We meet at Omaha’s border, our DMZ, the multilane road that often doubles as a litmus test for what kind of Omahan you are.

We meet at 72nd Street, at Do Space, “on the wrong side of the street,” Derek Babb jokes when he walks in.

To Derek, this is the wrong side of 72nd Street because it is the west side of 72nd Street. It’s the wrong side because Derek hates to travel west of here.

“That first year, we lived in an apartment in Papillion, and I was kinda ‘meh’ on Omaha as a place,” he tells me as soon as we sit down. “Then, 13 years ago, we moved to the Aksarben area, and I realized what we were missing.”

He stops and smiles.

“We were missing a neighborhood.”

A fascinating part of Omaha identity is the reality that many east Omahans all but refuse to go west, and many west Omahans all but refuse to go east.

Some, particularly those from east Omaha, tend to wear their rare crossing of 72nd as a badge — a proud rejection of the suburban life and all it entails.

Some, particularly those from the western end of the metro area, tend to view their rare crossing of 72nd as a practicality — they stay west to avoid hassle.

Whether intentional or not, these rare crossers of 72nd are telling us something about what they value. I think they are telling us something important about the Omaha — or Omahas — in which we live.

“It’s like being a vegan,” Derek says of the east-west divide. “You make your stand. But you can’t make people think like you do.”

If five years as a World-Herald columnist has taught me anything, it’s that you indeed cannot make people think like you do. But you can try to understand others, which is why I recently sent out social media messages asking east and west Omahans who rarely travel to the other side of town to explain why.

The flood of responses, as well as the interesting difference between east and west Omahans’ response, blew my ginger hair back a little.

The nearly two dozen west Omahans I heard from, almost all of whom said they travel east of 72nd Street once a month or less, continually framed their choice to stay in west Omaha as a matter of convenience.

They gave me reasons to live in west Omaha, reasons like affordable housing and good schools and roomy garages and spacious backyards. Which was interesting to me, because I hadn’t asked why they lived in west Omaha. I had asked: Why do you live in west Omaha and stay there almost exclusively?

When people did answer this question, they answered like this:

“We’re close to work and school,” says Rob Latimer, one of the west Omaha evangelists I talked to. “We have access to some trail systems, access to shopping and services, the hospital ... we’re quite content with all that. It has just worked out for us.”

Rob is a Canadian transplant so polite that he took my phone call while on vacation. He lives near 199th Street and travels east of 72nd Street for two reasons: to go to Eppley Airfield and to attend his curling league at Baxter Arena.

Only the magic of flight and hot curling action can get this Canadian-American to the east side of Omaha.

Most of the west Omahans brought up parking as a reason for not venturing east. As a resident of downtown Omaha, I always bite my tongue when people say this, as my eyeballs tell me that the Old Market and downtown-area parking garages sit mostly empty nearly every night of the year.

And they also brought up vague fear of crime — several people mentioned the recent late-night shooting near Gene Leahy Mall — though with gentle push-back from me, they readily admitted that east Omaha commercial strips in Dundee and Blackstone feel oh-so safe when they have ventured there. (The crime statistics show that most of east Omaha feels safe because it is.)

Fact: Most of Omaha’s award-winning restaurants, oldest neighborhoods, famed steakhouses, Mexican food, Thai food, sushi, best architecture, biggest museums, biggest arenas, history, music, sports and culture are east of 72nd.

Fact: That doesn’t sway the west Omahans who rarely or never venture east.

“The truth for us is that everything we need is just right here,” says Pam Vermillion, who lives near 120th Street.

I got way more responses from east Omahans saying they avoided going west at all costs. They joked about building a wall around I-680, joked about packing a sack lunch when forced to journey to the triple digit streets, joked — OK, half joked — about this strange land of endless housing developments and cul-de-sacs where their friends moved, never to be seen again. It was funny. It also seemed kind of angry.

In an email, Country Club neighborhood resident Douglas Little told me he only goes west to his in-laws’ home and for the frozen Indian food at Trader Joe’s.

“The west seems sterile, spread out, full of chain restaurants, and ... well, boring,” he wrote.

A certain amount of this criticism makes sense to Derek, a high school computer science and engineering teacher at Omaha North, and to me, too.

A half-century of sprawl has strained Omaha’s infrastructure to near the breaking point. There’s a sense in east Omaha, Derek says, that some suburbanites utilize Omaha’s shiniest toys — the arena, the zoo, the Old Market — once a summer but don’t meaningfully participate in the life of the city the other 362 days a year.

“They want to be in a city, but they don’t want any of the grit that comes with a city,” Derek says. “Every time they demand resources, every time we widen a road out west ... it induces people to move west. Then they use that road to vacate (downtown) as quickly as possible when the Bluejays game is over.”

But — but — it struck me as fascinating and also a little sad to watch many of my fellow east Omahans stereotype the bejesus out of west Omaha, turn it into something resembling a cartoon, even as they insisted that west Omahans are the ones doing the stereotyping.

Maybe these people have never visited Elkhorn or Bennington’s delightfully throwback main streets. Maybe they haven’t eaten some of the city’s best Chinese food, Korean food or Vietnamese pho in west Omaha, not to mention Dante on 168th or Twisted Cork on West Pacific or Frank’s Pizzeria on 132nd.

Maybe they haven’t jogged around Zorinsky Lake, or played Elkhorn’s Indian Creek Golf Course or watched a movie at the Alamo Drafthouse Cinema or caught a ballgame on a beautiful summer night at Werner Park.

Maybe they don’t realize that much of Omaha’s established Afghan-American community lives west of this invisible barrier they have created for themselves.

And so it seems that for many Omahans that barrier will stand, that invisible 72nd Street border that separates a single metro area that often ends up feeling like two.

The reason seems obvious: We value some different things.

The danger, too, seems obvious: That self-imposed border can make it harder to understand that we value many of the same things as well.

Back at Do Space at 72nd and Dodge, I finish my interview with Derek — like most everyone I talked to, an insightful, thoughtful Omahan — and say goodbye. I watch him cross back east of 72nd Street, toward the part of town he much prefers.

I get in my car and point it west. I need to think about this two Omahas thing. Nothing helps me think better than a slice of Frank’s pizza.

Metro columnist

Columnist Matthew Hansen is from Red Cloud, Neb. He likes the Chicago Cubs, facial hair during the winter months, Wilco and some other fairly stereotypical stuff for a guy who drives a Jetta. Follow him on Twitter @redcloud_scribe. Phone: 402-444-1064.

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(19) comments

GEORGE BRODSTON

Back in the 60s, the town was split into North Omaha, Benson, Westside, South Omaha, Little Italy, Downtown, Field Club/Center Street and Dundee. Bellevue, Council Bluffs, Ralston, LaVista and Papillion were also tiny enclaves. High school kids staked out their claims on which Kings they would hang out. You could get roughed up if you went to a rirval's roost. Todds, Oddos and Ewalds were considered neutral zones which were later replaced by the respective Macs. There were some Prep kids from South Omaha but they were "discouraged" from wearing their jackets and sweaters around South Omaha after dark. Wearing a Westside gear or any other advertisement that you went to Hollywood High (particularly if you rode around in an expensive car) could spell trouble anywhere out of District 66. Today there are people in Sarpy County who never go into Omaha unless it is to work, see a concert or a sporting event. Ditto for NW Omaha, Elkorn and Washington County. All the Iowa towns along i 29, Cass and Western Lancaster Counties(with parts of Lincoln) are, for all intents and purposes, Omaha satellites with similar patterns pf preconceptions/misconceptions about the Big Bad O. In all fairness, I have seen the same thing in KC, Chicago, NJ, NC, Dallas, OK CIty, Ohio...everywhere I have lived.

JIM BECHTEL

Thanks, Matt. I'm ten minutes on foot from Jazz on the Green, ten minutes by bicycle from the Pedestrian Bridge, and ten minutes by car from an international airport, in an active neighborhood lined with hundred-year oaks and friends all around; what's not to like?

BILL EIDAM

Matt, I would say 99% of your columns are excellent. However, this one is just a waste of time. People live where they are comfortable, period. I live near 204th, so it's a 10 mile drive just to get to 72nd! It's over a half hour to get to downtown. And as far as award winning restaurants, sporting events, concerts, etc., maybe columnists get paid well, because I certainly can't afford frequent visits! Quit making this an Us vs Them thing. It's a matter of convenience, period.

BOBBIE BROOKS

Exactly Bill, it is a matter of convenience. And I haven't been to a sit down restaurant in years. I live right on the cusp of the "divide," near 78th & Harrison. I traverse both sides of the line. I walk the riverfront once a week with a friend in the early morning. I foster kitties/cats for Wag and get all of my supplies at Wag near 24th & Harney (soon to be moved a couple blocks south and partnered with the new Felius Cat Café), work near 72nd & Mercy, have a second job near 108th & Center, and friends that to me, live way out west, 192nd & Center - no easy way to drive out there. There needs to be a raised interstate build over 72nd like the one they have over Dodge, and a raised highway over Harrison. I think that will get people moving much quicker to other parts of the city. Street car, no benefit to anyone except those west of 72nd St. What are the populations of both "sides?" I'm sure someone has the numbers. The point is, we go where we go because we have interest in those things, but I certainly am not going to drive all the way to Oscar's even though everyone says the wings are amazing when I have a Buffalo Wild Wings, good enough, at Shadow Lake.

TED KYSTER

There is a vast difference between those who live way west and those who live in the heart of the City - East of 72nd street. The big difference is diversity and a culture that is vastly different then out west!

But we can choose where we live and I have lived in both - hands down I choose East of 72nd street.

BECKY ENHOLM

Ted, you've obviously not been to my neighborhood, which is near 120th and Dodge. Within a 2-3 block radius, we have several black families, families from India, and Asian families. Additionally, one can find restaurants that have about anything you would be hungry for. I live here, mainly because of housing affordability and nice yard sizes filled with trees. I have many friends east of 72nd, and find that I'm more willing to travel to the east than they are to travel west. But, in the final analysis, I go wherever I want to within the city and enjoy all of our city.

Mike Wulf

There is a bit of racial divide that has always been a part of the community. Millard and Elkhorn were established at least in part as white flight communities. The farther east you go the more diverse the lifestyle.

Matt Smolsky

I have found this attitude in provincial people who really need to get a life outside of their 1 square mile radius, regardless of whether that radius is east or west of 72nd. SMH. Seriously? This is a "thing" only with people who need to get outside their box.

Dennis Kelly

Grew up through college years in Papillion - so small then everyone knew your parents and would call them if you got into trouble. Going to Omaha was a great adventure for us kids, almost as exotic as going to Chicago. Now we have retired and my little home town of Papillion looks like one huge mall surrounded by endless tracts of cookie cutter homes full of way above average folks who I assume are very nice, but I doubt they even know their next door neighbor. We retired to Glenwood, IA where immediately our neighbors stopped by to visit and have been helpful to us in any way they can. We wanted a "small town" feel, and similar values and we got it here to a measure I could not have even hoped for. We love to venture into Omaha to see the museums, frequent visits to the best zoo in the world, and our fantastic airport is only 25 minutes form our rural home. Yes, we travel WAY out to the west to see friends and relatives who live there, but find those areas really no different from any suburban, boring areas with difficult waits at 8 lane intersections. There is much to like and a few things that could be better in the Omaha area, but it is so much better than any other major metro area in the nation, our visiting friends are astounded by what the city offers. Sadly, I think 90% of the regions residents haven't even visited the amazing worlds that can await them right within the metro area, like Fontenelle Forest, Schram State Park, The Durham Museum, or even Joslyn, let alone the zoo - all world class attractions. Live where you like, but get out on weekends and see and appreciate the region you are lucky enough to live in.

David Glyn

I’ve lived both east and west. As far as safety goes, I used to joke that east you can get your wallet stolen(mugging), and west you can get your bank account stolen(embezzlement, raided pensions). Turns out wherever I’ve lived I’ve been amongst decent, kind-hearted folks. As far as living conditions, I like the wide open skies and orderly lawns in west Omaha, and the gnarled old trees and sturdier construction when you head east. As far as attractions, I have a car.

LORA LEIBRANDT

In my opinion the “border” should be I-680. I lived out past 164th and just didn’t like the cookie-cutter houses and indifferent neighbors. And since my preferred architectural style is mid-century I moved to a wonderful neighborhood near 90th St. that has cute ranch houses, huge trees and friendly neighbors. I don’t feel suburban or West O at all.

Bill Kline

Good point. The east-west divide could probably be broken into thirds, with the delimiters at 72nd ST and I-680.

Bill Kline

I live near 36th and Leavenworth. I enjoy living in east Omaha because I believe it offers more economic and demographic (racial/ethnic) diversity. Plus, I live in an urban neighborhood where I can actually walk to neighborhood stores and taverns. My commute to my job downtown is quick and easy. I've lived in this part of town for over 20 years.

BILL ARMBRUST

Elkhorn... oh Elkhorn. What has happened! It still had the small town feel 15 years ago. Now it is suburbia with a quaint old downtown revival? No, more accurate- Outside of the "cookie cutter homes" there is a unique diversity to be found. Folks living on those mind numbing cul-de-sac's come from farms and small towns all over the midwest and beyond. They are uncomfortable with the bustle and crampness of older parts in Omaha and compromise to have short trees- to be near corn fields and folks who cherish the same thing they do. A very nice place to raise a family. It was said in earlier comments that people settle where they are comfortable. That is right. Not better, not worse. Just comfortable. I am married to a SOG. I see many culture likenesses between small town kids, farm kids, and South omaha kids. Look for what unites!!! Be happy for those who are comfortable. Love this City!

Mattie Olsen

This is a light hearted column that I appreciate (I've lived in Ralston, near 36th and Leavenworth, Dundee, and 24th and Binney, so I'm a little all over the place), but if you really want to get to the heart of the East O/West O distinction, you have to look at historical redlining.

Bill Kline

Mattie, I'm not familiar with what you mean by historical redlining. Would you please enlighten me?

Rita Clark

As a West O girl who moved east and friends with East O girls who moved west, I loved this article! I'm pretty sure Matt meant to bring out the hilarity of the situation as I still joke with my best friend that I have to pack an overnight bag to go from my house off 480 & Martha to hers at 170th & F. Both sides have crime issues and both areas have intriguing features. We are all Omahans and that's what matters most! Be proud we have such an amazing city whether you are west, east, south or north!

LISA BOCK

When I lived as a teen in Omaha E of 72nd: no malls, no good stores, no movie theaters, no doctors/dentists, no soccer programs. But would I have given up being so close to Old Market and Dundee? Nope.

Chris Gaul

Agree the divide used to be Dodge Street. North and South Omaha. I grew up at 48th & Center. All my brothers worked at Gorat's during the boom times of Aksarben horse racing. I live in Denver now, where someone 3 miles away is close. I drive 3 miles across South Omaha and go thru 3 distinct neighborhoods; Holy Cross, Hanscom Park, cross 24th Street to Spring Lake Park. In west Omaha the subdivisions are bigger than whole neighborhoods east of 72nd.

Welcome to the discussion.

Please keep it clean, turn off CAPS LOCK and don't threaten anyone. Be truthful, nice and proactive. And share with us - we love to hear eyewitness accounts.

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