Editor's Note: Recent news--After a half dozen years of declining population, Tulsa officially picked up 1,400 new residents between 2005-06.
So, are we the country's best-kept secret or the city time forgot? There are those who eternally try to sunshine up the fact (making a Chamber of Commerce-style pitch) that this meager growth is portend of things to come.
But the fact is Tulsa hasn't grown much in 50 years. And Tulsa is a wealthy city. Why doesn't the world beat a path to our door? Conspiracy theories abound. We haven't quite pinned it down, but we are coming close.
Maybe we are run by aliens. Maybe Tulsa is Stepford South. Could it be the people in charge of Tulsa really don't want it to grow?
As a young reporter at The Tulsa Tribune in the early '80s, I recall many conversations with editorial writers, editors, and, surprisingly a number of the more intelligent young reporters on staff who were very satisfied by Tulsa's size "You wouldn't want us to become another Dallas, would you?"
What these and many since failed to grasp is that progress is fueled by growth, and growth is fueled by the industry of more people.
Complacent leadership at City Hall and the Metro Chamber of Commerce were mostly to blame for their not having taken advantage of boom times to promote the city and generate new business.
And so now, backed into a corner, current leadership struggles to prioritize, recover and rebuild on a fixed and dwindling income.
Budget-cutting typically hits the poorer areas of the city first and hardest: northside pools close, working class golf courses curtail operations, and the overall infrastructure serving major population areas of the east, west and northsides continue to in chronic disrepair.
Here is a look at some parts of town you've never seen.
"Building the Future City" was the title of a forum recently held in Chicago and attended by Mayor Kathy Taylor along with other civic leaders and scholars from around the world, at which they convened to discuss how "major urban infrastructure projects will affect tomorrow's cities and their residents," according to a statement released by the mayor's office.
The "Future City of Tulsa" is on every thinking Tulsan's mind as Taylor and others look ahead to finally developing along the Arkansas River, and announcements of various public and private development projects fuel visions of tomorrow's skyline, which is expected in a few years to be punctuated by a new civic center, new hotels, retail outlets and entertainment venues.
Even while hopes are fixed on the Tulsa of Tomorrow, there still remains the Tulsa of Yesterday--the Tulsa that time forgot, now perpetually languishing as developers continue their long-standing practice of ignoring or avoiding it.
West Tulsa, east Tulsa and the vast northside have suffered years of lip service and benign neglect in a similar manner many cities treat the aging urban core--wringing hands and promising better times--watching while the infrastructure decays before their eyes.
The city's northern districts make up what is probably the most notorious chunk of that forgotten Tulsa.
"North Tulsa has been systematically neglected for years and years," lamented City Council Chairman Roscoe Turner, who represents Tulsa's northernmost District 3.
"What's happened is that the north community has been neglected for so long the infrastructure is failing, and without infrastructure, it's really difficult to invest in it," he elaborated.
"But it's just as vital as the rest of the city," the councilor added.
One need only tour the broad swath of land between Admiral and 56th St. N. to see what Turner means. Its streets are an urban minefield of potholes and decayed asphalt leading the way to run-down homes and storefronts that have been long abandoned.
And the recent news of Tulsa mainstay grocer Albertson's plans to close up shop in Oklahoma, including the closure of their grocery store at Peoria and N. Pine St., just heap coals on a bad situation in Turner's district.
While Albertson's "restructuring" includes the sale or closure of stores throughout the state, North Tulsa's loss of yet another amenity is just the latest in a long history of misfortunes going back to the Tulsa Race Riot.
Councilor Jack Henderson, whose westernmost District 1 is "joined at the hip," he said, with Turner's, explained that their shared region is the unfortunate victim of a long-standing and misleading stigma.
While theirs is the forgotten portion of Oklahoma's greatest city, it still suffers the effects of prejudices that can't seem to be forgotten.
"It didn't get this way overnight. This has been the African-American part of the city for years and years," Turner said in explanation of the source of that stigma.
Henderson said the public's perception of crime in North Tulsa is disproportionate to the reality, having been fueled and reinforced by misleading media attention.
"The lie that the news media reports of crime in North Tulsa . . . I've proven, time after time, that crime in North Tulsa isn't as bad as in other parts of the city," he said.
While the crumbling infrastructure is incentive enough for developers to keep away, Henderson said this media-perpetuated myth that he and Turner's region is a breeding-ground for crime is just as much, if not more to blame.
The North Tulsa Duo is doing what they can, though, to turn their region's bad reputation around.
"We have to start to promote all of the positives and not the negatives of North Tulsa," said Henderson, who called the area the "best kept secret" of the city.
"North Tulsa is probably some of the best land in the city," the councilor explained. "It's a relatively flat area and it's got a beautiful view of downtown," he said.
They hope a soccer complex the city has in the works will give developers a glimpse of what's possible in Tulsa's forgotten land.
"It's not off the drawing board yet," said Turner, so the specifics are still a bit fuzzy, but the councilor said the City of Tulsa recently made use of $6 million in Vision 2025 funds to purchase a tract of "barren land" near Highway 75 and 56th St. N. to be used to construct a soccer complex, which Henderson said will eventually include at least 36 fields, as the project is currently conceptualized.
"Something like this is long overdue for this community," said City Council Administrator Don Cannon.
"One person likened it to printing money," he said in illustration of the benefits he expects the complex to bring to North Tulsa once it's operational.
"There's been a crying need in the region for facilities with 30-40 fields," Cannon said, explaining that a complex with at least 30 fields could easily draw national soccer tournaments to North Tulsa, along with all the money participants and spectators would bring to pay for food and lodging and other entertainment pursuits during their stay.
"Most soccer tournaments have to split venues up to accommodate them, but if you can cluster all those economies in North Tulsa, that would do a lot to revitalize the community," he said.
Also, with Oklahoma's climate, the facilities would be in use year round, generally, with the exception of a month or two in the winter, Cannon said.
Henderson said their plan to revitalize North Tulsa also includes tax incentives for developers and "getting schools up to par with the rest of the city," as well as other efforts to improve property values.
"We're also going to try to see if we can get some of the infrastructure fixed," added Turner.
"We know that South Tulsa was a field at one time, then all of a sudden, somebody got the idea to build out there, and then other developers followed," said a hopeful Henderson.
"All this place needs is somebody taking a chance. All of North Tulsa is a goldmine--there's a lot here to work with," he added.
Pockets of Poverty
Meanwhile, just across Interstate 244, Councilor Maria Barnes' District 4 might be the subject of too much attention in some areas, which she said is causing Midtown to be forgotten in another sense.
"Our neighborhoods are being swallowed up by development," she said.
"When we have development coming in, at times it's at the expense of the neighborhoods," she added.
Residential areas, Barnes explained, are being overtaken by businesses as developers are buying up homes to construct stores, restaurants and other enterprises in their place.
"Yesterday, a bank wanted to go in at 15th and Utica," she said. "We need to work on giving respect to our neighborhoods--neighborhoods are our assets."
While she said her focus is on preserving her district's residential neighborhoods, Barnes also said she and Turner have discussed areas of neglect along their shared border on Admiral Place N.
"Admiral has spots that we really need to clean up," she said.
One long-forgotten spot on another shared border is getting the "clean up" attention Barnes mentioned.
The Rose Bowl Lanes on E. 11th St., bordering Councilor Bill Martinson's District 5, is getting a make-over. The new owners are refurbishing it into the Rose Bowl Events Center, where concerts, exhibits and other activities are expected to ensue.
While Barnes' neighbors to the north get a bad rap for being a development No Man's Land, North Tulsa isn't the only chunk of the city that's been left behind.
While there has been quite a bit of housing development afoot in Councilor Rick Westcott's southwest District 2, as well as investment in the massive Tulsa Hills Shopping Center currently in the works on 71st St. near Highway 75, there is also a relic of a bygone era forgotten for decades--the Crystal City Shopping Center, located on Southwest Blvd., south of 41st St.
"In the late '50s and '60s, Crystal City was a booming, happening shopping center--it was the economic center of southwest Tulsa, but it's been in decline," said Westcott.
The mini-mall was built on the ashes of the old Crystal City Amusement Park, and became the nexus of what was once the bustling economic engine of Southwest Blvd., which has also seen better days.
"Southwest Blvd. has been in decline over the last 20 years," said Westcott.
"Different commercial entities along Southwest Blvd. experienced economic difficulty and had to close. It's been an economically difficult time," he explained.
Westcott's hopes have been re-kindled recently by rumors that the area might soon be turning a corner.
"I heard a deal on the Crystal City Shopping Center has closed, but the realtor has been really hush-hush and won't tell anybody what's going on," he said.
"If someone's buying with plans to revitalize, though, that's great," Westcott added.
Also, the councilor said several groups of volunteer citizens like the Southwest Tulsa Chamber of Commerce and the Red Fork Main Street group have been doing their part to clean up neighborhoods and attract businesses to the area (see related article about the newly created Red Fork Main Street group).
On the opposite side of the city, in the vast reaches of Councilor Dennis Troyer's easternmost District 6, there is a similarly long history of inattention by investors and developers.
"There's really not much development there--the whole district has been ignored for so long, and the people out there just want to be a part of Tulsa," said Troyer.
The councilor said much of the lack of activity is simply because the city hasn't yet grown far enough east to support the levels of development seen in more central areas of Tulsa.
Certain unfortunate circumstances have also played a role in stunting that growth, though, he said.
"When we had the third penny sales tax deferred, that really hit District 6 pretty hard, but that's nobody's fault but the people who did 9/11," he explained.
Troyer said the third penny sales tax revenue would have gone toward the installation of many of the necessary features of the 6th District's infrastructure, without which residential and retail developers can't even begin to consider investing in the area.
"There weren't any utilities, lift stations or storm drains, and we've got to have these things in place before housing developers come in, and retailers aren't going to come in unless the people are there," he said.
A 2005 general obligation bond has since provided the funding for some of the needed infrastructure, though, and developers are gradually catching on to the 6th District's untapped potential and are setting their sites on areas in the western parts of the area.
"Housing developments are blowing up," said Troyer, who was almost giddy as he recounted his experience of touring the district with prospective investors.
"It's a lot different seeing it in person than seeing it on a map--you see all the green spaces and possibilities," he said.
Troyer said it will still be another two years or so before the ongoing housing developments are complete and the economic benefits begin to be seen, but he said the involvement of residential developer Terry Davis makes him hopeful that what he's seeing now will snowball as other developers take notice.
"Terry Davis is a very reputable developer; when people hear Terry Davis is building homes here, other developers are going to be attracted to it," the councilor said.
Another attraction is transformation of the mostly defunct Eastland Mall on 21st St. near 145th East Ave. into the massive Eastgate Metroplex mixed-use center envisioned by Washington, D.C.-based developer Gerry Chauvin, who's directing the development for P and H Properties.
"When $45 million is put up for something like this, it attracts attention," said Troyer.
"There are a lot of exciting things going on out here, and the people here as a whole are pretty excited about what they see going on," the councilor added.
District 6's southwest neighbor also has its share of development obstacles, but they're of a different flavor than those with which Troyer must contend.
"District 7 is one of the more densely-populated districts, so it doesn't have the same problems Troyer's has with his acres and acres of farmland," said the region's representative at City Hall, Council Vice-chair John Eagleton.
The "Tulsa that Time Forgot" in Eagleton's district can be found in the form of struggling strip malls and dilapidated streets.
"We have several storefronts sitting empty and many houses at risk for foreclosure," said the troubled councilor.
Strip malls can only have so much vacant space before they are no longer financially viable, and Eagleton said many of the shopping centers in District 7 are at risk for that fate.
He said he didn't want to mention any particular shopping centers by name, but noted one strip mall as an example, which lost a grocery store not too long ago but hasn't replaced it with anything else, thus joining many others in the "at risk"-category.
"When you have a city struggling like Tulsa is, it's a struggle to keep a lot of businesses viable," he said.
Indeed, Eagleton characterized the city as "teetering on the brink" with its ongoing financial crunch, which is the reason for the sorry state of the roads in his district.
"We have neighborhoods that have streets in disrepair and thoroughfares that aren't maintained," Eagleton said.
"I'm amazed at the number of potholes on 71st St.," he said, and explained how he recently saw kids riding their dirt bikes in front of the Woodland Hills Mall, using the potholes on the street to get air for tricks.
"That's just wrong that we have streets with potholes so deep that kids can do BMX bike tricks with them," said an exasperated Eagleton.
"If that thoroughfare is going to be the cash-cow that it's supposed to be, we have to have streets in better repair," he continued.
Eagleton said the problem is a pervasive one throughout the city, though, and is a symptom of Tulsa's overall budget woes.
"Fixing streets is a very expensive thing and the city's in a fiscal crunch," he said.
Enclaves of Iniquity
Councilor Cason Carter shares the same concern for portions of his district.
"As a general matter, we have pretty strong economic development in District 9," the councilor said, pointing to such financial wellsprings as Brookside and Utica Square, but he noted that there are still areas in which maintenance of the infrastructure has faltered, thereby sapping some of the area's economic strength.
The area surrounding 61st and Peoria, he said, is in need of street improvements, which a $9 million street and drainage maintenance project is set to provide, lest it go the way of Crystal City, or of another artifact within Carter's own district--the Camelot Hotel.
It's been a fixture on the corner of Skelly Dr. along Interstate 44 since 1965.
The edifices' medieval spires and Arthurian accommodations boasted two presidents and a certain King of Rock'n'Roll as guests during its heyday in the 1960s and '70s, but after suffering decline and dilapidation since the Dark Ages of the 1980s, the City of Tulsa is now loaning its current owner $1 million to demolish it so the property can be sold and redeveloped.
Not surprisingly, QuikTrip recently contracted to buy the site, where it will construct its 500th store in honor of its 50th anniversary, near the site of its original store on 5204 S. Peoria Ave.
Hopefully, the fall of Camelot is an inverse symbol of the surrounding city's future. As monuments like the Camelot Hotel fade from memory and new landmarks arise to fill the city skyline, it is hoped that Tulsa's forgotten domains will also rise up and take their place in a city that bears an enduring resemblance to Arthur's legendary realm, full of the prosperity and promise that once filled Tulsa's once vibrant regions.
A Main Street Grows in Red Fork
By Brian Ervin
New life is emerging on southwest Tulsa's horizon, thanks to the intervention of several different interests on the historic area's behalf, not least of which is the newly formed Red Fork Main Street group.
The group's goal is to revitalize what was once the economic engine of southwest Tulsa: a four-mile-long, two-block-wide swath of land along the original Route 66 highway (Southwest Boulevard), between South 33rd West Ave. and the Arkansas River.
The area is a part of the land that was once the Town of Red Fork, established in 1883 by cowboys and railroad workers, which eventually boasted the first of many oil wells that would spring up in Tulsa County.
Today, though, the area bears only a remnant of its former glory as it occupies a relatively isolated corner of the city, away from most of Tulsa's economic drivers located east of the Arkansas River.
Katy Davis, the newly hired executive director of the fledgling Red Fork Main Street group, is working to change that, though.
"We just want to make West Tulsa a place people are proud to live and people want to visit," she said.
In March, the Red Fork Main Street group joined 42 other communities comprising the Oklahoma Department of Commerce Main Street program, but is one of only three groups in the Urban Main Street pilot program.
"This is kind of a big deal," said Davis. "Our main street is quite a bit different from other main streets--it's long and thin, and not looking at a downtown, per se."
She said Red Fork has several different interests to balance--such as the revitalization of residential, industrial, retail and service areas, while other main street groups tend to be more singularly focused on downtown settings.
Davis said her group's efforts will complement those of other interested parties already working to revitalize the area, such as the Southwest Tulsa Chamber of Commerce, the city and the county.
"There's already quite a bit of activity in this area--there are a lot of monies from Vision 2025 and there's a Route 66 Master Plan," she said.
The group's affiliation with the Main Street program means its volunteers benefit from the Commerce Department's training for implementation of a four-point methodology for revitalization: Promotion, Organization, Design and Economic Restructuring.
Davis said more than 70 people in the Southwest Tulsa area have expressed an interest in serving on one of the four committees responsible for carrying out each of the different facets.
She said training to serve on a committee begins July 9.
After that, the four committees will present their respective work plans to Davis by August 17.
Until those elements are finalized, though, Davis said she can't say what the Red Fork Main Street group's strategy is for revitalizing the area, but she knows a major element will be promoting its historic place along Route 66, including future events celebrating that history.
"Part of having a main street is having a couple of core events--like a Route 66-related event--that can be used to attract tourists and businesses," she said.
"There's a lot of nostalgia when it comes to Route 66," Davis added.
Organizing events is a long way off, though, she said. Until then, initial efforts will include cleaning up the neighborhood and making recommendations to some of the existing businesses for how to present their storefronts.
"Basic street-scaping will go a long way," she said.
Those who are interested in volunteering can contact Davis at (918) 445-4457 or email@example.com.
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