HARRISON-WALNUT: A Neighborhood Aflame
By Kim Stott
Sunday, September 12, 1982
Edition: CITY, Section: NEWS
The scars of neglect and deterioration represent a stark turnaround from the well-kept homes that once lined the streets of the inner-city Harrison-Walnut neighborhood.
Some of the houses are still there, but many are vacant. Those that remain bear the marks of vandals, who have adorned them with graffiti and have smashed their windows.
Other neighborhood lots are overgrown with weeds. Houses and businesses that once stood there have been razed to make way for the proposed Central Expressway. The highway eventually will bisect the neighborhood and will force the relocation of some residents.
Those who have stayed in the neighborhood wait with uncertainty to see what the highway will bring. There are some, living in the highway’s right-of-way, who still wait for the Department of Transportation to buy their property and relocate them, Gary Royal, president of the neighborhood association, says.
And while they wait, they are threatened by a problem that could jeopardize their property values and their lives. Its scars are the burned shells of the neighborhood’s once-proud buildings.
Fires set by arsonists have broken out in at least nine occupied and unoccupied buildings since January, the Oklahoma City Fire Department says.
The most recent was Monday, when a three-alarm fire destroyed the Hotel Youngblood at 325 NE 4. The hotel, abandoned about two years ago, was scheduled for demolition to make way for the highway.
Firefighters think the blaze was deliberately set because it began in several places at once, fire department spokesman Phil Cooksey said.
“It worries us to death,” said Floyd T. Henderson, a Harrison-Walnut resident who lives at 307 NE 3. Firefighters were working on a fire next door to his house when they were called to the Youngblood Hotel, he said.
“It’s been so dry this summer. You just worry about these old frame houses one them catches fire and pretty soon they’re all gone. We’re almost afraid to go to sleep at night,” Henderson said.
Maj. Mark Keim, head of the fire investigation unit, said he is troubled by the number of fires in the area of the neighborhood roughly bounded by NE 2, NE 13, Broadway and Phillips.
“This number is a real problem,” Keim said. “Tulsa had a similar problem” with arson fires when the city redeveloped its downtown area.
But, he added, “They’re plagued there (in Harrison-Walnut), of course, like anywhere in the nation where buildings are being condemned.”
Five of the nine deliberately set fires have been in a few blocks on NE 4, NE 5 and NE 6.
Royal, president of the Harrison-Walnut Neighborhood Association, said residents have called him because they are concerned about the fires.
“They represent some threat to the health, safety and welfare of people in the neighborhood,” he said.
“There is some speculation (about the causes of the fires), but we can’t put our hands on anything until the fire department” completes its investigations.
Olivia Buckner, of 307 NE 4, lives close enough to the Hotel Youngblood that sparks from the Monday fire flew into her yard.
“It’s very dangerous,” she said of the area. “The same thing could happen to my house.”
And Josephine Rogers, who lives at 507 NE 5, said, “This is a whole neighborhood of empty houses. If somebody comes along and sets one house on fire, pretty soon the whole neighborhood’s on fire . . . We are all worried about it.”
Keim, of the fire department, agrees that fires in the older neighborhood could be dangerous. Most of the houses are wooden frame and are in poor shape.
“This fire is the type of fire that can consume an entire city block,” he said.
But, he pointed out, the problem of deliberately set fires in the Harrison-Walnut area should be temporary. Some houses will be torn down for the expressway, and redevelopment is planned in the area, he said.
Until then, though, the fire department is concentrating on solving the arson fires, Keim said.
“We do solve them,” he stressed. Five people have been arrested in connection with arson fires this year in the area, and charges have been filed against three of them, he said.
Royal said he hopes the high number of arson fires will prompt the state transportation department to move quickly to acquire property in the expressway’s right-of-way before more damage is done.
The proposed six-lane Central Expressway will link the Broadway Extension with the I-35/I-40 interchange, with its southern sector cutting a diagonal path through the Harrison-Walnut neighborhood.
The highway will cross Walnut at NE 8, Harrison between NE 7 and NE 6, Stiles at NE 4 and Lincoln Blvd. between NE 2 and NE 1.
Transportation department official Howard Armstrong, who helps relocate Harrison-Walnut residents, says the department is concerned about the fires because they could affect the price a right-of-way property owner might receive.
“It’s a detriment to property owners,” he said. “We would much prefer to buy a house totally intact with people still living in it. We would hate to see a property owner lose money (because of a fire).”
Armstrong said he expects the acquisition of houses in the southern sector to pick up because most buildings in the northern sector, roughly from NW 23 to NW 36, have been purchased. Contracts are scheduled to be let early next year for the northern sector of the highway, he said.
With most of the northern-sector property taken care of, the Harrison-Walnut residents “should see a much higher level of progress” from the transportation department, he said.
However, he pointed out, several months elapse from the time the department acquires a building to the time it is demolished.
“People have been sticking it out in this neighborhood for a long time waiting for the transportation department to come through and acquire the property,” Royal said.
“We’re getting down to the final lap. It just takes a little more patience . . You have to look past what you see now,” he said of the neighborhood’s state of decline.
Added Armstrong: “From the decay, I guess, will rise the growth of the northeast part.”