The stories of South Omaha’s neighborhoods are inextricably linked to the rise and fall of the stockyards and packing plants that developed in the area. From the late-19th century into the mid-20th these industries prospered and South Omaha became known as “The Magic City” that had seemingly boomed overnight. Often referred to as the lifeblood of South Omaha, these industries were intertwined with the economy and culture of the entire community, which included Polish, Czech, Irish, and German ethnicities. The Union Stockyards attracted white European immigrants, as well as African Americans from the South, to work in often brutal, but well-paying, industrial conditions. At its peak in the 1950s, Omaha’s Union Stockyards surpassed Chicago and Kansas City to become the largest stockyards in the nation. As these industries grew, vibrant ethnic communities and commercial districts sprung up and thrived in the surrounding areas along 16th Street, 24th Street, and in the Saint Mary’s neighborhood at 30th and Q Street.
Courtesy of Durham Museum
During this time, South Omaha prospered and businesses including bakeries, bars, department stores, and restaurants opened along Q Street and 24th to accommodate all of the farmers and stockyard workers. Along with this, workers and their families settled around the Union Stockyards and formed many of South Omaha’s ethnic neighborhoods. Q street itself was once home to a large Greek population until riots in the early 20th century ran them out of the area. Eventually, Q Street became known as the Irish part of town and was often referred to as “Irish Hill.” However, while the residential areas of the Saint Mary’s neighborhood were predominately Irish, Q Street’s commercial district was integrated. This meant that different ethnicities and races often worked, ate, shopped, and drank together at these businesses.
At one time, South Omaha had 135 taverns; this combined with the industrial environment, dense living conditions, and prejudiced stereotypes about immigrant communities led to the portrayal of Q Street as a “rough” part of town. Yet, in direct contradiction of these perceptions, the Saint Mary’s neighborhood thrived culturally and economically until the late 1960s and early 1970s, during which the Union Stockyards and packing plant industries began to decline due to the invention of hydraulic technology and refrigerated trucks. After officially closing in 1999, the site of the Union Stockyards was redeveloped as Metropolitan Community College and the South Branch Public Library. Today, new immigrant communities including Latino and refugee populations call the Saint Mary’s neighborhood home. Much like the past, South Omaha’s remaining packing plant jobs continue to attract the groups willing to do laborious and dangerous work in order to provide for themselves and their families.