Bootstrap Urbanism in Oklahoma City

Oklahoma City’s urban revival is characterized by a uniquely Oklahoman strive to pull oneself up by the bootstraps. The secret to Oklahoma City’s success is simply empowering grassroots urban pioneers rather than hanging them out to dry.

When pick-up trucks and Spring tornadoes coexist with a network of bike-share racks and arts districts, you have found a flexible formula that deserves a tip of the hat from older east-coast communities that already have a densely-built environment. The classic revitalization conundrum is either finding resources or passionate people but failing to connect the two simultaneously. The revitalization of Oklahoma City’s two major arts districts proves that OKC has been able to make that connection.

Kristen Vails, of the Plaza District Association (an artist herself) explained her neighborhood’s role in Oklahoma City’s urban revitalization since it burst onto the stage recently. “Early on, it was inspired that this area was perfect for the arts and creativity,” she said—noting the 1997 formation of a 501c3 community non-profit as an important genesis. In 2003 City Hall played the role of dream-maker with a $2.75 million streetscape project (with a local match). Now in 2013, the focus is back on the area as the Planning Department eyes walkability enhancements in the Classen-Ten-Penn neighborhood south of the Plaza’s iconic NW 16th Street strip.

Vails herself lives down in Classen-Ten-Penn and has led the charge for its urban resurgence, but also cited concerns about gentrification displacement, aspiring toward a more organic renaissance.

“You just didn’t go down there at night, but now my friend Amanda lives down there and she does gardening outside,” Vails added. Crime has dropped significantly in this once-blighted corner of the city since the Plaza District’s resurgence.

Oklahoma City is a city of two halves: north and south. The major focus of gentrification has been in a wide swath from downtown northward to the NW Expressway. A major emphasis of City Hall is to somehow bridge the gap, while historic preservation, infill, and cultural development activity is perceived as a “north side thing.” That is where Plaza and Paseo lie.

In 2010 Travel & Leisure named The Paseo one of “America’s Ten Most Beautiful Neighborhoods” and the American Planning Association named it a “Top Ten Great Neighborhood.” Travel & Leisure summarized the neighborhood thusly:

Once a thriving artists’ colony of Spanish Revival 1920s bungalows, by mid-century Paseo, two miles north of downtown, was plagued by gang warfare and prostitution. Unfazed, artists moved in, taking advantage of low property values, and brought things back to a state of homey bohemianism.

John Belt, “Mayor of Paseo,” who passed away unexpectedly back in March, was almost single-handedly responsible for the district’s revitalization. “I think that Larry [Nichols, of Devon Energy which recently completed an 850-foot skyscraper] could have built eight Devon towers in the period of time it's taken us to fool with this little street and make it an arts district,” he joked. After his favorite deli in Paseo was forced out of business in 1976, he reactively bought and fixed up each property along where Paseo Drive bends up the hill between NW 30th and Walker Avenue. He filled each of these buildings with a hand-selected collection of 17 art galleries, 60 individual artists, mix of restaurants, bars, boutiques, and a theater company.

Regardless of which arts district “OKCers” prefer, there is a growing consensus that a strong inner city requires more than a great downtown—it needs great neighborhoods. In the 1990s the entire inner city was forlorn and derelict, but revitalization efforts have helped bring some prosperity to these parts of the city.  Now the challenge is ventilating some of this redevelopment momentum to outlaying inner city corridors.

Blair Humphreys of the University of Oklahoma Institute for Quality Communities likes the Plaza District’s role in a city-wide urban transformation. “It’s probably the best example of a mixed-use community in the city today. In fact, it is the only place you can take a date out for dinner, catch a show, buy a t-shirt, dance the night away to live music, have too much wine, and wake up with a tattoo.”

This kind of critical mass exists in the Paseo and Plaza districts, and nowhere else in the state. In the revitalization of Oklahoma City, the story has always been about the success of the grassroots community. Their work has helped transform the city by expanding on a sense of community and a wide-scale elevation of local pride – both of which are exactly what successful neighborhoods are made of.


Nicholas Emenhiser is a native of the southside of Oklahoma City.  Nick worked from CEOs for Cities in Cleveland while an exchange student to Cleveland State University's Levin College of Urban Affairs.  He earned his B.A. in Political Science from Oklahoma State University.

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