North Omaha’s The Union seeks to unite

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August 22nd, 2012

Omaha, NE – We continue our series on the growing arts scene in North Omaha today with a closer look at a community-based art project planned for the area. One of Omaha’s newest arts organizations is looking to make a new home in one of the neighborhood’s most historic buildings.

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“So this is our building,” laughed Brigitte McQueen, executive director of the Union for Contemporary Art. “I love coming here.” A transplant from New York, McQueen was standing in one of Omaha’s most historically-notable buildings. The Fair Deals Café was known, during the civil rights era, as the Black City Hall. But today, it’s in disrepair.

Brigitte McQueen, sitting inside the dilapidated Fair Deals Cafe building, was told she was committing “career suicide” by opening an arts organization in North Omaha. (Photo by Robyn Wisch)

“The first time that I came in to the building, it was like the restaurant had closed and they’d just walked away,” McQueen said. “So there was food in the kitchen, there were just piles of like furniture and service ware. It was crazy in here!”

The Fair Deals Café closed in the early 2000s and has since been vacant. That’s a common story among many of the buildings along North Omaha’s main corridor on 24th Street. But McQueen is part of a collaborative effort to bring the old neighborhood back, working from the ground up.

McQueen came to North Omaha from the Bemis Underground, where she led a reset of the Bemis Center’s underground space to exhibit local artists. Then, she decided to combine her love for supporting artists with her passion for uniting a racially-segregated community. North Omaha is predominantly African American and sees relatively little traffic from the greater city’s white population. McQueen said she realized that tradition had been passed on through generations.

McQueen hopes to have the Fair Deals Cafe restored and re-open for business next summer. She’ll be keeping the original tin ceiling tiles, ceiling fans and counter stools. (Photo by Robyn Wisch)

“So your grandparents never went to North Omaha because someone told them not to, and your parents never went to North Omaha, so you don’t go to North Omaha and your kids don’t go to North Omaha,” she said. “And it just keeps spiraling.”

“So it really has been amazing to invite people to the Union,” she added, “and to have them stand on North 24th street and realize it’s really beautiful over here, and it’s not what I thought it was, and it’s not what the news told me it was.”

The Union already has a building just to the west of the Fair Deal Café, which supports resident artists. Ultimately, McQueen wants to purchase most of the land on the block to create an arts campus, where artists can have cheap access to workshops and equipment. Art needs to be made more accessible, McQueen said, particularly in a poor community where art is often not valued.

North Omaha’s N. 24th St. corridor has been marked as a future culture and arts district by the Empowerment Network and the North Omaha Development Project. The corridor is filled with historic buildings, including the landmark Omaha Star. (Photo by Robyn Wisch)

“If you’re worried about how rent is going to get paid, and where you’re going to get school supplies from… where you’re going to get food from,” she said. “To walk in and say, ‘I want to talk about the arts and about beauty,’ it takes a little while to get people to realize that those things are important and that the arts are accessible.”

McQueen said she’s worked to convince residents, including neighborhood kids, that art doesn’t have to be “something you go to the museum to see.”

“It’s something that’s on your block,” she said. “It’s something that you do every day when you get dressed, that’s art.”

Making art accessible is one of the reasons McQueen plans to keep the familiar feel of the Fair Deals Café when the Union sets up its gallery, hopefully next summer. She’ll keep the old lunch counter and stools and serve coffee and pie. “It’s a huge project but just an important one,” she said. “I couldn’t think of a more beautiful gallery space.”

“I know it’s a little hard to see right now,” she said with a laugh. “But it’s going to be amazing.”

Our series on the burgeoning arts scene in North Omaha continues below:

“Carver Bank” project finds potential in North Omaha “gems”

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