Steps to Nowhere

by Michael D. Bates


Just north of downtown Tulsa there is a vast empty area, about a half-mile long by a third of a mile wide. This wasteland is punctuated only by the Salvation Army’s compound on the south end and a 1970s-vintage elementary school at the north end. The Oklahoma State University-Tulsa campus borders it on the east.

Superimposed on the empty, green space is a grid of seldom-used streets, each one paralleled by a pair of buckled or overgrown sidewalks, interrupted periodically by the stub of a driveway. Where there is a steep enough incline from the sidewalk to the middle of the block, there are sets of stone or concrete steps, leading up the rise to bare ground. At the steepest inclines, tilting, buckling walls try to keep the hill from spilling out onto the street.

Mistaken identity 

The observer notes that this place is north of downtown and remembers that it was north of downtown in 1921 that a white mob invaded, looted, and burned an African-American neighborhood to the ground.

Ethiopian artist Eyakem Gulilat photographed this empty land and the concrete steps to nowhere, intending his installation to be a record of the physical legacy of the 1921 Race Riot. “Using photography as a constant witness, I observe the changes that took place in this location through the last 100 years and how the place holds memory of this great tragedy. The land is an unbiased witness to the lives and events from the past…”

The land is an unbiased witness, but the steps and sidewalks tell us only that once there were homes here — not when they were built, what they looked like, when they went away, or why they went away.

The regularity of the boundary and the thorough cleansing that took place within does not suggest the chaotic destruction of an inflamed mob. The land bears the mark of an officially planned and methodically executed purge — more Kelo v. New London than Kristallnacht.

There are other unbiased witnesses: federal census records, annual city directories, fire insurance maps showing the shape, height, and material of every building, aerial photos, title deeds, subdivision plats. Created at the time for various practical purposes, these records combine as an unintentional documentary of a neighborhood’s history, providing a context for these ruins on a hill overlooking downtown.

There are also living witnesses whose fond memories and precious photographs put flesh on the bones of the official records. They are senior citizens now, but as children in the middle of the 20th century, they bounded down these steps heading to school or church or summertime explorations with their pals. They rode their bikes down these streets in the pre-dawn darkness delivering the morning paper.  Walking these sidewalks, they carried groceries home from the corner store. Where there is now only a treeless stretch of grass, they drank chocolate shakes at a drugstore soda fountain.

These witnesses tell a story. Until 25 years ago, there was a neighborhood here. Until 10 years ago, a few buildings remained.

The story of the steps

The story of the steps to nowhere is not a tragedy on the order of the 1921 looting and burning of the African-American community down the hill and a half-mile to the east. It is not a tragedy on the order of the City of Tulsa’s federally funded demolition of the neighborhood that the African-American community had rebuilt from the ashes of 1921.

It is a tragedy of relentless bureaucracy, faulty projections, and bad urban design. Even as cities across America were rediscovering the value of the traditional neighborhood with jobs, shops, schools, and churches within walking distance of homes, Tulsa was destroying one of the few traditional mixed-use neighborhoods still in its possession, for the sake of a goal that vanished before the destruction was even complete.

At the beginning of the 20th century, Tulsa grew from sleepy whistle-stop to oil-fired boomtown. The population, 50 times bigger in just 20 years, spilled out into new neighborhoods in every direction.

On the highlands to the north, past the Frisco and the Katy tracks, seven new subdivisions were laid out, their streets forming a seamless grid and a single neighborhood. Asked where they lived, the residents of this new neighborhood would simply say “the Northside” or “up on the hill.”

The Northside wasn’t downtown, wasn’t Owen Park, off to the west, and it especially wasn’t the district down the hill to the east, known variously as the East End, Greenwood, Little Africa, or more derogatory names. The Northside spanned from Easton Street on the south to Marshall Street on the north to Osage Drive and the Tulsa Country Club on the west. The eastern border came up Detroit Avenue as far as Haskell Street (known today as John Hope Franklin Boulevard), then traced around the crest of Sunset Hill.

Early city directories documented Tulsa’s racial geography by marking certain residents’ names with a “(c)” for “colored.” The Northside was a white neighborhood, with the exception of a few residents of servants’ quarters over the detached garages of the grander homes. In the 1920 directory, every name on the east, odd-numbered side of Detroit Avenue is followed by a (c); on the west, even-numbered side, none are.

It is a tragedy of relentless bureaucracy, faulty projections, and bad urban design.

The 1918 “Aero View of Tulsa” shows most of our Northside neighborhood in the foreground, and captures it in a state of near-complete development, filled with one- and two-story frame houses, mainly of the craftsman and foursquare styles. Standing atop its namesake hill between Easton and Fairview is the city’s standpipe, or water tower, and, on the hill’s western flank at Boston Avenue, the impressive two-story Sequoyah School with its domed bell tower, opened as Northside School in 1906. A block further west, at Main and Easton, is Tigert Memorial Methodist Church, the first church in the neighborhood; in just six years it would be replaced by the Ku Klux Klan’s Beno Hall. Next to Tigert Church on the north is Fire Station No. 2, built in 1909.

At the five-points intersection where Boulder, Main, and Haskell come together, where downtown’s railroad-tilted grid meets the compass-aligned streets that dominate the rest of the city, the picture shows a scattering of brick apartment buildings and stores. There are two hospitals — infirmaries, really — on Boulder between Easton and Fairview: Cinnabar, in a large house across from two-story brick Morningside, forerunner of Hillcrest.

On the right-hand side (south and west) there are the first few buildings of Osage School, one of the first built to Tulsa’s innovative, incremental “unit plan,” opened in 1913. (Lee School and the former Lincoln School are surviving examples of the type.)

The school is flanked by the grand mansions of the country-club district, with the open space of Owen Park and the Tulsa Country Club beyond. The tracks running down the center of Cheyenne belong to the Tulsa Street Railway, connecting the Northside to downtown via Cameron Street and Main Street with a trolley car every seven-and-a-half minutes from early morning until late at night.

Off the edge of the picture to the north is another new unit-plan school: Emerson, between King and Latimer on the east side of Boston Avenue, had opened its doors on January 5, 1916. 

The 1920s and the Riot

 Around this time C.W. “Doc” Medlock established his home and his optometry practice just north of Standpipe Hill at 618 N. Cincinnati. (N. Cincinnati was renamed Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard in 2012.) Doc made glasses for his white neighbors on the hill and the African-American residents of the valley to his east.

On June 1, 1921, Detroit Avenue, the dividing line between the races, became the front line of the battle, just a block east of Doc Medlock’s place. Years later, his wife, Ollie, would tell their grandson Chris (who would grow up to be a Tulsa city councilor) how Doc sat up all night on the front porch with a shotgun, prepared to defend his home against anyone who might try to attack.

That is the only report of riot violence reaching the neighborhood of steps to nowhere; all of the buildings “up on the hill” survived the riot. 

But the 1921 Race Riot barely grazed the Northside. National Guardsmen were called to the north edge of Sunset Hill, west of the present-day Pioneer Plaza tower, to deal with a report of black riflemen at the base of the hill firing up into the white-owned homes on the crest of the hill. The guardsmen had heard a rumor that the shots had killed a white woman, and two guardsmen who came to investigate were slightly wounded under fire. The guardsmen returned fire with a few shots from a decrepit machine gun and then moved down hill in pursuit of the riflemen.

That is the only report of riot violence reaching the neighborhood of steps to nowhere; all of the buildings “up on the hill” survived the riot. Down the hill, the Greenwood residents successfully fought a city plan to convert the burned-out district to an industrial center, and then rebuilt their homes, stores, and churches. They weren’t able, half a century later, to stop a city plan that leveled all but a handful of buildings in the name of “slum clearance” and “urban renewal.”

Decades of stability

New neighborhoods sprang up further north, so our neighborhood is better described from this point forward as the Near Northside. The Near Northside changed over the next 50 years, but redevelopment happened gradually, one lot at a time. Small apartment buildings, filling stations, and mom-and-pop stores mixed in with the homes and schools. The neighborhood had a few churches, a Jewish community center, and a couple of beer joints.

Tulsans who spent their childhoods in the Near Northside during the 1940s, 1950s, and early 1960s remember it as an idyllic place.

As a five-year-old, Bill Leighty (today a realtor and former planning commissioner) walked on his own to Curry Drug at Main and Latimer, where he could browse comic books or enjoy a cherry Coke at the fountain. A striped pole on a small house behind Curry’s marked Bert Daniels’ barber shop.

The 50-foot deep pits that the brick factory had dug into the side of Sunset Hill, declared off-limits by responsible parents, were magnets for the adventurous young person, where Martin Reidy (the last homeowner to leave in 2004) hunted for scorpions, tarantulas, and horny toads.

For spending money, a kid could mow lawns or deliver handbills for the corner grocery. If you shopped at Romney’s on Main and needed help getting your groceries home, Johnnie Cherblanc (a real estate executive nowadays) would carry your bags for a quarter tip.

A kid didn’t depend on grown-ups to get around. Mike Littrell, who lived near Boulder and Fairview in the early ‘60s, would walk to the Page-Glencliff dairy store at Boston and Haskell for a 10-cent scoop of banana nut, ride his bike downtown, or take the bus to see the Oilers play ball.

But this beloved neighborhood was doomed. At mid-century, the experts believed that government could and must reorganize America’s cities. The science was settled: Traditional neighborhoods, with their mixture of homes and shops and jobs, small lots, old homes, and dense street grids, were insalubrious and a cause of poverty. New neighborhoods on the edge of the city would be designed in accordance with modern, scientific planning theories. Residential areas would be uncontaminated by nearby businesses. Expressways, modeled after Hitler’s autobahns, would speed residents between their shiny new suburbs and downtown jobs and shopping.

A new tool called “urban renewal” would be used to level and redevelop obsolete neighborhoods that didn’t match the scientific model. Uncle Sam generously offered $9 to match every local dollar toward urban renewal and expressway construction. States authorized cities to create the planning commissions and urban renewal authorities required to receive Washington’s largesse.

For some local leaders, it was a happy coincidence that free money from Washington gave them the power and resources to shunt lucrative demolition and construction contracts to political allies, to boost demand for new homes and shopping centers in the suburbs for their developer friends, and to relocate undesirable ethnicities away from the city center. The Germans kept their autobahns away from their cities and towns; city leaders in America saw that they could be used to eliminate outdated neighborhoods or at least wall them off from the central business district.

About the time that Jane Jacobs and her allies were successfully defending New York’s traditional neighborhoods, Tulsa was pushing ahead with modern, scientific planning, as fast as state law would allow, forming the Tulsa Metropolitan Area Planning Commission in 1955 and the Tulsa Urban Renewal Authority in 1959.

For some local leaders, it was a happy coincidence that free money from Washington gave them the power and resources to shunt lucrative demolition and construction contracts to political allies, to boost demand for new homes and shopping centers in the suburbs for their developer friends, and to relocate undesirable ethnicities away from the city center. 

TMAPC’s 1957 Comprehensive Plan defined the model suburban square mile: a school surrounded by houses on large lots, connected by winding streets and cul-de-sacs. Shopping centers on the periphery, carefully segregated from the houses, had plenty of parking spaces and needed them because there was no direct path from home to store.

The map of “blight, sprawl, and renewal areas” in TMAPC’s Preliminary Land Use Plan claimed that over 30 percent of the buildings on nearly every block of the Near Northside were “dilapidated,” and the neighborhood was “needing treatment.”

The 1957 expressway plan connected an “Inner Dispersal Loop” hub around downtown to distant, growing suburban neighborhoods, the spokes cutting through older, inner neighborhoods.

Oklahoma law authorized cities to condemn property for “blight,” a condition so expansively defined that it could apply to any building that wasn’t brand new. An entire neighborhood could be condemned as blighted, no matter how well-kept each individual property might be, if their arrangement didn’t fit the new suburban standard.

The grand metropolitan plans began to nibble away at the neighborhood in the late ‘60s, when the state began clearing land to make way for I-244. Cincinnati was widened and cut through the middle of Standpipe Hill to connect to the new freeway. In the ‘70s, the western fringe of the neighborhood was cleared and Osage Elementary School was demolished to make way for the Osage (now L. L. Tisdale) Expressway.

Now out of sight and out of mind for city leaders downtown, the area headed into a decline. Stores that sold new items became resale shops. Drug dealers and prostitutes roamed the streets.

In 1975, Emerson Elementary was demolished and replaced with a new building, part of the school district’s “magnet school” desegregation strategy. TURA cleared four whole blocks — 46 single-family homes, four duplexes, seven apartment buildings, and a beer joint — and the city closed Boston and King through the new school’s “superblock” campus.

Urban renewal plans of this period called for the clearance of nearly all non-residential uses and multi-family housing, with commercial uses permitted only along Denver, south of Fairview. The city’s policy was to eliminate the mixed-use quality that set the Near Northside apart from other neighborhoods. Given time, those former commercial sites might have been filled with single-family homes.

Tulsa’s pursuit of state-funded higher education would change everything for the Near Northside. In 1982, the dream of a free-standing Tulsa State University gave way to an awkward compromise called the University Center at Tulsa (UCAT). Langston University, Oklahoma State University, University of Oklahoma, and Northeastern State University would offer graduate and upper-level undergraduate courses toward a degree from one of the four schools, on a 200-acre campus to be provided by the city.

The city chose the Greenwood District, north of I-244 and east of Detroit, as the heart of the new campus. The 84.6 acres had been home, in 1960, to about 2,200 people and dozens of businesses, but it had been leveled by the Model Cities urban renewal program and sat empty save for two churches, and a house. The plan to replace Greenwood with high-intensity residential and commercial development had gone nowhere.

In 1985, the City of Tulsa established the University Center at Tulsa Authority (UCATA) to acquire, improve, and maintain a campus on behalf of the four colleges. A firm drew up a master plan, and City of Tulsa voters approved funds for the first academic buildings, which opened in 1988. In 1986, the Tulsa Development Authority, successor to TURA, had signed a lengthy development agreement with UCATA, requiring the land be used for a public university and for development to occur in a timely fashion, and transferred the initial campus area to UCATA.

The remaining 115 acres would come from the Near Northside neighborhood. The homes east of Cincinnati atop Sunset Hill had already been cleared. Urban renewal plans were updated in the late ‘80s to reflect the new direction. East Haskell (now John Hope Franklin Boulevard) would be connected to West Fairview as a peripheral road, and every other street in the acquisition area (Jasper south to the IDL) would be closed. Pedestrians would be given a tunnel under the new road east of the former site of Boulder Avenue. In the early ‘90s, the Tulsa Development Authority, successor to TURA, began voluntary buyouts of Near Northside homes.

Two parts of the Near Northside would be spared. On the west fringe, Denver and Cheyenne avenues had been added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1980 as the Brady Heights Historic District. Emerson School’s superblock protected the homes and the Boydell Apartments to its north; the commercial buildings were cleared in accordance with the earlier plan.

A 1990 historic preservation report recommended adding the rest of the Near Northside to the Brady Heights Historic District. City authorities had already sealed the area’s fate; the report was shelved.

UCAT becomes OSU-Tulsa

 While TDA was relentlessly bulldozing homes for UCAT, UCAT was mutating into something very different from a campus that boosters confidently projected would have 20,000 students by 2000.

The consortium blew apart in 1998. OU-Tulsa moved to 41st Street and Yale Avenue. Broken Arrow built a campus for NSU. Langston wanted its own building in the UCAT acquisition area. OSU-Tulsa was all that remained of UCAT.

In 1999, OSU-Tulsa unveiled a grandiose master plan. With only 4,200 students enrolled, the 20,000-student target was rescheduled from 2000 to 2020. The plan, still on display in an upstairs lounge, shows the campus sprawling across all 200 acres. Academic buildings would sit on a series of five terraces leading from the original campus buildings up Sunset Hill to a new campus library on the summit, replacing Pioneer Plaza and Sunset Plaza Apartments.

Campus housing and a wellness center would go west of Cincinnati. The urban grid would be replaced with winding suburban streets and cul-de-sacs. For the complete college experience, OSU-Tulsa even planned to build houses for fraternities and sororities.

In April 2004, TDA demolished the last three homes in the neighborhood. By the end of 2005, Fire Station No. 2 and a few nearby industrial buildings were gone, the final step to nowhere.

OSU-Tulsa’s latest master plan, from 2011, a Google map superimposed with Arial type and shaded polygons, has already been overtaken by events.

The Oklahoma School for the Visual and Performing Arts will be at the former Roosevelt Junior High and won’t need eight acres south of Emerson School. The Tulsa City-County Library is renovating Central Library, rather than relocate to the western half of Standpipe Hill. Vision2’s defeat in November 2012 eliminated funding for a new classroom building and student center. The future of the Millennium Center, a demonstration site for sustainability concepts, is up in the air. OSU-Tulsa caters to commuting locals; on-campus housing won’t be needed. The Salvation Army, Pioneer Plaza, and Sunset Plaza Apartments won’t be moving. OSU-Tulsa doesn’t need the land to move forward with its plans, and there are no funds for relocation.

A technology and research park on Sunset Hill between MLK and Pioneer Plaza is still on the table. OSU-Tulsa would build and lease office and lab space to high-tech companies.

Only the “Hill Top Gateway” on Standpipe Hill has been realized. Without stairs or windows, the tower, which stirs uncomfortable memories of snipers firing into Greenwood from that same hill, serves only as a big sign to alert I-244 drivers to OSU-Tulsa’s existence.

Steps back to somewhere 

In the 15 years since OSU-Tulsa’s first and most elaborate master plan, enrollment has shrunk from about 4,200 to 2,842 for spring 2014. Langston-Tulsa has 356 students. That’s a long way from 20,000 by 2020.

The demand for higher ed in Tulsa may be as great as UCAT boosters expected, but students have found more convenient and cost-effective means to meet their goals. Tulsa branches of private and for-profit colleges and dozens of online options cater to the needs of non-traditional students.

Even OSU’s own online course options are competing with OSU-Tulsa. For the fall 2013 semester, the school offered the “Get Here” tuition waiver — $250 for students who took all their courses on campus. A poster promoting the plan pointed out that on-campus students would also avoid extra online class fees.

The wasteland was created for a university, but it isn’t owned by a university. The Oklahoma A&M Regents own the north academic building and the auditorium (but not the administrative building), and they own the site of the Technology Center west of Elgin. As Langston’s governing body, they also own the Langston-Tulsa campus. The remainder of the 200 acres — including the Near Northside wasteland and OSU-Tulsa’s massive parking lots — still belongs to UCATA, a trust of the City of Tulsa governed by six trustees who are appointed by the mayor and confirmed by the City Council to five-year terms.

The terms of the land’s transfer from TDA to UCATA allow for the land to revert if it’s not needed for higher ed.

Despite its total destruction, the Near Northside’s wasteland has never been replatted. The grid of streets and parcels that served as the womb for its development 100 years ago could be the matrix for its regeneration, one lot at a time. Tulsa’s new comprehensive plan calls for zoning tools that could be used to recreate the style of homes and mixture of uses that characterized the neighborhood in its heyday.

Perhaps someday, the steps to nowhere will lead somewhere once again.

Originally published in This Land, Vol. 5, Issue 10, May 15, 2014.