The Highway 75 bridge crossed the swollen Missouri, its waters reaching branches of trees not used to being this far underwater. I’d reached Nebraska again, in the later stages of a long road trip across North America, but this time was different. I’d never gone down Highway 75 before, happy to select I-29 instead, flying along at 75mph and letting the unexceptional countryside be but a blur in my windows. It was about the destination then, but now I cared more about the journey.
I reached Omaha from the north, after passing the Fort Calhoun nuclear power plant and its radiating power lines. I drove through Tekamah and Herman, cute towns with real stores and businesses, homes with well-kept front yards and porches and families. They were just competitors before: the hyphenated school district that may have been an opponent at football or tennis or speech. And soon afterwards, I was on 30th Street, and back in Omaha.
It wasn’t that different from my very first time in Omaha. That fourth-to-last day in 1995 when my mother, father, younger brother and a ten-year-old me landed at Eppley, deplaned to a snow covered, utterly foreign landscape and headed into town. We’d just arrived from India and met my dad (who’d been here for a little over a year already, studying at Creighton) and we climbed into his car and headed west, stopping at his old studio near 38th and Farnam to grab a couple of things before heading to our new life at The Citadel, near 84th and Q. Twin bunk beds waited for my brother and me.
I visited that old apartment complex on this trip and little seemed to have changed. I crossed 84th Street and headed into the heart of Ralston, where down tree-lined streets sat my old school, Seymour Elementary. It was early August and the classrooms and hallways were empty. I walked past our old library/computer lab and stepped into the gym that seemed vast back then, only to find a small room barely bigger than a basketball court. It was here that I waited everyday in the lunch line (this doubled as the dining room as well), where I gave a speech after winning a D.A.R.E. medal from Officer Dave. The Ralston Library, I was sad to see, had moved into a shiny new facility; I couldn’t even locate the lovely old wood paneled two-floor place I’d spent many hours in, where I won a chess tournament, where I exhausted their Hardy Boys series, where I was inspired by Kennedy’s PT-109.
Much of my first couple of days in town were spent like this: visiting places that I knew, excited and anxious as I drove up to them, wondering whether they were the same or not, what would be different, how they compared to my memories. I spent eight very formative years in Omaha, from the end of 1995 until mid-2004, when my family relocated to northern New Jersey.
After Seymour, my parents moved me to Brownell-Talbot, where I immersed myself in academics and activities, able to do nearly everything I wanted due to our small class sizes and encouraging faculty. My life soon became classes and studies, after-school practices and weekend competitions. Golf soon became my favorite extracurricular, and I’d spend all my free time at local muni courses and driving ranges.
But because my life revolved around school and home and fairways and greens (but more so the rough and the trees), Omaha was simply the town at the end of my address, a nominal backdrop to a typical teenage life.
I didn’t know the quaint cafes and restaurants and boutiques of Dundee, just up the street from my school. The neighborhoods, the history of North Omaha was little more than the backdrop to Benson Park Golf Course. The vibrant streetlife and restaurants and mercados of south 24th Street, and the ethnic neighborhoods in between, these were all a richness of Omaha I’d almost entirely missed.
Of these, the most egregious was downtown Omaha and the Old Market. Partly due to my underage-ness, my dependent-on-parents financial state, and a complacency with malls and sprawling parking lots and chain restaurants, I didn’t make it downtown much. Our family went to the scenic Heartland Park a few pleasant times and friends would gather for dinner somewhere downtown for the occasional special occasion. But I didn’t wander the cobblestone streets or visit the galleries or music venues.
This time, I wasn’t leaving without a real look at this jewel of Omaha. I spent a couple of nights downtown, walking past beautiful loft and condo buildings to the Bodies exhibit or heading further north towards the new baseball stadium and gracefully enormous Qwest Center. My timing didn’t allow a movie at Film Streams and I noticed I was leaving just before Hanson came on at The Slowdown that Sunday night.
On Saturday morning I strolled through the Old Market just as the farmer’s market was wrapping up, catching a few stalls of fresh fruit and vegetables that escaped the machinery of ConAgra just beyond. The scene was vibrant, the day was warm, people were everywhere. Brunchers sat on patios sipping a glass of white wine, families looped in and out of boutiques. The cappuccino I ordered even came with a nice slice of attitude from a pseudo-hipster. This wasn’t exactly Manhattan but it could’ve passed for a taste of Yaletown in Vancouver or a block of Belltown in Seattle, maybe not too far a cry from the West Loop in Chicago.
Here was Omaha growing up, turning hip and cosmopolitan and urban, maintaining its underappreciated ethnic diversity, turning away from its endless sprawl to the west and finding its youthful pulse.
Or maybe it was that I’d finally grown up and opened my eyes to it.
View pictures from Omaha.