How mobile placemaking in Omaha, Nebraska is supporting the city’s black trade corridors

North 24th Street in Omaha, Neb. is the historical and cultural heart of the city’s black community. It’s also one of the many communities that the Omaha Mobile Stage (OMS) – a new mobile placemaking project – has begun to expand and uplift.

Founded in 2021 by artists in response to the toll of the COVID-19 pandemic, OMS is an accessible, adaptable and transportable mobile venue created from a converted van. In its first year, it has become an important part of the process to support the diverse arts community, rich athletics heritage and civil rights history of the North 24th Street Corridor — especially as the Corridor recovers from the pandemic and demographics and experienced economic changes.

Creating a mobile venue to help artists and neighborhoods recover from the pandemic

Throughout the pandemic, artists and creatives have been – and remain – among the hardest-hit segments of the country’s workforce. Aware of this challenge, Partners for Livable Omaha (PLO) created OMS to be a flexible, safe and engaging place where communities can connect, reactivate public spaces and revitalize the city‘s social, creative and economic life.

OMS has five creative placemaking goals:

  1. Foster an arts-based response to public health issues such as social isolation, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, and other mental health disorders.
  2. Increase access to the performing arts in low-income and underserved neighborhoods.
  3. Increase vibrancy and social connection between generations.
  4. Support performing artists and businesses in the neighborhood.
  5. Build social capital among designers, artists and public space advocates.

After conceiving the idea, PLO embarked on a multidisciplinary collaboration of Omaha and Lincoln-based design, performance, education and space leaders to bring it to life. Students from FACT (a design/build studio at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s College of Architecture) and Nebraska Innovation Studio set out to convert an 18-foot panel van into a mobile stage that could easily be set up for all kinds of performance events.

Stage doors are retracted.  Credit: Colin Conces
Stage doors are retracted. Credit: Colin Conces

To complete the design/construction phase, the project received $60,000 in in-kind contributions from its architectural, engineering, electrical and university partners. Our team at PLO also raised and contributed nearly $75,000 towards the initial purchase and conversion of the truck into a mobile performing arts venue.

Bringing art to more Omaha communities

After nine months of construction, we were ready for launch and decided to focus our first season of performances on co-producing events in historically disadvantaged communities that have been disproportionately impacted by the pandemic. These were also the same communities that had less access to arts education than more affluent neighborhoods before the pandemic.

Our performances were all free and designed to appeal to both ‘traditional’ and ‘non-traditional’ performing arts audiences (the former being audiences that regularly visit galleries, theatres, etc.). We also wanted to make sure that families who don’t have a performing arts budget can attend and have places to build community with their neighbors.

By hosting performances in public spaces and in close proximity to schools, senior and community centers, and revitalizing high streets, we have sought to ensure the arts are easily accessible to people of color, immigrants, older adults, people with disabilities and the lowly – Income households and others who may otherwise have limited access to live performances. An example is Pull Up and Vibe, an open mic series and community experience developed by Keiria Marsha. It is hosted by the Healing Roots African Diaspora Garden – a community garden and placemaking project run by North Omaha residents and linked to the busiest bus stop on North 24th Street, the developing North Omaha Trail and several schools and community and senior citizens ‘ centers adjacent .

Alajia McKizia, curator of Juneteenth Joy Fest, a Black Arts & Culture Festival in North Omaha
Alajia McKizia, curator of Juneteenth Joy Fest, a Black Arts & Culture Festival in North Omaha. Credit: Stable Grey

Growing economic opportunities through placemaking

The arts can have a significant economic impact on both communities and individuals. According to a national study of the economic impact of the nonprofit arts and culture industry, before the pandemic, the industry generated $166 billion in economic activity each year: $63 billion in spending from arts and culture organizations and an additional $103 billion at events issues of their audience.

OMS aims to bring a similar economic boost to Omaha. Its events create opportunities for neighborhood businesses, pop-up vendors and food truck operators to benefit from event-related spend before, during and after performances.

For example, artist Alajia McKizia’s Juneteenth Joy Fest in North Omaha’s historic 24th and Lake Districts included food from black businesses, stage design by black artists, a black flea market, and poetry and music performances on OMS.

As Manne Cook, urban development manager at Spark CDI and founder of Omaha’s Fabric Lab and the North Omaha Trail, said, “The Omaha Mobile Stage provides opportunities to revive the historic music and performing arts culture of the North 24th Street corridor by providing a platform for communities is created to gather and express.”

Tylynn, an Omaha-based rapper, singer and songwriter performing at the Juneteenth Joyfest on the Omaha Mobile Stage.  Credit: Stable Grey
Tylynn, an Omaha-based rapper, singer and songwriter performing at the Juneteenth Joyfest on the Omaha Mobile Stage. Credit: Stable Grey

Over the coming months and years, OMS will continue to serve various Omaha neighborhoods along North 24th Street and beyond. For example, in September 2022, OMS began hosting a traveling city-wide youth talent show. In 2023, the series will expand to locations throughout Greater Omaha and will be combined with employee development programs.

We hope that OMS will continue to harness the power of creatively designing places for the benefit of the community, contributing not only to expanded access to the arts, but also to new forms of social capital, innovation and civic engagement.

About Stephanie McGehee

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