Tulsa's Greenwood District residents fear being pushed out

Kendrick Marshall/Tulsa World | 7/4/2019, 6 a.m.
Standing on the corner of Detroit Avenue and M.B. Brady Street on a warm, spring eve- ning holding a smartphone …
This June 13 photo shows newer buildings that have gone up next to the historic Greenwood District in Tulsa, Okla. John Clanton/Tulsa World via Associated Press

TULSA, Okla. Standing on the corner of Detroit Avenue and M.B. Brady Street on a warm, spring eve- ning holding a smartphone to his ear, Ricco Wright laments about no longer recognizing the location on the northern leg of the Inner Dispersal Loop.

Mr. Wright takes it all in before rattling off a list of businesses and structures that he perceives are out of place.

“What I’m seeing on the east side of the street has nothing to do with the history of Greenwood,” Mr. Wright said.

Mr. Wright, who owns the Black Wall Street Gallery in the heart of iconic Black Wall Street, believes not enough has been done to protect black culture in the Greenwood District from outsiders who historically haven’t sought to respect it.

He is not alone in expressing that sentiment. Many residents of the near-downtown district can see neighboring Tulsa Arts and Blue Dome districts flourish around it with upscale restaurants and entertainment venues, while the Greenwood District, particularly Black Wall Street, struggles to regain the prominence it enjoyed before and after the 1921 Tulsa race massacre.

He mentions Living Arts of Tulsa. Next is She Theatre & Lounge. Then Wright pinpoints ONEOK Field, before eventually identifying “a company I don’t even know the name of” near Archer Street.

White businesses, Mr. Wright said, have been encroaching on what were historically black- owned spaces. Greenwood District’s neighbor to the west, the Tulsa Arts District (formerly known as Brady Arts District) is a hub of coffee shops, boutiques, a bodega and even a cycling exercise studio.

These places, Mr. Wright explained, are markers of the gentrification that has infringed upon the Greenwood District over the years and slowly robbed the area of its once proud African-American history. City leaders, he said, haven’t prioritized cultural preservation of the cherished blocks that make up the district except for plaques embedded on sidewalks around Greenwood to remember businesses once there.

“I’m not opposed to coffee shops and Whole Foods, but those are signs of gentrification,” he said.

At its zenith, Greenwood featured more than 300 black-owned businesses, including retail and grocery stores, medical centers and movie theaters. Greenwood boasts just 20 businesses owned and operated by African-Americans nearly a century later.

“You can see the gentrification happening,” longtime local activist Kristi Williams said.

Ms. Williams has made it her mission to push for local government accountability and tangible investment in north Tulsa at City Council meet- ings and public forums.

She fears that old guard businesses of the Greenwood District like popular eatery Wanda J’s and nearby Tee’s Barbershop are being “pushed out” due to financial and legal struggles.

GreenArch, a $9.5 million apartment complex, moved in on the corner of Archer Street and GreenwoodAvenue. The recently opened Holiday Inn Express and Suites, also on Archer Street, markets itself as a Tulsa Arts District location on the hotel’s website despite officially residing in Greenwood. A Holiday Inn spokesperson told the Tulsa World that the business was in the process of updating the website.

Wherever the existing businesses along the stretch of Greenwood lie, those properties are part of the capitalistic invasion that fails to enrich the district’s legacy, Ms. Williams said.

“This has been happening for years, and people are starting to notice,” she said. “This city has been masterful at pulling people away from the area.”

Arguably the most successful business in the area today — one that has ignited acrimony among black residents and business owners alike — is the $39.2 million ballpark that protrudes well into Greenwood.

But nine years after the first pitch was thrown at the new home of the Tulsa Drillers, Mechelle Brown, Greenwood Cultural Center program coordinator, said black residents have not reaped its promised benefits from 70 game days and nights a year.

“What we were told years ago is that the ballpark would bring jobs. However, when you go to the ballpark, you rarely see a lot of African-Americans working there and definitely not in administrative positions,” Ms. Brown said. “It did not bring jobs to our community, and it has not had a huge impact economically.”

Ms. Brown said the resentment over ONEOK Field runs so deep that many black residents refuse to patronize it.

Former City Councilor Jack Henderson, who supported the ONEOK Field project at the time, said the Greenwood District site was “a fit that helps the north Tulsa community.”

These days, Mr. Henderson, despite the criticism, maintains the stadium has helped revitalize the district and inspired commercial development in the area — something he says might not have been possible before the minor league baseball facility existed.

“A lot of people don’t see that as a positive because a lot of people didn’t want the stadium to come,” Mr. Henderson said. “They thought they lost so much with the Greenwood District experience. I don’t see it like that. I see it as a positive. It is going to take time, but I think we are going in the right direction now with other things being added to Greenwood.”

For anyone who has studied the history of Greenwood, or lived it, what’s happening in 2019 is an all-too-familiar story.

After the race massacre all but destroyed Greenwood and its thriving business district, black residents remarkably rebuilt it even stronger than before, until urban renewal projects and construction of Interstate 244 forever changed its economic landscape.

Tulsa author Hannibal B. Johnson explained that gentrification in the district began as early as the 1960s with the creation of the Urban Renewal Authority, which had eminent domain power.

“URAs around the country abused that power by targeting communities of color for property acquisition and highway location,” said Mr. Johnson. “This fractured urban communities nationwide.”

Others theorize that zoning law changes over the years affected Greenwood’s ability to expand while encouraging — intentionally or not — adjacent districts to thrive.

There has also been concern about Greenwood not being included on the National Register of Historic Places. That designation would have enabled the district to have certain protections and some autonomy over its destiny, said Sherry Gamble-Smith, former executive director of Greenwood District Chamber of Commerce.

“If (original) Greenwood District was there, then you couldn’t build what you wanted to build. You couldn’t tear down things in that district,” Ms. Gamble-Smith said. “We’re the oldest district in Tulsa, and other districts, even some of the new ones, have been placed on the National Register, but not Greenwood.”

Commercial districts currently on the National Register are Blue Dome, Tulsa Arts, KATY Railroad, North Cheyenne, Oil Capital, Sixth Street, Tulsa Civic Center and Whittier Square, according to the Tulsa Preservation Commission website.

Attempts were made over the years to get Greenwood added to the National Register. However, the Oklahoma Historical Society and state and local preservation officials determined it would be difficult because nearly all the remaining buildings of historic significance were dismantled.

Thomas Boxley, chairman of the Greater Tulsa African-American Affairs Commission, points at another inflection point: Several more rounds of urban renewal initiatives in the 1970s and 1980s that greatly affected Greenwood District’s economic prospects with the addition of Oklahoma State University-Tulsa and Langston University-Tulsa.

“That was really a turning point then,” said Mr. Boxley, who also mentioned that changing racial demographics and the city’s focus on revitalizing downtown into a tourist destination played a role in the district’s slow regression. “Development is cyclical. A lot of different dynamics and forces come into play.Greenwood has some work to do.”

Dwain Midget, director of the city’s Working in Neighborhoods department, explained that Black Wall Street — in its current state — will have a difficult time recapturing what it once was decades ago because of a lack of African-American-controlled land.

“Black Wall Street is a concept. It will never be Greenwood of the 1920s, 1930s or 1940s,” Mr. Midget said. “For me as an African-American, I’m looking for a new Black Wall Street. Where in my community can I resurrect a new Black Wall Street? Maybe Peoria (Avenue) from Archer (Street) all the way down to 66th Street North.

There are black people who live there, and there is ample opportunity to build.

“Black Wall Street doesn’t have to be on Greenwood. If you think you’re going to reconstitute Black Wall Street on Greenwood, to me you’re not living in reality. It ain’t happening.”

He imagines that Black Wall Street could be repurposed as sort of a tourist attraction. Memori- als dedicated to the race massacre along with a planned expansion of the Greenwood Cultural Center to educate the public on the district’s history are already in the works.

The greatest hurdle, though, for regaining any semblance of a Black Wall Street has been gaining access to enough financial capital and resources to get started. Tulsa City Councilor Vanessa Hall-Harper said that, historically, African-Americans have had to work around discriminatory practices by lenders and financial institutions while applying for small business loans.

“African Americans have a harder time acquiring capital than other groups,” Ms. Hall- Harper said. “Lenders assume you can’t pay for it. They assume you don’t have the wherewithal to manage and operate businesses.”

Gary Hamer is the capital planning and grants manager for the city. He said the city of Tulsa has not funded any grants in the past five years for prospective black business owners to operate on Greenwood. Only one application has been filed during that time, he said, and it was later withdrawn for an unspecified reason.

Understanding the struggle many black Tul- sans face generating business opportunities is why Ms. Hall-Harper, along with others, started the Black Wall Street Chamber of Commerce last October to cultivate black-centered entre- preneurship through its Power Group initiative. The goal is to raise money to rebuild Black Wall Street and the surrounding north Tulsa community.

“The funds will be used to buy back land based on the wants and needs of the community,” she said. “If we want better for our community, it is going to have to be done in the spirit of Black Wall Street through cooperative economics to help recruit and train the next crop of black business owners.”

Then there is The BlackupStart, a pop-up school based in the Washington, D.C., area that will host “Black Wall Street: Tulsa Edition.” It will host a business school, starting July 12, called to train individuals with business ideas who need direction. The George Kaiser Family Foundation and Tulsa Economic Development Corp.-backed program is a bootcamp designed to help interested black entrepreneurs acquire the tools to start a successful business.

The state of the Greenwood District and the limited economic opportunities for its black residents has even caught the attention of leaders within the Tulsa Regional Chamber.

Saying it recognizes the denial of economic prosperity to minority communities, the Tulsa Chamber declared it will soon explore how the configuration of Greenwood District in relation to the IDL has affected the area and possible ways to re-imagine it.

“The northeast corner of the IDL cuts through the heart of historic Greenwood. It looms as a reminderthatthisneighborhoodhasexperienced great trauma, and not only in 1921,” said Kuma Roberts, executive director of diversity, equity and inclusion for the Tulsa Regional Chamber. “We’ve met with the Oklahoma Department of Transportation, the city of Tulsa and other stakeholders. But there is a significant amount of work to be done before we even know what’s possible with that interchange.

“The most prosperous African-American community in our nation was once located on (Greenwood Avenue). We should celebrate that. We should champion that. And we should see to it that the world knows Greenwood District as America’s Black Wall Street.”