Before now, I had never lived anywhere but the northeastern United States. So when I packed my bags to head to Omaha, I readied myself for a huge culture shock… one which never came. Omaha’s downtown is just like any other city, and its urban sprawl identical to the suburbs I grew up in, just bigger.
I ate dinner with one of my roommates (Omaha born and bred) at a pizzeria so desperate to live up to New York pizza standards that it chemically alters its water to mimic New York City’s. He asked me about how Omaha stacked up as I looked out the window at a scene that would have been familiar in almost any developed, deciduous locale: paved road, broken concrete sidewalks, a few leafy trees springing up next to the storefront strip.
I think what I subconsciously expected is best summed up by a postcard I sent some friends: a vast, grassy field populated by a herd of cattle. And I was okay with this! I love cows. I wanted open green spaces. Doing my SCA service last summer in the semi-rural Amherst, Massachusetts was a dream. I loved being able to bike on dirt paths past the rolling foothills and farms as the sun set.
Also, though, expecting this in Omaha was obviously idiotic. I knew a city of 300,000 was bound to be a different place, but I think I expected to be able to access the farmland outlaying the fringes of the city (via my sole method of transportation, my trusty bike). The lack of green space in this city was almost suffocating at first, before I found the nearby parks, and I spend more of my time on my bike dodging broken glass than visiting favorite goats. The sprawl still takes my breath away, and the metropolis continues to absorb neighboring municipalities into its mass.
However, the urbanity also re-invigorates my investment in my mission as a Centennial Volunteer Ambassador. I have a lot of work to do before I can really reach out in the community, but I know there’s an enormous youth population here that has never been exposed to natural or conserved environments–a population that maybe isn’t totally sure of what the National Parks Service is, and one that definitely doesn’t realize there is an NPS presence in their hometown. That’s a shame! They deserve to get outdoors, and to find the beautiful and fascinating ecologies around them too.
(As a final note, I’m really fortunate in a lot of ways, but definitely have been blessed the most with a providential choice of roommates (thanks, craigslist). They are heavily involved in the local sustainable agriculture and community garden scenes, and have been doing similar outreach in our neighborhood community for years. I have a lot to learn from them.)