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Let's get past our Not-Being-Omaha Syndrome

Back in 1976, Hubert Humphrey coined the phrase: "Without ... the Twin Cities would be just a cold Omaha." He used it while speaking of the need to build a new home for the Twins and Vikings, given the looming expiration of their leases at old Met Stadium. Always a great phrasemaker, Humphrey's easy-to-understand logic assumed that if we didn't have Major League sports — or by extension, the Guthrie/Dayton's/Nicollet Mall (anything that puts us on the map) — we'd just be, well ... Omaha, only worse because of the cold.

Humphrey's hyperbole lives on as part of our regional language. His line of thinking self-propagates in letters to the editor, talk radio and highbrow architecture articles today. Yet, one has to wonder if the "cold Omaha" threat belies some deeper insecurity about our own sophistication — rather like the high schooler's need to look down on kids who are smaller or lower on the social pecking order. If Omaha is a "hick" town, what would be a "nerd" town? And, most important, one must ask the question that haunts all adolescents, "Who am I?"


Who are we?

Clearly, we are not Omaha because we have the Guthrie Theater (though we tore down its historic home designed by the late Ralph Rapson); the Nicollet Mall, where Mary Tyler Moore joyfully threw her hat into the air (though we tore out this acclaimed landscape architectural masterpiece by Lawrence Halprin for an '80s redo); and Dayton's, though it's Macy's now (arguably a fate worse than demolition).

No grounds for insecurity

Because we have so much, we have no grounds for insecurity. Twin Citians know we're in the cool clique of the Creative Class, right up there with Seattle, Portland, and Denver — and we're aiming for world-class. This is not an option for Omaha.

Our chance to be world-class and our attempts to do so define who we are and how we act as a community. In fact they obligate us to subsidize big-league billionaire projects such as the new Twins Stadium, helpfully ringed by subsidized parking ramps and freeways for quick suburban drop-ins and postgame sorties.

Because we are world-class aspirants, we build new arts facilities with underground parking garages so that visitors never have to go outside to note the city around them. We're so rich that we can tear down buildings like the Sheraton-Ritz hotel, the former Lutheran Brotherhood building, and of course, the original Guthrie, buildings that aren't even all that old!

But when you're young and hip, "old" is a relative concept, and places like Peavey Plaza are just "so 1997." Time for a new outfit.

Off to the mall — or to Europe
Time for a shopping trip to the mall — or to Paris or Basel to buy a new architect. That's why we're not Omaha. We're a cold, cool city that builds big projects, whereas way-not-cool Omaha has to rely on its homegrown stars such as Bright Eyes and Saddle Creek Records and Warren Buffet for local pride. You have to admire these Nebraska natives who have achieved so much while starting out with so little to inspire them.

Still, the people of Omaha are doing the best they can. Fifteen years ago, they tore down their own historic Jobber's Canyon warehouse district to build a corporate campus for Con Agra that would fit in well in Eagan. Insecure as they should be, they luckily have someone of their own to look down upon — little Council Bluffs, Iowa, just across the Missouri River. So they're trying. But they're not building a TCF Bank Gopher Stadium, and they're not one of the most sprawled metropolitan regions in the country, and they haven't rolled out so many skyways, and their malls are not mega.

Despite all this, we should grant Omaha the right to Dream Big. And we should be big enough to stop making fun of it. So let's stop using the "Without ... cold Omaha" phrase right now. Our role is to be there for Omaha as the Star of the North — a dream of possibility that shimmers on the horizon.

Frank Edgerton Martin is a landscape historian, campus preservation planner, writer and editor based in Minneapolis. He is a regular contributor to Landscape Architecture magazine and Architecture Minnesota.  

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