houses take advantage of views of the downtown area looking across past the city to the Missouri river to Council Bluffs, IA beyond.

I am truly excited to see this neighborhood grow and change. It is a mix, a type of spontaneous order of projects. On one block fresh landscaping shows me that owners of one home are taking seriously the charge to care for a lovely gem of a historic home. There are plenty of mansions perched prominently to impress. There are lovely little brick apartments from duplexes all the way up to fully renovated buildings. Some homes, particularly those lower in elevation closer to 45th street and in the trough along Cass Street, about halfway between Gifford Park and the gold coast, have avoided any serious maintenance. Some sit with junk on the porch so thick as to betray the owner’s excessive hoarding problem. Some sagging roofs point to serious structural problems in the house. Some have allowed their gardens to overgrow to the point where the house is partially obscured behind plants of an eclectic variety. All of these might be the understandable reaction to falling property values and the legacy of the neighborhood from before the recent gentrification.

There is so much potential in revitalizing the area. Walking along Duchesne Academy’s soccer fields and lovely old school building on California and 38th, I imagine what it might be like by the time my girls are old enough to go to school in this neighborhood. All of this puts a lovely face on the idea of gentrification. There is no homeowner association in these neighborhoods. The demand for housing is part of a nation-wide trend for people to return to living in denser neighborhoods, but I admire the process of revitalization that I have seen. I also worry that as rents rise, some folks are being displaced. It is hard for a Creighton professor to not be overjoyed that one of the neighborhoods near campus is becoming an attractive place to live. On all sides of campus, Omaha is becoming a much more attractive place to live. A new pedestrian bridge over highway 75 has created another easy way to move through these areas, helping to address the crippling effect of the intrusion many decades ago of this highway and interstate 480 which carved out the borders of campus, isolating pedestrians from these neighborhoods.

One gets the sense walking through Omaha, either along California or along Farnum, that the city is walkable again. I have seen pictures of what this midtown area had become by the end of the 1980s as businesses and residents moved out west. I wouldn’t have wanted to walk through the city then. As I learn about the architectural past of Omaha, I am excited by the future. The various homeowners who will continue to write new stories in homes that housed our predecessors. What is going on in our town is inspiring, and I hope that some of the musings that IEI’s urban economics group does on policy in Omaha captures the spirit of this enthusiasm for our city as neighbors and as community members.