Posts Tagged With: community

Reflections: 10 years of “Living Down North”

The end of October marks the 10th anniversary of my family’s time in Minne Lusa. As some of you know, I ain’t from around these here parts. The neighborhood where I grew up was nice, but it was no Minne Lusa. As a matter of fact, when my wife and I were looking for our first house to buy, we were surprised to find this place where we found it.

We moved in at the end of October in 2007. Our oldest son was less than three months old when we opened our front door for the first time. We have had ten years of life and memories in this house, in this neighborhood. As I try to process the idea that a decade has already passed, I’ve spent a good amount of time reflecting on what is the same and what is different.

Let me start with what feels the same. When my wife and I first moved into the neighborhood, we had just had our first son. We were trying to figure out how to be parents and we wanted a place that would be good for a young boy to grow and play in. Recently, after several years of trying to have a child without success, we have had a second son who is close in age at our tenth year to what our firstborn was in our first. We’re trying to remember how to be good parents. And we still want a neighborhood that is good for a young boy to grow and play in. When we first moved in, we relied on existing neighbors to help us feel at home in our community. Now, many of those same neighbors continue to make my family feel at home.

When we moved in, Minne Lusa was a neighborhood that had not yet fully realized its potential. Ten years later, that may still be true. We have made great strides in the last decade, but our real potential still remains unfulfilled. I’ve always had a vision of Minne Lusa being the community that starts to change unfair perceptions of large portions of North Omaha. I’ve always believed that we could be a local and national model for the transforming power of community. We’ve definitely taken good steps towards that, but we’re still waiting for that next level of neighbor participation. Major change will only happen with major involvement.

Many things have changed in the last 10 years, too. When we first moved in, Minne Lusa was a neighborhood without much of an identity. We had little to offer that would distinguish us from other Omaha neighborhoods. Now, we have a fairly effective brand that revolves around the kind of community that fuels Saturday Mornings at the Minne Lusa House, Trick-or-Treat on the Boo-levard, the incredibly fun Annual Golf Scramble, and the cheering section for the Omaha Marathon. Crime is down by almost 40% in the last 10 years and home values have risen significantly. We have been designated as an Historic District and have decorative signs installed on the Boulevard that welcome visitors and neighbors alike. We still haven’t solved the “Bad Landlord” issue, but we’ve improved the “Good Neighbor” ratio.

One of the biggest things to have changed in the last 10 years is that people aren’t surprised anymore when good things happen here. We’ve consistently worked hard to make those good things happen, to the extent that it is no longer unexpected to hear that this little North Omaha neighborhood is doing something awesome. In the first year or two of my time here, getting good press for Minne Lusa was like catching a unicorn. It was rare – virtually nonexistent. It was almost startling for people to see us in the press. Now, we’ve been in the news, locally and regionally, enough times that people aren’t  surprised anymore. That may not seem as exciting to you, but let me tell you, it’s an awesome thing. We’re a long way off from where we as a community have a vision to be, but we are a long, long way away from where we were 10 years ago.

There are a lot of emotions tied to my family’s decade in this house, in this community. This place and these people mean more to me than any of them know. The creaks in my steps, the cracks in my walls, the smell of the leaves on the sidewalks – all of these things and a hundred others have become a part of me in a way I never expected. I don’t know where I’ll be in another decade. I can hardly prepare for the coming week because life moves so fast. I can only hope that 10 years from now, I’ll be able to sit down again and look at how much Minne Lusa has continued to change and how much it has continued to stay the same.

I talk a lot about my experiences in Minne Lusa, but I’d love to hear your observations about the last decade in Minne Lusa or your vision for the next one. You can email me at mattgetsemail@yahoo.com or message me at http://www.facebook.com/MinneLusa.

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The “Versus” Mentality

https://chewychunks.files.wordpress.com/2015/05/image039.png?w=650&h=199Many of you know that I moderate a Facebook page for Minne Lusa Historic District. For what space it takes up in the vast landscape of social media, I believe it has been a good vehicle to spread the good word about our awesome little community. As a matter of fact, several current and future neighbors have chosen to live in Minne Lusa based, in part, on the sense of community they have seen among neighbors on our page. That’s really cool. One of my favorite things is getting a message from someone who is considering moving to the area and who wants more information about it. I would say that I get about one every other month. They don’t always pan out, but it’s a great opportunity for me to give people another perspective about this North Omaha neighborhood that they likely won’t get elsewhere. So, generally I love getting these messages.

This is a story about one I didn’t enjoy getting. Before you read any more, you should know that I initially reacted out of emotion and posted on the Facebook page portions of the message I received from this person (You can see the post and the pursuant conversations it started here). I made my response to her public in a rather scolding way. I wish I had given myself some time to respond with a little more wisdom. Hopefully, you will be able to use more wisdom than I did when you decide how you feel about it.

Minne Lusa had recently been nominated as a finalist for the Neighborhood of the Year Award given annually by Neighborhoods USA, a national organization dedicated to improving and empowering neighborhoods. We were contacted by a potential home buyer who had read the article and was interested in the neighborhood. She stated she and her husband were looking for a neighborhood to raise their children. Naturally she was interested in someplace that was safe. Got it. Totally understand the concern. I’ve answered the “Is Minne Lusa a safe place?” question about 2 dozen times. I was ready to answer it again. But the way she phrased the question made my stomach drop and my body temp rise. Her words were, “We want to make sure we raise our boys in a safe place where they can play outside. So what’s the ratio of white vs black who live in the neighborhood [sic]?”  *OK, deep breath* It still gets me riled that the question was asked this way. Want a safe place for kids? Got it. As a dad, I’m right there with you. But then, the ratio question with those two telling letters right in the middle. “VS“.

Now we’re having a completely different conversation. The question was posed in a way that suggested that “a safe place” was somehow quantifiable by a kind of Racial Ratio. To be fair, she never stated what magic number on either side of the equation was enough to call it “safe”. But the idea was clear. “I believe my safety is based on the race of people around me.” This is a hard idea for me to get behind, because I have raised my boys in a neighborhood where their positive influences have come from both white and black people. But the part of the question that stuck in my brain like a toothpick was the “vs”. Versus. White versus black. My response to her question about the ratio of white vs black was “. . . . Um . . . . Zero. There is no ratio of ‘white vs black’ here. We have white people, and we have black people. We have lots of white + black. We have some white & black. But vs? Nope there’s no ‘vs’ here. Ma’am, whatever ratio you are looking for to equate ‘good, safe place’ with doesn’t compute.” I stand behind that sentiment. I can’t abide the idea that someone would look at my black neighbors (who are exceptionally wonderful neighbors) and assume that there’s some risk. Versus! I couldn’t think for a second about being “versus” Katie and Ralph who live next door! Why would anyone be “versus” them?

Later in the post, however, I told her that if she was going to think about things that way, that she should go live somewhere else. I was essentially shaking my digital fist at her in a sentiment that sounds awfully like the ideas I was passionately decrying. “Go on! We don’t need yer kind aroun’ here!” After taking many days to think over my response, I wish that I had done things differently. I’m not really sure what I should have done. I just haven’t been able to shake the feeling that I was being as closed off as the mentality I was railing against.

I think that a different kind of conversation needs to be had. If I don’t want the “Versus” mentality to be a part of this community, then I can’t carry it along myself. But how do I combat these issues without myself being combative? I would love to hear your thoughtful responses about ways we can eliminate the “Versus” mentality in our communities. Let me know what your thoughts are by emailing me at mattgetsemail@yahoo.com or by messaging me on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/MinneLusa.

In the mean time, check out this amazing game / blog post that helps shed a little more light on the idea of equating racial equity with “a good place to live”. It’s enlightening!
https://i2.wp.com/vihart.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/12/parable-624x309.png

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Does Minne Lusa have Middle-Child Syndrome?

middleFull disclosure: I’m a middle child. Sometimes it feels like it takes a middle child to notice one. For those of you who don’t know what middle-child syndrome is or who roll your eyes when it’s mentioned, you must be firstborns or only children. Middle-child syndrome is real . . . so real.

I remember the first time I recognized that another person fell in the same birth order as myself. I was in 8th grade and was listening to a kid try to tell a story to one of his teachers. She got distracted with someone else for a minute and he just gave up in the middle of his sentence and worked on something else like he had never even been talking. “Oh my gosh! I do that same thing!” I thought. It’s a symptom of competing for attention. You see, we middle-children aren’t groomed to be the overachieving leaders like firstborns. We aren’t doted on like the baby of the family. We often are unsure of our own role in the family. We tend to gravitate to creative outlets to find our identity.

OK, so enough with Psychology 101. I hear you wondering what all this has to do with Minne Lusa. I figured out the other day why I’ve always had such a soft spot for my neighborhood – aside from all the wonderful people and great houses, that is. I realized that, right now, Minne Lusa plays a middle-child role in the Omaha family. We’re not among the really notable “firstborn” neighborhoods that get most of the grooming and are expected to lead the way. And we’re not the baby neighborhoods out West that get doted on just because they’re young. For a long time, Minne Lusa has been unsure of its role in the big picture. We’re socially in the middle between a heavily white part of town and a heavily black part of town. We’re economically in the middle of a business district on 30th & Ames and one at 30th & State. Both sides look at us as belonging to the other side, neither one really identifying with us. We don’t own much of the popular history of Omaha, but we own more history than some people are comfortable with. If all of the neighborhoods in Omaha were family members at Thanksgiving, we’d get stuck sitting with Weird Aunt Harriett and the two cousins who wear cowboy boots and pajamas to everything.

Like a true middle child, however, Minne Lusa has crafted our own identity and grown more confident in it every year. We realized that we didn’t want to be exactly like any of our sibling communities. We feel free to pick and choose the aspects of our identity that make sense for us. It’s actually quite liberating.

Another way that I see Minne Lusa identifying with a middle-child role is our ability to connect to people and our appreciation for creativity. This is quickly becoming our reputation around town. We are open and creative and welcoming and non-judgemental. That’s no small thing. The middle-child isn’t bent to become a CEO. They’re more likely to invent the next trendy drink and invite friends over to try it out. They see people and can relate in the way that only a person – or a neighborhood – in the middle can.

These days, it seems like we need more folks in the middle. Less extreme, less volatile, and more able to relate. We need someone between the racially and economically segregated. People want a place where there is encouragement without judgement, where they can be a part of something without having to be artificial. Minne Lusa has that in spades, and I have to believe that maybe that comes from being in the middle.

I’d love to hear about how you see Minne Lusa in relation to your own birth order personalities. Feel free to email me here or just find me on Facebook.

Not sure if your personality matches up with your birth order? Take a quick quiz HERE to find out.

Fun fact: 52% of all US Presidents have been a middle child! Also, I was going to try to find some cute video to tag on the end here like I sometimes do, but no one has made a good video about being a middle child. Go figure.

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Another Pleasant Valley Sunday

2014 House Projects 002

Like me, my house is always a work in progress.

“I’m the one with the scaffolding.”
That’s a strange way to introduce oneself, but I find it’s one of the most effective when meeting someone from the neighborhood. I’ve been progressively working on the outside of my house for quite some time and had scaffolding on the side of my house for almost 2 full years. People from the neighborhood recognize that and can immediately place where I live. Once they recognize the reference, it’s almost like we’re already friends. They smile and give  the whole “Ah Ha!” nod.

I’ve never had anyone in the neighborhood complain about the scaffolding even though I know people hope my project will eventually find its end. On the other hand, I was talking with a realtor about a neighborhood where the houses are a little more . . . alike. She mentioned that one of the houses had started a landscaping project that had taken a while to finish and neighbors were beginning to get upset. She said that in some places, people don’t mind different as long as it’s all the same kind of different. Landscaping was OK as long as it looks mostly like everyone else’s landscaping. boring

The whole rest of that conversation seemed to follow that same line of thinking. Cars, paint colors, even dogs . . . neighbors seemed to want a certain level of uniformity. It made me think of one of my favorite songs from The Monkees – “Pleasant Valley Sunday”. I remember listening to that song when I was young and feeling like there was a sense of comfort about the neighborhood they sang about. Then I got older and could see the irony underlining the words.

“Rows of houses that are all the same . . . and no one seems to care.”

There’s a scene in Tim Burton’s “Edward Scissorhands” that shows this idea with all the subtle sarcasm that Burton is known for. It’s a scene I often relate to where the titular character is being driven through one of these suburban style “all the same” neighborhoods. There’s families and kids and cars that all look perfectly identical which makes the macabre nature of Edward so evident in contrast. Sometimes I feel like Edward when I drive through some of these places.

About the neighborhood I was discussing with the realtor, she felt it was kind of eerie, but I can almost understand the idea. We’re comfortable with what we know. The problem with neighborhoods where the houses are all the same is that the people living inside them are all vastly different. The homogeneity of some neighborhoods seems to be a shelled attempt to believe that we are all the same. “My neighbor is the same as me so I am safe.” This leads to a form of dishonesty about ourselves and about the people we live near. And as any 6 year old can tell you, dishonesty leads to a need to hide. Kids hide under their beds after they are dishonest. Neighbors hide behind privacy fences and garage doors.

One of the great things about Minne Lusa, and neighborhoods like it, is our honesty. Neighbors here are who they are. There is no pretending to be something we are not. Our houses aren’t so perfect that we immediately notice the one house on the block who still needs a paint job. We all have things we need to work on. We encourage each other and are genuinely glad when one us is able to afford a new roof or to put in some landscaping. We don’t hide behind privacy fences. We sit on the porch and wave to each other. We share coffee and ideas. We are not all the same, and we like that. We are not Pleasant Valley, but we are Minne Lusa and we are proud if it.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wAsBta25OGQ?rel=0&w=560&h=315

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Confessions of a Good Neighbor Gone Bad

I became a bad neighbor today. I’m not proud of it.

There’s no “confessional” for neighborly sins, so to speak, so I’m just gonna confess to you all instead. Judge me or don’t, I just need to get it off my chest.

An ambulance has just pulled away from a house up the street from me. I stood at my kitchen window gawking almost from the time the first firetruck pulled up. I don’t know what happened to the individual. Frankly, I don’t even know the person who lives there. The house has been in rough shape for years. I’ve heard other neighbors say the person is a hoarder. ambulance

Here’s where my neighborly sin happened. Instead of standing at my window hoping and praying for the best, I gave into a thought that went something like this: “Hey, maybe they’ll have to give up the house to someone who will take better care of it.”

That thought played out in my head for a minute or two before the sickness of it dawned on me. The house?! I’m watching a neighbor get wheeled out on a gurney, unsure whether they are even alive, and I’m thinking about paint colors and landscaping?! I felt like I turned about as green as my kitchen walls. I have always wanted what was best for the neighborhood. I love seeing people rescue these adorable bungalows and bring new life to the street. Somewhere in my head, that was the justification for my terrible thought process. I just wanted to see the house improved for the good of the neighborhood, right?

One of the core ideals in Minne Lusa has always been, “If you want a better neighborhood, be a better neighbor.” Tonight, I perverted that into, “If you want a better neighborhood, hope for a better neighbor.” Wrong, wrong, wrong, WRONG, WRONG!

Here’s where I went wrong. First, human life, especially that of a neighbor, should always be priority. I should have been concerned with the well-being of my neighbor, not their house. Second, I should know my neighbors. I’ve never so much as knocked on that door to say hello and tell them my name. Good neighbors are friendly and outgoing. Maybe that person wouldn’t have opened their door or wanted to hear my name. But I should have tried. Third, if I am concerned about the condition of the house, I have had plenty of Saturdays or Tuesdays or whatever to stop by and say, “Hey, I’m offering my time to the neighborhood today. Is there any work I can do for you as a neighbor? Gutters? Painting? Yardwork?”

“Be a better neighbor. Be a better neighbor. Be a better neighbor.” This keeps running through my head tonight. “But I have other commitments that take up my time!” “Be a better neighbor.” “But what if they think I’m a weirdo for offering?” “Be a better neighbor.” “But . . .but . . ” “BE A BETTER NEIGHBOR!”

If my confession can do anything for you, let it be this. Let it be a reminder to you that a neighborhood, this neighborhood, is made of people, not houses. Whether a house is pretty on the outside is less important than the neighbor living on the inside. Minne Lusa is a communitywonderful community. People love living here . . . because of the people. There are other neighborhoods in Omaha with bungalows. There are other old houses to buy. There is a whole network of boulevards surrounded by old homes with charm. What sets Minne Lusa apart from all of them is the PEOPLE. When those people become less important than the houses they live in, our community will start to fade and we will become no different from the beige plywood wonderlands of other communities where people tend to live rather isolated lives in their covenant-governed paint schemes.

Confessions mean nothing without a change in actions. So, with that in mind, I will be trying to connect with my neighbors throughout the summer. I will be introducing myself. Stopping for occasional chats on front porches. I’ll sacrifice an hour or two on a Saturday to do some raking or haul some trash. I want a better neighborhood, so I will be a better neighbor.

I hope you will, too!

PS. I’m feeling a little exposed and vulnerable after this confession. Help me feel better by letting me know your neighbor experiences in the comments. What have you done well? what would you do differently?

 

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Talking Dirty in Minne Lusa

I remember my first experience uttering a foul 4-letter word.

I went to a small private school staffed with teachers that rivaled the nuns of many old Catholic schools when it came to pure rigidity. These teachers (who truly did care for me) taught me the meaning of a “healthy fear.” One incident has always stood out to me – the day I said the “S” word.

My older brother tended to hang out with kids who were most comfortable standing on the other side of the moral fence and throwing rocks at all the goodie-goodies who were too chicken to follow. It was by listening to these kids that I learned the proper usage and context for the “S” word. I carried that knowledge in to my first grade classroom one sunny day towards the end of the schoolyear. I had spent the majority of the afternoon sending my imagination into orbit while my eyes glazed over and my math paper sat unfinished.

My first grade teacher sternly called my attention back to the room. “Son, you’re going to stay after school until you finish that entire math paper!”

What?! No way! It was like 75° outside! My frustrated panic came bubbling out faster than my 7 year old brain could process. “Bull $#!+ I will!” I exclaimed like a little sailor. That day, my mother told my principal to wash out my mouth with soap. I could hear her over the phone.

I never grew up to be the swearing type, because that day I learned that some words are just going to offend people. Some words are just not acceptable in polite company. And that seems to carry over to neighborhoods as well; only, here, the bad word has more than 4 letters.

I’m gonna tell you what it is, ok? Don’t freak out. The bad word for a neighborhood is . . . gentrification! *GASP!*

Ok, so it doesn’t create a visceral reaction like some of the snappier 4 letter words, but it still offends many people. Here’s why: gentrification is a term that, according to Webster, means “the process of renewal and rebuilding accompanying the influx of middle-class or affluent people into deteriorating areas that often displaces poorer residents.” Basically, old neighborhoods revive as new residents and developers move in, and existing residents can’t afford to keep living there.

Your feelings about gentrification will largely depend on which side of the transition you experience. The prevailing feeling is that as these outside people move in, previous residents feel pushed out, discriminated against, or isolated due to their race or economic status. The other side of the argument states that gentrification brings lower crime rates and more economic stability. The truth probably lies somewhere in between.

Documented cases of broad and rapid gentrification in cities like New York and San Fransisco highlight the devastating impact to honest hardworking families who have relied on their affordable rent in order to make ends meet. Many cultural scars remain in parts of Brooklyn and the Bronx where rent prices exploded in the 80’s and 90’s as developers intentionally pushed people out of their homes in order to buy low and sell high. San Fransisco is experiencing much of the same problem right now in areas of town that have been historically multi-cultural, blue-collar communities. The increased rent prices virtually guarantee that the existing families have to leave or go broke. This leaves buildings vacant and ripe for developers to renovate.

“So isn’t that what is happening in Minne Lusa?” my wife asks me. That’s a legit question. So what exactly is happening in Minne Lusa? Are we experiencing gentrification, good or bad? I don’t think so. Let me clarify.

Gentrification is the effect of outside development and culture pouring money in to essentially change the culture of an area. It is outside pressure.

Revitalization, on the other hand, is the effect of the existing culture and residents investing time and effort into improving what already exists. It is not a changing of the culture. It is an activation of the culture. This is what is happening in Minne Lusa. Are we attracting new homeowners? Yes. But the new homeowners are moving in because they want to be part of the community that already exists here. IMG_0645We are still attracting neighbors from across the socioeconomic spectrum. We are appealing to all races and economic groups, all religions and political persuasions.

So for all of you who fear hearing that dirty word – “gentrification” – rest assured that the word you should be hearing and saying is “revitalization.” Home values are rising. Investment is beginning. Our reputation is improving. But these are all happening because of us, because we are making it happen. No developer is imposing their view of what Minne Lusa “should be,” because we already know what it should be. Anyone coming here is doing so because we already have our identity.

Minne Lusa will continue to improve over the upcoming years. But I can promise you that you will recognize it. It will not become something else.  It will be exactly what is has always been – a welcome home for everyone who wants to be part of a diverse community.

Now for the goodies:

Check out our fundraising campaign to get signage that will help welcome people to Minne Lusa.
Please, consider giving at least $5 per month for the next 5 months.

sign

Click Here to Check Out Our Fundraiser

Also, here’s a quick chart showing the impact our Historic District designation has had on home prices. The real takeaway is watching that bottom tier of prices jump up. This effectively eliminates many of the slumlords who snatch up bottom tier homes and do the minimum amount of work before trying to get families to live in them.

Restore2015Graph outlines-page-001

And finally, SNL takes a stab at the gentrification of Brooklyn. (Funny, but beware some salty language.)

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The Power of One

powerof1

OK, everybody, this is one I’ve been waiting to write for a while.

My name is Matt. I am just one guy. In the scope of the hundreds of homes in Minne Lusa, I represent just one house. I am a dad. I am a husband. I have a mediocre job in a grey box looking at a computer all day. I will not save North Omaha. I will not transform Minne Lusa.

But I try. I try to be the one to transform Minne Lusa. I try to change people’s opinions of North Omaha. I try to convince organic food stores and hardware retailers to set up shop here. I try to encourage neighbors to advocate for where they live. I try to make a difference.

But why? Well, let me tell you a little story about my experience with neighborhood transformations.

Almost my entire life, I lived in a house near Hanscom Park. My parents still live there. They bought the house on 33rd street because it had a big yard, was close to my grandparents, and was very inexpensive. The neighborhood was a collection of white foursquares filled with ancient neighbors who had all vowed to live forever I think. The neighborhood was mostly quiet since most of the old folks had gotten their partying out of their systems back in the Roaring Twenties. But it wasn’t all quiet. At the top of the hill, at the end of the alley that ran behind our home, there sat a conspicuously blue house. The house stood out for more than just its color, though. The house was inhabited by a family we’ll call the “Smiths.” They contributed . . . a very different flavor to the neighborhood. They had a large, loud, smelly St. Bernard named Nard. The poor mangy beast was chained to his doghouse with a tow chain and would lunge out to the full extent of it anytime an unsuspecting kid rode by on his bike. The police paid frequent visits to the house – sometimes to break up a fight, sometimes to return one of the kids who had been caught doing something naughty like shoplifting or pointing a loaded gun at someone. One time they came to collect the meth lab from the basement. It wasn’t long after that we watched the “Smiths” move out.

Then something happened that changed my neighborhood. Another family bought the house. They were quiet, hardworking people who did what they could to fix up the damage done to it by the “Smiths.” They were not activists. They did not initiate programs or install landscape features. They just were decent people. So how did this event change my neighborhood? Because suddenly, when one of the houses in the neighborhood went up for sale, the blue house didn’t chase anyone away. Someone would buy it. One by one, the old neighbors were replaced by new ones. Young families with kids (lots of kids actually) started moving into the homes that were no longer bothered by the blue house. The new families did work to the homes. They sent their kids outside to play together. They started an annual block party. A community sprouted up on the street.

All it took was one house. One family moved out. One family moved in. It was a simple, logical change. But it made all the difference in the world. It wasn’t immediate and it wasn’t sensational. However, I learned something from watching it all unfold. I learned that one house, one guy working a mediocre job, one boring change can alter the fabric of a neighborhood. I decided then that I wanted to be that guy. I wanted to be the person that would move into a neighborhood and contribute to a change.

I want to tell you what this boring dad/husband/quasi-lawn-enthusiast has done. I’ve developed a marketing idea for Minne Lusa by creating logo work, fonts, and brochures that were handed out to realtors. I helped encourage some of the ideas that have turned into Trick-or-Treat on the Boo-levard, one of Minne Lusa’s biggest events of the year. I started the push for Minne Lusa to be designated as an Historic District. Now, before you start to get turned off by all my horn tooting, understand that I point these things out to you only to say this: if I can do it, you can do it better. I realized as I worked on these projects that I had the help of other passionate neighbors who have done their own incredible things for the neighborhood. I was not alone in any project that I undertook. As a matter of fact, many times, all I did was say, “hey, I think I wanna try to do this.” Then people would come alongside me and pick up huge portions of the work. I never really did any of the projects by myself.

Communities like Minne Lusa are hungry for awesome things to happen. We already have a network of neighbors who are ready and willing to jump on board with new initiatives. Do not – I repeat DO NOT – underestimate the power of one person with an idea or a desire to make something better. You absolutely can make a difference here or wherever you are. You don’t have to sacrifice huge amounts of your time. You don’t have to shell out huge amounts of cash. If you are sincere about wanting to make a difference, start just by talking to someone about it. Write a letter to a store or your city council person asking for the change you want to see. Post your idea or question to the Minne Lusa Historic District Facebook page. Stop by for a cup of coffee on Saturday mornings at the Minne Lusa House and talk to some folks who would love to hear about your idea.

You’re just one person. You might even have a boring job. People might wonder what you hope to accomplish since you’re just one person. But so am I. And that makes us two. Start something, and you’ll realize how powerful one can be.

 

P.S.  Spend a quick 3 minutes watching this video to get a quick breakdown of the real “Power of One”

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Well, There Goes the Neighborhood!

December: “Honey, I was going to ask you, I don’t think I’ve seen Russel at his house lately, have you?”
“Hmmmm, not that I can remember. When was the last time you think he was there?”
“Must have been when we talked after Thanksgiving. I haven’t even seen his car in the driveway.”

January: “Glad you’re home! I saw Russel carrying stuff out of his house with his brother today. He must be moving out.”
“Really? He never said he was moving. I wonder if he’s losing the house.”

March: “Well, I found out that the side door had the window broken out. I put some plywood in the window and found the foreclosure notice on the front door. Apparently, the bank has taken possession of the house.”
“How much do you think they’ll sell it for?”Image
“I can’t imagine it’ll be very much. The house is in kinda rough shape. I just hope a slumlord doesn’t get it.”

April:“Hey, honey, I just found out that Russel’s house is listed for $26,000.”
“What? That’s super cheap!”
“I know, that’s what I’m afraid of. I just hope a good family gets it, you know?”

May: “Well, Russel’s house sold, I think.”
“Do you know who it went to?”
“Yeah the person who bought it is . . . ”

You ever had this conversation? This is a real conversation that my wife and I have been having for the last few months. It is such a precarious feeling when a house in the neighborhood goes through a transition like this. I’m sure a lot of you have been through similar situations and the last line has been finished with everything from “a really great young couple” to “some scummy landlord in a Mercedes.”

For as organized and separated as neighborhoods can look – being divided by yards and property lines, driveways and telephone poles – each house and the families inside it is connected to the others around it. A neighborhood is almost a single living organism made up of smaller living organisms. In it’s best version, it’s like a beehive or an ant colony with each member contributing to the well-being of the others. In its worst version, it is full of gaps and rot where members have left and problems have moved in.

How do we, as a neighborhood, deal with something like this? What should we do as good neighbors to preserve our home? I tend to organize and categorize things to help me deal with problems. I need to make them linear. Here’s how I break it down for myself.  Maybe it will help you, too.

I look at neighbors, first, in two main categories: renters and owners. It’s an important distinction that can tell you a lot about what to expect. *Disclaimer: At no time ever in the history of ever never ever should anyone assume one is better for the neighborhood than the other.* Some neighbors are quick to write off renters as generally problematic. This is a dangerous assumption. Renters can be some of a neighborhood’s best neighbors. I have found, in my personal experience, that if a rental house is problematic, it is almost, very very almost always the landlord’s fault. A good landlord cares about the well-being of his/her investment and will make sure to perform due-diligence in getting a good neighbor in it. They will keep up the property and respond to complaints or concerns from neighbors. A good landlord will even remove a problematic tenant if need be. A problematic owner, however, is under no obligation to go anywhere. So be careful about assuming that an owner is always better.

The second distinction I use (after renter/owner) is contributor, neutral, or detractor. This category is tricky, because we have a tendency to notice the negative long before we notice the positive. This is a very important role to figure out. Contributors are the ones that interact with neighborhood kids that might seem like trouble. They keep their own yard tidy and are mindful of litter and dropped branches Imagein their area. They don’t hesitate to have conversations with neighbors they haven’t met. Sometimes they attend neighborhood meetings or volunteer for events. These are the ones that hold onto the ideal that I refer to so often: “If you want a better neighborhood, be a better neighbor.” Neutral neighbors tend to be the biggest category. These are the ones who work hard to support their families. They are polite when approached but are content to hang out in the backyard with their privacy fence. Neutral neighbors are solid, beneficial neighbors to have. One Neutral neighbor might be a die hard Minne-Lusa-for-life, I’m never going anywhere kind. The next might be just as likely to move out west if a good deal pops up. These are your standard American neighbor. There’s a pretty good chance they own a pick-up. And then there’s the Detractors. These are the one’s we all know. They are actually the smallest group, but they make the biggest impression. They don’t care how long it’s been since they took care of their lawn because cut grass is for hoity-toity people. They are more likely to park on their grass than they are to cut it. You might find old furniture outside. There’s usually a window or two that are covered with cardboard. They like to party and to party late. They honk horns in the driveway, don’t return waves, will scream at an ex-Imagelover in the yard at 11:30PM, and often have a faint cat-like musk coming from somewhere on the property. Or their house might look just like a Neutral’s house, but they will be just unpleasant. Yeah, you know that guy. House is upkept, but he’s been pickled. He’s all sour and salty and prefers to stay in his jar all by himself.

Ok, so now that we have our categories, how do we address a situation when a property turns over? How do you use this new knowledge of the different types of neighbors to make the best of what might happen to that house across the street that just sold?

Here’s the key. This is what you do. You find out which category you belong in. Figure out what kind of neighbor you are because it’s the only dog-gone thing you can control. Will you be a good neighbor to whoever moves in? Or will you be invisible to them? Or will you be the one who makes them say, “Well, there goes the neighborhood” ?

And then there’s this, just for fun:

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Preserving Food, Preserving Community

I walk into the kitchen and pour myself a cup of coffee. I spread some “blubarb” jam on one of the hot biscuits from the counter. Snuggling down into my favorite armchair in the front room, I look out the door to see a couple of my neighbors talking on the porch. It’s Saturday morning, and this is home. But I don’t live here. In fact, no one lives here. Yet, home it is – to many neighbors on several streets and friends from all over town. I’m at the Minne Lusa House.MLH Before and After

“It’s funny, I used to deliver mail to this house,” says Beth Richards. “Yeah, but it didn’t look like this then,” says Sharon Olson from behind the kitchen counter. Beth and Sharon are the two women who started the Minne Lusa House. Beth was the mail carrier for the Minne Lusa neighborhood for many years and fell in love with the people and the homes. Sharon grew up in the neighborhood. They have both been heavily involved in many of the exciting things that have taken place in this reemerging historic neighborhood. “We wanted to teach people how to can their own food. It’s becoming trendy again, but for a while it was almost a lost practice.”

Beth and Sharon offer classes to ancansyone interested in learning how to can food or make preserves. They will teach you how to make peach salsa or pickled okra or the wildly popular “Frog Balls” – which are basically pickled Brussels sprouts. “Everyone loves the Frog Balls.” says Beth holding a jar. “We can hardly make them fast enough. It’s gotta be the name, because who ever heard of someone selling out of pickled Brussels sprouts?” Most of the food that they use for their recipes is grown in their very own gardens which is part of their goal of making locally sourced food. They share samples of everything they make at the Saturday Morning Brew. Every Saturday, the Minne Lusa House is open to whomever stops by. Coffee is always going, and so is conversation. Neighbors, friends, and people from all parts of town come when they can and leave when they want. Formally, the house is open from 9:00AM to noon, though many people linger into the afternoon if the conversation is good enough. This sense of home is part of the charm that has attracted the World Herald, Edible Omaha, and other publications to feature stories on the House.

peopleThe Minne Lusa House opens its oak front door to small groups wanting someplace to meet and discuss local issues. It has hosted the mayor, city councilmen, the chief of police, as well as crafting groups, church groups, and others. This little bungalow in the heart of a bungalow district may not by its appearance tell you that it is a developing influence in the community. Yet, if you simply walk up and down Mary Street where the Minne Lusa house is located, you will see nearby houses that have begun to show signs of improvement spurred on by the resurrection of 2737. Neighbors have met each other at the Saturday Morning Brew and developed relationships. People who grew up in the neighborhood have returned to befriend current residents. New neighbors have moved into the area from Dundee, Gifford Park, Florence, and even West Omaha. The area has started to gain interest to employees from Creighton, Union Pacific, and Mutual of Omaha. The interest in the neighborhood stems predominantly from the work of the Minne Lusa House and the ladies who run it. Minne Lusa’s popular Trick-or-Treat on the Boo-levard which draws families from all over the city is sponsored and staffed by volunteers from the Minne Lusa House. It’s often hard to measure the impact an individual or single organization has on an area, but it is fairly easy in this case to understand the value Beth and Sharon and the others at the House have brought to this community. Sharon politely deflects any suggestions that she has played such an influential role, “Well, I’ve just got the time to do what hopefully most people in this neighborhood would do if they could. It’s really hard to say I’ve done much on my own. Most of this has been done by volunteers in the area. I guess we’re kind of the vehicle people are choosing to use. They just needed us to make the vehicle available.”

A considerable portion of the notoriety the area has received lately is due to the networking efforts of the House. Since the Minne Lusa House makes locally grown foods, it has connected with other groups locally who do the same: Big Muddy Urban Farm, No More Empty Pots, etc. It has been featured at the Omaha Farmers Market, the Gifford Park Farmers Market, and the Florence Mill Market. Every March, the ladies load up sample jars and tablecloths and set up a booth at the Restore Omaha Conference hosted by MCC at the South Omaha Campus. This relationship with the Restore Omaha conference has even enabled Beth and Sharon to campaign for a Historic Walking Tour of the homes on Florence Boulevard to take place in Autumn of 2014. This Restore Omaha event will draw old-home enthusiasts from all over the metro area to a neighborhood that has largely been overlooked for a long time. Whether it be locally sourced food, preservation of history, or development of community spirit, the Minne Lusa House has been a leading force in bringing refreshed interest to the community around it.

porch ladies“We thought, ‘What can we do to bring people together?’ ” says Sharon in her interview with Edible Omaha Magazine1. “People like to eat. They like to learn.” Certainly, if there was ever evidence to be found that the way to the heart is through the stomach, the Minne Lusa House may just be it. As I walk down the terra cotta colored steps to leave the House, another adage comes to mind. “Home is where the heart is.” Maybe the Minne Lusa House feels so much like home to everyone in the community because so many people have put their hearts into it.

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More than Porch Ladies

I grew up in the Hanscom Park neighborhood in Omaha on a street full of neighbors who had lived there together for 173 years it seemed. These neighbors apparently were immortal and had been around since before the invention of the brick. They were telepathically linked and could summon fruits and vegetables from the ground at will and could deliver information to my mother about what I was doing before I was done doing it. I couldn’t get away with anything. It was a mystical (and sometimes frustrating) place to grow up.

I recently read an article on the Facebook page for “I Survived South Omaha.” (It’s a good read so check it out here.) The writer talks about her experience growing up in a South Omaha neighborhood and how it was shaped by her “Porch Ladies.”

South Omaha Porch Lady

Greta Smolski on her porch in South Omaha ca. 1945

In the post, the writer, Janice Golka talks about her upbringing in the south Omaha neighborhood where she grew up on 50th Street. She talked about how the women in her neighborhood were always outside on the porch or hanging out laundry. She lamented the loss of one of the women in her neighborhood and talked about how this treasured part of her childhood is becoming a thing of the past and is fading away.

The article is touching. I related heavily to it. I, too, felt the lament for the loss of this part of a neighborhood. I thought about how my own son would miss out on this memory. I got a little depressed. “What’s the world coming to? Where have all the Porch Ladies gone?” I asked with my fists shaking to the sky.

Then the clouds parted, and I had an epiphany. My son lives in a neighborhood full of Porch Ladies. No they don’t sit on a porch all day. No they don’t gossip over the back yard fence. But there is a real network of neighbors in Minne Lusa that knows, cares about, and watches out for my son.

As my son and I take walks or play in the yard, he regularly waves to Miss Beth or Miss Diane. He stops to talk to Miss Roz or Miss Eileen. He’s been to movie night twice with ladies from the neighborhood. He blows bubbles with Pastor Liz and bumps fists with Pastor John.

Sharon and Beth at the Minne Lusa House

Sharon and Beth at the Minne Lusa House – photo credit to Ariel Fried and Edible Omaha Magazine

At the Minne Lusa House, my son has a drawing of Miss Sharon on the refrigerator. Miss Sonja waves every time she walks by with her dog. Liam knows Miss Shelly delivers the mail about the same time every day and he can run over to her house any time he wants a popsicle.  Miss Katie and Mister Ralph, Mister Vern, Mister Nick and Miss Debbie, Miss Amanda, and the list continues.

There are many more adults in the neighborhood who know my son, “Thirsty” as they call him. I feel pride and security knowing that my son will grow up with a sense of neighborhood, of community. He will know that he can trust his neighbors and that he is part of a group of people that extends outside his own door. He lives in a place where people do things for each other, socialize together, look out for one another.

Now when I read the post about the loss of the Porch Ladies or the death of the idea that there are people looking out for each other, I don’t feel the lament myself. I feel like, “Man, people should move here. This is where all the Porch Ladies are.” I know that when Liam/Thirsty, who is 5, grows up to be 10 . . . 13 . . . 16 . . .I will know what he’s been doing before he’s finished doing it. He will look back at Minne Lusa as a mystical (and probably sometimes frustrating) place to grow up. And I’m OK with that.

Thank you, Minne Lusa. I owe you one!

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