Community in contrast
Exhibit explores north Tulsa’s past and present through photography.
“Moving Day,” 2017
Tulsa has seen many changes over the past 25 years, from the growth of downtown to the boom in south Tulsa. In some areas — north Tulsa in particular — the development hasn’t occurred as rapidly.
The upcoming exhibit at Living Arts, “Examining Change: A Photographic Look at North Tulsa,” explores the changes — or lack thereof — in north Tulsa by comparing photographs taken for the North Tulsa Documentary Project in 1992 with recent photographs.
“I believe there is a cross-section between the missions of social services groups and our mission at Living Arts,” says Steve Liggett, the artistic director of Living Arts Tulsa who will retire June 30. “Maybe even since times eternal, the arts have sometimes crossed into political commentary or social justice issues.”
North Tulsa, then
The impetus for this before-and-after photography project was the shift in Tulsa’s commission-based government model to a city council-style of representation in the late-1980s. It was believed that north Tulsa would have a larger voice in the direction of its community. A collective of photographers was commissioned in 1992 to document the impact of this newfound place at the table.
Don Thompson was one of the photographers asked to participate in this visual documentation of north Tulsa. Thompson already had been capturing the people and the places in north Tulsa since the 1960s and had been recognized nationally for his work.
“More than 15 photographers set out to take photos with the ideas that years later, we would take another look at it to see if changes had been made,” Thompson says.
He describes the atmosphere of north Tulsa in 1992 as bleak. “There was a lot of economic depression, a lot of infrastructural decay,” Thompson says. “In many areas that I photographed, there was a lot of prostitution, a lot of drug use. There’s still some of that going on today.”
Many African-American men and women in the area found themselves out of work in the early ’90s with little access to nearby jobs, let alone to local businesses like grocery stores. To survive, they had to go outside their community.
“During the days of Greenwood before the Race Riot of 1921, the dollar stayed in north Tulsa and turned over nearly six times before leaving the area because they had everything they needed in the area: clothing, food, services,” Thompson says. “The area grew economically because the money did not (immediately) leave the community.”
The effects of the devastating 1921 riot have rippled through the community for decades. The upcoming exhibit hopes to show how the community has changed, for better or worse, over the past 25 years.
“I’m optimistic that changes are slowly but surely occurring, but to some of us that change is not occurring fast enough,” Thompson says.
North Tulsa, now
Though medical facilities added in recent years, including Morton Health Services and the Tisdale Health Clinic, provide health care, easily preventable diseases, like diabetes and heart disease, claim the lives of those living in north Tulsa 10.7 years earlier than other areas of Tulsa, according to a study by the Tulsa Health Department. Thompson says the lack of a full-service grocery store that provides access to nutritious food options contributes to these health woes.
“Frederick Douglass said, ‘Power concedes nothing without demand.’ It is only through making constant, concerted demands by concerned citizens to our governing officials that we will see positive changes,” Thompson says.
Contrasted with the photographs from 1992, the 2017 images — which were submitted by numerous photographers — paint a poignant picture of the effects of time and politics on the people and landscape of north Tulsa.
“Some of the photos are a bit disturbing, showing some areas that haven’t changed at all,” Thompson says. “But there are some good things happening in north Tulsa, so maybe with a change in perspective, we can attract more positive to the area.”
In all, the exhibit is meant to spark the conversation about what has worked, what has not and what still needs to be done.
“How does a community actually create opportunities once politics has actually gotten in line with the wishes of the people?” Liggett asks. “It’s an important thing to bring together our community so they realize this is one city. North Tulsa is an important part of our community that needs to be embraced and developed
“Examining Change: A Photographic Look at North Tulsa”
Living Arts of Tulsa, 307 E. M. B. Brady St. livingarts.org
On First Friday, June 2, there will be a Panel Discussion from 5-6 p.m. with some of the photographers who went out and shot photos of North Tulsa. Don Thompson will moderate, and the panel consists of: Walt Kosty (poet and photographer in Tulsa), Robert Wakeley (photo teacher at BTWashington H.S.), Dan Farnum (photo teacher at TU School of Art, Maureen Nduta (Photo teacher at ORU) and Nathan Harmon (professional photographer in Tulsa).
On Saturday June 3, at 8 p.m. at Living Arts of Tulsa, performing artists from various disciplines, including poets, rappers, musicians, actors and dancers, will express their sentiments, ideas and opinions about North Tulsa.
On June 5, Living Arts also will open “Noire III,” a survey of African-American Oklahoma-based contemporary artists.