The Past and Present of Q Street: South Omaha and the Union Stockyards
How did the Union Stockyards, including its rise and decline, impact the economy and culture of our neighborhood?
The stories of South Omaha’s neighborhoods are inextricably linked to the rise and fall of the stockyards and packing plants that developed in the area. From the late-19th century into the mid-20th these industries prospered and South Omaha became known as “The Magic City” that had seemingly boomed overnight. Often referred to as the lifeblood of South Omaha, these industries were intertwined with the economy and culture of the entire community, which included Polish, Czech, Irish, and German ethnicities. The Union Stockyards attracted white European immigrants, as well as African Americans from the South, to work in often brutal, but well-paying, industrial conditions. At its peak in the 1950s, Omaha’s Union Stockyards surpassed Chicago and Kansas City to become the largest stockyards in the nation. As these industries grew, vibrant ethnic communities and commercial districts sprung up and thrived in the surrounding areas along 16th Street, 24th Street, and in the Saint Mary’s neighborhood at 30th and Q Street.
During this time, South Omaha prospered and businesses including bakeries, bars, department stores, and restaurants opened along Q Street and 24th to accommodate all of the farmers and stockyard workers. Along with this, workers and their families settled around the Union Stockyards and formed many of South Omaha’s ethnic neighborhoods. Q street itself was once home to a large Greek population until riots in the early 20th century ran them out of the area. Eventually, Q Street became known as the Irish part of town and was often referred to as “Irish Hill.” However, while the residential areas of the Saint Mary’s neighborhood were predominately Irish, Q Street’s commercial district was integrated. This meant that different ethnicities and races often worked, ate, shopped, and drank together at these businesses.
At one time, South Omaha had 135 taverns; this combined with the industrial environment, dense living conditions, and prejudiced stereotypes about immigrant communities led to the portrayal of Q Street as a “rough” part of town. Yet, in direct contradiction of these perceptions, the Saint Mary’s neighborhood thrived culturally and economically until the late 1960s and early 1970s, during which the Union Stockyards and packing plant industries began to decline due to the invention of hydraulic technology and refrigerated trucks. After officially closing in 1999, the site of the Union Stockyards was redeveloped as Metropolitan Community College and the South Branch Public Library. Today, new immigrant communities including Latino and refugee populations call the Saint Mary’s neighborhood home. Much like the past, South Omaha’s remaining packing plant jobs continue to attract the groups willing to do laborious and dangerous work in order to provide for themselves and their families.
Image courtesy of Durham Museum.
This video is an interview with Tom Szczepaniak, done on July 19, 2019. It includes his memories of Parkvale Bakery, which his family owned, Q Street, and the Stockyards.
This video is an interview with Charles Leonard, done on July 22, 2019, during which he talks about Omaha’s Union Stockyards and Q Street.
2939 Q Street
Built in 1921, 2939 Q Street was a part of a cluster of buildings that served the surrounding neighborhoods, as well as workers coming and going from the nearby stockyards and packinghouses. Initially, home to the Southside cigar store in 1921, subsequent tenants at the location included Geo Fries soft drink in 1932, and the Nicholas Knihal barber shop in 1933. In 1934, Stanley Zager opened a bar, one of many drinking establishments in the area that catered to the multitude of laborers pouring out of the stockyards and packinghouses each evening. In 1939, the space was briefly filled by a cigarette store before Zager opened a beverage shop in 1940. In the post-WWII era, the lot sat vacant until 1968, when the Greater Omaha Community Action Committee took over the building. The GOCAC, which was established as a part of the Economic Opportunity Act of 1964, the centerpiece of President Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty, helped people in poverty by giving young people jobs and activities to do during the summer. By 1977, though, as the stockyards went into steep decline, 2939 Q Street sat vacant. Because the stockyards were such a big part of the area’s economy their decline caused many of the stores, restaurants, and bars on Q Street to close. Today, a small Mexican-American Church occupies the space and ministers to the growing Latino community in the area.
In 1968, a local anti-poverty agency called The Greater Omaha Community Action (GOCA) marked the opening of the new South Omaha office. Head of the South Branch, Regina Pflaum, and board members, Robert Murphy, Sam Harris, and Mary Miles started the GOCA program in the Saint Mary’s area. GOCA sent out advertising groups to South Omaha to publicize its war on poverty. Meetings were held at 2931 Q Street to nominate candidates for GOCA council positions and to discuss neighborhood conditions. Under its $313,000 program GOCA employed 385 youths to give them activities and jobs over the summer. The GOCA board voted in May of 1968 to begin its own $801,510 neighborhood Youth Corps program. This committee was important to the neighborhood because it gave people jobs and got them involved in the community.
Photo Courtesy of the Omaha World-Herald.
3069 Q Street
The address started as a small house, but after burning down it became the Social Settlement of Omaha in 1908. This was a place for immigrant families to seek recreational and educational resources. Families had to have at least one family member employed at the stockyards to be qualified for these services. It was most popular from the 1920’s to the late 1940’s when the stockyards reached their prime. Many South Omaha residents worked there. However, as crime increased in the area, the settlement house became less and less of a safe haven because residents didn’t feel safe in the neighborhood. In 1964, the building moved from 3069 Q Street to 4860 Q Street. The building that was once a hub for South Omaha families became vacant and was torn down in 1968. The Social Settlement Association-Omaha, which found it roots on Q Street, is still open today.
Photo Courtesy of Durham Photo Archive.
Today, there’s a parking lot where this building once stood, the lot has stood vacant since the settlement house was demolished in 1964. The building that the lot belongs to seems to have been built in the 1970s or 80s. There is grass and mulch with flowers surrounding the lot and some trees to the right. This parking lot belongs to a Catholic charity called the Juan Diego Center. While it’s no longer a settlement house, it’s still serving the community as a charity.
This street car ran from 26th and Q to 30th and Fort. The woman you see in this photo is Margret Bell and this genuine smile on her face captures her sense of pride for the community. In 1945, the stockyards were at their peak and employees would take this streetcar to work every day. Many stockyard workers came from the 30th and Q neighborhood and were proud of the hard work that they did. This shared mentality influenced how tightly knit and integrated this community was. After work, they would take the streetcars home and have a drink at one of many local taverns or saloons; there being 135 in Omaha alone and over a dozen in the Saint Mary’s neighborhood. By making the neighborhood accessible to thousands of people the streetcars became the backbone of the area’s economy. However, without passionate drivers like Mary, none of this would have been possible.
Photo Courtesy of Durham Archives, Bostwick-Forhardt Collection.
2919 Q Street
2919 Q Street first appeared in The Omaha World-Herald in 1909 when a house fire destroyed it, which means that it was built between the mid to late 1800s. It was first owned by Peter Lenagh and was used as a rental property. Then in the 1920’s, it became a dry goods store owned by an S. Vangrowick until 1925 when Moe Vann opened his own dry goods store. After Moe Vann went bankrupt around the 1930s, Sam Kaplan took over the dry goods store. In 1942, it became a Home Defense Girls Headquarters where they supported black women and black women’s work during World War II. It was affiliated with the NAACP and its goal was to bridge the physical separation between North and South Omaha African American communities. Then in 1971, after the closure of the Armour packing plant, it became Carmona’s Mexican restaurant. I believe that the restaurant closed somewhere around the 1980s. When the packing plants closed, the decline on Q street was slow, which was hard on the businesses and people already there. Today, it is an auto repair shop owned by SJ MORA LLC. Now, Q street is a vibrant area with many businesses and within walking distance of my building, there are Mexican restaurants, delis, grocery stores, markets, and mechanics. There are also houses a few blocks away from my building called The South Side Terraces. Although it's not as industrial as it was when the Stockyards were open it’s still a thriving area.
Now, the building is mostly made of tan-colored brick with some being covered up by siding and plaster at the middle and bottom levels. There are five frosted windows at the front of the building and on the top level there is a protruding brick in a V design.
The Armour plant was one of the four major meatpacking plants in South Omaha, along with Swift, Cudahy, and Wilson. The photo shown on the postcard depicts holding pens that would hold cattle or hogs. In this photo, there are sheep and cattle in the pens. The stockyard attracted many people from all over Omaha from both the South and North who were looking for jobs. Not only did the stockyards bring jobs, but they also brought businesses. Q street Flourished with the opening of many businesses such as clothing, food, and community outreach centers. All and all, the stockyards greatly affected the neighborhood’s economy and culture.
This postcard shows the Q street bridge when it first opened. The Q street bridge was the lifeblood of South Omaha, because it was a way for truckers to deliver their cattle to the processing plant. Without it, I believe that South Omaha would have never become the number one packing plant in the nation. Furthermore, while this postcard shows the former Q street bridge that was used by South Omaha, they are currently building a new one to serve the community.
"This program has made me realize the significance of history, and it has also made me realize that significant items should not be hidden away. It has changed me; I will not look at old buildings the same."
- Carly S.
"After attending this program, I know more about Omaha’s history and about what people went through in the past. I am also better at doing research and asking questions about history."
- Julio C.
"I enjoyed making new friends and learning more about my community, South Omaha."
- Briana R.
Youth-Driven Visions for the Future
Vision for the future included community involvement. Starting a grocery store with a farmer's market so people in the neighborhood could not only purchase healthy food, they would also be able to sell their own products. Along with the grocery store they wanted to add a café with a play place for children and an ice cream shop. The focus for the future was ultimately to bring the community together.
Associated Press. Cynthia Robinson of Sly and the Family Stone Dies at 71. The Hollywood Reporter, The Hollywood Reporter, 3 Dec. 2015.
Album covers and band pictures courtesy of Juan Lively and Ron Cooley.
“King Solomon's Mines Grand Opening.” Omaha Star, 22 Oct. 1970, p. 8.
Research combined by Carly S., Briana R, and Julio C. Students who worked on the project will attend high school at Central High School, Duchesne Academy, and South High School.