Scott Smith is a guy with dreams.
The 12-year Crosbie Heights resident wants to create an oasis in the middle of the downtown desert. He also wants to provide a participatory space to unite his neighborhood in cooperation towards a stronger, more vibrant local community.
Smith moved a step closer to his goals on May 29, when he opened BlueJackalope Grocery & Coffee at 306 S. Phoenix Ave. The business, which opened mainly to serve the Crosbie Heights neighborhood on the edge of downtown Tulsa, is situated in a quirky 1930s-era building with a freshly-painted royal blue storefront.
Peace House Tulsa had a brief stint in the location, but, according to the group's blog, moved when plans for the "much-needed grocery" surfaced.
Peace Housers' perception of the necessity of a neighborhood food source reflects a need that many northerly inhabitants of Tulsa have felt for some time, especially since last June's closure of the Albertson's at Pine and Peoria, one of very few grocery stores that serve City Council Districts One, which includes Crosbie Heights, and Three.
The problem is called a food desert, and it occurs whenever grocery stores are spare enough in an urban area to have a negative impact on the health and nutrition of the area's disadvantaged.
The issue is compounded by rising gas prices and inadequate mass transit, and is even worse for those with health problems or small children that prevent them from walking or biking longer distances to buy fresh, nutritious food. Instead these people must either go hungry, or rely on cheap food from convenience stores and fast food joints to get by.
Smith is keenly aware of this dilemma. After observing fellow Tulsans unable to nurture their families with wholesome food, he decided last October that he'd open a grocery a few blocks from his home.
"I really hope I can model some things in the store to improve awareness of eating good food," he said.
Common Ground, Common Goals
Smith is committed to more than good food--namely, his community.
During an hour-long interview at BlueJackalope, I watched the neighborhood association president greet and chat with at least five passersby.
His earlier experiences in Boulder, CO, (where he grew up) and Austin, TX, (where he was educated) gave him a vision for the store and Tulsa's potential.
"I have wonderful memories of those places--the way they used land and the vibrant communities," he said. "This neighborhood is poised for strong revitalization because of its proximity to downtown. I've been waiting and waiting for [Crosbie Heights] to pick up, but it hasn't."
So he took matters into his own hands, with the goal of providing a venue for this revitalization and community-building to begin.
"I would like this store to become a place where people... meet each other and create those bonds to make this community," said Smith. "...A place where people come and share their ideas to contribute to the vibrancy of the neighborhood."
Dr. Miriam Mills, who owns the building, shares Smith's passion for community and commitment to the neighborhood, which has its 100th anniversary this year. Contrasting Crosbie Heights with her previous midtown neighborhood, she says, "There's a better sense of cohesiveness and friendliness, and it's even better since Scott opened the store."
"It can be so much more vibrant than it is, and I think it's just going to get better," said the seven-year Crosbie Heights resident.
"But it takes being interested--it's not just the homeowners, it's not just the wealthy or the people who have a lot of time to spend--it's the people that enjoy and take pride in the neighborhood. Scott's store is a real step in the right direction."
Lofty Intentions, Partially Achieved
For Smith, the grocery store is just part of the rebirth of his neighborhood. But it wasn't a small task. Since the conception of his brainchild last fall, he's been working non-stop.
He got the help of Rhonda James, a Tulsa resident since 1968 and a member on the board of Living Arts.
"He approached me at an opening and I thought it was a great idea," she said. "And I've been there all the way," James said.
James does odd jobs, in a way. Smith asked her to assist in the marketing of BlueJackalope, but she was so enamored with the idea that she jumped right in. "I eat, sleep and drink that place," she said. "I love it!"
When Scott began renting the space, it was still filled with pews, and the floor was plastered in red carpeting, vestiges of its previous life as a church. They also had to overhaul the plumbing and electricity.
"We would work all night, just exhausted, getting stuff done," she said. "It was a lot of labor."
Once BlueJackalope was fit for business, Smith encountered another hurdle: permitting.
Since the 1970s, when the last comprehensive city plan was established, zoning and building codes have required that each retail space have a certain number of off-street parking spaces. But the structure was built long before expansive parking was needed. "It was intended as a community store with walk-up traffic," said Smith
After jumping through many hoops, which included petitioning City Council, working with INCOG and consulting developer Jamie Jamieson, Smith finally found a solution in seeking a variance. Now he's official and open--with no off-street parking.
This may sound like a small victory, but it bodes well for future business owners who also seek to increase the walkability and communitas of Tulsa.
Smith is optimistic about civic happenings. "I really like this administration; I think they're changing the interface between the citizens and the government," he said. "A message that I've taken from my interactions with the city government... is that the neighborhoods have to organize and advocate for what they want their neighborhoods to be with the city government."
Which brings us back to Smith's dream of his store as a community meeting ground.
A neighborhood affair it truly is. Last week a Crosbie Heights resident donated peaches grown in a backyard blocks away. Furthermore, the "employees" aren't paid--they volunteer to make Smith's vision a reality.
Smith, Mills and James also have visions that look past the corner of Phoenix and Charles Page. There is talk of a community garden in the neighborhood, and Smith has been invited to work with the city to come up with guidelines.
And maybe, someday, more Jackalopes will bound across the city? "I want to see BlueJackalopes all over Tulsa," proclaimed James.
The store features various staple items, mostly-local produce, candy bins and a coffee bar. Most of the produce is organically-grown (but not certified) in Rose, Oklahoma. Smith has recently begun selling meat from Blakely Family Farms, and is exploring selling bulk heirloom beans from Stillwater.
Bike racks are in the works, as is a wall mural to be painted by local artists.
Hours are 7am-7pm on weekdays and 7am-2pm on weekends, closed on Wednesdays and from 11am-2pm daily. 582-5344. Visit www.bluejackalope.com to take a customer survey.
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