Aaron Cassara

In the Midwest's "sweet spot," it's easier to stand out.

Ten months ago, Amanda Rucker, 30, was toiling at an uninspiring job at a public relations firm in San Francisco. Her rent was $1,200 for the "tiny hole in the wall" she shared with a roommate.

She’d arrived in the Bay Area after a long period of unemployment and job-searching in Nebraska—first in Lincoln, where she’d been laid off at the height of the recession, and then in her parents’ house in the western part of the state.

As much as she appreciated San Francisco’s energy, she didn’t quite belong. "I would equate it to a pair of trendy pants," she says. "I wanted it really badly to work out, but at the end of the day I just felt really, really uncomfortable."

She applied for a marketing job at the University of Nebraska's tech campus in Omaha, and got it. By the time I met up with her in May, her life had transformed. She was living in a huge loft with high ceilings in a converted factory building, for $600 a month. Despite the fact that she’d taken a $9,000 salary cut, she was paying off debt and contributing to her 401k. "Omaha is a much cheaper city to live in, and that’s been a huge weight off my shoulders," she says.

Design firm Grain and Mortar. (Photo: Aaron Cassara)

Omaha has become an attractive destination for people like Rucker, who are jaded or intimidated by anonymous, exorbitantly expensive big cities. It has a tight-knit start-up community, thanks in part to its cheerleading blog, Silicon Prairie News, and the Mastercraft building, Omaha’s gigantic co-working space in North Downtown. There’s a lot of old-school money and industry here, too: Warren Buffett, ConAgra, Union Pacific. Saddle Creek Records still looms large over the dynamic music scene it helped give birth to a decade ago. The price of everything, from cocktails to houses, remains very, very affordable.

Millennials living in Omaha describe the city as inhabiting a sort of sweet spot, big enough to support a great local music scene and plenty of cheap bars, but small and intimate enough—about 415,000 people in the city proper—that it’s easier to stand out.

Daniel Ocanto, a 27-year-old drummer, remembers growing up in Omaha and thinking it’d be impossible to support himself as a musician here. Now he’s touring with the band Icky Blossoms and working part-time at the Slowdown, Saddle Creek’s newish venue. “My $200 rent also has something to do with it,” he says.

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That kind of low overhead means young people in Omaha are able to take bigger risks. Married couple Kristin and Mike DeKay, both 27, were in a serious pinch in 2010. Mike had been laid off from OfficeMax, and Kristin was holding on to her bank teller job for dear life. Neither of them had a college degree. Yet they still decided to launch their own design business, partly because they weren’t worried about losing their $125,000 home— a price that’s about average for the area. It wasn’t hard to live frugally. The risk paid off. Their business is doing so well that they recently merged with another firm in the Mastercraft building to form one big company called Grain and Mortar.

Omaha is 68 percent non-Hispanic white*, almost 14 percent black, and deeply segregated. Many twentysomethings I met referred to North Omaha as "the ghetto" and admitted that aside from a few plucky nonprofits, young, white people here largely ignore the city’s poverty. But a few suggested that the influx of young people might be helping to bridge that divide. “[Millennials] are more compassionate, and we’re broke, so we understand,” says Eric Downs, 30, another co-founder of Grain and Mortar. He credits the Mastercraft building, which kisses the border of the neighborhood he grew up in, with giving rise to the North Omaha Downtown Association, which “effectively created their own neighborhood watch.” Denying that anyone is getting pushed out, he argues the building is “making that whole side of town safer.”

Downs, a community college graduate, says it’s easier to break into Omaha’s start-up community than in other high-tech centers, that you don’t need a fancy education to fit in. It’s "not an exclusive club" like, say, Silicon Valley, he says.

Neither is the music scene, says Ocanto. “It’s a very collaborative process … there’s an interchangeability about it,” he says. “Everyone plays with everyone."

*Correction: This original version of this story reported that the city of Omaha is 84 percent white, which is incorrect. We've corrected the figure as well as updated the story for clarity.

Top image: The Old Market District in Omaha (Photo: Aaron Cassara)

This series was produced in part with assistance from the Roosevelt Institute.

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