Super hero of Near South cares deeply about Lincoln

Even at 70 years old, James Young still has a super hero-like impulse to help others. Instead of superpowers and sidekicks to help him in his mission, he has an unapologetic drive for justice and many fearless allies.

Young is unconventional in every way. He’s a public servant who was unwilling to leave his hometown, a carpenter who preferred to rehabilitate an old home instead of creating his own and an introvert willing to protest on the corner of 17th Street.

Even though he prefers a warm flannel and jeans to a cape, and his “weapons” are peaceful protests and effective regulations, Young’s mansion would make even Batman jealous.

This story is part of a series about the people and issues in Lincoln’s six most diverse and economically challenged neighborhoods. Graphic by Tyler Loebig.

Young lives at 1901 Prospect Street, two blocks away from his childhood home in one of Lincoln’s most historic houses in the Near South neighborhood.

John Milton Thayer, a former U.S. senator and governor of Nebraska, lived in the house until he died in 1904. Despite the eerie sightings of Thayer’s ghost and the fact that the renovation took a more than a decade, Young wouldn’t want to live anywhere else.

The home rests on the corner of the street, nestled into trees in the back and flowers and shrubs in the front. The two-and-one-half story Queen Anne style house is adorned with fish-scale-shaped blue and white siding and a wrap-around porch.

Inside the house is surprisingly bright. Natural light flows in from three different rooms, reflecting off of the family photos that adorn the walls and shelves. There’s a desk in the foyer, where Young’s wife, Marcie, works. Behind that a white staircase is so welcoming it almost invites visitors to go upstairs.

But there’s something in the living room Young wants to highlight.

“This is Buffalo Bill,” he said, pointing to a thumb-sized picture of a cowboy engraved on the wood of his living room fireplace. “People come from all over the country to look at that.”

Even though Young has learned everything possible about his 17th Century house and its history, there might be a reason for his adoration: it has been in the city almost as long as his family has been.

Young asserts that he is one of the few fifth-generation Lincolnites left in the city.

James Young has been a community activist in Lincoln for decades. Courtesy photo

Young is the great-great grandson of Elder Young, one of the founders of the village of Lancaster, which later was renamed Lincoln. His grandfather was a Nebraska legislator and his parents were involved with public service in a small town near Lincoln, so being a public servant ran in the family.

This expectation never bothered Young. It’s just another part of who he is.

Ever since he was a little boy, he prided himself in his ties to the place he calls home.

“When I was a child, I’d tell teachers at school that my family founded Lancaster,” Young said. “They wouldn’t believe me.”

That doubt actually was the motivation for ensuring that he could uphold his family’s legacy and keep them as caretakers for the city.

Young believes having his teachers doubt his connection to the founding family emphasized the importance of his family ties to him differently than it did for the rest of his family.  In fact, both of his brothers moved out of Lincoln. One moved to Honolulu and the other to Tucson, Arizona.

Staying in Lincoln wasn’t enough for him; Young started his crusading work when he was in his 20s.

In April 1972 he was a student at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, working multiple jobs and learning all he could about carpentry when the Near South Neighborhood Association was created.

“There was a little blurb in the newspaper,” he said. “And my father pointed out the article and said, ‘This would be good for you to do. Get involved in this.’”

Even though Young protested because he didn’t know anyone on the association, his father persuaded him to join by promising to attend as well. The two came home from the first meeting as members on the board of directors, initiating a long history of Young’s involvement with the association.

Being on the board opened Young’s eyes to many different issues that his childhood neighborhood faced.

“Other neighborhoods like University Place, College View, Havelock and Bethany had a sense of identity,” he said. “We didn’t have that. We just drew boundaries on a map, and Realtors called us Near South. We had to establish sense of identity and that’s very difficult to do, but we managed to do it.”

Young and the other association members became active in the community any way they could. In 1974 they joined an eight-year battle against the city’s construction of the Northeast Radial highway. The highway, located near today’s Cornhusker Highway, cut through neighborhoods in Lincoln and displaced many families and businesses.

“You might ask ‘What’s it to us? The highway wasn’t going to be through our neighborhood.’

But every household in the community would have to pay $800 in taxes for this highway,” he said. “That’s how we were able to justify our involvement.”

The association joined forces with 25 other businesses and organizations in Lincoln to create the Lincoln Alliance. The organization was designed to protect citizens of Lincoln against the Lincoln Independent Business Association, which, at the time, solely sought to protect businesses in Lincoln regardless of the effects on its citizens, Young said.

Young’s most memorable moment of the Lincoln Alliance was when he and 200 residents took five city buses to a city council meeting in order to show their contempt for the highway’s construction. He thinks that event lead to demise of the Northeast Radial.

“We didn’t sit down and we didn’t smile,” he said. “Sometimes if you want to get someone’s attention you have to stop whispering.”

Young also spent a lot of his time and energy in saving and preserving historic houses in Lincoln. He did so by pushing for the local historic districts of homes in Lincoln to match the national register; this would ensure that state buildings, not just federal, could not be created in place of a historically significant home.

He began fighting for the preservation of historic houses as he saw some homes in Near South slowly evolve from beautiful mansions to rundown apartment buildings.

“I still can’t believe the city allowed that to happen,” he said. “They tried to ruin our neighborhood, and in some cases, they did.”

Young takes pride in his neighborhood and wants to see it stay as strong and beautiful as it was when he was a child. This included ensuring that all houses, historic or not, are taken care of.

“There was a house that was torn down and left on two lots, which were left a mess,” he said.  “The board of directors talked about cleaning it up, and our attorney said it was totally illegal. We cleaned it up anyways and nailed up a sign saying that it was us.”

Young and some other prominent figures in the community were ticketed, although the city attorney eventually dismissed the citations.

Young served on the association board for about 20 years, putting in physical and logistical efforts to fight for homes in Near South. Quitting his beloved position was not an easy decision.

“There comes a time when, no matter how much you love it, you need to get out of the way and let someone else do it,” he said.

Even though Young’s heart lies mostly in Near South — the neighborhood where he was born and raised, met his wife and eventually raised a daughter — he cares deeply about all historic houses in Lincoln and those who can’t fight to protect their homes alone.

Young’s wife, Marcie Young, recounted one of her husband’s most well-known battles against a UNL fraternity, Chi Phi, which sought to tear down one of the homes they bought on the corner of 17th and C streets in order to create additional parking for its members.

Young, equipped with a homemade sign and T-shirt, went on the corner to protest the old-fashioned way. He did it during morning rush hour to make sure he was seen. His protesting lead the fraternity to work with the association to find new parking, without destroying the house.

Young’s zeal for maintain Lincoln’s quality has seeped into the lives of his family as well.

“Because his family founded Lancaster he feels a real sense of ownership about Lincoln,” Marcie Young said. “Near South has this mix of livability, and you can see the grandeur but it’s an underdog. I like fighting for underdogs. Fighting for a cause gives juice to your life. It gives life meaning.”

The people he’s worked with in the neighborhood continue to admire Young and the efforts he made to make the board and the city a better place.

“He really is in the founding generation of the city,” said Jon Carlson, who serves as issues vice president of the association. “He’s a great example of someone who puts down roots and who’s an organizer. He can rally people to action.”

Those close to Young are amused to recount the times he goes above-and-beyond to protect the history of the city he loves, but they said they are also humbled by the actions of a man who has so much passion and drive to fight for what he believes in and continues to take care of the city his family founded.

And when asked why, Young said the answer is simple.

“I made a lot of friendships that I still have here,” he said. “I care deeply about this city.”

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