The Brady bunch
Residents of the downtown Brady Heights neighborhood have found creative ways to solve problems, helping to preserve and develop one of Tulsa’s most historic neighborhoods.
Visiting the Brady Heights neighborhood, located just outside of downtown Tulsa between Denver and Cheyenne avenues, is like visiting a time gone by.
First, there are the houses. Built primarily between 1905-1930, the homes are larger and of a more complex design than those in other nearby neighborhoods. They also feature a smorgasbord of distinct architectural styles — mostly Bungalow/Craftsman or American Foursquare but also Colonial Revival, Folk Queen Anne, Folk Victorian and Prairie School. In fact, the area is such an important archive of historic homes that it was the first Tulsa neighborhood to receive National Register of Historic Places designation.
Then there are the people who live in Brady Heights. They are as diverse as any community found in a larger city. There is Wess Young, a survivor of the 1921 Tulsa race riot, and his wife, Kathryn. There are members of the creative crowd, including visual artists, such as oil painter Margee Aycock, as well as musicians, photographers, actors and entrepreneurs. There also are young couples and families, such as Jeremy and Jenna Brennan and their three daughters.
Tim Lovell, a resident and former Brady Heights Neighborhood Association president, says there are others, too — old, young, black, white, Asian, Hispanic, Native American. Yet, despite this diversity, the residents of Brady Heights are uncommonly close. They know one another’s names, occupations and talents. As the Brady Heights Web site notes, “We are a front porch community where everyone knows their neighbors.”
It’s this small-town feel and sense of togetherness that initially attracted Margee Aycock to the area 19 years ago. She had visited Brady Heights with her family on a home tour and met many of the families who lived there. She appreciated the diversity, and that the homes were affordable.
“It’s not like the suburbs of Tulsa where everyone is young with a family,” she says. “ … The reason I moved in was because it was like the little town I grew up in, in upstate New York, that had the older people, there were younger people, there were kids playing in the street, people knew each other. You could walk down the street and say ‘hello’ to everyone on their front porch ... It just had a real warmth and whole different feel.”
The neighborhood, though, has experienced its share of ups and downs.
In the 1920s, Brady Heights was one of the most in-demand neighborhoods in Tulsa, part of the then-fashionable northside, according to the Brady Heights Web site. Deriving its name from Tulsa icon W. Tate Brady, whose mansion is the centerpiece of the neighborhood, Brady Heights had formerly housed young professional businessmen and oilmen, such as G.Y. Vandever, I.S. Minks and “Diamond Joe” Wilson.
But by the 1960s and ’70s, as Tulsa’s population moved south and urban renewal took hold, the neighborhood fell into disrepair. However, the 1980s marked a new era for Brady Heights. It was in this decade that new residents, or urban pioneers, as Lovell calls them, moved into houses that were scheduled for demolition and started a renaissance in this historic area.
This renaissance also led to the formation of the Brady Heights Neighborhood Association (BHNA), one of the oldest neighborhood associations in Tulsa. The organization was formed in 1980 with the help of residents and city officials who wanted to promote a feeling of small-town togetherness, address crime issues, promote beautification and protect historic structures. Wess Young served as the association’s first president, and aimed to promote diversity in the area as well.
The goals for the BHNA have remained steady over the last two decades, and it continues to attract at least a quarter of the 130-150 households that make up the neighborhood. The BHNA has even become a 501(c)3 organization, soliciting donations to help further neighborhood revitalization efforts.
The BHNA has always been focused on finding unique ways to address the concerns of those in the neighborhood. When a house was in danger of being torn down, neighbors stepped in to fix it up. When a lot became available, the neighbors worked with a builder to get a new home built, naturally one that fit the style of the others in the neighborhood. And when the Brady Mansion, which had been converted to a multi-family building, was purchased and the new owner needed volunteer labor to bring it back to its original glory, residents were ready and willing to help, stripping floors and tearing down walls.
Lovell says this focus on finding creative solutions for overcoming obstacles is what sets the BHNA apart from other neighborhood associations in the city. And it has earned the members respect from the city as well.
“(It is) always my opinion if you come to the city government, you should come with a plan,” he says. “Most people say, ‘We pay taxes, so give us services.’ There’s some validity to that. But if you want to get out of the box, you really have to bring more to the table than concerns. You have to bring possibilities of solutions.”
So when another problem presented itself recently, that’s exactly what they did.
AN ARTFUL SOLUTION
In 2000-2001, the BHNA began noticing that on Denver Avenue, a long stretch of road without stop signs, the traffic was out of control. Residents, whose children often played in the area, were concerned, so they devised some ways they could slow down the traffic — they couldn’t use stop signs because Denver is a collector street, so they considered traffic circles and center medians.
However, as they thought a little harder, they decided to develop some more unique traffic-control devices, developments that would be more fitting of their artsy neighborhood.
They wanted to develop an art parkway, consisting of four monuments, each with an art piece associated with it. To finance their vision, they began fund raising using some traditional means and some not-so-traditional methods. For example, when Lovell was going to replace his tin roof, he decided to donate the old tin shingles to artists for a Tin Roof Art Show, with proceeds benefiting the art parkway.
Aycock compares the fund-raising efforts to the equally scrappy yet creative Little Rascals.
“When they needed to raise money for something, they’d say, ‘Let’s put on a show and charge everybody a nickel!’” she says. “It reminds me of our art show.”
Later, when Michelle Barnett took over as president of the neighborhood association, the BHNA applied and was accepted to receive funding offered through Phase II of the Vision 2025 Neighborhood Fund to build the monument.
Those involved with the project wanted to involve the rest of the surrounding community as well. Terry McGee of McGee Enterprises, who owns property in Brady Heights, constructed the monument itself, made to match the brick color of Centenary Methodist Church and the marble of the Brady Mansion.
For the monument’s four panels, Aycock and mosaic artist Caryn Brown worked with a committee to brainstorm ideas and develop sketches. They also organized several workshops at the neighborhood elementary school, Emerson, to involve the children in creating the border for one of the panels. BHNA members even sponsored an art contest for Emerson students with the theme “What Do You See for Tulsa’s Future?,” which also was a theme for one of the panels.
“We really wanted to encourage them in their own artwork to think about how they saw their city and to think about their state,” Aycock says.
Aycock and Brown held additional workshops for adults and children in their neighborhood and clients of the nearby Madonna House, a residential program that serves women over the age of 18 in crisis pregnancy situations, to allow them to work on the project.
“It (the monument) really does honestly reflect the efforts of the individuals that went into it,” Barnett says.
Not only did the community partnerships result in funding from sources such as SpiritBank, Tulsa Women’s Foundation and the Oklahoma Visual Arts Coalition, but Barnett says they also allowed the community to take ownership in the project, discouraging vandalism and encouraging local pride.
The finished product, called “The Tulsa Spirit,” truly represents the diversity of Brady Heights. One panel features Native American designs, quilt patterns, a friendship blanket and a trail of the covered wagon to represent the pioneer and Native American cultures in the neighborhood; the next includes art deco and oil-era-themed designs; the third represents 1950s to the present and includes Route 66, Cain’s Ballroom, the Blue Dome, the aerospace industry and other symbols; and the final panel represents hope for the future, including the preservation of historic neighborhoods and downtown buildings and a clean river and sky.
“We believe in historic preservation, we believe in preserving houses, we believe that our community must be diverse in order to keep this unique character,” Lovell says. “But we also believe in our future and finding ways to move us forward to the future. And the Tulsa Spirit monument represents that.
“It’s not just a representation of the past; it’s also a beacon to the future.”
The finished product was dedicated in October 2008 in coordination with the National Historic Preservation Conference, which was held in Tulsa. Since then, the monument committee members have enjoyed hearing all the positive feedback, from those who helped create the project and others outside the neighborhood.
“Sometimes I will mention this to somebody else, and before I even finish the sentence, they’ll say, ‘I saw that.’” Lovell says. “And these are people who live all over Tulsa, so I’ve been quite impressed by that. I didn’t know they drove down Denver.”
“Well, they do now,” Aycock adds.
With one project under their belt, the BHNA members are continuing to brainstorm ideas for the future.
For example, they plan to develop an already-existing traffic circle by adding a brick wall with inlaid mosaics depicting the four seasons and topped with sculptures of dancing children created by Garden Deva Lisa Regan. The project will be completed by the end of 2009.
They also are planning to add at least one more sculptural installation.
And as the BHNA members plan artistic improvements to the area, representatives from the next generation of residents, Jeremy and Jenna Brennan, are working on ecological improvements.
The couple moved to the neighborhood in November 2007 because they had visited friends who lived in Brady Heights and were attracted to the area’s historic feel and nearness to downtown. Their house, constructed around 1919, was being completely renovated, and the Brennans made an offer just in time to help customize the home to their tastes.
The couple share the home with their three children, Anna, Kara and Autumn, who love to play on the large front porch when the weather is nice.
Which is exactly what the Brennans enjoy about their home. They appreciate that because it was built in a different era, the focus is still on front porches with plenty of room for lounging, sidewalks, walkability and connecting with people nearby.
“Here there’s so much more freedom to get to know your neighbors,” Jenna says.
But there was something missing. Because the back yards of the Brady Heights homes are smaller than those of newer homes, Jeremy missed having a backyard garden. So he got together with brothers Justin and Nathan Pickard, who had begun developing a community garden.
Justin, a Brady Heights neighbor, had seen a successful community garden while visiting the L’Abri center in England and thought the concept could work in his neighborhood, too.
The garden is now entering its third summer, and Jeremy says he appreciates that it helps him get to know his neighbors — he hosts monthly garden work days — and helps to prevent crime because people are outside watching their surroundings.
It also results in healthy food that comes straight from the source, so there are no worries of chemicals or other pollutants.
“It’s the best-quality food you can get,” Jeremy says.
While at press time the City Council was still considering whether community gardens should require special permission, Jeremy is looking forward to an incoming shipment of fruit trees, as well as strawberry, blueberry and raspberry bushes and vegetables that will soon be in full bloom.
He even hopes to work with Emerson Elementary to compost cafeteria waste at the site, and a local Boy Scout will be creating a garden fence for his Eagle Scout project.
As developers work to turn downtown Tulsa into a thriving city center with retail, entertainment and housing, Brady Heights continues to improve itself as well, proving that with some dedication and creative thinking, a renaissance is possible.