The Capitol Hill area, across the river from downtown Oklahoma City, was settled around 1900, and was incorporated as a city in 1905, though Oklahoma City proper had already spread south of the river itself — Wheeler Park was established in 1903, with the first incarnation of the Oklahoma City Zoo following in 1904. (A flood destroyed much of the park in 1923; the Zoo was relocated across town.)

In 1911, Capitol Hill was annexed by Oklahoma City, but was never quite wholly absorbed; the southside area had its own chamber of commerce, its own community newspaper (the Beacon, still being published), even its own downtown along Commerce Street, which hardly anyone, even today, calls Southwest 25th Street, even though technically that's what it is.

How the two sides of the city grew so far apart over the years is open to debate. It seems reasonable to infer that since city offices, located downtown, are north of the river, the movers and shakers of Oklahoma City's early years tended to spend most of their time, and presumably their efforts, on areas north of the river. W. H. Dunn, as far back as 1909, had envisioned a circular boulevard surrounding the city, and the circle was incorporated into the city plan around 1930. But it wasn't all that circular, nor was its center near the center of town; the northern loop of the eventual Grand Boulevard was built more than five miles north of downtown, beyond NW 63rd Street, but the southern loop was less than a mile south of Commerce Street, along SW 36th Street. It's hard to imagine this asymmetry being accidental.

Whatever the reasons, Capitol Hill eventually went into a tailspin. Many businesses closed; others relocated farther south, closer to the proposed Southwest Expressway, now I-240, which began construction in 1961. And in 1972, the Finger Plan, intended as a remedy for school segregation, proved to be the impetus for massive white flight, much of it to the Moore school district, whose northern boundary was SW/SE 82nd Street.

There had almost always been a community of transplanted Mexicans in the city. Many had worked on the railroads following the Land Run of 1889. The Mexican Revolution of 1910 sent thousands of refugees north of the Rio Grande, and not all of them stopped in Texas. In 1914, three Discalced Carmelite nuns, fleeing the wrath of Pancho Villa, wound up in southeast Oklahoma, serving the Spanish-speaking missions of the Church; in 1921, the order set up a central mission in Oklahoma City at SW 11th and Walker, which became the full-fledged Church of Our Lady of Mount Carmel and St. Therésè of the Child Jesus in 1927. St. Therésè's humble self-description as a "little flower of Jesus" stuck; to this day, the church on Walker, arguably the center of Mexican-American culture in Oklahoma City, is known familiarly as Little Flower Church.

And when in recent years the Latino population began to grow beyond the immediate vicinity of Little Flower, they moved to the west, toward the Stockyards, and north from there; and to the south, across the river, and into Capitol Hill. The Capitol Hill Elementary School, built in 1920 at SW 27th and Robinson, is these days about 60 percent Hispanic; Heronville, built in 1928 on SW 29th east of Blackwelder, is about 75 percent. (Heronville, incidentally, is getting a major facelift and expansion from MAPS for Kids.) None of this, of course, was predicted in that 1930 city plan. But cities, being composed of people first and infrastructure second, have a way of evolving that defies easy prognostication. If you've been thinking of Oklahoma City as a white-bread Protestant sort of place, you haven't been paying attention. One of the reasons I write these pieces is simply that for many years I wasn't paying attention either.

Update:  A reader has chided me for leaving the impression that this side of the city was always some sort of Spanish-speaking enclave, which of course it wasn't; it was around 1990 (hence, "in recent years") before the Mexican-American community made any serious inroads south of the river. One continuing presence, though, has been Catholicism: Mount St. Mary School on Shartel north of 29th dates to before statehood, and has been an anchor for the southside Catholic community, then largely Irish, now less so, pretty much ever since.

The Vent

#421
  15 January 2005
Updated 28 December 2007



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