Tuesday, August 04, 2009

Lewis and Clark Landing gets the lead out

Welcome to another in our series of Omaha travelogues. This week, it's Lewis and Clark Landing on the downtown riverfront.

Here we have a magnificent plaza and boardwalk perfectly suited for a leisurely alfresco lunch . . . or for a summer music festival. Mostly, though, people just like to chill and watch the muddy Missouri roll past River City.

Lewis and Clark Landing lies between the riverfront's Heartland of America Park to the south and, to the north, the Bob Kerrey Pedestrian Bridge across the Missouri River (shown here). Did I mention this is an excellent spot to chill on a summer evening?

THE LANDING also has a large monument to organized labor, centered on a water sculpture simply entitled "Labor." That's fitting.

Omaha has a rich past as a meat-and-potatoes, blue-collar, union-labor kind of Midwestern city once home to several breweries, some of the largest packing plants in the United States and a massive Western Electric works. And the plot of land where the sculpture sits -- indeed, where all of Lewis and Clark Landing sits -- once was home to this (right).

The ASARCO lead smelter operated on the Omaha riverfront for more than a century until it shut down in 1997 as the company faced numerous lead-pollution lawsuits. All in all, I think we'll take the cool plaza over a bunch of lead-belching smokestacks.

We're funny that way here.

It's an interesting dilemma, isn't it? Nobody wants a poison-belching lead smelter in the middle of their downtown, but getting rid of the bad -- pollution and an ugly industrial wart on your riverfront -- also can mean getting rid of the good as well.

IN THIS CASE, the good was relatively well-paying jobs for the working class. A generation before the ASARCO plant bit the lead-tainted dust, Omaha lost its big meatpacking plants on the south side of town -- thus dealing a devastating economic (and, by extension, social) blow to, for one, the city's African-American population.

What was one of the country's more prosperous minority communities now is one of America's poorest. I wonder what happened to the folks who used to work at ASARCO.

Obviously, we're better off with Lewis and Clark Landing . . . better off in countless ways. But you can be sure there's been a cost as well. Ironically, it's been at the expense of labor.

Speaking of "Labor" -- the sculpture, that is -- the piece actually suggests more of a foundry than a lead smelter -- and the real thing still sits a couple of miles or so to the east, in midtown Omaha.

It's not a huge foundry, but it'll do.

AS FOR OUR relatively new Lewis and Clark Landing, it will more than do. "Our." What do you know -- after a couple of decades in exile from the Deep South, I naturally say "our" when talking about all things Omaha.

Which suggests that if I were to -- as Louisianians would undoubtedly say to me from their perspective -- "come home," I wouldn't be. I'd be exiling myself all over again . . . from home.

The cliché tells us "home is where the heart is." Well, it is. And Omaha -- for that matter, the whole of this exotic, diverse place called Nebraska -- has a way of worming its way into one's heart. Of becoming home.

Or, more precisely,

1 comment:

GinMan69 said...

I just revisited Omaha for an industry meeting.I took my kids down to this area, and I had no idea a statue had been erected. Took me back to a lot of memories...at the most dangerous on I ever had. I used to work at ASARCO Omaha as a Union Steelworker. I feel for the people that were put out of work.