Union for Contemporary Arts challenges old housing laws


Megan Fabry 

Redline intern Alexzia Plummer assists patron attending the exhibit. Photo courtesy of Patrick Mainelli.

The Union for Contemporary Arts is displaying an interactive and informative exhibit that focuses on the housing discrimination in Omaha and how it has affected generations of people.

In the mid-1930s, north and south Omaha were systematically segregated from the rest of the city through prohibitive housing laws. Omaha, along with other cities across America, drew red lines on their city maps that identified predominately African-American and immigrant communities as unfit for investment.

The Union for Contemporary Arts hopes to bring attention to the systemic challenges those within the red lines face, such as inequalities in housing, education, income and more.

“It’s really pretty dramatic to look at the original redline maps from the ‘30s,” said communications manager Patrick Mainelli. “I can see how those lines of segregation are pretty much still distinct in the city today. The legacy of redlining – really in the moment it was happening throughout the 20th century – was that very distinct lines were drawn around communities as being a hazardous or unsafe place to live, and as a result those communities were really isolated from the services they needed.”

The exhibit invites everyone to learn the history of the city and interact with the stories that are shared. Stuart Chittenden has been making connections across Omaha and interviews people who have been affected by the redlines their entire lives.

“Sharing stories is how we make sense of the world for ourselves and among each other,” Chittenden said. “We are a social species and stories are a potent means to sustain wisdom, culture, tradition and beliefs across generations and among societies. Stories, too, bring us within the emotional and psychological experiences of others, like and unlike us.”

Chittenden recalled a story he was told about a young girl who looked back on her childhood fondly, but realized her family was put in a box when her father was denied a chance to look at a home for sale that was two blocks north of Ames.

“Specifically, for this project, sharing stories is one way we might face how the practice of redlining inherently damaged communities and our sense of being connected to each other,” Chittenden said. “Sharing stories enables us to perceive the impact of this on people’s lives, to bear witness to people’s experiences and to begin the process of dismantling the barriers – social, economic, and geographic – erected between us. We affirm each other’s dignity by listening and sharing.”

The interactive exhibit allows spectators to witness and become involved in the living testimony to the experience of redlining. Those affected can do something as simple as place a pin on the map where they live or lived in Omaha, or they could leave a testimony about their experience and what they have seen in their own community that has been affected.

“The objective of the exhibit is to be engaged in the work of on designing the red line on designing and reimagining this legacy and kind of building a better future,” Mainelli said. “And so, going forward, that’s really the goal helping to kind of formulate this conversation in a concrete way and come up with a plan for a better way forward.”

“Undesign the Redline” is open five days a week and is free to the public.