The developers of Gateway Plaza wanted a politically neutral moniker for the project they hoped would set off a new era of economic development in blighted North Tulsa. Located at Pine Street and Peoria Avenue, the plaza’s grocery store would be an oasis in the city’s food desert, and the strip mall anchored by the grocery store, it was hoped, would spur economic activity throughout Tulsa’s north side.
“Gateway as a grocery store was really serving the same role as a Dillard’s in a mall or a school in a community,” said Pastor Anthony Scott, of First Baptist Church of North Tulsa. “It’s a hub that needed to be successful in order to draw other business into the area. It’s just vitally important.”
When developers planned Gateway Plaza, controversy was not on the menu.
But the plaza is a complicated symbol. It represents both renewed investment in a left-behind area of the city, and the deep rifts—economic, racial and cultural—that persist in Tulsa. Even its name is not as politically neutral as the land developers might have hoped. Pine and Peoria is indeed a gateway, with two starkly different iterations of the same city on either side.
“This intersection is the cornerstone, or the gateway, to North Tulsa,” said O.C. Walker, II, executive director of the Tulsa Development Authority, as he stood in the easement near the intersection, between cars meandering through a gas station parking lot on one side, and whizzing down Peoria on the other. Walker knows the location well, but today it looks nothing like it does in his memory. Before the strip mall went in, Gateway Plaza was a neighborhood with a few small businesses along the major streets. And before the spot in the easement where Walker stood was an easement, it was the site of Little Joe’s Barbecue, which his family owned and operated for over a decade.
“Any time I went back to the back and opened up the doors to the pit, a barrage of smoke would always hit me right in the face,” said Walker, recalling the scent of pecan and apple wood in the kitchen. “You would have to—kind of like you were swimming—take a deep breath.”
Amid the clanging of pots and the thuds of cleavers on chopping blocks, Walker cut his teeth here as a teenager, getting his first work experience at the cash register, taking orders and mixing the barbecue sauce.
His family’s connection to the site runs deep.
Little Joe’s opened in 1987, but before that it was another barbecue joint owned by Walker’s uncle “Beach”—Beach’s Barbecue was transplanted to Tulsa from Checotah, near the small black town of Rentiesville, where Walker’s father once lived.
Growing up, Walker planned on taking over the family business, but when he graduated from Langston University his father encouraged him to find a path on his own. He went to work for the city.
Around that time, the Tulsa Development Authority began acquiring the property that would eventually become Gateway Plaza, in a plan to turn back the tide of social decay that was ravaging Tulsa’s north side.
The picture wasn’t pretty. In 2000, Gateway Plaza’s 74106 zip code had the second-highest poverty rate in the county (behind 74103 just to its south, encompassing northern downtown). Unemployment among blacks was at 11.2 percent (for Hispanics, next down the list, it was 6.1 percent). The homicide rate among blacks in Tulsa was four times higher than for any other race. And, due in part to a lack of conveniently available fresh food, blacks had the highest death rates from heart disease of any racial group in the city.
In the fall of 2009, Walker came home from work one day to find a check sitting at his doorstep—it was his portion of the family’s stake in Little Joe’s Barbecue. His parents had sold the property to the Tulsa Development Authority. Though the loss of the old restaurant was palpable, it was ultimately a relief, Walker said, after the all-consuming endeavor of running a family business.
Ten years later, the executive director position opened up at the Tulsa Development Authority. “Now coming over the entity that actually took my family’s business, it’s a Godsend, you know, I couldn’t write that,” said Walker. He grinned as he relished the moment, talking over the wind and the drone of cars as he stood in the space his family’s business once occupied. “It gives me an opportunity to come back into the community I grew up in to help make a difference,” he said. “Isn’t that the American Dream?”
More than a decade after the Tulsa Development Authority started acquiring the property for Gateway Plaza, Walker has a daunting task ahead in catalyzing development on the north side.
“That’s moving very slowly, slower than we anticipated,” he said. Though the north side has improved on many measures, homicide, poverty and heart disease rates in the area remain far higher than in the county overall. The lives of north side residents are an average of 14 years shorter than those of people in other parts of Tulsa County.
Still, the grocery store is in good shape. After an armed robbery just months after the initial opening and a long period when Antonio Perez, the grocery store owner, had to use money from his other businesses to support the Gateway Plaza location, the store “has turned the corner,” said Pastor Anthony Scott, who sits on an informal advisory council to help Perez make the store a financial success. A new residential development in its planning stages will go in just east of the plaza, hopefully driving foot traffic to businesses in the area.
Ask Walker where he thinks the future of Gateway Plaza and north Tulsa is headed, and he’ll tell you he’s optimistic.
Ask Walker what’s in his family’s barbecue sauce, and he’ll tell you to ask the dog.