Tuesday, August 12, 2008

It'll be a cold day in hell before I set one foot in the BOK Center ...

I have just returned from a meeting of the Tulsa Housing Authority concerning the planned construction of a large low rent housing facility near Admiral and Yale. Downtown property owners are making a full court press right now to move the homeless and semi-homeless out of downtown to make the area around the new BOK Center more attractive. The proposed facility will house nearly a hundred low income individuals most of whom currently live at the downtown YMCA. Many of them are disabled, including substance abuse problems or mental health issues. The effect on property values and quality of life in the neighborhoods surrounding the proposed new facility will be devastating.

Literally hundreds of people from the nearby neighborhoods tried to attend the meeting. I say tried because when I arrived at a few minutes before the 10:00 a.m., the woefully inadequate meeting room was already completely full. By the time most people from the neighborhood arrived, they were being turned away by the eight or more armed security guards on the grounds that fire code would not allow more people in the building.

Not surprisingly, the people supporting the proposition, who also scheduled the meeting, showed up early and were able to schedule seventeen speakers in favor the proposition. They had also planted their supporters in different areas all over the room so that it would appear to a television camera that applause and support was coming from the audience when in fact most of the audience was completely silent after each speaker supporting the proposition.

On the other hand, many of the the neighborhood representatives who showed up on time were denied entrance to the building altogether. Consequently, they had no opportunity to even get access to the request forms to ask to be allowed to speak. Only thirteen people were allowed to speak for the neighborhood.

The time was supposed to be limited to thirty minutes for each side. I suppose someone's watch was running slow however because the speakers for the proposition began a little after 10:30 and were not finished until 11:15. I left before the speakers for the neighborhood were finished so I don't know if they were given equal time or not.

The mood of the crowd was polite but angry. Some of the people opposing the proposition were quite eloquent. Others were simply angry. One angry lady put it best, "You just don't dump poor people on poor people. All you get are a lot more poor people. It's a hard job now trying to keep our houses and neighborhoods clean and safe. This is going to make it impossible."

Anger aside, Roscoe Turner, ever the professional, pointed out that there were multiple questionable issues concerning the whole proposition. According to Turner, the zoning itself needs to be examined as well as the address listed for the project which he says does not exist.

The class distinction between the people supporting the project and the people opposing it was striking. Almost all of the people supporting the project are professionals or wealthy donors. There are no such facilities located in THEIR neighborhoods. When one was planned at 10th and Utica, the homeowners there killed it. On the other hand, most of the people opposing the project don't have a lot of options. Everything they have is tied up in their home and any reduction in its value will simply mean that they have to live with the consequences or let it be foreclosed since nobody in his right mind is going to buy a home near a homeless shelter.

In effect, the people with money to live in a neighborhood without this type of facility are telling the people who live in White City, Turner Park and the surrounding neighborhoods, that they will just have to live with this problem and take the resulting financial hit as well. Ruth Kaiser Nelson, one of the wealthy donors who sponsored this project, readily admitted in earlier media statements, "Nobody would want this in their neighborhood." Wanda Watson, a nationally known blues singer and resident of the neighborhood put it another way. Pointing her finger at the seated officials she asked bluntly, "Would you want this in your neighborhood?" There was total silence. She then said, "Yes or No. Would you?" The answer was apparently no.

The sheer arrogance of these people is stunning. They may actually succeed in getting the facility built. But, it will not be the wealthy donors running for election next time around. There was recall talk all over the room. Every city councilman who supported this project will hear about it again and the odds of District 4 Councilman Eric Gomez getting re-elected are astronomical.

As a matter of fact, it would probably be a good idea if Gomez stayed out of sight in his district for a while. There are about twenty thousand people in the affected neighborhoods and given the turnout at today's meeting, I would estimate that about ten thousand of them are hopping mad at Mayor Kathy Taylor, Ruth Kaiser Nelson, the City Council and anyone else remotely associated with this project. This is the type of political affront that does not go away and somebody, probably the elected officials and city employees who made it possible, will pay the price.

But, there will be a longer term price to pay as well. One woman observed, "This is not America." These people are shaken. As long they live, they will remember that their city government and a group of wealthy do-gooders ruined their neighborhood, stole the equity in their property and left them with a home that they could neither live in safely nor sell. Just how this anger, hurt, disappointment and disillusionment will manifest itself over the next several years is anybody's guess but one thing is for sure, downtown interests are taking a public relations and political hit that will take generations to repair. As one little lady from the neighborhood said loudly, "It'll be a cold day in hell before I set one foot in the BOK Center after this."


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