An earnest do-gooder named Christian Gray and his earnest nonprofit — inCOMMON Community Development — are throwing a party Saturday, and you should come.
You should come because there will be food and drink and bounce houses for your kids. You should come because inCOMMON did a slick redo of an old rug shop, keeping the stamped tin ceiling but knocking down walls and adding more windows, filling the whole place with light.
But really you should come because this new community center sits on Park Avenue, and you ought to see what a few years and millions of dollars of private investment have done for this once-notorious street.
You also should see the challenge ahead for what inCOMMON wants to do: bridging the two worlds that coexist on Park Avenue.
The first is a world of deep poverty, with two public housing towers on the south end of the street, near Woolworth Avenue. The second is a world of professionals and students moving into beautifully-restored buildings at the north end of Park Avenue, near Leavenworth Street.
Both worlds are on a street that, not too long ago, was known for prostitutes and drug dealers operating in the open. And for landlords who let their buildings go to pot.
But in recent years, some of the buildings have been fixed up. And Park Avenue has benefited from its location near Midtown Crossing and downtown Omaha.
Gray wants to build on that progress. The 41-year-old and his faith-based organization aim to tackle poverty, but not by handing out basics like food or shelter. InCOMMON is setting up the community center to mix the neighborhood's people together so they can unite around a shared goal: improving the area.
“If we can develop strong, healthy neighborhoods,” he said, “then kids aren't growing up in troubled environments.”
The community center is called Park Ave. Commons. It will have classroom space for kid art classes, GED instruction and English language lessons. It will hold work space for tool-lending, recycling and bike-repair programs. It will offer public computers. It will even provide a piano. Just because.
And Park Ave. Commons will have space for social work students from the University of Nebraska at Omaha.
Gray said the point is to build relationships and, by doing that, form a community that will improve life for all.
A lot of improvement is still needed. One out of three Park Avenue residents lives below the poverty line. Seven out of 10 are Hispanic, reflected somewhat in new businesses taking root. Almost eight of 10 are renters.
InCOMMON started 10 years ago and used to be called Mosaic Community Development. The group ran various programs, including some on Park Avenue, but focused its efforts downtown with the homeless.
Several years ago, the group changed its name and sought a home in a struggling neighborhood where it could be more proactive, than reactive to poverty. InCOMMON raised $500,000 through a capital campaign and — with donated construction work from the Omaha Federation of Labor — created its new headquarters and this community center at 1340 Park Ave.
Park Ave. Commons sounds nice and utopian and idealistic.
But it doesn't have millions of dollars to invest in restoring more buildings in the neighborhood, police officers to curb crime or housing inspectors to chip away at problems.
What can it do, really? What can a little community center offer?
You can find some answers inside Park Avenue Grocery, where customers are so familiar with owners Mary Ann and Mick Caniglia that they call them Mom and Dad. Mom, can I cash a check with no ID? How you doin', Dad?
|Columnists Michael Kelly, Erin Grace and Matthew Hansen write about people, places and events around Omaha. Read more of their work here.|
Here, inside their tidy, warm shop, there's a sense of community. It's where I find 52-year-old Steve, who is black, 27-year-old Matt, who is white and has multiple facial piercings, and 17-year-old Tremaine, who is wearing his Taco John's uniform and hurrying off to his after-school shift.
“There's good, solid family roots down here,” Mary Ann says.
She explains how these roots were hurt by the slumlords, the crime and bad press that followed. Park Ave. earned a bad rap that was hard to shake.
But many of those problems have been cleaned up, and Mary Ann sees Park Avenue on the rise. She is so hopeful that at age 58, the Caniglias finally took out a loan to replace their leaky roof. They hadn't dared to make that kind of $47,000 investment before.
Mary Ann said a community center is needed to weave together the lower-income longtime residents and the better-off newcomers. Park Avenue Grocery may be a neighborhood anchor, too, but the young professionals in the fixed-up buildings don't seem to shop at the Caniglias' store.
Mary Ann speculated it's because they have cars and go elsewhere. Mick wonders if they're a little afraid to come in. Or maybe it's because the newcomers don't need the store's check-cashing service.
But no matter where they shop, all Park Avenue residents have a stake in the neighborhood's health.
This is why Park Ave. Commons is holding this big party.
After all, if you're opening a community center, you want the whole community.
So come Saturday. The party is from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. And maybe, if enough neighbors come, they will see what Christian Gray believes: that they all have something in common — even beyond living on the same street.
“We're all humans,” Gray said. “We all want the same things for ourselves and our families: good opportunities.”