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.