30 December 2004
The OKPartisan looks across the river, and she doesn't like what she sees:
We have a serious blight problem in many areas of OKC, but Southside is in particular trouble. I felt like I was driving through an encyclopedia entry on the Modern Great Depression. So many empty strip malls! Bargain stores, check cashing centers, "cheap cigarette" stores, broken up by a few chain drug stores and clusters of chain restaurants on I-240. Bricktown is great. Oklahoma City is coming into its own. But what can we do to help our decaying, sprawling city? Why is it that there is so much new building on the periphery with the very large center of the city languishing?
Well, the last question is the one most easily answered: families with children are used to hearing that one must avoid Oklahoma City schools at all cost, and therefore they're fleeing to Putnam City or Edmond or Moore schools, all of which have substantial numbers of students actually in Oklahoma City limits. (I'd be very surprised if the majority of students in the Moore district didn't actually live in OKC.) How much effect MAPS for Kids will eventually have on this perception remains to be seen, but I do know that right now in my neighborhood, adjacent to one of the better OKCPS grade schools, you'll find young couples and empty nesters, and not a whole lot in between.
One other factor that should not be overlooked is the fact that neighborhoods on the northside are far better organized than neighborhoods to the south; it's no accident that all the Historic Districts and all the Urban Conservation Districts are north of the river, and the grease tends to follow the squeaky wheels. And I suspect that organizing a neighborhood in the inner areas of the southside might be trickier than usual, if only because the increasing Latino population in this area tends to suggest the possibility of, um, undocumented residents, who just might be resistant to the idea of mentioning their existence to city committees.
It might be true that the southside suffered even more than the rest of the city during the Great Eighties Bust; the house we (I was married then) owned circa 1980, in the Almonte neighborhood west of May and north of SW 59th, which we sold at the end of 1981 for $60,000, was resold seven years later for less than half that. Prices have since recovered somewhat. And areas in Cleveland County (south of SW 89th) are clearly thriving. But there's no easy fix, and I'm sticking by what I said a few months ago, when I visited a less-than-beautiful area just west of downtown:
Now the roads through there aren't great, and I suspect the rest of the city's infrastructure is probably an upgrade or two behind schedule, but this struck me as a relatively nice, if obviously not at all upscale, neighborhood. (I spot-checked a couple of houses for sale, and you can still buy in around here for thirty-five to fifty-five thousand.) Professional worriers, faced with a few blocks like this, would undoubtedly start screaming "Blight!" and calling for intervention. And indeed, there's room for improvement, starting with what appears to be, at first glance, a higher-than-average crime rate. But I am becoming persuaded that the kiss of death for any neighborhood comes at the exact moment when the studies and the surveys and the recommendations start coming out and the focus shifts from "How can we make this area better?" to "How can we get these people out of here?" I, for my part, am loath to tear up an area of affordable housing just because it's not pretty.
The city can wave whatever magic wands are at its disposal, but change comes from the bottom up, one street, sometimes one building at a time.
(Update, 2 January, 9:15 am: Added a link to justify the claim of "one of the better OKCPS grade schools," and corrected a pronoun issue.)Posted at 9:55 PM to City Scene