It is midafternoon on a Monday, a dead zone for most every business district, and yet Omaha’s South 24th Street is very much alive.
Cars fill almost every available parking space on the main drag. A young Hispanic man stands in front of the Latino Center of the Midlands and gives neighborly directions to two elderly white couples looking for a late lunch spot.
People stream in and out of banks, law offices, insurance agencies, rushing to the next thing, rushing right past the near-miraculous reality of the street beneath their feet.
This street was long ago wounded by the demise of its biggest industry — the biggest stockyard in the world — and its main reason to exist. It was long ago abandoned by department stores and taverns, and long ago fled by the grandchildren of immigrants who moved to Hanscom Park or Millard or Papillion.
Omaha left South 24th for dead decades ago. And yet, in 2017, it is oh-so alive.
“The key thing about South 24th, the thing that people always miss, is that this place always rises from the ashes,” says Gary Kastrick, a retired South High teacher and the area’s unofficial historian. “And it has. It has risen from the ashes again.”
Ask a random Omahan to name the most important street in town, and they might say Dodge, or Center, or if they live in Dundee, surely Underwood Avenue.
They will most likely not mention the street where Omaha first became known for beef. Or the street where the Irish, Bohemians, Poles, Lithuanians, Croatians and a grab-bag of other European immigrants first found their own piece of the American Dream. They won’t name the street that, in its first heyday, served as the meltiest melting pot in Nebraska, where rural farmers dropping off a load of cattle raised pints and rubbed elbows with Stockyards workers from all over the world.
Or the street that has now been re-energized by another grab-bag of immigrants — Mexicans, El Salvadorians and Guatemalans, who have brought their own cultures and traditions and mouthwatering foods to this place, just as the earlier waves of newcomers did.
We do not think of South 24th Street, but we should. We should think of South 24th Street because it’s as Omaha as a street can be.
“It is a family place,” says Marcos Mora, an area real estate agent, business owner and board member of the area’s new business improvement district. “And in 2017, it has such a good vibe. ...”
Mora looks south down 24th Street, at a vibrant scene where people are walking and shopping and dining on a Monday afternoon. “People just have to see it to know.”
Visitors to the area generally notice the food first, and for good reason. There is El Dorado, serving up the best Mexican seafood in Omaha, and Taqueria Tijuana, which does a brisk lunchtime trade. There is El Alamo, where you can get a chicken breast marinated in sweet-spicy mole sauce, and a half-dozen taco trucks up and down the street offering a tasty carnitas torta — a shredded pork sandwich complete with avocado, mayo and optional peppers — for a mere $5.
Around the corner on 25th there is La Choza, a tiny hole-in-the-wall specializing in fantastic Salvadoran pupusas and, in my humble opinion, the best tacos in the entire city.
“There’s a quaintness about these places, a mom-and-pop feel,” says Kastrick.
Take a post-dinner stroll to burn some calories, and you will find a ton of history here, too.
The Roseland Theater, which opened in 1922, is a beautiful old movie palace still standing, though it now houses apartment dwellers. The old South Omaha City Hall and courthouse are still here, too, brick buildings that inside are filled with giant black-and-white photos of yesteryear.
This place was actually its own city, originally boasting the name New Edinburgh until the original Stockyards developer, Alexander Hamilton Swann, pulled out of the area and the locals not-so-creatively decided to name it South Omaha.
It may have had a boring name but it had a great nickname. “The Magic City” people called it, because it ballooned in population from just a few hundred souls in the mid-1880s to a bustling 25,000 by the dawn of the 20th century.
“You will never see another explosion like that in Omaha again,” says Vince Furlong, who leads architecture walking tours of the area for Restoration Exchange Omaha. “It was absolutely unprecedented, before and since.”
And the area continued to grow even after Omaha annexed it in 1915. (You will not be shocked to learn that the residents of South Omaha fought this annexation, even filing a lawsuit, then remained bitter about it for years afterward.)
By the 1920s, nearly 15,000 workers clocked in at the Stockyards each day, many of them first-generation immigrants who still spoke their native language and struggled to make their way in this foreign city.
By the mid-1950s, the Omaha Stockyards had surpassed Chicago to become the largest meat producer in the world. South 24th Street boomed right along with it. At one point the area featured 19 grocery stores and, in one vice-filled four-block stretch, a grand total of 28 bars and brothels.
“The neighborhoods were always really segregated, Poles, Irish, Czech, Lithuanian,” says Kastrick, the son of a bar owner who grew up around South 24th. “But around the packing houses, we all worked together, we all drank together. We were all kind of in the same boat.”
And then it ended, almost as suddenly as it had begun. The packing houses began to move or close. The street’s Phillips Department Store — the working class version of Brandeis — shuttered its doors. Thousands of South Omahans moved west to the suburbs. And, by the late 1980s, “it was done,” says Mora, whose family was one of the first Mexican-American families to move to the area in the 1920s. “It was a ghost town.”
Until it wasn’t. Until the new generation of immigrants began to show up on South 24th Street. They took note of the dirt-cheap rents and rented houses. They took note of the abandoned buildings and started small businesses.
In the past two decades, the buildings have refilled. The rents have slowly risen. Thousands of people have taken English language classes in the basement of the Latino Center of the Midlands, learning just as the Poles and the Czechs once did.
The federal government, city and local residents partnered on a city streetscape project that brought public art and better sidewalks to the area, making South 24th Street much nicer to stroll. Kastrick helped to inspire a project to paint nearly a dozen murals that honor the history of specific immigrant groups, both old and new.
Slowly, steadily, South 24th Street went from dead to sleepy to moving to absolutely electric on a summer Saturday night.
This is how far the street has come: Last year, the American Planning Association named it one of the 15 “Great Places in America” and one of five “Great Streets.”
And the electricity, more even than the food or the history, may be the best reason to go to South 24th Street.
It’s a chance to prove to yourself that all the things people still say about South 24th Street — that it’s run-down or dirty or dangerous — are uninformed nonsense in 2017. It’s an underappreciated chance to shop, to walk, to eat, to have fun — to revel in this street’s rebirth, its success.
“I recently had a tour group where after we went a couple blocks, a woman asked me, ‘Where are all the bad parts?’ ” Furlong says. He laughs. “I said, ‘Welllll ... I don’t see any bad parts. Do you?’ ”
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Food critic Sarah Baker Hansen is from Omaha. Columnist Matthew Hansen grew up in Red Cloud. As a married couple, they travel Nebraska to share with each other little-known people, unexpected stops and memorable foods. Come along and discover more of what the state has to offer in "The Better Half," an occasional series prepared with support from the Nebraska Community Foundation.