Sunday, August 17, 2008

A Neighborhood Too Far?

"I think we may be going a bridge to far."

Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery


For the past several decades, Tulsa City Government has been dominated by an oligarchy of old money families and wealthy special interests. They have given the Citizens of Tulsa an increasingly corrupt city-county government, the tenth worst streets in the nation, a staggering street crime rate, some of the highest sales tax rates in the nation and a series of grandiose civic "improvement projects" that the city simply cannot afford.

For reasons that are only now becoming apparent, it would appear that this oligarchy is taking aim at a particular neighborhood in a classic dump and pump, systematically dumping city "problems" in one neighborhood so that they can pump the value of their holdings in another. This is not a new strategy in Tulsa. Ask some of the folks who used to own homes and businesses around 61st and Peoria.

The first sign that something was wrong came when city code enforcement began very strict scrutiny along Admiral Boulevard between roughly Harvard and Yale. Businesses that had been located there for decades, particularly used car lots, found it advisable to move elsewhere or face the constant, costly attention of nit picking code inspectors. Within a year, Admiral Boulevard became a ghost town between Harvard and Yale as one small, marginal business after the other closed up leaving an empty lot and/or building. Soon, long time neighborhood businesses like area diners began closing as well.

The next sign of trouble afoot was the stunning ouster of Bell's Amusement Park from the County Fairgrounds. Bell's Amusement Park was a city landmark. In a procedural move that would have made Machiavelli proud, Bell's was ousted from the fairgrounds and replaced with a parking lot. The move made no sense at all, unless you were familiar with what now appears to be "the plan."

Next, Driller's Stadium came under the gun. Built in 1981 and renovated in the 1990's, Driller's Stadium is the largest park in the Texas League and consistently rated as one of the best. It is in excellent repair and should be useful for several more decades. Moving the Drillers out of Driller's Stadium, again simply makes no sense, unless there are reasons that the rest of us don't know about.

The reasons for all of the above may have become apparent when it was announced that a hundred plus capacity homeless shelter was being planned for Admiral and Yale. There was no discussion, no referendum, just an announcement that it as going to happen regardless of community outrage. Stunned area homeowners, already reeling from hit after hit to their neighborhood, were furious.

But, after the anger subsided a little, the obvious question became, "Why here and why us?" The answer is actually fairly simple. The oligarchy is heavily invested in downtown real estate and stands to make the next generation's fortune from the gentrification of currently depressed downtown and near downtown properties. The presence of social services and facilities for the poor and homeless are incompatible with these gentrification plans since the limousine liberals who typically frequent trendy downtown lofts and entertainment venues prefer that someone else live with these neighborhood challenges.

Given this, "the plan" becomes perfectly clear once you look at a map of the city. Where can you place these homeless people and their attendant services without depressing the property values of the oligarchy and still keep them within a close bus ride of health services in the 11th to 21st and Utica corridor and city and state services which are downtown and really cannot be moved such as DHS, etc.? And, how can you do this in such a way as to appear racially sensitive?

The answer lies in an area bounded by Admiral Boulevard on the north, Yale on the west, Twenty First Street on the South and Sheridan on the East. This area is within three miles or so of the hospital corridor and five or so from downtown. A fairly short bus ride in other words. It gives a five mile "buffer" from the downtown gentrified properties, a two mile buffer from the aging but still viable Forty First and Yale shopping area and even a one mile buffer from TU. And, the area is a moderate income mostly white neighborhood, so the oligarchy cannot be accused of being racially insensitive by dumping their problems on North Tulsa ..... again.

There were a couple of problems, however. What to do about the people who lived and worked in that area? A lot of the businesses were encouraged to leave by city code enforcement. That took care of many of the small businessmen who would have opposed "the plan."

The residents were a much more difficult problem. White City and the surrounding area was a great neighborhood ten years ago. There was an excellent mix of home sizes and prices. It's residents were an interesting mixture of TU students and faculty, downtown workers and older, long time residents, in short the kind of socio-economic mix that social planners can only dream about. It had some of the best family entertainment in the region. Driller's Stadium, Bell's Amusement Park and Big Splash were all within a mile. Admiral was a little rough at night but OK in the daytime and there were even a couple of old fashioned neighborhood diners where you could breakfast or lunch safely with your neighbors and friends. For more intellectual tastes, there was always a lecture, a recital or a performance going on at TU. And if you were a knowledge worker, the research assets of TU library system were readily available free if you are an alumni or for a small fee if you are not. Again, the kind of neighborhood that competent city planners try to duplicate rather than destroy.

Why would anyone leave a neighborhood like that, especially when it was affordable? They wouldn't unless you take away the amenities. As previously noted, a lot of the Admiral businessmen were persuaded to move elsewhere by code enforcement. The Drillers have been "persuaded" to leave. Bell's was simply not allowed to renew their lease. And, even Big Splash is apparently not making much capital investment in their operation from repairs to even the rent. TU has become extremely inaccessible, looking more and more like a huge gated apartment complex than the open and accessible community asset it once was. And now, by introduction of the homeless shelter, the last two benefits of the neighborhood, property values and relative safety, are being taken.

If you view "the plan" from the oligarchy's viewpoint everyone wins ... almost. Downtown interests get rid of a large portion of their homeless problem, or at least they think they will. A very good argument can be made that homeless people congregate downtown for entirely different reasons that will not be changed by this move. All of the surrounding community assets "that matter" like TU and Promenade have been taken into consideration. The only losers are about twenty thousand mostly white homeowners whose neighborhoods will be ruined and whose home equity will be wiped out. To the oligarchy that is a small price to pay for "social progress," ... especially since they don't have to pay it.

The real question becomes however, who else will pay the price? There are always repercussions. Randi Miller has already paid for the Bell's debacle with her county commission seat and if Sally Bell (of the Bell's Amusement Park family) can beat aging anchorette Karen Keith in the general election the Tulsa County Commission may never be the same. And, Bell may well win. She has near fanatical support in the White City neighborhood.

District Four City Counselor Eric Gomez will pay with his seat as well. The Admiral and Yale announcement and his handling of it reduced him to the ranks of the political walking dead. I don't think there is enough money in Tulsa to buy him another term in office. He might survive the recall but even that is iffy. But, he will certainly not be reelected and the city counsel can rest assured that someone from the White City resistance movement will be the next counselor from that district.

District Three City Counselor David Patrick's seat is on the line as well, with David Bell of the Maxwell Park Neighborhood Association leading the charge to have Patrick ousted for his part in what is now becoming the Admiral and Yale debacle.

The oligarchy may have over-reached. The Tulsa City Council will change because of what has happened. There will be loud voices of opposition there after this. The Tulsa County Commission may change. If Sally Bell is elected, while she may not be able to do much with one vote, she can tell the public what is happening, and that in itself will be a major factor in future county government decisions.

Citizens from all over the city are watching the White City developments very closely because what is happening there could happen to them next. It could be that the Admiral and Yale project was a political blunder of Titanic proportions. The combination of procedural high handedness and patronizing arrogance in this situation may be the tipping point that triggers the political rage necessary for there to be a real change in Tulsa City and County Government. And, if that is the case, then it would appear that the Admiral and Yale project was a neighborhood too far.


Editors Note: The name "White City" was probably taken from the old White City Dairy which was once located in the neighborhood. Despite recent snide PC remarks to the contrary, racial considerations had no part in the naming of the neighborhood.


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