The Blackstone District is no stranger to change and revitalization. Its modest history begins in the 1880s when families migrated from South Omaha and constructed large brick homes in what was then considered to be West Omaha. The neighborhood stood this way until the Stock Market Crash of 1929 when many found it difficult to maintain their large homes. The vacant structures were modified into boarding homes as well as a large amount of funeral homes. This detail led to the nickname “Funeral Home Row” which the area was known by until the 1940s.
“It really is a special district because it is so historical,” Rachel Bouckhuyt, creative director of the Blackstone District, comments. And while the district is now home to restaurants, bars, and businesses there is still an important homage to its roots in the form of the multiple hand-painted signs that decorate the brick buildings along Farnam Street.
Historically, hand painted signs were the affordable option for business owners. Another popular option were installing neon signs, though Bouckhuyt explains the neon option required a lot of maintenance which could be expensive. Today, business owners face many choices when it comes to signage. Still, walking just a few blocks in Blackstone, you see multiple hand-painted signs, creating a cohesiveness or identity to the neighborhood. Walk the blocks of Farnam Street when the weather is warm and you might even see scaffolding climbing the side of a building with a painter at the top, hard at work.
There is no denying that hand-painted signs conjure relics from the past, while still looking modern and inviting. Most of the signs in the neighborhood were done by Arbor Street Studios. Owner Sharon Davis sites their popularity to a developing appreciation of the old art form. “People are valuing quality now, in a different way,” She explains.
Signs are not the only way Blackstone features the hand-painted craft. Notably, Omaha-based artist Watie White chose the walls of Blackstone for several of his public art series “100 People.” The purpose of the series was to create 100 portraits of activists and advocates in Omaha. Many of White’s portraits showcase elements of social justice and empowerment.
Bouckhuyt believes it is important to include public art and murals as well. “It’s important to talk about an ad versus public art,” she says, adding the district has an open dialogue about the development of public art in their space.