OMAHA, Neb. (Nebraska Examiner) — Today it’s a South Omaha parking lot, mostly, with a few benches and trees and a plaque dedicated in 1988: “La Plaza de la Raza, The Gathering Place of the Races.”
But local advocates say the 24th and N Streets pocket is rundown and never got the polishing it was supposed to in a past revamp of the historic South 24th Street. Now a combined $1 million from Douglas County and the City of Omaha pushes the plaza closer to a $3 million transformation into a corridor centerpiece and state tourism draw.
“We’d like to see a concert pavilion, green space with a playground for the kids, a great space that will attract tourism,” said Marcos Mora, a community leader working with groups including Canopy South to activate the vision they hope kicks off more revitalization.
History as immigrant landing place
The county’s $500,000 allocation this week comes on top of $500,000 earmarked earlier by the City of Omaha. Both awards are from federal American Rescue Plan Act funds.
Cesar Garcia of Canopy South said his nonprofit and other involved groups hope to win another $2 million from the State of Nebraska’s ARPA funding, which stems from pandemic-related legislation signed by President Joe Biden.
He and Mora were among South Omaha leaders who testified at recent ARPA-related legislative hearings about community needs exacerbated by COVID-19 and what they describe as overall government inattentiveness to the area of Nebraska traditionally known as a landing spot for immigrants.
They envision the improved La Plaza de la Raza as a rallying point, a central site along the historic commercial district that could be to South Omaha what Stinson Park is to the Aksarben area or what Turner Park is to Omaha’s midtown area.
RDG Planning and Design’s Marty Shukert is working with community representatives on a phased approach to the plaza that meshes with the existing streetscape from L to Q Streets and emphasizes Latino culture while reflecting historic diversity.
An amphitheater with a performance stage for dance and performing arts is key, according to preliminary plans, along with a play area that’s inviting to families with kids.
Improvements could begin as early as next year. A later phase could expand west to 25th Street with a multi-use green space, more playground features and new parking configuration.
Garcia said the vision could expand even further, depending on funding, with a parking structure elsewhere in South Omaha to help make up for lost parking in the plaza and to facilitate more tourism. He said the larger dream could reach to $30 million or so.
Town square, zocalo
Itzel Lopez, a member of the Latino Economic Development Council, said South 24th Street for generations has been an ethnic enclave driven by small businesses, most recently Latino merchants. She said it lacks that central feature where visitors and families, for instance, can picnic after buying an authentic ethnic meal from a local diner or simply enjoy an afternoon.
An immigrant herself, she harkens to the traditional Mexican zocalo, the public town square of a village, where people are known to meet up, gather and attend community events.
Indeed, when her family moved to Omaha decades ago, she said, her parents referenced the South Omaha Plaza de la Raza as a place to meet up.
“I remember thinking, ‘This isn’t a plaza,’” she said in an interview this week. “We have a long ways to go, but we know this is going to create a moment for folks, a landmark, a space that creates a sense of belonging and community.”
Situated amidst the “The Magic City” of South Omaha, the plaza has its own history. When the plaque was to be dedicated in the late 1980s, some merchants were cool to the Spanish name of La Plaza de la Raza.
The plaque disappeared in 1998. A reward was offered, but it never showed up. An almost exact replica of the original 24-by-18 inch-plaque featuring the Aztec calendar was affixed to the white concrete pedestal facing 24th Street during a ceremony organized by local community advocates.
The parking lot in modern days continues to transform at times for events and community gatherings, for example, during the growing Cinco de Mayo festivities.
Mora, who organizes that annual celebration and serves on the South Omaha business improvement district board, said a revival of the corridor’s streetscape in the early 2000s ran out of federal funds before it reached improvements then envisioned at the plaza. Murals have since been painted around the site, other spots have been brightened at various times along the business strip.
He said his message today is that an upgrade is overdue and would be a positive for the city and state.
“Omaha doesn’t become a great city unless you make all its sectors great,” said Mora.
Federal funding boosts effort
Douglas County’s financial boost toward La Plaza de la Raza is part of about $110 million the county is to distribute in American Rescue Plan Act funds.
Championed by Commissioner Roger Garcia, the half-million-dollar grant was approved by the County Board this week, along with other awards such as $500,000 to the Nebraska Hispanic Chamber of Commerce Foundation for small business grants.
Also approved this week: $700,000 to the county’s Restaurant Assistance Program; $500,000 for I See It Ventures, a Ralston enterprise that provides job training; nearly $55,000 to The Vessel Network to help people with developmental disabilities; $50,000 for Lutheran Family Services for mental health services.
Joe Lorenz, the county’s finance director, said the commissioners each had a $2.5 million allotment to direct toward their districts. Other earlier grants were allocated to county government projects.
He said about $55 million is headed toward a mental health services and facility, with details yet to be refined.
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