Wife Nicole and I went on the Gritty City tour this Sunday, a docent-guided trolley ride through downtown Omaha that highlights the dark side of our city’s history, focusing on the brothels, burlesques, and saloons that were commonplace here in the early 1900s. The idea here was that the tour, part of the Durham Museum’s education program, would add to the historical background for the novel I’m working on.
I was already familiar with much of the historical information the tour covered, but there were a few new things. Supposedly, the netting which to this day still covers the Douglas County Courthouse was put up in response to the Omaha Race Riots of 1919, when the windows were smashed out and the building eventually fire-bombed by a lynch mob demanding that Will Brown be released to them. Being that I’m at the courthouse on a daily basis for my reporting gig, I’d often wondered about the netting, so it was kind of cool to find out that bit of information. Especially as the lynching of Will Brown is the basis for a critical section of my novel The Open City. Synergy! To take this even further, when we first moved to Omaha four years ago, it was on a walk to the Old Market that I first noticed the netting and wondered what it was all about, because it is kind of weird. (My first thought actually was that the nets were to prevent people from throwing things at the courthouse, but that seemed kind of stupid at the time. Turns out I was standing very near the spot where the lynching had taken place. Now I know.
Speaking of the Brown lynching, I was a little surprised that this particular historical episode was included on the tour—not because it isn’t significant, but because there was definitely a whimsical tone to the trip. The lynching was treated with the upmost respect and solemnity, as it deserves, but it always strikes me as odd when people try to make history “fun” and “colorful.” Many of the anecdotes were funny in a way, but there’s something perverse about cracking jokes on mob hits and girls being forced into prostitution. I guess it would be harder to sell tickets to a tour that treated dark and depressing history as if it were dark and depressing history. So it goes.
Perhaps the most depressing aspect of Gritty City was in how few of Omaha’s landmarks have been preserved. Most of the time we were idling in one parking lot listening to a story about a place that is now another parking lot. Omaha’s immigrant and labor history is so rich, but it’s all been whitewashed over the past couple decades. Jobber’s Canyon was torn down when ConAgra wanted a new corporate campus; the old City Hall and Omaha Bee buildings were lost for the Woodman tower; the buildings of the old red light district and free hospital for the Freedom Center, the Holland Center, and the Courtyard by Marriott. And, of course, so much space is required for the parking needs of all these places that they bleed over onto even more land. I realize that Omaha would be a pretty sad place without such incarnations of progress, but it is sad that nothing more could have been done to preserve what the city was while transforming it into what it now is.
Anyway, I believe the tour will help me with The Open City. If nothing else, I picked up some valuable slang and lingo from the era. How else could I have come across such great terms and names as Hell’s Half-Acre, the Queen of the Tenderloin, Scandal Flats, and the Everlay Brothel. I’m pretty sure I misheard this last one, but I’m sticking with it!