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The industrial hubs that once helped keep north Omaha employed are gone.
The effects are visible in the blocks marked by crumbling buildings or empty lots, or heard in the sirens that wail at night.
Meanwhile, many families here struggle through poverty and unemployment — or simply underemployment.
While there are some signs of progress, next week's primary election could shape the future of neighborhoods that face Omaha's steepest challenges.
The April 2 contest is marked by universally articulated themes: jobs, violence reduction, economic development and police oversight.
It's a highly competitive race. The incumbent, a former gang intervention specialist and broadcaster will face four challengers: two attorneys and two former government employees. Two of the five candidates will advance to a deeper round of debate over how best to bring jobs and residents back, boost property values and guide the ward's future.
One candidate put it this way: Next week's election is about north Omaha getting its fair share.
Community activist sees problems out his front door
From his well-kept home, Tariq Al-Amin can see his district's troubles.
“There's a house that burned up the other day — it's still all burned-out. Or, right there on the corner, it's been burned out for almost a year now I think,” he said.
“I see it every time I walk out my front or my back door, see the things that need to be fixed.”
These “quality of life issues” fit into Al-Amin's push to develop an employment pool and bring jobs to north Omaha. But the retired Omaha police officer and outspoken community activist also seeks to reform city pension systems and increase oversight of the Police Department.
He supports a police auditor and a civilian oversight board, especially after a controversial arrest last week.
“They're really kidding themselves when they say they have a good relationship with this community,” Al-Amin said of the police. “People are unhappy. And those kinds of incidents, all they're going to lead to is somebody getting hurt.”
The council can reform public safety benefits through labor negotiations, Al-Amin said.
“I don't want to lose what I have, but I want it to be there if I should live to be 80,” he said. “I'm not saying you rob the cops and the firefighters, but you have to see what the citizens can afford.”
For job creation, Al-Amin is blunt about District 2's challenge.
“You can ask for (jobs) all day long, but someone else is holding the marbles. How do you pry them from their hands?” he said.
“You can bring all the jobs here you want. If you don't have an employment pool that's ready to do the work, people from outside the community are going to drive in for the jobs and drive out with the paycheck.”
'I think we've hit our stride,' incumbent says
Examine the record, City Councilman Ben Gray says.
The incumbent District 2 representative said tens of millions of dollars worth of development is being built along part of Ames Avenue. A jobs program keeps many young people employed during the violent summer months. Development of 24th and Lake Streets is ongoing.
“I think we've hit our stride, and now is not the time to change,” Gray said of north Omaha. “All of the results are things you can see.”
Gray's goals involve jobs, violence reduction and education.
“If we take our eyes off those targets, we'll never hit those targets,” Gray said.
“We've got a long way to go, but we've got to start somewhere, and you've got to be focused. You can't be distracted by things that are out of the norm and take you off your game,” he said.
Community unrest over last week's controversial arrest of an Omaha man must be addressed with a speedy police investigation, Gray said. He says a citizen-based law enforcement review board wouldn't succeed. An auditor, he added, also would fail “unless it's part of the city charter and we can keep it safe.”
“That was one ungodly mess that happened that day,” Gray said of last week's videotaped arrest. “There was a lot that they did wrong. That needs to be addressed appropriately.”
Such incidents still should not divert north Omaha from a path to progress, he said.
“That should not distract us from jobs,” Gray said. “It should not distract us from violence reduction and gang reduction.
“There was an old saying during the civil rights movement: 'Keep your eyes on the prize.' And ... the prize is jobs, jobs, jobs.”