Pride runs deep for residents of Oklahoma City's historically and still predominantly Black eastside neighborhoods, and after decades of underinvestment, some recent developments are providing hope for further improvements.
From a Homeland store and The Market at EastPoint that opened within the last year to the MAPS3 Wellness Center under construction next to Homeland, set to open this fall, new business opportunities and economic developments are spreading — the product of a lot of work.
That work in the past year has included groundbreaking or completion of several major projects, with additional community-wide efforts at revitalization focused on centering the residents in conversations underway.
Voices of community included in plans for area projects
Including the needs and desires of the residents in their neighborhood amenities is an important contrast to traditional renewal, said Ward 7 City Councilwoman Nikki Nice, who represents the area. Disinvestment and eventual "urban renewal" within many communities has historically meant displacement and erasure, she said.
“We don't ever want the story to be lost, because that is in a place that is going through great transition — whether it's because the community helped to transition it, or whether it be because policy made it transition,” Nice said.
“A lot of our family members or forefathers and foremothers are not with us. Our ancestors are gone that can truly speak to the places where we're walking every day, where we're enjoying, so being able to still tell that thread of what was here, how it was, what the experiences were like and being able to reimagine and see it for the better — that's again, in my opinion, what these types of events do, and those storytelling events do.”
State and Oklahoma County elected officials recently joined Nice and other city leaders in the EastPoint development, another recent addition to the area, to update residents on work being done in the community. The update came at the ONEOKC Homecoming Weekend, an annual celebration of the east side's communities and culture.
From laws passed that should benefit people trying to reestablish themselves after completing jail and prison sentences to partnerships between Oklahoma County and local schools for improvements, officials pointed to the people of the east side as the most important asset of the community.
“I can honestly say I have either called or talked to all the people on the stage about something that's happening within our community, and I'm grateful that we all have that rapport where we can at least talk and work through whatever is happening for the resolve of our residents and our constituents,” Nice said.
Bills to benefit community tough to pass in Legislature, area senator says
Sen. George Young spoke during the event of how at the state level bringing positive changes to the community has not always come easily.
"We had some bills that were the worst — the transgender bill, the abortion bill — that were some of the worst in the nation," he said. "It really was a dark, dark time this session, and for people who really care about Oklahoma it was a difficult period."
Young said he proposed several bills that were never heard, a fact he attributed to his goal of writing legislation that serves people in his Senate district, District 48, which is predominantly Black. He said his attempt to create a "race and equality commission" to allow residents to file complaints regarding racial insensitivity was not supported, nor were his calls for evaluating the impacts of certain legislation on minority communities.
"What do you expect from me than racial impact statements to look at all the bills that go through, how those bills would impact certain communities and particularly if they would impact certain communities in a very, very, very deficit way?" he said.
Young's concerns offer a reminder of some of Oklahoma City's historical issues that led to the underinvestment in the eastside neighborhoods.
Memories linger of public policies that shattered OKC's Black neighborhoods
Much like Tulsa's "Black Wall Street" — or Greenwood District — Oklahoma City's northeast side, including the Deep Deuce area and locations surrounding the historic Jewel Theatre and the former Douglass school, were once thriving centers of Black economy and culture. During segregation, these areas offered the ability for Black families to establish their own businesses, enjoy nightlife and establish wealth.
With the construction of Interstate 235, Deep Deuce was cut off from the rest of the historically Black community in Oklahoma City, and families were forced to relocate, being pushed farther from the city's center.
"It brings back those memories, some painful but a lot joyful because we remember those good times of being with family, but then you also remember what happened when you were forced to move or just displaced from where you call home because there were other plans that did not include you," Nice said.
Recent conversations by special committees have included meetings that allow community members to envision the future of historic Black landmarks and areas of the east side, including the Lyons-Luster Mansion, Brockway Center and the district referred to as South of 8th, as well as fundraising and advocacy for the revitalization of the Jewel Theatre.
However, not all of the city's decisions are made with as much intention, Nice said. She pointed that out after a recent city council vote to transfer the ownership of Stiles Park, located in Northeast OKC's Innovation District, to BT Development. Nice voted against the transfer, while noting it was not a vote against her confidence in the developer.
"What I have an issue with, again when we look at innovation districts and where they're placed historically, they are placed in certain communities whereas we're now backtracking to reckon with those places," Nice said during Tuesday's meeting.
"There has to be more transparency in this process. There has to be more ownership, as far as our city, to make sure that happens and there has to be more commitments to make sure that our community is engaged in that conversation."
OKC's MAPS 4 projects offer hope for improvement
Residents and community leaders are hopeful that MAPS 4 projects might bring the city's east side further investments, including a possible mental health crisis center and youth center. These would go along with money already set for improvements to the Clara Luper Civil Rights Center, transportation and beautification projects.
Booker T. Washington Park, the site of recent festivities, is set to receive $5 million in funding for upgrades and improvements, said Dr. Monique Bruner, Ward 7 MAPS 4 Citizens Advisory Board Representative.
The mood at the recent ONEOKC Homecoming community event matched the weather as children's laughter carried on the breeze and the afternoon sun shone brightly. Community resources lined tables under a large tent, along with elected officials and local artists and creators with products for sale. A large bounce house and other games provided a "kids zone" to entertain the east side's youngest residents.
Nice said the event brings together opportunities for residents, including job and career openings available locally, as well as direct lines to local services, like health clinics, education opportunities and more — a key for continued success of the community.
Nearby, a parking lot filled with food trucks featuring Jamaican food, soul food, seafood and snow cones sat next to the stage set up on the basketball court for entertainment throughout the day. Residents tried various trucks' fare or danced to music played by a DJ between performances from local musicians and dance groups.
"We want to showcase and show the goodness and the greatness that is a part of Northeast Oklahoma City, because that is the goal, and the aim is to make it that destination that other places have been,” Nice said.
This article originally appeared on Oklahoman: Mostly Black neighborhoods in OKC push for development