POSTED ON DECEMBER 5, 2007:
Starving in the Desert
North Tulsa hungers for a grocery store oasis, and some respect
Bringing in the Bacon. At least two grocery stores have shown interest in filling the gap left by Albertson's chain vacating its Pine St. and Cincinnati Ave. location- one is a group from St. Louis and the other is the Tulsa-based Freedom Mart.
Since June, the number of people in need of a meal appearing at the door of the John 3:16 Mission in north Tulsa has increased by about 10 percent, according to the Rev. Steve Whitaker, the Mission's caretaker.
While a one-tenth surge might not seem like much, when 170,000 meals are served a year and 8,000 food baskets are given away, that 10 percent amounts to quite a few people struggling to get by, and only doing so because of the kindness of Whitaker and others.
It has been suggested that this increase in service is in part due to the departure in June of the Albertson's grocery store at Pine St. and Peoria Ave., contributing to the persistent overall "food desert" climate of north Tulsa.
The store opened in 2003.
A "food desert," as Whitaker explained, is an area with three or more square miles between major grocery stores.
With only two small Warehouse Market grocery stores on the southern edge of north Tulsa, that food desert encompasses the vast majority of the city's 1st and 3rd districts.
Such a climate forces people to either go hungry, live on the higher-priced junk food from gas stations and convenience stores, or travel beyond their neighborhoods to buy at the nearest grocery store, which, in the case of many north Tulsa residents, means a trip to Owasso or Sand Springs.
While the trip might seem only a minor inconvenience to the more financially secure Tulsans across the tracks, that isn't the case with many of the residents of north Tulsa, Whitaker explained.
Many were already struggling before Albertsons' departure, and with $3 gas and rising food prices, they only have so much money to spread around.
The longer drive to the grocery store means less money in their pockets for groceries and other necessities.
And, this population includes thousands without reliable transportation, many of those dependent upon public transportation.
Whitaker said people in such straits would often just forego the food most of us take for granted.
"A person who doesn't have enough money to make it through the month will often cut back on meals--instead of having three meals a day, they might have only one or two," he said.
But even the once or twice-a-day eaters are doing pretty well, compared to some.
Many schools in the area provide breakfast and lunch to students during the school day, but, the minister said, "I've found kids that would leave school on Friday, and the first time they'd eat again would be Monday morning when they went back to school."
"You can't expect kids to go hungry all weekend and perform well at school," he added.
As a member of the newly created state Task Force on Hunger, Whitaker sees north Tulsa's plight in the context of the larger problem of Oklahoma's overall "food insecurity."
Oklahoma as a whole is the seventh most "food insecure" state in the nation, he said, with more than 500,000 people who can't avoid going hungry at some point in the year.
That condition has traditionally been more sharply felt in north Tulsa, however.
Whitaker said that's because the community has, for generations, struggled against itself and with its own identity.
"This goes all the way back to the 1921 riot," he said.
As a born-and-raised north Tulsan, alumnus of McClain High School and 18-year veteran in his service to the area's poor, Whitaker said, "These are people who are descended from people who were murdered and pillaged in that riot, and there are a lot of people here who still have that 'slave mentality.'"
He qualified that "a huge number of people have gone on to higher education" and other worthwhile accomplishments, but the overall mentality of north Tulsa is one of downtrodden defeat, which keeps it in a perpetual cycle of poverty.
Since the tragedy in 1921, that mentality has been reinforced by one blow after another to the community's sense of self, of which the recent grocery store loss is only the latest.
The northern part of the city has taken its share of lumps, from a city fire ordinance in 1921 intended to prevent Greenwood District residents from rebuilding, to the ill-fated federal "urban renewal" efforts in the 1960s and '70s that, in the words of north Tulsa's 3rd District City Councilor Roscoe Turner, "annihilated the whole area and killed all the businesses" and demolished homes for the sake of creating larger tracts of land to attract developers that never quite showed up.
Whitaker said north Tulsa "is a community that feels it's been let down by the city fathers."
He pointed to the ups and downs of McClain High School in recent years as a prime example of "the Tulsa community's disinvestment in the area."
"In an unpopular decision, in an effort to bring up scores, the city government voted to make it the 'Tulsa School for Science and Technology,'" Whitaker explained.
"They were flipping the idea to the community that 'your kids will never make it to higher ed, so let's just make them blue collar workers,'" he said.
After it was decided to turn the school back into McClain High School, Whitaker and several others had to form the "Reclaim McClain" committee to raise the money to do so.
They're still short about $70,000, he said, which is the cost to take "TSST Titans" off the signs and uniforms and replace it with the traditional "McClain Scots."
"They had no problem coming up with the money to turn them into the 'TSST Titans,' but they can't seem to come up with the money to turn them back," Whitaker said.
The decision to convert McClain into a vocational school not only sent a loud message to the people of north Tulsa about city leaders' lack of faith in their children's potential, the minister explained, but also robbed the community of an important aspect of its identity.
"We're trying to rebuild the community, and you can't have that without having a place where you come from and are a part of," said Whitaker.
"It's important for a community to have an identity, but when you take all the stores, the high school--all the trappings of a community away from the community--you can't have that," he added.
North Tulsa's collective lack of positive self-regard is a major factor in the community's general poverty which, statistically speaking, tends to come with a higher rate of shoplifting and other crimes, which Whitaker believes had at least a little something to do with the failure of the Albertson's grocery store.
"That's what happens when a community doesn't have any sense of self or self-esteem," he said.
"Running a store in any at-risk community is hard, and the rumor is that there was always something like that going on," Whitaker added.
He noted that Food Pyramid and Reasor's immediately bought up the other two vacated Albertson's sites in Tulsa, but the Pine and Peoria location is still up for grabs.
"One has to assume that there's a formula that says 'this store is successful,'" Whitaker said, explaining that the north Tulsa location apparently fell short of whatever formulae are in use by Albertson's and other grocery store chains.
Other north Tulsa community leaders have different ideas about why the grocery store failed, and why the food desert persists.
"Personally, I think Albertson's just wasn't the right choice of grocery stores for north Tulsa," said Reuben Gant, president and CEO of the Greenwood Chamber of Commerce.
"It wasn't that the community didn't support the Albertson's there; everyone in the community wanted a grocery store there. But it was the highest priced grocery chain in the market, and in a low-income area," he said.
"It didn't appeal to the clientele. It was a very expensive place to shop," Councilor Turner concurred.
The councilor also said Albertson's didn't have sufficient security in place to prevent shoplifting, which Whitaker believes cut into the store's profits.
The food desert that is north Tulsa might become a little more fertile in the not-too-distant future, though, as two groups have their sites set on the Pine and Peoria location for a possible grocery store.
One is a group from St. Louis and the other is the Tulsa-based Freedom-Mart.
Whoever sets up shop at Albertson's old digs, all parties concerned hope they adopt a business-model better suited to the area."It needs to be geared toward the people in that area," said Turner.
"I have no idea what their market strategies or price points are, but I hope their prices are affordable," said Gant. "There's a huge demand right now, but no supply."
While he's hopeful and optimistic that one of the two prospective grocers will mitigate north Tulsa's hunger issues, Whitaker said a new grocery store won't entirely solve the problem.
"It will help to a degree, but there's still a food desert, so the issue of hunger doesn't go away. There are still several miles where there's no grocery store," he said.
A grocery store won't solve north Tulsa's larger, more long-term problems, he said, such as its broken spirit and sluggish economy.
"Reweaving the fabric of a community is a science. We have to attract young professionals and give them a reason to live there other than 'I have no other place to live,'" Whitaker said.
"We have to make it possible for small businesses to succeed," he added.
Fixing the crumbling roads would be one way to help with that, Whitaker said.
But jobs, he said, are needed to enable the poor of north Tulsa to stand on their own.
"We don't want to create dependency--we don't want them to live on hand-outs," said the minister.
"John 3:16 will, in its own way, be investing in community development," Whitaker continued.
He explained, along with its charitable contributions in the form of food and shelter, "maybe the Mission will build a strip mall of its own."
If a religious organization can succeed at such an undertaking, Whitaker said other businesses might take notice and realize that north Tulsa has much to offer in the way of a productive workforce.
Meanwhile, Turner and his colleague from Tulsa's northwesternmost 1st District, Councilor Jack Henderson, hope a soccer complex the city has in the works will also give developers a glimpse of what's possible in north Tulsa.
Turner said the specifics are still a little fuzzy, but the councilor said the city used $6 million in Vision 2025 funds several months ago 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.
In a past interview with UTW, City Council Administrator Don Cannon said, "One person likened it to printing money" as he explained the potential economic impact the complex could have when national soccer tournaments are held in north Tulsa.
Also, a Race Riot memorial is in the works in the Greenwood District, which Gant believes will help heal the wounds that still fester in north Tulsa, as well as creating a national tourist destination that could potentially be the "silver bullet" to kick-start the community's economy (for full details, see last week's cover story, "Never Again," at www.urbantulsa.com).
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