WE ARE ALL COUNCIL BLUFFS: BAR RESCUE GOES TO O'FACE

by Max Sparber in ,


It may be a long time before Council Bluffs lives down O’Face. The comically named dive bar was featured on a recent episode of “Bar Rescue” as a sort of boozy object lesson in mismanagement. The staff drank on the job, seemed to have no professional skills, battled each other in the parking lot, and the owner offered an employee money to throw a staffer through a window. Eventually Jon Taffer, the bulldog-like host of the show, walked out, making O’Face the first bar he has refused to rescue.

For the show, the episode was useful. As H.L. Mencken once said, there is a moment when you must spit into your hands, hoist the black flag, and begin slitting throats. It was important for “Bar Rescue” to establish that there is some behavior that will not be tolerated, and there are some bars that cannot be rescued, and O’Face was the location of that particular narrative. I am not sure that the show’s producers knew this would be the endgame when they started with the bar, but there are a lot of clues they did, including a mysterious piece of footage that conveniently shows up at the end of the episode and causes Taffer to march out. Reality shows are pretty contrived affairs, and, while I can’t prove it, I suspect it was never in the cards for O’Face to be rescued.

And they probably don’t deserve rescuing. I don’t think anything was invented on this show -- I think “Bar Rescue” simply found the most awful bar and the most obnoxious staff they could and then let their cameras roll.

For most of America, this means nothing. Council Bluffs is likely to be unfamiliar to them, recognizable perhaps as one of the early locations of “Hell on Wheels,” which represented to town as a depopulated stretch of plains (nary a bluff in sight!) But to many Omahans, Council Bluffs is a sort of a running joke, and O'Face confirmed our expectations. 

The nickname Omahans give Council Bluffs is “Counciltucky,” and locals speaks of it as though the town were nothing but hillbillies and meth labs. Some of this, I am sure, is the sort of gentle ribbing twinned cities offer each other as a matter of course -- I used to live in Minneapolis, and made fun of Saint Paul quite often, although I have a lot of affection for Saint Paul.

Some is probably rooted in actual competition. After all, Council Bluffs very literally invented Omaha, declaring it a township while Nebraska was still Indian country in order to encourage Union Pacific to build its transcontinental railroad through both towns. It worked, too, but then Union Pacific selected Omaha as its headquarters, and the two towns have looked at each other with askance eyes ever since.

And some of it is probably that, for many decades, Omaha has treated Council Bluffs like a Tijuana on the Missouri, thanks to Omaha’s increasingly moralistic and paternalistic local government. Council Bluffs allowed people to drink younger and later, and so the bridge across the Missouri became a migration route for thirsty Omahans. Council Bluffs has Riverboat gambling, Omaha does not, and so a new migration route developed. Council Bluffs strip clubs offered greater pulchritude, and so back and forth Omahans went, looking to their neighbor to the east for cheap thrills.

It should probably be noted that there are actual hillbillies in Council Bluffs as well. They’re here in Omaha, too, but for whatever reason seem to have influenced Council Bluffs more. Now, hillbilly is a disparaging term, and I will cease to use it from this point on, but I use it advisedly. 

Omaha and Council Bluffs were two of the northern termini of something called the Hillbilly Highway. This was a massive migration of rural southerners in the mid-20th century, who followed U.S. Route 23 and Interstate 75 north seeking semiskilled work. Enough of them landed in Chicago and Detroit to form a distinct subculture there, but there was work to be had in Omaha at the packing plants and work to be had in Council Bluffs on the railroads, and so some settled here.

There are hints of their influence in Omaha. Omaha cookbooks tend to be a mix of Bohemian recipes and southern cooking. The urban legend of the albino farm in Hummel Park is an Appalachian legend, transported north. Stoysich, the House of Sausage, will dress meat for customers, and the owners admit they dress squirrel and groundhog. Finally, I don’t think it is an accident that the Omaha sound includes unironic country influences. Many Omahans legitimately grew up listening to country, and it has had its influence.

But Council Bluffs? Even their accents betray a slight twang. If Omaha music is country inflected, country music often seems to be the soundtrack to Council Bluffs; in fact, this June sees a new country festival called Country on the River in CB. The Mid-America Center is home to a square dancing festival this weekend. And never mind that Council Bluffs produced jazz great Art Farmer (he only lived there to the age four), if CB is known for anybody now, it is known for teen mom and sex-tape star Farrah Abraham, which is about as trashy a celebrity as one could claim.

Mostly, though, I think Omaha's view of Council Bluffs is the result of a phenomenon known as the narcissism of small differences. In the way identical twins will play up the qualities that distinguish one from the other, twinned towns will highlight their differences. Omaha is not a town with a strong sense of place anyway, for reasons I shall detail another day, so it becomes even more important to distinguish ourselves from Council Bluffs, which is so very like us. And if there is one thing history has shown repeatedly, it is that we frequently place our fears about ourselves onto somebody else, another psychological mechanism, this time called projection. If Omahans fear they may be seen as rural yokels, well, at least we're not Council Bluffs.

I feel comfortable saying that, to a very large extent, the following is true: Omaha’s idea of Council Bluffs isn’t so much rooted in the actual town, which, like most towns, is varied and complicated. Omaha’s idea of Council Bluffs is based on what we fear people might be saying about us, and what we fear might be true about us.

We have met the O’Face, and he is us.

Max Sparber

Max Sparber is a historian, playwright, and critic. Follow him on Twitter or email him with your arts events at maxsparber@gmail.com.

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