Street of Dreams

A New Front Door to Creighton University

Read more about the new 24th Street that cuts through the Creighton campus.

Street of Dreams

At the intersection of history and hope stands 24th Street — and a major renovation project bringing together Creighton, the city of Omaha and two well-established communities

By Eugene Curtin

Creighton University’s transformation of 24th Street from Cass Street north to Cuming Street is its latest contribution to one of Omaha’s most historic and iconic thoroughfares.

For generations of immigrants, since the founding of the city of Omaha in 1854 and its formal incorporation in 1857, 24th Street was the place where Poles, Czechs, Italians, Germans and Jews found refuge from European serfdom, and where today Latino and other immigrants, and their descendants, have added to vibrant expressions of community, hope, and racial and cultural pride.

But 24th Street is a tale of two worlds — divided, as divisions so often are, into north and south. The world of the rising European rustic became known as South 24th Street, in contrast to North 24th Street, which was older, inhabited by the pioneers and aristocrats of Omaha’s burgeoning civitas but which gradually, through redlining, race-restrictive covenants and white flight, became home to a majority of the city’s African American population.

The dividing line of these north-south worlds is Cuming Street, named for Thomas Cuming, the second governor of Nebraska Territory. Some argue that Burt Street, one block south of Cuming Street and named for the first governor of Nebraska Territory, is the proper demarcation line. Whether Cuming or Burt, two things are clear: The naming of the streets in honor of Nebraska’s first governors demonstrates clearly where Omaha finds its roots, and Creighton University bridges these two portrayals or faces of 24th Street.

The memoirs of the Rev. William Rigge, SJ, who arrived at Creighton in 1878 as one of five original Jesuit faculty members, record the birth of Creighton’s relationship with 24th Street. It was, by his account, a muddy affair, memorably preserved in a contemporary quatrain by poet John G. Saxe:

“Hast’s ever been to Omaha
Where rolls the dark Missouri down,
Where six strong horses scarce can pull
An empty wagon through the town?”

California Street, which today follows roughly the campus mall, was not paved until 1888, and 24th Street not until 1911, almost a year after Creighton’s still-standing concrete retaining wall was completed. By then, Fr. Rigge recorded, 24th Street was steaming toward its destiny:

“Twenty-fourth Street is fulfilling the expectation that it will become an intensely busy thoroughfare,” he wrote. “It is probably the longest and straightest street in the city, and the proposal to widen it to 100 feet has been mooted for years.”

When Mary Lucretia Creighton stipulated in her will that a college be established in memory of her husband, Edward, a prominent Omaha businessman, and when she bequeathed the $100,000 that in 1878 made the dream a reality, she could not have known that her spousal memorial at 24th and California streets would one day become a magnificent university of national standing, nor that it would eventually sit at the very cusp of Omaha’s Black community.

But history does what it does, and Creighton’s proximity to predominantly Black North Omaha has been the story, writ small, of America’s slow, painful and ongoing progress toward racial equality.

Creighton, like other American institutions, walked a path of learning during the 20th century, emerging from a world where racial prejudice went largely unchallenged to today, when the University maintains outreach programs to the Black community and other communities of color.

The Rev. Daniel S. Hendrickson, SJ, PhD, president of Creighton, noted the kinship between the University and 24th Street on Sept. 24 during ceremonies marking the redesign of the thoroughfare as it passes through the campus.

“The friendships and partnerships we have developed over the years with North Omaha and South Omaha leaders and citizens have enlivened our campus and our students,” he said. “We look forward to enhancing those relationships and collaborations even more, as we work together to ensure that the Omaha area is a welcoming and nurturing community for all.”

The hope that Creighton’s revitalization of its stretch of 24th Street might boost historic North Omaha was palpable at the dedication ceremony.

LaVonya Watson Goodwin, BA’96, president of the North 24th Street Business Improvement District (BID) and a 1996 graduate of Creighton, said North Omaha had been gifted a “new streetscape and gateway.”

“Today, students, pedestrians, cyclists, drivers and transit users are all safer and have a more pleasant view as they enter North 24th Street, thanks to the vision and implementation of this new streetscape and gateway,” she said.

“This grand new entrance serves as a reminder that all are welcome on North 24th Street, at Creighton, past Cuming to Lake Street, and beyond. It is symbolic of beauty and revitalization, and represents an impetus of the work that must continue to ensure that all of the sidewalks are walkable and the streets are safe to navigate throughout the North 24th Street corridor.”

The presence at the dedication ceremony of Jean Stothert, the 57th mayor of Omaha, provided a tangible tie to the past, a circumstance Stothert noted.

“Twenty-fourth Street connects the very diverse, significant and historic neighborhoods of North and South Omaha,” she said. “In Omaha’s early years, 24th Street was busy and prosperous, rich in cultural traditions and heritage. Today, 24th Street links that rich ethnic past to the current needs of our community.

“There are exciting times ahead here on North 24th Street, and I look forward to our continued work together.”

Whatever shape that work takes in the future, it will be a continuation of the partnership between Creighton and the city.

As related in Fr. Rigge’s memoirs, Creighton made its stretch of the street possible by ceding to the city 30 feet of land from its eastern boundary, which constituted more than half the width of the newly paved street.

Horses helped push and pull the plows that graded the street, proving more efficient for the job than a steam tractor. The work required Creighton to build the retaining wall that still lines the campus portion of 24th Street, and the lawn where the observatory still stands had to be lowered 10 feet.

In the century following those pioneering days, North 24th Street became first a vibrant commercial district, then the scene of a bustling African American culture, eventually reduced by lack of opportunity, race riots and some commercial abandonment, to the current vision for improvements and development being led by the North 24th Street BID.

“Gateways represent the beginning of a thing — how one starts,” Goodwin said.

“I welcome this new beginning for Creighton, for passersby, and for the North 24th Street community as we begin a new era for the North 24th Street corridor.”