Grace: Where's Mayor Stothert from, again? Does it matter? -
Published Wednesday, July 3, 2013 at 1:00 am / Updated at 5:14 pm
Grace: Where's Mayor Stothert from, again? Does it matter?

Omaha Mayor Jean Stothert told a north Omaha audience that she grew up in inner-city St. Louis.

This was after she told the same audience she grew up in Wood River, Ill.

But a lot separates those two locales.

As in about 15 miles, the Mississippi River and major demographics. St. Louis is the aging, racially diverse Gateway to the West. Wood River is an aging, rust-belt, mostly white bedroom community of about 11,000 people, once known for having the world's biggest swimming pool.

Speaking Monday to a mostly black audience in Omaha's inner city, the newly minted white mayor from Millard was no doubt trying to connect.

No doubt trying to build a bridge.

She told them she grew up in Wood River, “a little, blue-collar refinery town.”

She also told them about being a nurse at two inner-city St. Louis hospitals: One served trauma patients and the other, now closed, served the indigent.

She told them about goals she shared with the audience: reducing violence and improving the education and jobs picture.

But then came Vickey Parks.

As reliably as politicians show up in north Omaha for visits and conversations and promises, Vickey Parks reliably shows up to take a stand.

The former librarian and longtime activist challenged Stothert's attentiveness to the issues of north Omaha.

The area has a 36 percent poverty rate — three times that of Douglas County.

It has a 17 percent unemployment rate in a city known nationally for its low unemployment, even during the worst economic recession since the Great Depression.

North Omaha has twice as many vacant homes as the rest of the county and half as many homes owned by the people who live there. It also has de facto racial segregation: The area north of Dodge Street and east of 45th Street is about 46 percent black, compared with the county's 11 percent.

Said Parks: “You're going to have race riots because you didn't pay attention to us about the conditions we are living in, not the conditions you live in, in Millard.”

Stothert tried to respond. Parks interrupted.

Undeterred, Stothert retorted: “It's not just about where I live in Millard. Like I told you, I grew up in inner-city St. Louis. So don't think for a minute that I don't understand what poverty and living in an inner city is like.”

Strong words.

Wrong words? Hadn't she told everyone earlier that she grew up in Wood River?

I asked her Tuesday about the discrepancy. Where had she grown up?

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Columnists Michael Kelly, Erin Grace and Matthew Hansen write about people, places and events around Omaha. Read more of their work here.

Both places, she said, adding: “I don't feel like that's a contradiction at all.”

She lived in Wood River, where her father and grandfather built the two-bedroom home she was raised in. She was the second of four children. When the third child was born, the basement became Jean's bedroom.

Wood River, where she was a lifeguard at what once had been the world's largest swimming pool.

Wood River, where her father had to retire early from his oil refinery job because Standard Oil was pulling out.

But a lot of her relatives lived in St. Louis, and two years after graduating from East Alton-Wood River High and after putting herself through nursing school in Alton, Ill., she moved to St. Louis and started working as a nurse.

In 1974, she moved into depressed neighborhoods to be close to her jobs at St. Louis University Hospital, which remains the city's largest trauma center, and the now-closed St. Louis City Hospital, which exclusively served the poor.

“I have lived in communities with issues similar to north Omaha: high crime, high poverty,” Stothert said. “I lived in both. I worked in both.”

Both hospitals sat in distressed neighborhoods that Stothert described as “high crime,” “dangerous” and “patchy,” where the scene changed street by street.

As a young nurse, she said, she tended to many victims of crime and violence.

“I sat with many families while their sons and daughters and mothers and sisters died,” she said. “I know firsthand what it's like living in low-income areas, a high-poverty area.”

If Stothert's remarks about her background caused confusion, it didn't matter to City Councilman Ben Gray.

Gray, who sparred with Stothert when she was on the council, said he was far more interested in the city budget and in north Omaha's pressing issues than in Stothert's historical geography.

“Whether she's from Wood River or East Cleveland doesn't matter to me,” he said. “What matters to me is what you're going to do when you're in office.”

It didn't matter to Tom Warren, Urban League president and former Omaha police chief. He said he didn't think Stothert misrepresented herself.

“She was engaged,” he said. “She clearly shared what her priorities were.”

Willie Barney, head of the community betterment effort known as the Empowerment Network, said the mayor has been off to a good start with some north Omaha advocates and called the meeting productive.

He said the focus should be on moving the ball forward and building on the gains that he said have been made in reducing gun violence and improving educational outcomes.

“Let's keep our eye on the ball,” Barney said. “We've made progress, but we still have a long way to go. We get so distracted by this stuff — at the end of the day, it's Mayor Jean Stothert.”

Correction: A previous version of this story referred to the Mississippi River as the longest river in North America.

Contact the writer: Erin Grace    |   402-444-1136    |  

Erin is a columnist who tries to find interesting stories and get them into the paper. She's drawn to the idea that everyday life offers something extraordinary.

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