White’s Mural Captures the Spirit of a Community
May 18th, 2015
Omaha, NE — A new mural in the Park Avenue district has people buzzing with discussion.
For many years, the Park Avenue area of Omaha that joined together the Gerald Ford birthplace, Hanscom Park, and Leavenworth neighborhoods was vulnerable to poverty and crime. But in recent years, neighborhood leaders have worked hard to stimulate change for the better. In 2013, after years of fundraising, Park Avenueâ€™s community development organization called inCOMMON opened the neighborhoodâ€™s new community center, attempting to fight poverty at itâ€™s core. Slowly but surely, the hard work is paying off. Poverty is on the decline, old buildings are being renovated and given new life, people are starting to take notice of one of Omahaâ€™s oldest neighborhoods.
But that renewal comes with some hesitation. While many people welcome the new buildings and new tenants, there is some concern among the areaâ€™s oldest residents that they will be pushed out because of possible increases in rent and property value; that if we bring in too many new people, those with deep roots will lose their voice, the voice that worked tirelessly to persevere in the face of adversity.
The rebirth of Park Avenue is a gray area filled with different sides and perspectives.
Enter Watie White, the public artist behind projects like all that ever was, always is, the North Omaha collaboration with Habitat for Humanity that saw White turn condemned homes into canvases telling the stories of its former inhabitants. White and inCOMMON have collaborated on a new project called You Are Here. Now, Whiteâ€™s canvas is the side of a 10-story public housing tower at the corner of Woolworth Street and Park Avenue.
â€œWe started talking about both this incredibly imposing ten story brick facade that dominates that part of Park Avenue and talking about how great it would be to do something there,â€ White said. â€œTalking about the neighborhood and this kind of rapid change thatâ€™s happened in the neighborhood. This kind of long grass roots change thatâ€™s been happening and then the really fast surging gentrification that been happening in the last three or four years.â€
White interviewed several residents of the area, some who’ve lived and worked there for generations. Each discussion provided a unique perspective on the gentrification issue. These interviews provided the basis for Whiteâ€™s massive mural.
â€œI started trying to ask around about the idea of diversity and the strengths of it,â€ he said. â€œNot just racially or ethnic diversity but socioeconomic diversity, diversity of religious practice. A lot of people mentioned that they saw same-sex families with children and how they saw that as an asset to the community. All these things that, frankly, I was surprised that it came up so often from so many different people of different backgrounds with different roles in the community.â€
After an interview, White would ask residents whom they would nominate to represent the community. He heard stories from all walks of life; from those who connect deeply with Gerald Fordâ€™s birthplace, to the volunteer who spends his days delivering lunches to the needy, to the mechanic who fixes his neighbors’ cars so they can get to work, accepting differing payments along the way. The project gave White a memorable perspective of the Park Avenue residents.
â€œParticipating in these projects is such an incredibly humbling, rewarding, and enriching experience,â€ he said. â€œI get to meet all these people who are doing these really beautiful, poetic things and they donâ€™t think of themselves as beautiful, poetic beings. They donâ€™t think they are doing something profound. Theyâ€™re just doing the little thing that they can do. Then they show up the next day and do it again.â€
Watie Whiteâ€™s mural You Are Here was installed on Friday, May 8th at the corner of Woolworth Street and Park Avenue. A block party reception for the work was held Sunday, May 17th from 2 to 5pm at the Park Avenue Commons at 1340 Park Avenue. Another reception will he held on May 20th from 4-6pm. For more information on the mural, visit www.watiewhite.com or www.inCOMMONcd.org.
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