By Brad Davis
OMAHA -- This city touts a market area of nearly 1.3 million, but it's still the sort of place where people ask where you went to high school.
A woman at Barack Obama's campaign office in North Omaha - the heart of the city's black community - asked your correspondent where his family lived. On the other side of town, he answered. Oh, my daughter lives across the street from your mom, the Obama supporter said.
That's the kind of place Omaha is.
Known for perhaps being unknown, Omaha is the heart of so-called "flyover country." But you shouldn't pass it over, for the following reasons outlined by the city, the chamber of commerce and the visitor's bureau to whomever will listen: Kiplinger's magazine rated Omaha the No. 4 best place to "live, work and play" in its 2008 rankings. Money magazine ranked Omaha its No. 7 "big city," three spots above New York, but two below San Diego. The average Omaha home costs $135,700, according to a Realtors survey. If the country's average cost of living equals 100, Omaha's equals 88.5. (New York's equals 212.8.) The area's median household income is $55,805.
OK, it's cheap, but what are you going to do with your time? The Omaha Community Playhouse, where Henry Fonda, Marlon Brando and Fred Astaire - Omahans - graced the stage, is the country's largest. The children's theater is the country's largest. The local artists-in-residence program is - you guessed it - the country's largest. The zoo is ranked best in the country by several magazines. The College World Series is held in Omaha each summer. The music scene spawned its own style - dubbed the "Omaha Sound" - and has been hailed by such cultural arbiters as The New York Times and NPR.
The city is also the home to the operational headquarters of Gallup, TD Ameritrade, Paypal and five Fortune 500 companies, including Berkshire Hathaway, the holding company of Warren Buffett, the richest man in the world, according to Forbes' 2008 list.
Buffett, whose net worth is $62 billion, according to Forbes, embodies the make-no-waves, don't-show-off spirit of his hometown. His house, in an upscale but not ostentatious neighborhood of central Omaha, is valued at $727,600, according to the county assessor.
That's very Omaha.
Your correspondent didn't live quite so well, but he still rented a 900 sq. ft. "luxury apartment" on the 11th floor of a historic, high-rise apartment building for $690 a month - including utilities - until leaving the city in 2005.
The city of Omaha, the anchor of the metropolitan area, which straddles Iowa along the Missouri River, has a population of about 438,000, according to the 2008 U.S. Census estimate. Of that population, about 14 percent of people are black; about 11 percent of people are of Hispanic ethnicity, according to the chamber of commerce.
A nose-to-the-grindstone, practical kind of place, Omaha isn't likely to be the epicenter of political change. But change could be coming to this city along the banks of the Missouri River: For the first time in your correspondent's life, the majority of Omaha voters might choose a Democratic presidential candidate. If that happens, Omaha will give its electoral vote - Nebraska allots these proportionally - to a Democrat for the first time since 1964.
But the polls show the race is as tight as the rusted lug nuts on a '55 Ford, as Dan Rather would say. (Dan Rather is not from Omaha, but Tom Brokaw got his start at Omaha's WOWT. So did Johnny Carson.) Even if Obama takes the district, John McCain will still pick up nearly 50 percent of the vote.
One way or the other, the Democratic neighbor lady will still invite the Republican friend over for a cup of coffee. And there will always be high school football, barbeques and community theater.
For the record - and for all those Omahans out there - your correspondent graduated from Bellevue East Senior High School.