The Neighborhood’s Beginnings

Omaha’s history began on the west shores of the Missouri River during the 1850’s.  Settlers heading west stopped here to purchase supplies for their journey to a new life in the nations newly settled west.  Some settlers remained here to open businesses to those who were passing through.  By 1880, Omaha’s commerce district expanded from the Missouri River, west to 16th Street, and from Leavenworth Street north to Capital Street.  Not wanting to live at their places of business, several early Omaha businessman chose to live in the hills south of downtown resulting in the birth of our neighborhood.  Large, stately mansions were built by some of Omaha’s elite citizens in our area of town then known and Grandview.  The boundaries of Grandview were the Missouri River west to 16th Street and from Leavenworth Street south to Bancroft Street.  By the year 1900, the big mansions were surrounded by neat, smaller, wood frame homes many owned by recent immigrants to our country.

Grandview came into prominence in 1890 after the economic depression of the late 1880’s.  Demand for jobs became plentiful.  Packing houses needed employees, the railroad shops were looking for people, and the lead smelter was in need of workers.  By 1895, immigrants from the Moravia and Bohemia portions of Czechoslovakia flocked to the United States and onto Omaha settling in the Grandview area.  Soon the ethnic colony of Bohemian Town was founded.  The colony’s boundary’s included 10th Street west to 16th Street, and Pierce Street south to Martha Street.  The Czech immigrants found jobs in the packing houses or with the railroad.  Several of them also formed their own businesses inside the colony.  Most Czech immigrants came to America with the hope of staying.  Many built or purchased their own homes.  Their goal was to assimilate into the American culture.  Education was very important to them.  The hub of business activity for Bohemian Town was the 13th & William area.  The businesses community extended from 13th & Pacific south to 13th & Martha.  Institutions like the Sokols and St. Wenceslaus Catholic Church helped to define the colony’s ethnic character.  By 1920, an estimated 3500 immigrants lived in Bohemian Town.

Beginning about 1905, groups of immigrants from Sicily in the southern part of Italy, began immigrating to Omaha in search of jobs; many also settled in the Grand View area south of downtown.  Migrants consisted primarily of men looking for jobs in which they were unable to find in their homeland.  Their intentions were usually to send a portion of their earnings back to relatives in Sicily with the hope of rejoining them back at home in Sicily in a few years when jobs had become more plentiful.  The Sicilian colony originally started as a group of shanties along the river bottoms near Pierce Street.   Since they planned to stay in Omaha temporarily, many immigrants were content living in shelters or boarding houses.  By 1920, nearly 1500 immigrants returned home to Sicily while and estimate 2500 chose to remain here.  Sicilian immigrants who chose to stay in their new land, generally worked at the railroad or smelter.  Some opened businesses in Little Italy and several became vendors of fruits and vegetables.  Several sent for their families in Italy.  As the number of immigrants grew, new homes were built.  Littly Italy prospered.  The boundaries extended from Pacific Street south to Center Street and the Missouri River west to 10th Street.  6th & Pierce was the hub of economic activity.  The primary business community extended west from 6th to 10th & Pierce.

It should be noted, that there were two Italian colonies in Omaha that comprised of Little Italy.  One was the group that emigrated (as mentioned above) from Sicily in the south of Italy.  The other was the Calabrese colony who immigrated from the northern part of Italy.  The Calabrese colony was located west of the Sicilian colony extending from Marcy Street on the north to Bancroft Street of the south, and from 20th Street west to the 27th Street.  Though both colonies were from the same homeland, they remained physically separated in Omaha.  

By 1920, Italians and Czechs in Omaha were uniting together.  Italians began purchasing homes in Bohemian Town and Czechs bought homes in Little Italy.  All along the Bohemian business district on South 13th Street, Italian and Bohemian homes existed side by side.  
During the early years, a wide variety of housing was built in the Grandview area.  Homes ranged from tin shanties on the river bottoms to magnificent estates and mansions in the area of 10th & William.  After 1900, neat one and two story traditional wood frame homes began being built and began becoming residences for the Italian and Czech immigrants around the neighborhood.  In the Czech colony along South 14th Street, in keeping with their home country tradition, immigrants built as many as five homes on one lot.  The front house was for the immediate family and the back houses for other members of the family.  Several Sears Roebuck kits homes were built in the area.  Complete home building kits were purchased through the Sears Catalog by residents and received via the railroad.  The purchaser picked up the materials at the Depot, brought them to his home site, and proceeded to build his home.

Buildings that housed neighborhood businesses were generally of wood frame construction and adjoined each other making them vulnerable to destruction in case of fire.  Immigrants opened shops relating to the trades they had learned in their homeland.  Businesses were very compact is size.  A typical place of business contained an area about 15 feet wide and 30 feet long.  In many cases, the proprietor lived above his business establishment.  Often, he would go to work in the packing house or railroad during the day leaving his wife and family to run the business.