LEXINGTON, Neb. — The approach to this city 11 miles west of Overton is just like most other settled spots along the Union Pacific Railroad and the Lincoln Highway. Railroad tracks? Check. Grain elevator? Check. Town grid starts north of the highway? Check, check, check, complete with the aging L.H. Motel and its faded sign declaring “Quality for Less.” (Since I was just passing through, I couldn’t confirm the accuracy of that claim.)
Since Lexington stands out as a somewhat larger town than most along Nebraska’s stretch of the Lincoln Highway — the 2010 Census found 10,230 people living here — the town’s main commercial area stretches a little bit farther north from U.S. 30.
Heading north on Washington Street, this could be any town’s main street, lined with one- and two-story commercial buildings.
It looks ordinary. But look closer. It’s in Lexington where you really start to grasp just how diverse some rural Nebraska communities can be.
Driving north along Washington Street, I stopped at a crosswalk for a tall African woman wearing a long white billowing head scarf. Moments later, I looked up the way and saw a small cluster of African men on the sidewalk chatting. This isn’t what I had expected to discover in central Nebraska.
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Lexington is a hub for African refugees, particularly from Somalia, who came to work at the Tysons Fresh Meats packing plant here.
In November 2007, USA Today profiled Lexington’s changing face:
“When we first moved here, they used to look at us funny, but it’s all right now,” said Somali refugee Omar Abib, who works at the Tyson Foods meatpacking plant. The articulate, serious Abib, who has some college education, originally settled in Texas and slaughtered chickens.
He heard about Lexington, like many others, from a friend. He was attracted to the job, cheap living in a quiet town, and the chance to be surrounded by other Somalians.
It’s hard to tell just how many African immigrants are in Lexington.
In March 2011, the Lexington Clipper-Herald reported that there’s suspicion of undercounting:
Lexington landlord Deanna White remembered census difficulties last spring. “A lot of people didn’t fill out their forms. We know that for sure. We found forms all over, on the ground, in hallways, Dumpsters – they were everywhere,” she said.
Persons of Hispanic or Latino origin, according to the 2010 Census, make up a little more than 60 percent of Lexington’s population. While I’ve encountered Mexican restaurants and businesses catering to the Latino population in plenty of towns along the Lincoln Highway, there are certainly more of them here than in other places.
While driving by Panaderia Nuevo Amanecer, a Mexican bakery located at Washington and W. Seventh streets in what’s clearly an refurbished gas station with a sleek curving red-banded façade, I noticed a poster that’s somewhat hard to see from the street.
It shows a person cupping their hands on their head in some sort of distress. In Spanish, it warns of the dangers of methamphetamine.
More than a decade ago, officials Lexington were beginning to recognize that their town wasn’t immune to problems usually associated with larger urban areas, like meth use and gang violence.
“It has overwhelmed us,” says Glenn Kemp, an investigator with a Nebraska drug task force. “It wasn’t hard to believe when Iowa got a [methamphetamine] problem. Or Kansas or Missouri. But Nebraska? South Dakota? Here’s wholesomeness. Well, come to our communities. We’re no different from anywhere else, even if we’re less populated. Why can’t we be the meth capital of the United States?”
Lexington initially seems like an ordinary Nebraska town driving in. Driving on out, it’s a spot along the Lincoln Highway where there’s more than meets the eye.