From Rotating Funeral Homes to Switching Foods

Reflecting on Revitalization, Meaning, and Use at 3618 Farnam

As I sat in The Switch finishing the last few bits of my Dirty Birds sandwich, I wondered about the meaning of the term “revitalization.” A simple definition might be to bring back energy or life to something, but that lacks context. Day-to-day, I’ve heard friends, family, and others use the term in reference to food or diets: Eat “right” to revitalize the body. But when it comes to buildings, spaces, and neighborhood business districts, what does “revitalization” suggest?

It was noon. I was hungry. But I didn’t know what I wanted. With its ever-switching food spots, Blackstone District’s The Switch Food and Beer Hall seemed as good of a choice as any. Besides, I’d already been exploring some of the history of this particular block, so seeing the area first-hand was a must. As I opened the tall, glass doors at 3618 Farnam, turned right and entered The Switch, the thought of what used to be there before the hall’s 2020 opening crept into mind. These thoughts were quickly interrupted by the meal I saw I must claim. Time to order messy chicken.

“Yep. That’s a good sandwich,” I whispered mostly to myself, but loud enough for my companion with whom I was sharing a meal from Dirty Birds.

Dirty Birds was one of several food and drink vendors operating out of The Switch on this April 2021 day. Along with the pickled chicken sandwich spot was a bar, a coffee shop, Venezuelan cuisine, and New York-inspired sandwiches. A few weeks later, it’s likely the food and beverage options were different.

Located at the eastern entrance of the Blackstone District, an area of Omaha amid “revitalization,” The Switch features a rotating array of local “pop-up” food vendors. New food is consistently on the menu so various restaurateurs can have a space to share their diverse cuisines. In keeping with the rotational theme, the food hall also aims to take discarded food, wrappers, and other dining materials to find new uses for them. According to its website, The Switch is the nation’s first food hall to be certified as a 3-star Green Restaurant by the Green Restaurant Association. The food venue’s goal is to compost nearly every item used; waste is taken to be processed into nutrient-dense soil. Some of this soil is brought back to The Switch and used in landscaping or plants. Whatever isn’t compostable, The Switch recycles (10).

Considering the continual change and reuse of materials in the food hall that itself sits in a transforming district, my mind returned, between bites, to what was at 3618 Farnam. The history of the Blackstone District, at least as a City of Omaha neighborhood and business area, dates to the 1880s. At the time, according to the district’s website, “beautiful stone and brick residences were designed by architects of the day” (2). These residences were constructed during the city’s “westward expansion from south Omaha to the hills of what was then West Omaha.”

With the stock market crash of 1929 came significant alterations, however. Many of the district’s mansions were “refashioned into boarding houses and funeral homes, with the latter giving “way to the name ‘Funeral Home Row’” by the mid-1940s (2). While the addition of new funeral homes following what was for many financial devastation provided the area its macabre moniker, several mortuaries operated in the district before the market crashed.

One such funeral home was J.A. Taggart & Son, which provided services from 3618 Farnam Street (3), where The Switch exists today. At the time, a Victorian-style home (later renovated to colonial-style) sat at the address. Over the next several decades, several more mortuaries provided funeral services out of this home.

Crosby mortuary operated from 3618 Farnam as early as November 1928 (9) and located next door at 3620 Farnam was Fitch & McEachron Mortuary (4). 3620 Farnam Street is an unclaimed address today, presumably subsumed by the new, modern building that includes, in addition to The Switch, a health-food restaurant, yoga studio, and the Blackstone Corner Apartments.

By 1938, Fitch & McEachron added to their name and moved next door (5). Fitch, McEachron & Cole then called 3618 Farnam home. Fitch, McEachron & Cole returned to two names by 1947, becoming Fitch & Cole Mortuary (6). Under that name, the mortuary would remain at 3618 Farnam for 40 years.

In 1987, Fitch & Cole was sold. Another long-time Farnam Street mortuary, John A. Gentleman (still in operation elsewhere in Omaha today), bought Fitch & Cole in preparation for the demolition of its former 70-year residence (11). A July 4, 1987 Omaha World-Herald article provides a perspective from then-President of John A. Gentleman Mortuaries, Thomas J. Belford. As Belford watched construction crew members turn the mortuary’s long-time home to what the article called “rubble,” Belford remarked, “It’s sad to see it go.”

Three decades later, the decades-old Victorian to Colonial-style residence at 3618 Farnam became rubble itself. The demolition cleared much of the block for the construction of the building that now has yoga, healthy food, apartments, and The Switch. From the home where several mortuaries operated from to the food vendors switching in and out of the building that exists today, the theme of rotational change seems part of the history of 3618 Farnam.

Financial concerns, too, seems part of the area’s history. From the rubble of the 1929 stock market crash came boarding homes and “Funeral Home Row.” With the revitalization of the Blackstone District, once referred to as “bleak,” came some concern about gentrification and rising rents (7). At least one of the revitalization projects in Blackstone, the renovation of the former Blackstone Hotel, came with new taxes on food and drink in the area to help fund the project (8).

As I finished my Dirty Birds sandwich, I wondered about the meaning behind the term “revitalization.” When it comes to buildings, spaces, and neighborhood business districts, what does “revitalization” suggest? It could be like the “body,” at least when revitalizing already existing buildings, the “bodies” of city places and spaces. Revitalization of old structures has occurred in Blackstone. As the district’s website states, “the public’s increased fascination with historic structures has paved the way for redevelopment; making what was once old, new again,” namely in the form of restaurants, bars, and businesses (2).

But the building now at 3618 Farnam is new, a replacement of the former home-to-funeral home’s old bones. In that sense, the “revitalization” of Blackstone also seems a revitalization of the essence of a former time, which may require replacement rather than renewal. Such revitalization of essence could be to the idea of beautiful, comfortable living; in other words, how the area might have been described from the 1880s to at least 1929.

I wonder what that means for me, a resident of Omaha without any particular long-term financial security. How much can I take in the new Blackstone? Should I just get quick bites to eat? What does it mean for the residential area surrounding the Blackstone business district, the part of the district where many revitalization efforts have centered?

Having finished my sandwich, I placed my trash in the compost and recycling bins before walking out to my car. When I returned to my home, I sat at my computer looking up the Blackstone Corner Apartments, the living spaces housed in the same building as The Switch. At over $900 a month for a single bedroom and over $1400 for a two-bedroom as of April 2021 (1), I’ve decided to keep many of my visits to Blackstone focused on The Switch’s rotating array of meals. As an occasional Blackstone visitor, I’m happy to give a few dollars, here and there, to local food vendors that now have a place at the edge of the district to “pop up” their new cuisines.

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3618 Farnam Street, Omaha, NE 68131