South Omaha, 'The Magic City'
Gary Kastrick, South Omaha Historian
The development of South Omaha was in many ways an answer to America’s need for the packaged meat explosion after the Civil War. The area south of Omaha offered the food, water and space necessary for the development of a meatpacking center. In 1882 capital, entrepreneurship and labor poured into the area, which created a settlement christened the ‘Magic City’ due to its almost miraculous growth. By 1892 the city of South Omaha prospered with a stockyard and packinghouses. Immigrants from around the world crowded into South Omaha and formed the majority of its labor force. Nationality, ethnic identity and customs flourished in a compact area as groups celebrated their successful journey and economic gain.
Each neighborhood had its stores, taverns, and churches; but the identity of South Omaha was created around the areas of the packinghouses and the stockyards. There, the groups interacted, depending upon each other to accomplish the strenuous work requested in a meatpacking center. This interaction reached its zenith in the 1930s, 40s and 50s when labor unions were integrated and the need for labor at an all time high with Omaha becoming the world’s largest meat packing center in 1955. Ethnic music, food, similar folklore, customs and working class heroes all blended into the community known as South Omaha. Festivals, galas and wedding became celebrations, not of individual groups, but of South Omaha in general, as the different peoples bonded with the pride of their hard work and endurance. One would hear Spanish, Polish, Irish and German music at the same event and dine on recipes from Lithuania, Croatia and the south, (courtesy of African-Americans.)
There is an old saying in South Omaha that goes like this, “the manure storms are so bad down here that the yellow dust covers everything, including the people, so we don’t know where they came from or what they look like and by the time it rained we liked them too much to care.” Groups strived to keep their ethnic identity alive while with others and this created a unique and dynamic place. Growing up there I later would come to see South Omaha as a Federico Fellini film stepping out from under the cruelty and danger of the meat packing industry and into a circus of ethnic fete with each group contributing to the festivity and each enjoying the uniqueness that was created.