It Takes a Village: The Possibility
I pull up the blinds of my window and see a city with possibilities. Looking out to the streets of downtown from my apartment, my Himalayan cat, George, jumps up on the window sill and together, we look down and watch the people walking with somewhere to go. I see students with back packs, men and women with brief cases, and some, toting everything they own in a plastic bag.
The poet, Paul Scott Mowrer wrote: There is nothing like walking to get the feel of a country. A fine landscape is like a piece of music; it must be taken at the right tempo. You’ll never get the right tempo driving a car through this village with its one way streets and parking meters. As I get the feel of this old country with its fine new landscape, I will walk it just like I did as a young girl.
I have errands to run. I need stamps and some cream for my coffee. While I’m out, I’ll stop and see my daughter’s new puppy and return library books. It’s so natural for me to walk to where I need to go, and I enjoy the flowers the merchants have planted in front of their shops. I grab my purse and library books and ride one of the original elevators to the first floor.
The Greek style columns are the only grandeur remaining of the old store, as the main floor has been renovated for retail and office space. Apartments and condos now exist where, once upon a time, the art of selling retail merchandise reigned. I think the Macy’s store depicted in the 1947 movie, Miracle on 34th Street, describes the Brandeis perfectly, department store Santa, and all.
Once outside, the landscape surrounding the Brandeis has changed dramatically since the 60’s. The Woolworth’s and Penney’s stores no longer reside across the street on 16th; both were torn down and replaced by the First National Tower, the skyscraper whose lights shined our way home on Thanksgiving. And the famous tunnel under Douglas that connected Woolworth’s to Brandeis is permanently sealed off. My grandmother, Louise, first worked at Brandeis at the lunch counter in her teens, and then Penney’s in the drapery department, eventually running her own drapery business out of her home.
As I walk east on Douglas, I pass the massive Union Pacific building. My great-uncle Antonino and his brothers repaired rail cars at 9th & Davenport, now the Century Link compound. Jobs at UP and back-breaking work in the city’s sewer system awaited them in Omaha when they arrived in America. Later, they would groom my grandfather, Carl Marino, their baby brother, to become a political force in their community. I have a copy of a roster from the Hotel Fontenelle in 1957, electing my grandfather as Grand Venerable of the Sons of Italy. Such names as Caniglia, Vacanti, Piccolo and Orsi are just a few of the members present in the room. The Hotel Fontenelle fell to the wrecking ball in 1983.
Next door to UP on Douglas is the current Omaha World-Herald. But the printing presses originally cranked out the news a block north on 14th & Dodge. A plaza now graces the area where the old building once stood. They left the original stone entrance of the old World-Herald as a monument. I assume this large stone arch is where my late uncle Sebi Breci entered to go to work as a photographer for many years. I picture him now, his cocked hat and handsome face, compiling his photos for the newspapers picture page, cigarette permanently attached to his lips.
After dropping my books off at the library, I grab my cream at Patricks on 14th & Howard. I get out in record time and head east on Howard to the Old Market. I meet my daughter and point out the historical Hotel Howard, presently converted to apartments, once the boarding house my ancestors called home. My daughter is more interested in her dog’s obedience training than her family history right now, but I silently wonder what it must’ve been like for my great uncles to live in the rooms above Amad’s and Mr. Toad’s, a shelter after their hard work at the rail shops and sewers.
Walking back home north on 16th Street, I pass Omaha’s very own Orpheum Theater. The marquee displays “Wicked” in lights. This downtown staple, now the venue for the Omaha Symphony and Broadway Plays, originally operated as one of the major movie theaters in town. When my husband and I were dating, we’d made the mistake of announcing to my dad that “Five Card Stud,” starring Dean Martin, was playing at the Orpheum. I’ll never forget the three of us standing outside waiting in line at the ticket booth, my father completely oblivious to the disgruntled look on the face of his future son-in-law!
My last errand is the post office on Farnam, past 16th street. Opera Omaha is on the corner. My grandmother’s sister, my great aunt Connie Battaglia, another master seamstress, left her mark as one of the founders of the Craftsman Guild, and one of the last surviving board members till her death in 2008.
You can’t miss the Woodman Tower up the street with its expansive parking garage. If I use my imagination, I can envision somewhere between layers of concrete floors and parked cars, my grandfather’s shoe repair shop. His business and many others occupied the Lyric Building demolished in 1966 to make room for the Woodman, including Polly Pennington Dance Studio located on the entire second floor where my brother and I took ballroom and modern jazz above my grandfather’s shop.
With the Greyhound Bus Depot relocated, and the Fontenelle Hotel and Lyric Building gone, it’s comforting to see The Rose Theater still anchoring the corner of 20th Farnam—a landmark that grounds you in the new landscape and ties the past with the present among the disorienting new parking garages. The Rose is unique in that it’s always operated as a theater—only its name has changed. I take my grandchildren to The Rose; my husband and I went to the Astro; my father took my mother on dates to the Paramount; and my grandparents enjoyed stage plays at the Riviera. It became a different name for each generation of my family!
For me living downtown is a mixture of the past with the present. It’s like a special time machine allowing me to live in both worlds at the same time. It will take many walks to see it all; I’ve just arrived and I’ve only begun to explore. I hear even more is coming to downtown so that everything we’ll need will be right here.
For me, I’ll literally take it one step at a time. I’ll walk the winding paths of the Leahy Mall and Heartland Park. I’ll walk to the library, the cleaners, the post office, and okay, buy a Hershey bar at Patrick’s Grocery Store. I plan to walk to the Orpheum to see the Nutcracker this year and anywhere else my feet will take me.
No longer haunted by the possibilities—I’ve come full circle within myself and my village. A village I call downtown Omaha, Nebraska—my ideal life.