I run here.
When I first moved to Tulsa, I used running not only as a way to get in shape, but to get to know the part of the city I lived in. Since I live downtown, that had me running in urban environments, and the mix of residential and industrial areas that exist on the fringes of the city’s core.
At this point, we’re talking nearly eight years ago. Back then, the downtown was what you’d expect: high-rise offices towers, stony buildings built for government business, and a mix of people that included buttoned-down professionals, trendy hipsters and transients.
Change was underway elsewhere. On the north side of downtown was an old warehouse district. It was in the midst of what would be a major transformation. You could see its beginnings – a baseball park, some restaurants, a few clubs and some coffee shops. Mixed in were plenty of those old warehouses, industrial sites and, on the west side, the county jail, the sheriff’s office, a bunch of bail bondsmen’s offices and social service organizations aimed at helping the down-and-out crowd that seem to flock in most cities’ urban centers.
I liked the mix. The new and the old coexisting, sometimes awkwardly, but moving ahead just the same. I’d see signs of new money flowing in, and in the shadows of their enterprises, the lonely desperation of those being left behind. Why did I like this? Because it was unsanitized, a daily reminder that the optimism so many of privilege enjoy is not shared, and that’s something to which we need to pay attention. In the cleaned-up boundaries of the suburb, all you see is the edifice of prosperity. No one really know what’s going on in all those cookie-cutter homes. But on the streets where I run, everything was laid out plainly: People dressed to the nines for a night on the town, stepping around some homeless dude who drank too much, sleeping it off on a corner next to a puddle of puke.
I’ve never felt uncomfortable running in these areas, never felt unsafe. But always engaged. This was raw, unvarnished reality.
Home of what used to be the Downtown Lounge, next door to a tattoo parlor. They’re both gone now, replaced by a craft brewery.
Of course, not all of the contrasts were so drastic or dire. There was this one block I particularly enjoyed, wedged between those tony restaurants on one side and the jail on another. An old two-story brick building housed a dive bar, a tattoo shop, some garage slips and what I assumed to be an apartment. It was a stubborn place, resisting gentrification on one side while trying to make a buck in its own gritty way. I’d zip by this block before turning south and going up and over a bridge back to my gym and a locker room shower.
Well, things have changed. An empty lot is now a small park that is home to food trucks and free concerts. New museums and art centers have sprung up. Apartment buildings were built. More restaurants, more bars, more places to spend your money and have a good time. It’s flourishing.
And that gritty old block? All the old businesses there are gone, the building gutted and transformed into brewery and taproom with an outdoor deck on the roof. As you can imagine, the clientele at the taproom is different than that of the dive bar and the tattoo parlor. It looks nice, and at some point I’ll probably pop in for a beer. But I wish I’d have bought a drink at that dive bar, and maybe even gotten some ink at the neighboring shop.
This is how part of my mid-week route used to look. A lot has changed over the years, as many apartment blocks and homes have been fixed up.
The neighborhoods surrounding downtown have changed, too. It’s part gentrification, part urban renewal, and part inevitable evolution of the city. One of my go-to runs goes east of downtown toward the University of Tulsa. Years ago, this meant going through some neighborhoods that were, generously put, dodgy. Many of the houses and apartments of the Pearl District and the Kendall-Whittier neighborhood were abodes of last resort, often bordered by abandoned properties and more neatly kept homes of people who were stubbornly hanging on. Throw in some manufacturing sites and you have some real grit.
But both the Pearl and Kendall-Whittier are undergoing an upswing similar to what’s happening downtown. Condemned houses are being torn down and replaced with newer homes. Shitty apartment blocks are being renovated, and to be frank, they look pretty good. Derelict factories and warehouses are being reclaimed, many of them turning into, you guessed it, craft breweries and taprooms. At the rate it’s going in Tulsa, the love of the suds might be what saves much of urban America from the wrecking ball.
But every now and then, I get reminders that despite the change, there will always be something shady going on.
A few weeks back, I was running that route east of downtown, maybe half a mile from my turnaround point. A beat-up old import car was stopped in the middle of the street for no real reason, and some random dude walked up to the passenger side. An exchange through the driver’s side window occurred. Random dude then jogged out of the street and into an alley by some apartments and disappeared inside. The car drove off.
And here I am, chugging away at my mid-pack pace, thinking, “I just saw a drug deal go down.”
I’m not gonna applaud this transaction or the maladies that come with it. Having a drug house in any neighborhood makes it a more dangerous place (we had a black tar heroin dealer get busted in my neighborhood awhile back, and once that racket was broken up, the character of my streets changed for the better). But there is a trend among cities that hopes to wipe out the bad (the drug dealers and the crime that comes with them) and replace it with something cleaner and more palatable for the masses. And if you can make a buck or two in the process, so much the better. The result is often a drop in those crimes and the loss of the historic identity of distressed neighborhoods where those crimes used to occur. In a lot of ways, it’s a zero-sum game where few win and a bunch lose.
Downtown as seen from the Tulsa Arts District. The area used to be a rundown warehouse district, but is now home to a number of galleries, restaurants, pubs, music venues and a sweet little park that is home to live music and food trucks. I run here a lot, and there is usually something pretty cool to see.
So in eight years of running Tulsa’s streets, I’ve seen this transformation go down in real-time. A semi-sketchy tract of warehouses is now a vibrant arts district. A decaying section of the inner city is cleaning up, turning around and showing signs of prosperity. Less obvious but just as real is a loss of a former community identity that had seen its high and lows.
Who knows how different it will all be eight years from now. Hopefully I’ll still be running those same streets. And maybe, in some corners, not all of the grit will have been washed away. The shiny and the new get your attention. But the grit is what makes is interesting. The grit is where the history lies.