What’s next for Greenwood?
With redevelopment booming around it, one historic downtown area is full of potential.
Much of the original Greenwood district is just a memory, but the intersection of East Archer Street at North Greenwood Avenue looks rather similar to the historic photo on the left, circa 1940.
Courtesy Beryl Ford Collection/Rotary Club of Tulsa, Tulsa City-County Library and Tulsa Historical Society.
Wedged in a quiet corner of downtown Tulsa’s extreme northeast margin lie the remnants of what used to be the pulsating heart of a proud, vibrant and economically self-sufficient community.
Once known as Deep Greenwood, this foreshortened strip of quaint redbrick buildings and storefronts on Greenwood Avenue at East Archer Street comprises most of the historical remains of an area that once bustled with so much commerce, entertainment and entrepreneurship that it came to be called Black Wall Street.
The area thrived for decades but the 1921 Tulsa Race Riot, desegregation, changing economics and, ultimately, urban renewal left Greenwood a shadow of its former self.
Even now, many fondly remember the larger Greenwood District when it was a livelier place that offered a complete array of services and amenities for local residents. One of those is Regina Goodwin, an artist and now state representative whose district (73) includes Greenwood.
“You had everything there: theaters, doctors, lawyers, restaurants, a newspaper,” she says. “There was no need to leave the community because it had what you needed. It was like any vibrant community.”
Goodwin grew up on Greenwood Avenue, near the main business hub (today, north of the OSU-Tulsa campus), attended Carver Middle School, graduated from Booker T. Washington High School and went to church at First Baptist Church of North Tulsa. Although by then Greenwood was past its heyday, 1960s Greenwood was still an important and active district.
“Greenwood is dear to my heart,” Goodwin says. “There was a lot that went on in Greenwood, and it’s an area and a street that showed us the best of who we are.”
Shrunken by urban renewal, divided by a highway and, some say, largely ignored by developers and city planners for years, Greenwood became — in Goodwin’s words — “Gonewood.”
Yet, with downtown Tulsa’s resurgence over the past decade — in particular the Brady Arts District adjacent to Greenwood and the Blue Dome and East Village districts to the south — some community leaders, Goodwin included, are sensing a growing opportunity.
An opportunity for Greenwood to once again stake its claim and become a more vital and vibrant part of downtown’s ongoing redevelopment, rather than a largely overlooked relic.
Why not Greenwood?
Among those calling for a Greenwood District revival is the Greenwood Chamber of Commerce.
Gathered in the chamber’s offices located in one of the remaining historic buildings on Greenwood Avenue, GCC Executive Director Sherry Gamble Smith, Board President Dr. Art Williams and longtime community activist Michael Reed speak of seizing the moment. Especially in light of the hundreds of millions of dollars in development that has already been invested in adjacent areas.
“We are trying to get on that wave (of development),” says Gamble Smith, who has served in her current role for several months and has been involved in various capacities for two years. “But it comes down to securing funding.”
After a period of stagnation, the GCC has enjoyed its own resurgence in recent times and now has 100 paying members, Gamble Smith says. More than that, the GCC is more determined than ever to make its voice heard.
Reed says the time has come for Greenwood-area development that rivals surrounding districts and attracts locals and tourists.
“So many people, both here and even around the world, know about Greenwood and its history as the Black Wall Street and what happened with the riot, but when they come here to see it, there is only this little block,” Reed says. “It’s embarrassing.”
The district’s importance and race riot are commemorated across the country — from a tribute in Baltimore to a Smithsonian exhibit to an upcoming Oprah Winfrey Network miniseries — but here there’s little celebration of the history in the Greenwood District itself.
What more does the GCC hope to see happen in the Greenwood District? It believes the area’s distinctive history, including being the epicenter of the one of the nation’s worst race riots, make it a destination for cultural tourism.
“It’s a terrible thing for a historical area of such importance to be neglected,” says Williams, a professor at Langston University, which is located farther north on Greenwood next to OSU-Tulsa.
With the addition of more attractions along Greenwood and nearby such as restaurants, entertainment and historical exhibits, the aim would be to create a walkable, inviting environment that attracts more people, from Tulsa and beyond, to the area and keeps them there.
The GCC also would like to see a “business incubator” established that helps minorities, in particular, develop businesses.
“The goal would be to create destination tourism and keep the dollars in this area,” Gamble Smith adds.
At least part of the effort to enhance Greenwood and make it more viable for bigger development hinges on securing its recognition on the National Register of Historic Places. An amended proposal to name the greater Greenwood area to the register is pending.
Perhaps of greater importance, at least in the short term, is the fate of the nearby Evans Fintube facility. Located across the Watco railroad tracks to the east, the sprawling former steel manufacturing plant is a rusting, brownfield behemoth on nearly 50 acres of land.
“That’s the last major land grab in this area that can be developed into something iconic,” Reed says.
One proposal for the site, Rawspace Tulsa, was recently cut from the proposed Vision 2025 sales tax extension. Described as an “industrial-sized innovation space with multiple organizations housed under one roof,” the concept behind Rawspace was to create an incubator where advanced technology, traditional manufacturing, established industries and the broader community could mix.
Reed, however, believes this development would be a better fit for other areas of the city. He hopes that the Evans Fintube site will be developed into a mixed-use development similar to Branson Landing in Branson, Missouri. He says this development would cost about $49 million.
The site requires environmental remediation, and the Environmental Protection Agency has given the city $600,000 to help clean-up, but extensive additional work must also be done to prepare the site for use.
The GCC would love to see the complex become a place of attractions, entertainment and commerce that lures people into the Greenwood area while also serving the immediate, practical needs of local residents.
Late last year, the City of Tulsa, which owns the property, entered into a memorandum of understanding with Dallas-based developer Jackson-Shaw. The agreement should see the firm present a plan this spring for developing a mixed-use site that could include office, light industrial, retail and multi-family residential purposes. According to the mayor’s office, it will take several months for a defined project proposal.
Reed hopes the community’s wishes are considered when it comes to the Evans Fintube site. He says that in discussions with previous developers, the Greenwood community was intimately involved. With Jackson-Shaw he says he and the community feel excluded in the process, but have addressed these concerns with the City’s office of economic development.
“I think the question that we are asking is, ‘Why not Greenwood?’” Williams says. “I think it’s time. But I also think it’s time for the City to make a commitment.”
After years of serving on committees, contributing to development proposals and working for renewal, Reed says he is disappointed in the insufficient city funding to finish proposed projects.
“Maybe we have a chance this time,” he says, claiming that input in two previous Vision 2025 proposals was disregarded. “All that input has not been heeded. We have put in stacks of requests, and no action has been taken.”
Many, including Goodwin, want Greenwood to qualify as a Tax Increment Financing (TIF) district as other developing areas have. TIF designation allows targeted districts to get needed funding through real estate and sales taxes based on rising property values and economic activity.
According to the City of Tulsa, there are currently four such districts, including two downtown: the Brady Arts District and the Blue Dome District. TIF districts are approved through a vote of the city council.
“It’s time for the City to ante up,” Williams says.
Collaborate and discard the ‘old model’
On Greenwood Avenue, just past the IDL overpass, is the Greenwood Cultural Center, which also houses the John Hope Franklin Center for Reconciliation.
Dr. Jocelyn Lee Payne, executive director of the JHFCR, believes Greenwood has unique elements that can drive further development.
“I think it would be wonderful if this district, with its authentic place in Tulsa history, could capture that history and culture and convey it to local citizens and guests its own kind of arts and entertainment district with an amazing array of experiences for visitors,” she says.
Greenwood could become a tourist destination by combining its rich musical heritage along with opportunities for learning about its African-American roots.
“The musical legacy alone is so great it would make this a sparkling gem,” Payne says.
Her office oversees the John Hope Franklin Reconciliation Park, named in honor of the late, renowned African-American scholar and Booker T. Washington High School graduate.
Located to the west of ONEOK Field, the park has become one of the treasures of downtown’s renewal.
Payne says more streetscaping is set for this year that will improve the area around the park by adding lighting, landscaping and more secure street crossings. Ultimately, she would like to see the park, located in Greenwood, better connected to the Brady Arts District. She says a corridor will be created along East Cameron Street between Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and North Detroit Avenue for foot traffic from Guthrie Green to Reconciliation Park.
With more housing options downtown, including the GreenArch development, Payne hopes residents will help to spur, even demand, additional entertainment options and amenities in the Greenwood District.
That is a sentiment echoed by Patrick Fox, managing broker for Fox & Allen Commercial Realty, which represents GreenArch. The first phase of GreenArch created commercial and residential property that has attracted young professionals and millenials with affordable rents and the desire to live in an urban historic area.
“Greenwood obviously has a long and important history in Tulsa,” Fox says. “There’s nothing that we will do that diminishes that, but also we want it to rise from the proverbial ashes so there is a revival of the district through a mix of new development blending with the older historical buildings.”
GreenArch’s second phase will address the parking lot area across the street and develop strictly commercial property on the site.
“We have big plans and vision, and we are working diligently to make that happen,” Fox says.
Payne calls for collaboration and for Tulsa to discard what she refers to as the old model of development, especially in traditionally African-American areas, where members of the community get together and present an idea to a group of benevolent, wealthy outsiders.
“We need to get past this,” she says.
Rob Gardenhire, board chairman for the Greenwood Cultural Center and vice president of marketing and business development for the Tulsa Drillers and the Tulsa Roughnecks, also speaks of enhancing the Greenwood District to become a destination.
“There is absolutely a vision to create an interactive tourist loop in the district,” he says. “We want to become a tourist destination.”
It’s about creating more reasons for people to come to Greenwood and stay there. A big part of that is its inimitable history.
“You’ve got Black Wall Street and the Race Riot, and you want to make sure you tell the story in the correct way, but you’ve got to get the right people and right vision in place,” Gardenhire says.
Benefits of cross-fertilization
Like Goodwin, Kevin Matthews remembers at least the dying embers of the old Greenwood, which still had a few familiar business staples. Now retired from the Tulsa Fire Department, Matthews continues to serve north Tulsa as a state senator (Dist. 11). He also is heading the 1921 Tulsa Race Riot Centennial Commission. In just over five years, from May 31-June 1, 2021, Tulsa will mark the tragedy. The commission is tasked with leveraging “the rich history surrounding the 1921 event” by facilitating actions, activities and events that commemorate the tragedy and educate all citizens.
If anything, Matthews expects the centennial to help motivate stakeholders in Greenwood to continue to push for further development while raising the profile of the entire area in the minds of locals, developers and potential tourists alike.
“The centennial is an opportunity to show that Tulsa cares about all its people,” he says. “On Greenwood, what we want to see is more activity, more people and more traffic coming into the area. For the dream to be real, we need to have more people, and that means people up north coming south and people down south coming north.”
But Matthews isn’t waiting for five years from now. He sees any development of Greenwood as part of a larger improvement in the overall economic fabric of north Tulsa itself, a historically underserved area with a paucity of businesses that has resulted in food deserts and lack of access to other commercial services.
In fact, Matthews already has his hand in helping push forward business developments in other parts of north Tulsa. For example, he hopes conversations with the Osage Nation Casino bear fruit in the form of a hotel near 36th Street North and Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard.
Like others, he feels that cultural tourism, particularly for African Americans, can help spark growth in Greenwood, but again, sees it within the larger context of north Tulsa revival.
“I want people to be able to live, work and be entertained in north Tulsa,” he says, adding that tourism and economic growth in Greenwood would benefit the state as a whole.
Hannibal B. Johnson, an attorney, consultant, author and Greenwood historian who offices on Greenwood Avenue, agrees it’s time to make the district more vital and attractive, recognizing the past but also embracing changes.
“What we need to get done is something meaningful, productive and substantial rather than preserve Greenwood as just hallowed ground,” he says.
Greenwood, he argues, needs to be better integrated with surrounding areas to become one of the destination spots of downtown Tulsa.
“What I would like to see is a community that is connected and not isolated,” Johnson says. “We need cross-fertilization of districts and migration of people among those districts.
“It’s a new world. We have to preserve and share our historic legacy, our legacy of entrepreneurship and promote it, particularly to
Johnson, author of “Black Wall Street: From Riot to Renaissance in Tulsa’s Historic Greenwood District,” is helping raise funds for a Black Wall Street/Greenwood District exhibit at Tulsa International Airport. The exhibit, which will be unveiled May 31, will give visitors a taste of Greenwood’s unique history and hopefully inspire visitor traffic to the area.
Goodwin says the historical Greenwood area’s residents, who are mostly African American, are “rightfully frustrated” by the lack of amenities in their community, including basic necessities like grocery stores.
“Residents there feel it every day,” Goodwin says of this conspicuous lack.
“Sometimes when you have a dominant culture in any city making decisions where money is allocated, that leads to some being left out of the progress,” she says. “But that doesn’t have to be the case.”
Goodwin believes a more inclusive process would lead to concrete implementation of ideas — ideas that benefit both African American-led businesses and the community as a whole.
“For all of us to be one Tulsa, we’ve got to try and level the playing field,” she says. “Why not embrace our rich African-American history and promote it? We need to make new history that is inclusive, and that comes from the folks that live there.”
Greenwood: America’s Black Wall Street
The Oklahoma Legislature’s first act (Senate Bill 1) upon statehood was a law mandating racial segregation. One of its results was the Greenwood District in Tulsa, which became the focal point of African-American cultural and economic life in the city.
Essentially, Greenwood became a large town within a city, concentrating all the energy, professionalism and entrepreneurship of Tulsa’s black population in one area.
Although African Americans worked in other parts of the city, mostly as domestic workers and other laborers, in Greenwood there were doctors, lawyers, dentists and a host of other professionals. It was one of the most successful black communities in the United States.
By the time of the Tulsa Race Riot in 1921, there were over 10,000 black residents in the Greenwood District and surrounding areas. The riot resulted in the destruction of 35 city blocks, with nearly every church, home and business in Greenwood burned to the ground and close to 300 people killed.
Still, even with resistance from the white community, Greenwood was rebuilt and thrived through the 1950s, when desegregation meant African Americans could leave their community and do business elsewhere. Many white merchants were more than happy to capture their dollars.
Through the 1960s, Greenwood continued its decline with businesses disappearing and parts of the area growing shabby. Urban renewal in the early 1970s cleared vast swaths of the formerly proud district, and a leg of the IDL cut right through its heart.
Today, much of what was the original Greenwood District is occupied by large facilities, including ONEOK Field and the campus of OSU-Tulsa.