Could Bank Turned Art Studio Grow North Omaha Economy?

Two males dribble a basketball past the newly renovated Carver Bank in North Omaha. (Photo by Ryan Robertson, NET News)
A window displays the current artist exhibition at Carver Bank in North Omaha. (Photo by Ryan Robertson, NET News)
Portraits by LaMont Hamilton can be seen hanging on the walls inside Carver Bank, as the Lutheran Family Services building reflects on the window. Supporters of Carver Bank hope the facility can change the energy of the area and help grow the economy (Photo by Ryan Robertson, NET News)
A total of 37 portraits make up LaMont Hamilton's "Omaha Portraits." Hamiltion says the intention of this work is to show the richness and diversity of black Omaha. (Photo by Ryan Robertson, NET News)
In addition to offering exhibition space to artists, Carver Bank also offers private work spaces to local artists to explore their craft (Photo by Ryan Robertson, NET News)
A look at the artist studio provided by Carver Bank, which has four artists-in-residence who are available to help educate the community about the role art plays. (Photo by Ryan Robertson, NET News)
Carver Bank encourages all forms of art, and invites singers, rappers, dancers, and other artists to perform within the space. Organizers say the more artists they can showcase, the more beneficial Carver Bank can be to the community (Photo by Ryan Robertson, NET News)
Jeremy "JaSoulo" Anderson performs at Carver Bank for Young Professional Wednesday. Anderson grew up in North Omaha and says he hopes Carver Bank wil encourage a positive change in the area which he hopes will attract more people to come to North Omaha. (Photo by Ryan Robertson, NET News)
Across the street from Carver Bank sits a boarded up house. Supporter of Carver Bank say they hope the success of the newly renovated art facility will encourage more economic growth--which could make sights like this in North Omaha a thing of the past. (Photo by Ryan Robertson, NET News)
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June 26, 2013 - 6:30am

When an impoverished neighborhood or area tries to attract new businesses, sometimes its reputation is the largest obstacle to overcome. Such is the case in North Omaha. To combat the problem, some experts say encouraging creative minds could be the best solution.


At Carver Bank in North Omaha, a crowd gathered—not to make a deposit or check their account balances—but to celebrate art.

Located near the intersection of 24th and Lake Streets, Carver Bank is somewhat of an icon in North Omaha. It was the first African-American owned bank in the city. But now, there’s hope it will gain recognition as something else— North Omaha’s cultural and artistic hub.

Through a collaborative effort by the Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts, the Rebuild Foundation and nationally renowned artist Theaster Gates, Carver Bank was recently renovated. It reopened in March of 2013; transformed from a financial institution into a place to showcase and inspire artists.

Photo by Ryan Robertson, NET News

A portrait from LaMont Hamilton's Omaha Portraits exhibit. Hamilton is a Chicago-based artist, and his series of 37 portraits featuring the black community of North Omaha is currently on display at Carver Bank.
 

On the walls hang portraits by Chicago-based artist Lamont Hamilton. The exhibition, Omaha Portraits, features dozens of people from the local black community. Some literature about the exhibit explains Hamilton’s decision to make the community the art, showing his desire to reflect a community filled with history and pride.

On this night at Carver Bank, however, it’s not just the visual arts on display, but performance art as well.

North Omaha native Jeremy Anderson is an aspiring R&B singer and songwriter. He performs under the name JaSoulo, and belts out four original tracks to the crowd of around a dozen.

Anderson was thrilled to be showcasing his talents at a venue just blocks from where he was raised.

“What’s beautiful about this is I was actually raised in this area. It’s great to have somewhere where it’s a comfortable location,” Anderson said.

“I’ve been down here before. It’s available to a lot of people who are comfortable with that type of music, Hip Hop and R&B music, and this is a big root of it, you know North Omaha,” Anderson continued.

Photo by Ryan Robertson, NET News

Jeremy "JaSoulo" Anderson performs at Carver Bank's Young Professional Wednesday, an event sponsored by the Omaha Empowerment Network. Anderson is a native of North Omaha, and is inspired by the area's rich history of jazz and R&B music.

Photo by Ryan Robertson, NET News

Symone Sanders is a special projects coordinator with the Omaha Empowerment Network and president of the African-American Young Professionals group in Omaha. She coordinates Young Professionals Wednesday at Carver Bank and says the programming for the event varies. Young Professionals Wednesday is the third Wednesday of every month.

Anderson was invited to perform as part of Carver Bank’s Young Professional Wednesdays, an event sponsored by Omaha’s Empowerment Network. The mission statement of the Empowerment Network says all citizens should be engaged, empowered, and have access to all the opportunities available in the city.

Symone Sanders is a special project coordinator with the network, and the brains behind Young Professional Wednesdays.

“I am from North Omaha. I live literally two blocks away. I grew up here,” Sanders said.

Because of her relationship with the community, Sanders said she wanted to host events at Carver Bank, as a way to reach out to those who feel North Omaha is not a place where a creative mind can flourish.

“It’s really about reaching out to people in this community, not just North Omaha, but the greater community at large. Those people in Midtown, those people out west, people who might not have ever come down to North Omaha before for whatever reason, now they have a chance to come,” Sanders said.

It’s no secret North Omaha is a community fraught with struggle. According to the Eastern Nebraska Community Action Partnership (ENCAP), 40% of black children living in the area live in poverty.

ENCAP also estimates the unemployment rate in North Omaha is around 38 percent, compared to a 5 percent statewide rate. High poverty and unemployment are seen as contributing factors to a high crime rate as well.

Richard Baier is the executive vice president with the Nebraska Chamber of Commerce and Industry. He said many of the problems facing North Omaha are a barrier to economic growth. While very real, Baier said they’re not impossible to overcome.

In today’s world, Baier explained one of the best ways to change an area’s reputation is to change its energy—or how people living both in and outside of the area perceive it.

Photo by Ryan Robertson, NET News

Richard Baier is the executive vice president of the Nebraska State Chamber of Commerce. He says in the "next generation" of communities, artistic endeavors like Carver Bank will be vital in attracting young people to live in a specific community. He also says places like Carver Bank can help change the "energy" of an area, and help attract business.

“That really comes with its own important value to help stabilize the neighborhood, and sort of build hope and optimism among folks that live there,” Baier said.

According to Baier, facilities like Carver Bank offer a perfect way to change an area’s energy by fostering the creative community. Once that happens, economic growth can be just around the corner.

“You also see obviously capital investment. You also see folks who have not traditionally maybe been in those areas, maybe starting to travel into the area, getting to know the area. It just sort of encourages redevelopment,” Baier said.

He cites the Golden Spike Tower in North Platte, or the World Theatre renovation in Kearney as examples of an area getting new energy from an artistic or recreational facility, and then benefitting economically. It’s a vital part of building what he called “next generation” communities.

“Because the young people that are out there now tend to pick where they want to locate by as much as what the community looks like as well as the job opportunities that are available,” Baier said.

Back at Carver Bank, Symone Sanders said while attracting new residents and businesses to an area is important, she also hopes Carver Bank will inspire local youth to dream bigger.

As she discussed the importance of exposing area youth to the vast opportunities the arts can offer, she recalled a story of when she recently spent time with students at a nearby elementary school.

“Everybody’s like ,‘Okay you could go anywhere, money’s not an option, where would you go?’ and this little girl was like, ‘I’d go to Kansas City and I’d go shopping.’

Photo by Ryan Robertson, NET News

A poem by Omaha poet Zedeka Poindexter adorns a wall inside the exhibition space of Carver Bank.

“It really broke my heart, that a little girl in my community really thinks that going to Kansas City and going shopping is the end all, be all. You have to expose young people. They have to know this is something for them. This is something you can do, so I think that’s what Carver Bank represents,” Sanders said.

The sense of community, hope, and overcoming adversity which many hope Carver Bank will represent may best be captured in a poem by Omaha poet Zedeka Poindexter. The poem is painted on a wall of the exhibition space at Carver Bank.

An excerpt from it reads:

This is home

We are not without our problems

Tell me about the ways we have failed each other

I can’t argue

We have our reasons to pray and work and love harder

Still-this is home

I am at my best here

 

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