Sunday, August 21, 2011

Omaha, Day One

People in Minnesota are fond of defaming Omaha, Nebraska. If we lose the Vikings or the Twins because we don't build them a new stadium, they say, "We'll be nothing more than a cold Omaha."

I've always thought that was an odd comparison. The presence of the Vikings and the Twins doesn't have a lot to do with why I like the Twin Cities. So maybe I would like Omaha, too?

This week I am finding out.

Arriving somewhat late on a Sunday, I haven't seen much of it yet, but I can already tell it will have its share of lovely old hand-painted signs and classic commercial architecture.

I knew about Omaha's most famous resident, the tax-loving billionaire Warren Buffett, but somehow I didn't know that it's also home to ConAgra, one of the three agribusiness giants of America. (The other two are Minnesota's Cargill and Archer Daniels Midland, based in Decatur, Illinois.)

I've written before about the recently redesigned ConAgra logo, but there it was on the headquarters sign...

Red sign with white letters and logo for ConAgra's headquarters
... and embedded in the pavement, over 30 feet wide:

ConAgra smiley symbol in white within reddish pavement
Right next to the ConAgra headquarters is a large urban green space called Heartland of America Park. It's not my favorite city park, I'd have to say -- too cut off from where the people are. You have to walk down a bunch of stairs or ramps to get to it, and I felt kind of trapped down there, walking around an obviously man-made body of water.

Large fountain in the middle of a man-made lake
This fountain in the lake shoots water up to 300 feet into the air...a possible symbol of Omaha's inferiority complex?

The park, created in 1990, sits on a site that used to be full of "jobber" warehouses in close proximity to the Missouri River. Goods would arrive there and be stored for resale throughout the region. Jobbing was one of Omaha's three main industries (along with cattle stockyards and railroads). Unfortunately, the historic buildings were all torn down in a controversial decision by the city, capitulating to ConAgra's desire for a new headquarters. I get the feeling the park was a consolation prize.

A few blocks west of the park and the ConAgra headquarters is the Old Market Historic District, which is probably similar to what Jobber's Canyon was like: blocks of brick warehouses with huge windows, connected by brick streets. Nowadays, the remaining buildings are mostly loft apartments or restaurants, with a pretty good mix of boutique retailers and a few art galleries. It's a fun area to wander around in. It's full of flowers, and even on a quiet Sunday night, there were a few musicians and performers livening up the corners.

The most interesting place I've seen so far is Fairmont Antiques & Mercantile, in the Old Market area:

Sign reading Fairmont Antiques & Mercantile, Omaha's Ultimate Store - We're Famous
Its sign might sound like an exaggeration, but I'd have to say it's not. The building is part candy store (hundreds and hundreds of varieties), part soda fountain and, mostly, a mid-2oth-century collectible bazaar. Including a theater playing free movies, no kidding.

Pink Cadillac trunk full of metal radios
This pink Cadillac trunk was full of drive-in movie theater speakers.

One of the best things in the whole place was a huge collection of nonelectric pinball machines. At least, I think that's what they are.

Many colorful pinball machines on a wall
From the graphics, I would say they were from the 1930s and '40s.

More colorful pinball machines on a wall
Fairmont is the kind of store that's half museum; I got the feeling these weren't for sale.

Even more colorful pinball machines on a wall
Each one was worth studying, but there were so many of them!

Then, in an area that was marked employees-only, I saw a series of handmade buildings on top of a set of cabinets.

Handmade McDonald's building, circa 1965
Most were models of chain restaurants, like Dairy Queen or A&W, or this fun McDonald's.

White rootbeer stand building
But my favorite was Kurly's Root Beer; I would love to look at it up close. Folk art miniature buildings like these are so appealing to me. I've never understood why, but seeing them makes me indescribably happy.

Four black milk cans, each with one white letter spelling ANTI
Over the entrance to the Fairmont, the row of milk cans may have lost a few of its letters, but the remaining four make an amusing statement.

If the rest of Omaha is half as interesting as the Fairmont, it should be a good couple of days.


Blissed-Out Grandma said...

In the 1990s, CBS's Morley Safer called the Twin Cities a cold Omaha. He accepted an invitation to visit (spending time at a Saints game, among other things) and recanted. I thought that's where the expression originated, but MinnPost says Hubert Humphrey used it in the sense you mention, an argument for a stadium. It pops up in conversation, usually in jest.

Barbara said...

Welcome to the state of my birth! I had family in Omaha until, I think, the 80's.

May the rest of your visit continue to be interesting.

And if you get a chance, visit our state capital in Lincoln. According to my father, they built it in phases, with the money for each phase being raised FIRST. No debt. They are also the only state with a unicameral state legislature, which my father says was a financial decision also. We are apparently a frugal people, which didn't seem to stick with me when I was translated east.

Unemployed Dragon said...

I enjoyed this post, DN3. Omaha has held some fascination for me over the years as I've contemplated someday living in a smaller city. Omaha has been on my list, but I really don't know much about it. Thanks for adding to my knowledge!