Smithfield Neighborhood - 24th and Ames Avenue
What are the types of businesses and organizations that turn a neighborhood into a community?
The Smithfield neighborhood, located at North 24th Street and Ames Avenue, has a rich history and deep ties to Omaha’s African American population. On the border between North Omaha and Florence, Smithfield was initially a prominent and thriving commercial center populated by Germans, Jews, African Americans and others. The city’s railcar system - Omaha & Council Bluffs Street Railway Company - operated in the neighborhood and maintained its main storage barn at the intersection. Various businesses, such as grocery stores, pharmacies, and a stunning movie theater thrived.
However, in the post-WWII era, large numbers of white residents began to flee the Smithfield neighborhood and North Omaha, more generally, for newer, outlying suburban neighborhoods, taking their tax dollars and other economic resources with them. Discriminatory policies in real estate and financing, such as restrictive covenants, steering, red-lining and block-busting, kept black people overwhelmingly locked into what was a deteriorating area and out of the newer outlining developments.
As a result, Smithfield became a predominantly black neighborhood by the 1950s and 1960s, facing growing economic challenges, declining housing stock, decaying infrastructure and a host of other social problems. Nevertheless, African Americans worked hard to push back against the large forces preying upon the community and to reinvent the neighborhood to reflect their cultural heritage. New businesses came and went along with black churches, social organizations and cultural institutions, all of which helped create a strong sense of African American community in the area.
Despite these efforts, racial inequality continued to take a toll on the neighborhood. Racial unrest in North Omaha during the mid- and late-1960s exacerbated these negative trends fueling further flight and disinvestment from the community. In the period since the civil rights era, increased unemployment, poverty, housing inequality and economic abandonment have left the neighborhood pockmarked with vacant lots and empty buildings. Yet, the memory of Smithfield’s heyday persists and there are hopes that the revitalization efforts taking place further down 24th Street around Lake, might ultimately extend into the area around Ames Avenue.
Image: Window display of J.A. Gross Grocery Store from 1933, located at 2404 Ames Avenue
North Star Theater - 2413 Ames Ave.
This is the site of the North Star Theater today.
What was once the North Star Theatre of 24th and Ames is now an empty lot filled with wildflowers and overgrown grass. In the surrounding area, there are a number of historical buildings linked to this once-vibrant area. There is an empty parking lot across the street from where the theatre was that adds to the feeling of abandonment and vacancy. Once the buildings and stores became abandoned and vacant, it caused people to lose some sense of community, which only added even more to the vacant feel. It is possible that people lost some sense of community because they didn’t have a place to gather and come together.
This picture is of a streetcar driving past the front of the North Star Theatre. Screenshot from the Richard Orr documentary "The Street Cars of Omaha" posted on YouTube February 18, 2016.
The North Star Theatre was open in 1925. It sat up to 500 people with only one screen. The theatre being right there in the neighborhood shows that the people living there at the time, a predominantly white population, had a high demand for entertainment. The building was renovated 20 years after it was built in 1946, but closed in the 1960’s, perhaps due to the competition created by other theatres in the area. The closing of the North Star Theatre could also show how the neighborhood’s needs and wants changed over the 40 years since it was built. For example, it can show that the people living there weren’t making enough money to be able to go to the movies, henceforth the closing. I feel like a small neighborhood theatre is less likely to be successful, especially in a neighborhood with such a high family poverty rate. The poverty rate started to spike within the neighborhood when families with money started to move out to the suburbs leaving the inner-city neighborhoods and taking the businesses with them, a phenomenon sometimes known as “White Flight.”
This organ was kept in the North Star Theatre to be played while the silent films were shown. Courtesy of the Omaha World-Herald, 1925.
Druid Hall - 2412 Ames Ave.
This is Druid Hall in 1947. The first floor, second floor, and basement were all in use at the time. Courtesy of the Omaha World-Herald.
Druid Hall is a beautiful, reddish-brown, two-story building on 2412 Ames Avenue that was built in 1914. The second floor windows are long, vertical rectangles, but many have been replaced by wooded flat planks. The building is in a rectangular form with simple but elegant decorations. The lines of decorations are outlines with brownish-gold color. Around the building is a vacant parking lot, homes, and many empty buildings. There are front double doors that are white with a half circle as a window on the top part of the doors. The first floor was used by stores and the Third Church of Christ Scientist in the early twentieth century. The basement was used for trading purposes and there was a bowling alley inside that opened in 1922, as well. Originally, the second floor was used as a dance hall and was then purchased by the Masons in 1967.
This is Druid Hall today. The Prince Hall Masons still occupy the space, and the 3-5-7 Club bar also operates in the building.
Nebraska’s Black Masons - who are a fraternal order that organizes various charitable events, have a dedicated membership following, and also engage their community - had their cornerstone laying ceremony for the new building on Sunday, June 9, 1968. Their main goal was for black people to have social outlets and social activities such as dances and other outlets in which to connect the community with something positive to do. The Masons first hoped to begin growth in membership and service to the community with Druid Hall; according to Grand Master Wendell Thomas, “Youth in Omaha need help and Masonry can keep them occupied and teach them fraternal work and discipline.” Mr. Thomas wanted to create interest for the younger men so they could take part. The 450 members bought Druid Hall with the purpose of expanding, hoping to grow to 1,000 members; purchasing the building was meant to bring back old members while also drawing in new membership. The Masons sponsored scholarships, public services, and they encouraged individuals to take part in their business and civic communities. To this day the building is still used by the Mason’s and the 3-5-7 Club bar.
Afro Academy for Dramatic Arts - 4424 N. 24th St.
This empty lot is the land where the Afro Academy of Dramatic Arts used to stand. Image obtained from Google Maps.
The empty lot on the North West corner of 24th and Ames used to house an auditorium that served many purposes throughout its lifetime. The auditorium would hold special events like Omaha’s annual food show, where local businesses and national corporations would go to show off their new products. The auditorium also housed a Lutheran Church and the Afro Academy of Dramatic Arts.
The building that housed the Afro Academy of Dramatic Arts is highlighted in this photo from 1947. Courtesy of the Durham Museum Photo Archives.
The Afro-Academy, which opened in November of 1972, was a passion project of the Black Power Movement; it was not created to make money but was instead created to demonstrate African Americans’ pride in their culture and heritage. Harry Eure, one of the founders, wanted to make a space where African Americans could create and perform stories that transcended the racial barriers of the time. It was also a place where African Americans could find entertainment that related to them because at the time there were no movies or TV shows that could speak to African Americans on a personal level. One show that was like this was called “Who’s Got His Own?’’ which was about a black man who silently endured the harassment of his colleagues, which was a topic many African Americans could relate to. However, the Academy quickly outgrew the space on 24th and Ames and was moved to North 30th Street, where it stayed open for 4 more years. After the Academy left the building was demolished, and now all that’s left of the area is a vacant lot filled with grass and flowers.
King Solomon's Mines - 2425 Ames Ave.
This is what 2425 Ames Avenue looks like currently. The photo shows the entrance to the now-abandoned building.
Just judging solely from the appearance of this building, which stands at the corner of 24th Street and Ames Avenue, you would never be able to guess all of the history that it’s behind it. Today, it blends in with the surrounding, older buildings because of its faded red bricks. The paint that once was whitewashed, is now chipping off of its walls. Historically, the building was two floors, but the second floor has been demolished. East of the building is now a large open lot where businesses once stood. To the west, is a residential area. The entrance of the building is quite large with two doors connecting at the corner with a column.
This is a photo of the building from 1941 when it was still a grocery store. This picture was provided courtesy of the Durham Museum.
The structure was built in 1926 and housed multiple stores, including a revolving door of grocery stores owned by different franchises and also a radio and refrigeration repair shop. The New Crestwood Shop, a grocery store, opened its doors on November 18th, 1960, and included an expanded, more modern grocery store. E. E. Ashley, president of the Crestwood Realty Company, explained why he decided to move his store into the building, in the Omaha World-Herald: “Lots of supermarkets are being built in the west side of town. We think there’s a need for them elsewhere, too.” Then in 1965, the shop adapted into a Shaver’s Food Mart. It had many customers and soon became a popular spot to get groceries. However, due to a change in ownership that same year, the store was renamed Wead Food Mart. The grocery store closed down after four years of business in 1969, but the empty building was quickly filled by King Solomon’s Mines in 1970.
King Solomon’s was a well-liked club where local people could hear live music. Omaha’s famous musicians, like Vernon Garrett, as well as national acts, like Kool and the Gang, played on the King Solomon stage. This well-loved business was very important to the community of 24th and Ames. It was able to bring a large crowd of people and that promoted growth of the neighborhood. Having nationally recognized singers performing made the neighborhood come together and form somewhere where they could all be together and have fun. Sadly, King Solomon’s Mines was not able to last very long because of the many factors already leading to 24th and Ames’ downfall. Many of the wealthy people had left the community and went out west into suburban neighborhoods. With the fall in the North’s population and economy, King Solomon’s Mines could not stay open.
After King Solomon’s Mines came to a sudden close in 1972, Johnny Rodgers opened a teen center called Run, Johnny, Run. This was a place for teens to hang out with their friends and have food and non-alcoholic drinks, and dance. A teen club might not sound like something necessary for a neighborhood, but for 24th and Ames, local athlete Johnny Rodgers understood that it filled a need in the community. There were not many social outlets in North Omaha at the time and Rodgers hoped the center might provide a positive community outlet for young people and help keep them out of trouble. Unfortunately, not long after its opening, a shooting in the area changed a lot of people's views of the neighborhood, making it harder to get teens to come to Run, Johnny, Run. As a result, in 1973, the youth center closed. Currently, there are no businesses operating in this building. The latest use of the building was as a warehouse. The outside of the building might not at first look appealing, but with a little work put into it we know that 2425 Ames Avenue could be something special again.
This is a poster promoting the grand opening of King Solomon's Mines. The photo of the poster was provided courtesy of the Omaha World-Herald.
"It was extremely eye opening to talk and interview our elders and get stories first hand from them. It was amazing to spend part of my summer with people who are awesome and doing something I actually love. Over the course of time, I have changed in a sense that I don't feel afraid to speak up and I feel more open to listen to people's stories and encourage them to tell their story."
- Eva E.
"Omaha has definitely become a city I want to live in now. It has become a brighter place in my head since I can always look somewhere and know that it has a history. One day, I will go down 24th and Ames and think of what it could be with a little work. I may want to be a part of an architect firm and fix up South and North Omaha so it can be lively once again. MIHV has taken out the image of a boring city that has not been in anything important and transformed it into this beautiful place of history and wonder."
- Kaitlin K.
"MIHV was interactive and engaging, we actually got to go out into the community and visit places like our neighborhoods. We got to do research and learn hands-on. I got to learn a story and someone’s perspective that I never would've been able to without MIHV. In the end, I know that there are invisible histories all around me."
- Bailey P.
"The best part of this experience was getting to know the people around me. No one from my middle school is going to Central High but I ended up making friends with at least two others that are going with me, this program made me actually excited to go to high school. I learned many things that included talking about things keeps them alive."
- Wendy P.
"Something I have enjoyed doing during MIHV was getting out of UNO and seeing local businesses like Big Mama's Kitchen. Before starting this program I thought Omaha was a pretty below average city but now I know Omaha was really important that did things like make most of American meat and was a beacon of American pride and culture. This program gave me greater respect for the city and state I grew up in."
- Dylan S.
Youth-Driven Visions for the Future
Although the buildings are unoccupied the sidewalks are nice and even. There is a bus that runs through the neighborhood frequently. This shows potential for a business because it could bring in foot traffic and people from the bus that runs through many other neighborhoods meaning it would be easily accessible. I think it would be good to open a thrift shop where the North Star Theatre was because this area has the highest percentage of families at or below the poverty line. A thrift shop would be a good place for people to donate unwanted items and for others to find affordable clothes, dishes, and other essentials. I also feel a thrift shop would be a good idea because you wouldn't need much experience, so we could hire ex-convicts to give them a second chance and get them back up on their feet.
My mission and vision statement would be to bring life into the neighborhood by raising money for programs that will beautify the community and cleaning up the sidewalks so it's safer.
I want the people in my neighborhood to have the chance to rent a spot out of my building where they can sell a product or provide a service. With my business, people who haven’t had the opportunity to become an entrepreneur can have a small business but have a good or service to provide, will have an opportunity with this space. It will be less expensive than renting a stand-alone building and will help bring money back into the neighborhood.
I want the neighborhood to include a neighborhood pharmacy to help serve the community. In the past, the neighborhood had a pharmacy and it’s too bad that the service of filling the people’s basic needs is no longer there. The people now have to go further out of their neighborhood because they don’t have a pharmacy nearby and risk of getting more ill, so my idea would help them stay close by and not risk their health especially in the winter and with people coming to my business people are joined together as they used to be as my goal.
When I was in the neighborhood I saw people walking their pets, but there were no pet stores nearby making it so the people would have to drive out of the neighborhood to get their pets, along with their basic and essential needs. There are also no bike lanes making transportation somewhat limited, so by adding a pet store and bike lane we would be keeping the neighborhood pet and pedestrian-friendly, while also making sure people don't leave because they can't support their pets well being.
Research combined by Kaitlin K., Wendy P., Eva E., Dylan S., and Bailey P. Students who worked on the project will attend Bryan, Central, and South high schools in Omaha.