Kendall Whittier 2.0
Two groups are making strides in the north Tulsa neighborhood.
Kara Joy McKee and Ed Sharrer are the executive directors of nonprofits that assist with social services and economic development in the Kendall Whittier neighborhood.
Kendall Whittier started as a “streetcar suburb” along a trolley line out of downtown Tulsa in 1909. By 1968, it was a center for poverty and crime. That’s when local churches formed Kendall Whittier Ministries, working together to improve the quality of life for residents.
Today, Kendall Whittier 2.0 is on the rise, thanks in part to the new momentum of downtown Tulsa as well as several nonprofit and private partnerships.
Kendall Whittier Main Street (KWMS), for instance, is an independent 501(c)(3) organization. The National Trust for Historic Preservation developed the Main Street model in 1980, and today there are more than 1,000 Main Street programs across the country. KWMS is one of 38 officially designated Main Street communities in Oklahoma. Executive Director Ed Sharrer acts as the organization’s one-man chamber of commerce.
“The best way to save a neighborhood is to make it economically viable,” he says. “It’s the practical component to preservation.”
In the past 15 months, seven new merchants have set up shop along Admiral Boulevard in Whittier Square. Rebecca Joskey recently moved her Urban Furnishings store from Brookside to Kendall Whittier.
“I’m a destination because I’m a niche business,” she says. “Most customers shop virtually before coming to the store.”
Joskey also is an artist and included space at her new location for a painting studio.
“A great emerging design and art community is popping up here,” she says.
Culturally, the neighborhood continues to evolve. Almost 70 percent Latino, Kendall Whittier is home to the new West Park development. This $36 million project of the George Kaiser Family Foundation features 128 mixed-income and 20 student-housing units, plus office space and a renovated outdoor area. Integration, not gentrification, is the idea: people coming together to work as neighbors.
Another group, Kendall Whittier Inc. (KWI), focuses on social services in the neighborhood. Its goal is to help families and children, from birth to higher education.
“We take a step-by-step, strategic approach to improving the quality of life, currently focusing on food and nutrition,” says Executive Director Kara Joy McKee, who came to KWI this past summer.
At the neighborhood’s emergency food pantry, any resident or family in need may receive a week’s worth of groceries up to four times a year. To reach out to Hispanic residents, the organization added culturally appropriate foods and hired a Spanish-speaking liaison to work with the families in the Kendall Whittier neighborhood.
“We provide services with dignity,” McKee says.
Nutrition is addressed through Grow Garden, a community teaching garden. For six years, neighbors have been planting, tending and sharing in the harvest. The program coordinator works with the elementary school students in the GROW Garden and with Growing Together, an adult program of the Community Action Project, to provide area families with garden start-up kits so they can grow food at home.
“There is great pride in feeding their families, enjoying time with their families and building a sense of accomplishment,” McKee says.
And for students who may not excel academically, the garden can be a fertile source of self-confidence.
“We want to keep creative, smart, bilingual young people here in Tulsa to live, work and raise a family,” she says. “In that sense, the garden connects generations as well as the community.”
While KWMS and KWI each have a different focus, it’s clear they have a common purpose: investing in a part of Tulsa that has long been ignored. Similarly, Sharrer likes the idea of blurring boundaries in this one special corner of the city.
“Someone can have coffee at the Phoenix, see at movie at the Circle Cinema, and never know where one neighborhood ends and another starts,” he says. “This is not your father’s Kendall Whittier.”