Forum Journal & Forum Focus

Lessons from the Loss of Omaha`s Jobbers Canyon 

12-09-2015 17:35

Even as you read, wrecking balls in Omaha are bringing down another bit of a National Register Historic District. The demolition of Jobbers Canyon is the largest single destruction of National Register property, ever. Despite this fact and the manifest value of the more than 25 buildings in the canyon, Omaha preservationists long debated whether and how they should fight to save the district. Our hesitation greatly aided the forces of destruction. Irreplaceable buildings have been lost, but out of the rubble, a handful of lessons can be learned.

Omaha`s preservation movement existed long before the demolition of Jobbers Canyon. Landmarks, Inc., a local preservation organization formed in response to the earlier destruction of numerous historic structures, has done much to preserve area architecture. It helped pass protective legislation, cataloged important structures, published newsletters and educated the public.

Yet when confronted by a powerful coalition of business and government, Landmarks was divided by an extended internal debate on the principles and the wisdom of defending Jobbers Canyon. While this dcbate raged, our opponents` project quickly built momentum. A united front sending the message that an expensive battle would have to be fought before the canyon would fall might have derailed the project at this time. Thus, an excellent opportunity to save Jobbers Canyon was lost to vacillation.

Landmarks was and remains a valuable force for preservation in Omaha, but its institutional weakness hamstrung early efforts to protect Jobbers Canyon. Other preservation groups dedicated to the protection of historic architecture may have similar flaws. I have written this article in the hope that it can aid the self-assessment and reform of similar groups.

ONE:  A time of crisis is no time to confront institutional shortcomings. In Omaha, our opposition is cohesive, enormously well funded and direct in its methods. It focused all of its energy for a quick victory, winning the early rounds of the battle before Landmarks could resolve its internal debate. Thus, the first lesson is to analyze and enact appropriate reforms now because there will be scant time for such work in a crisis.

TWO:  Know your membership. Does the membership really share the same goals? Is there a consensus on acceptable tactics in the evcnt of a fight to save a building or a district? For Landmarks, one of the critical issues was whether to file a lawsuit to enjoin the destruction of Jobbers Canyon. Two viewpoints dominated the debate. Many of Landmarks` active long-term supporters resigned when it appeared that litigation would be filed. Some believed that Omaha`s power structure would be permanently alienated by vigorous opposition. This faction reasoned that conciliation, cooperation and, if necessary, capitulation on Jobbers Canyon would preserve more historic structures ovcr time than full confrontation. Other mernbers may have objected to litigation and vigorous opposition because of potential injury to their personal economic, social and political ambitions.

On the other side of the debate were Landmark members who supported strong action. Members of this faction broke from the group and formed a second organization named PROUD (People for Responsible Omaha Urban Development). PROUD is dedicated to a more activist position and ultimately did file a lawsuit, in which the National Trust later intervened. PROUD`s membership believes that litigation, when absolutely necessary, is indispensable to meaningful preservation. In PROUD`s view, the lawsuit over Jobbers Canyon conveyed the unequivocal message that development through needless destruction of historic structures will be painful and expensive. PROUD embraces the concept of "preservation with teeth," believing that developers motivated by the pocketbook will cooperate and look for compromise.

Though now supportive of the Jobbers Canyon litigation, Landmarks decided not to join as a party, and one attempt by the group to join as an amicus was rejected by the court. There is a place for both a PROUD and a Landmarks in any city`s preservation scene. Ideally, both approaches to preservation can be embodied in one organization. In Omaha, that was not possible. We have found that two separate but cohesive entities are vastly superior to one divided group.

THREE:  Streamline your structure. There should be no mistake about the nature of a major preservation effort and the strain it places on both member and organization. Threats to historic buildings often come from unexpected directions and seemingly develop overnight. The opposition, if skilled, will push its case on several fronts simultaneously. Fluid tactics, a cohesive organization and flexible thinking are essential to an effective preservation effort. All preservation groups are underfunded so the efficient use of available resources is critical.

How big are your committees? Overlarge committees often waste time debating fine points of policy--when a quorum can actually be gathered. Several small groups, each focused on a specific task, tend to accomplish more with less. Are your committees organized around the functions necessary to fight for the preservation of a historic district or building? Many organizations are structured to support their own existence, not an effort to preserve a building. In Omaha, we found that media, fund-raising, litigation, public hearings, newsletters and general organization were essential functions. Loose committees were formed to meet each of these basic needs. The groups were both small and largely autonomous with members sharing a fundamental agreement on goals and tactics. As a result, little time was spent in debate and a great deal actually achieving desired goals.

FOUR:   Think long term. Do not let your members financially or emotionally overextend themselves. Active members are the core of an organization, and burnout is an ever-present risk. Consider adopting a moderate public stance and tone. Firebrands have excellent short-term impact but don`t wear well with the public. Analyze the situation you confront and adopt a tactic that keeps your organization in the fight over the long haul. Do not allow even a crushing defeat in a given battle to destroy your organization. A developer who successfuliy flattens a historic structure, but only after an expensive legal fight and hostile publicity, may be more reasonable on the next project. The public may be more supportive next time if night after night they hear a reasonable spokesperson articulate thoughtful arguments. Opponents in one battle often become allies in the next if the group has earned their respect. None of these potential benefits can accrue, however, to an organization that does not survive a struggle. Preservationists should always remember that it is the war, not the battle, that counts.

FIVE:  Whenever possible, fight battles that stand a reasonable chance of being won. Defending buildings that are extremely dilapidated and offer little to no chance for successful redevelopment or rehabilitation strains both the resources of the organization and its credibility with the public. Often it is necessary to defend such structures because of intrinsic historic value. When possible, however, attempt to intervene only when the building presents an economically viable project. The odds for success in the individual fight are better and your long-term standing in the community will be higher.

SIX:  Identify potential allies and link up at an early stage of the struggle. The National Trust for Historic Preservation and other preservation groups are the logical starting point. Be flexible and creative when looking for allies. Remember the injunction, "the enemy of my enemy is my friend." In addition to preservationists, who will this project injure? If government is involved in the project, the funding often comes at the cost of some identifiable sector of the community. Cast a far net when looking for potential allies.

SEVEN:  Assess your membership`s talents and employ them intelligently. Do you have anyone with a working knowledge of the media? One of PROUD`s most valuable members sells advertisement time in the broadcast media. Her understanding of the media and contacts within it helped make publicity an effective tool for preservation. Are there any attorneys in your organization? Even if they don`t represent the group at trial, legal knowledge can be extrernely useful. Artists and architects have been among PROUD`s most consistent and productive supporters. They are capable of substantial contributions in fund-raising, publicity and other essential areas. Who in your membership will make a good radio and television spokesperson? The image projected to the public is absolutely critical and may be your single most important decision. The spokesperson must be well suited for the image conveyed.

Don`t try to fit square pegs into round holes. Help your members identify their talents and interests and give them an opportunity to go to work. Members who are following their interests and applying natural talents are far happier and more productive.

EIGHT:  Prepare now. Are you in contact with an attorney who is willing to represent your group? Does your attorney have a basic petition, form interrogatories, requests for admissions, etc., already prepared? Does your organization have a list of architects, engineers, economists, urban planners, developers, historians and others with particular skills who are willing to testify as experts at political hearings or trials? Identifying and making contact with such people before a crisis will save valuable time and free critical resources to confront other problems.

NINE:  Break it down and get it done. A major preservation campaign is built through the successful completion of a thousand details. The workers are usually volunteers who, if rational, would consider being fired a blessing. Who needs four hours of work after 5:00 p.m. and a long weekend of labor, all without pay?

Managing the group, in order to complete specific tasks without alienating your members, is a never-ending challenge. In PROUD, we found a public promise to peers to complete a specific task to be an effective management tool.

If, for example, your organization wishes to present evidence at a political hearing, the effort could flow along these lines. The political hearing committee meets and sets a specific goal: "The hearing will be used to educate the public and city council that building X is architecturally important, historically significant and an cconomically viable rehabilitation project."

The committee then chooses a tactic: "Skilled individuals will testify on each issue to a large live audience and extensive media coverage." The committee breaks the tactic down to specific needs, which must be met to achieve the desired end. A large audience? Fliers announcing the hearing and urging attendance may be effcctive. The fliers will cost $100, which must be raised. The fliers must also be distributed well before the hearing. The media? Make sure that the event is announced and reporters encouraged to attend. (There is only one way to do this -- by making the event newsworthy.) Expert witnesses? An architect, a developer and a historian must be contacted, retained, assigned specific topics and rehearsed. An expert needs help in preparing a drawing to use as an audiovisual aid --so an artist must sign on. The rules governing the hearing must be researched and obeyed or the experts will not get to testify before the large audience and assembled media, and the public won`t be educated. Thus, a lawyer may be needed to analyze the rules.

Each of these needs is interrelated. Successful completion of the tactic can only occur if all are met. If the audience and media show up, but the experts cannot testify, what is gained? Much will be lost. Useless expenditure of labor crushes morale. Even in a losing battle, morale is increased if labor is consistently and clearly rewarded by the achievement of specific, limited goals. How do you ensure that all needs are met? Each need must be broken down to the smallest part and clearly identified. Individual workers then publicly commit to their coworkers that they each meet a specific, limited need at a certain time. "I will design the flier and have it at the printers by 5:00 p.m. Tuesday, March 1." Or "I will raise $100 and have it to the printer by 5:00 p.m. Tuesday, March 1." Do not make promises for absent members. It presumes that member`s willingness and time to participate. The presumption puts at risk all members` labor. It is acceptable to promise to meet a need and then ask that someone else help accomplish the task. But remember that if the other person is unwilling, you are the one who promised. By breaking down a tactic into specific, limited needs and asking individual members to publicly promise to meet each need, the organization achieves these important objectives:

  • All efforts arc focused on specific goals and tactics.
  • All goals and tactics are analyzed and the necessary resources identified before the project is started. Accordingly, the organization is less likely to overextend itself. If you don`t have the resources necessary to meet a need, abandon thc tactic. There will be fewer failures.
  • The assignment of resourccs to needs will be more efficient.
  • Workloads for individuals are identified and balanced, and burnout is avoided.
  • Individuals are personally responsible for meeting specific needs, and feel a sense of accomplishment at completing their tasks.
  • The process of breaking down a goal into specific needs shows members the work being done by their peers. Morale will be higher when it is understood that work is being shared.
  • Making a public commitment to meet a need reminds the individual that the labor of all may be meaningless if his or her pledge is not redeemed. Accountability in advance for a specific task is a more effective way to ensure performance than gencralized recrimination following a failure.

TEN:  Don`t equivocate. Once a course of action is set, do not back down. If litigation is necessary, then resolve that it will be fought as vigorously as resources permit. Don`t be overly rigid and reject all compromise, but do not begin a confrontation in the hope that you will not complete it. Marginal commitment to a struggle is immediately communicated to your opposition. It is certain that uncertain commitment loses both the battle and the respect of your opponent and the public.


In time, all preservation groups will face a knockdown, drag-out fight. Sooner or later, in all communities, development or demolition will threaten something of great historic value. The only way such a confrontation can be avoided is if the group chooses never to enter the fight. Decide now what stance your organization will take when that day comes. If it is determined that the organization is unwilling to act aggrcssively, then clearly state that fact. Activists may then choose to create a separate entity committed to a more aggressive policy. If the organization is committed to an activist policy, carefully analyze capacities and marshal resourccs before the crisis. There is no substitute for preparation.

Publication Date: Spring 1989



Author(s):Thomas M. White