Let’s talk about a house. It’s a beautiful house, maybe even your dream house; it has every amenity you’ve ever looked for in a house, it’s close to a vibrant city center, urban developments, schools, and has easy highway access. It’s even in your price range. Most young people would likely claw the MLS Real Estate listing from our hands and put an offer in immediately, before anyone else heard of this magical real estate rabbit hole. There is, of course, a catch: it’s north of Admiral.
In Tulsa, those three words are often considered enough to write off an entire geographic area, making it unacceptable for living, visiting or otherwise considering in any way. In this article, the first in a series about North Tulsa, we consider why. But hold on, we’re not here to deliver a guilt-driven diatribe; rather, we’re concerned that a ferociously negative attitude and perception of North Tulsa has been built up over the entire lifetime of the city (mostly due to institutionalized racism and the leftovers of segregation) and frankly, you should be too.
We know what you’re thinking. It’s true, there is crime in North Tulsa. There’s an article about a gun-related crime almost every week in our major publications. But what we must consider is that if there’s a crime problem in North Tulsa, there’s a crime problem in Tulsa. Compartmentalizing it, pushing it out of our minds and across the train tracks, is just a way for us to separate ourselves from the problem.
In many cities across the country, lower-income neighborhoods weren’t always lower-income. Through many racially-driven practices in the 1930’s, mortgage companies began segmenting major cities into regions where they felt comfortable lending money, and regions they didn’t. Soon, this practice was adopted by insurance companies as well. As one can imagine, the neighborhoods they refused to lend to, or insure, were predominately African American, though this also happened with Mexican, Asian and Jewish neighborhoods. The practice is referred to as redlining, because when the mortgage companies decided not to lend within a particular area, the area was colored red on the map. This practice is a major contributor to the modern day ghetto. This is the case with most major cities, but Tulsa is different. As we know from the information gathered for the Report on the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921 [link], North of the Frisco railroad tracks (parallel to Archer St. in Downtown Tulsa) was a predominately African American neighborhood, specifically concentrated around Greenwood. The area was nicknamed “Black Wall Street”, and it was almost completely destroyed during the race riots. This tells us that North Tulsa has been predominately black since our town’s beginning. This didn’t mean that redlining didn’t exist, however, Tulsa just made it easier for the mortgage companies to discriminate against North Tulsa, as the city overall was mostly segregated by the 1930s.
So for whatever reason, Tulsans often have a very negative perception of the north side. We’ve probably all heard some heinous things said; we’ve even heard of people who refuse to go downtown because it’s near North Tulsa. Within a few months of opening, the Gateway Market, a new grocery store at Pine and Peoria, was robbed at gunpoint; a horrible tragedy for any business, not to mention its employees and guests, to endure. A citizen commented on the Fox 23 story regarding the robbery that “North Tulsa does not deserve to have anything nice until they start taking care of their own neighborhood.” This kind of sentiment is startling, but widespread. Comments on other sites, such as the Tulsa World, echoed the same sentiment: that somehow the store had it coming. Do we, as citizens, as human beings, really believe that anyone deserves to be robbed? Additionally Gateway Market opened at that particular location to serve a part of the community which hasn’t had a major grocery store for years. This is precisely the kind of perception that only worsens the problem. When someone is shot at 51st and Peoria we don’t say “Better stay away from Midtown!” North Tulsa is constantly chided as dangerous and unsafe, but many places in Tulsa have high crime rates including West Tulsa and East Tulsa.
Are there are exceptions to the “Don’t go to North Tulsa” rule? Of course. How about the Zoo? Mohawk Park, Gilcrease Museum, the Tulsa Air and Space Museum and Oxley Nature Center are all congregated north of our very own proverbial “Mason-Dixon Line”. Families from Broken Arrow, Catoosa, Tulsa, Sand Springs and beyond flock to the Zoo every year; people fish the Mohawk Park Reservoir, and busloads of school children are shuttled to and from Oxley Nature Center. We can likely all agree that these are some of our city’s greatest treasures, and without North Tulsa we might lose them to Bixby or Jenks. Recently Newsweek rated Booker T. Washington High School the 58th best high school in the nation. Is giving your student a great education worth the risk of traveling to North Tulsa? Parents citywide have decided that it is.
A lot of progress has been made in recent years on the western side of “North Tulsa”, particularly immediately west and north of downtown. Neighborhoods like Crosbie Heights, Owen Park and Brady Heights are experiencing a sort of rebirth fueled by the influx of a younger, more open-minded demographic. Many people remain skeptical about the safety of these neighborhoods, and still others wouldn’t technically call this “North Tulsa”. But it’s still all about perception. Neighborhoods like Reservoir Hill (north of Pine on Denver) and Gilcrease Hills (Gilcrease Museum Road and Pine) have been long-standing neighborhoods in North Tulsa. In Reservoir Hill, if you blink twice you may think you’ve gone into a wormhole and come out in a posh San Francisco neighborhood.
Many people think North Tulsa and begin to think of things like gangs, guns, violence and drugs; the truth is people who think those things often haven’t seen enough of North Tulsa to make an informed judgment. Many people raise their families, live happy lives and grow old in North Tulsa. Crime is a problem our whole city needs to face. Our city is facing a massive deficit, and one reason we’re losing sales tax revenue is because so many young families move to Jenks, Bixby, Owasso and Broken Arrow; when people move to the suburbs they no longer pay property tax to the City of Tulsa, and much of their disposable income goes to businesses in their immediate vicinity. If we can alleviate crime and solve other crucial problems that are holding back our city (and not just its northern side) perhaps we can take steps toward changing perceptions. In a modern day 2010, Tulsa cannot afford to continue alienating North Tulsa. We can neither fiscally nor ethically afford it. It’s time for all of us to get serious about Tulsa’s problems and stop thinking about geography. We encourage you to explore “North of Admiral”; you may be surprised by what you find.