What a difference a century makes. The Kendall-Whittier neighborhood, considered Tulsa's first urban shopping district, is ready to turn 100 years old. Since the roarin', flappin' 1920s, when fashionable Tulsans strolled through Whittier Square, this unique neighborhood has taken a few twists and turns through time.
The district is a small rectangle of Tulsa history just east of downtown. Bounded between 11th and Archer Sts. and Utica and Delaware Aves., Kendall-Whittier encompasses city landmarks like the University of Tulsa, Circle Cinema, Fab Lab Tulsa, Ziegler's, Hillcrest Hospital, Urban Tulsa Weekly - 1924 E. 6th St. and many others.
Within the district is a smaller three square mile area that's now part of a certified and accredited National Main Street program. Currently, there are 40 other such programs at work in Oklahoma, while more than 2,200 communities nationwide take part in the program. The Main Street program, established in 1980 by the National Historic Trust, targets historic areas long overdue for a little TLC, revitalization and good old-fashioned boosterism.
Nancy Phelps, who recently sat down with UTW at Chimi's during the restaurant's monthly Kendall-Whittier fundraiser, is at the helm of the neighborhood's Main Street program. Along for the chips and salsa -- and serious discussion about Kendall-Whittier -- was the Main Street program board president Elizabeth Howell. Together, these two lovelies chatted about their passion for one of Tulsa's forgotten little pockets filled with historic gems.
The heart of Kendall-Whittier is the strip along Lewis Ave. from 11 St. to Independence Ave., along with three extra blocks to the east and west. During its heyday, this area was called Whittier Square, where the Circle Cinema and Ziegler's are located today. This area "was a shopping mecca in the '20s, '30s and '40s," Phelps said. "There were over a hundred businesses in that area at the time."
"That was considered suburbia," Howell laughed. "It's hard to imagine now."
In 2004, Howell and her husband purchased the historic Fire Station No. 7 at 6th St. and Utica Ave., and made a splash when they radically restored the building to its former glory. The Howells are both creative landscape architects who are a part of Howell & Vancuren Inc., a local landscape architecture firm. So when they bought the station from the city of Tulsa, the two did what they do best -- landscaped the firehouse into an urban oasis of bright green foliage.
And they restored the inside of the station, too. Now, the building represents what Kendall-Whittier can be. "It's the perfect example of a restored building, and it's made such a presence in the neighborhood," Phelps said.Howell nodded and echoed, "In a long time."
But at the time, Howell admitted buying the firehouse was a "leap of faith."
After the neighborhood's glory days faded and Tulsa began to expand further south, Kendall-Whittier fell into disrepair. In the late 1970s, aging homes, land use changes and higher-density apartments caused social and physical deterioration. The crime rate rose; home ownership dropped.
In the 1990s, Kendall-Whittier business owners and leaders began a revitalization effort, which has turned things around with a new public library, the renovation of the fire station, and the completion of the University of Tulsa master plan (which included sports complexes, new student housing and a new entrance to the TU campus). Fab Lab Tulsa opened their doors on Lewis Ave., and so did a brand-new Community Health Connection campus.
These efforts ultimately led neighborhood stakeholders to take revitalization to the next level -- through the Main Street program. Now, people like Howell and Phelps are getting organized. Phelps is the program's executive director, while Howell is the board's president and treasurer. Other leaders include Maria Barnes, acting as vice president and Stephanie LaFevers (for Circle Cinema) as secretary.
The program takes a four-pronged approach to revitalization, with committees dedicated to organization (chaired by Wendy Thomas), promotion (Maria Barnes), design (Jamie Jamieson) and economic restructuring (Elizabeth Howell).
All of this is a complicated way of saying these people are trying to build a sense of place in Kendall-Whittier again. And it's working. First, the group focused its energies on building a solid organization. Their achievements to date include developing a good team of people, securing funding and holding fundraisers, incorporating as a 501(c)3, creating committees filled with volunteers, and hiring Phelps.
Howell said things have taken off since Phelps was brought onboard. "It's been very momentous since she came to town," Howell said. "She previously worked with (the city of) Collinsville. She understood organization, infrastructure. When Nancy started, the doors opened. She engaged the businesses and people and outside interests and philanthropists."
Phelps batted away the compliment and said, "I cannot do it without her."
Either way, Phelps and Howell -- along with the rest of the Kendall Whittier community -- have become a powerful team. "We work with a lot of other nonprofits," said Phelps. "Like TU, Peoples Bank, Circle Cinema, Fab Lab. Everybody gets pretty involved, either volunteering, or with ideas, through collaboration, or financial support."
Currently, Howell, Phelps and the gang are putting together their Signature Event Series, which includes four themed fundraising parties sprinkled throughout the neighborhood. Each party will highlight a different aspect of Kendall-Whittier, from its diverse ethnic cuisines to its locally owned, refurbished theater, from its Art Deco fire station to its art galleries.
The fundraiser series will kick off next year with a barbecue at the fire station, Howell said. Each event will raise money for a different Kendall-Whittier nonprofit. "We invite the Tulsa community to come to any four of these, or come to all of them," Phelps said. "We're just trying to bring people in and make them aware.
"Do you know we're here? Do you know what we have to offer?" she asked.
"Where in town can you get a sandwich with double meat, double cheese and two sides for $3.69?" Phelps asked. Answer: Perry's.
But Chimi's, where Phelps and Howell were finishing off their guacamole and chips, isn't in the Kendall-Whittier district. But the restaurant wants to support revitalization in midtown; so each month Chimi's hosts a fundraising event for the neighborhood and raises enough cash to pay a few bills.
In return, Phelps said, "We're doing what we can to highlight them. That's the beauty of going outside the area -- sharing what we do with others outside of the community. It brings them in. We're creating some excitement, some awareness, some energy."
Things have changed a lot in the century since one of Tulsa's early leaders, Sam Daniel, bought 40 acres east of downtown. But, Phelps promised, "This is just the tip of the iceberg."
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