Native Roots Market at NE 2 and Walnut Avenue quietly opened Friday night. Yes, it’s a big deal. And indeed, those discovering the paper was off the windows and the door was open were quite excited.
But during my visit Sunday afternoon, I noticed something else. Just as owners Matt Runkle and Sara Kaplan predicted, the grocery was quickly becoming a community gathering spot. And outside, the Spokies bike share station found itself cleaned out – the last bikes left were checked out and being enjoyed along NE 2 as I left. This, folks, is a true restructuring of downtown. And though Native Roots is simply a 2,300-square-foot store compared to the $750 million Devon Energy Center, have no doubt, this little grocery will have its own big impact on downtown. Get ready – downtown is about to get exciting.
Sometimes the cuts are brutal. And that’s the case with my Sunday story on families moving downtown.
Ah, gotta love the news biz.
So for those of you who follow my downtown coverage closely with this blog, I urge you to read this version of my Sunday story:
BY STEVE LACKMEYER
Richard McKown feels no pressure to advertise his newly opened Level Urban Apartments at NE 2 and Walnut Avenue. He doesn’t have to; the complex was fully leased when it opened last month.
Down the street, also along NE 2, construction plans are being readied for the next phase of “for sale” housing at The Hill after the once slow-selling units were grabbed up by a mix of empty nesters and young professionals.
Families, long missing from the equation, also are now in the mix.
McKown and other developers say they’re seeing a shift in the downtown population as housing picks up steam with the upcoming opening of Native Roots Market, downtown’s first grocery, and planning for a charter elementary school and streetcar system.
New residents include the owners of Native Roots, Matt and Sara Runkle, who along with their infant daughter, Stella, live full time in an apartment over the grocery. Two blocks to the north, Kurt and Charla Gwartney and their 12-year-old daughter, Elizabeth, are looking forward to when they can walk to get their groceries from their home at the Block 42 condominiums.
Similar aspirations are shared by Kyle and Kate Jones, who along with their 10-month-old daughter, Ramsey, are living at The Hill.
“The sense of community that is downtown is stronger than anything I’ve ever seen in any of the suburban communities I have worked in,” McKown said. “The opportunities are so tangible and real, and the housing choices are growing.”
Those housing choices were key to Kate Jones agreeing to move downtown — a move she admits she only contemplated after her husband bribed her with a new car.
She was worried about what opportunities would be lost for their daughter.
“Where is she going to learn to ride her bike?” Kate Jones recalled worrying. “Where will there be other children for her to play with? I wasn’t even willing to give it a chance.”
With the offer of a new car, the soon-to-be mom searched online. She rejected the first two for-sale housing projects she found because they were multilevel with living areas on the second floor. But she quickly warmed up to The Hill, which she said “felt homey,” and had amenities, including a two-car garage, to which she was accustomed.
When the couple bought their home on Russell Perry Avenue in Deep Deuce in 2011, it was the seventh one sold. Now all 32 units built at The Hill have sold, and developer Bill Canfield is moving forward with further development of what will ultimately be a neighborhood with 157 homes overlooking Bricktown and the downtown skyline.
Kyle and Kate Jones say they are happy to have the option of enrolling their daughter at the future John Rex Elementary, which will be built at Sheridan and Walker Avenues. Kyle Jones also is excited about the prospect of someday traveling to work via a streetcar system that is set to link Deep Deuce and MidTown.
Kate Jones admits her entire attitude about living downtown has shifted. She sees children enrolled in activities daily at Boathouse Row along the Oklahoma River, playing in Myriad Gardens, and frequenting other downtown venues. The couple routinely enjoy walking to the park, restaurants, shops and to Thunder games at the Chesapeake Energy Arena.
“I was very judgmental of downtown living,” Kate Jones said. “But I will never move back to Edmond. The traffic is terrible there. And I love where we are. I’m very glad he talked me into moving here.”
Friends who once mocked their choice of leaving the suburbs, Kyle Jones added, are now envious of their decision after visiting their new home.
The Gwartneys had a longer transition that started with buying a condominium at Block 42 as an investment while they lived at a parsonage provided to Charla Gwartney while she worked in Choctaw. When her job was moved to a church in Edmond without a parsonage, the family decided to make Block 42 their full-time residence.
Kurt Gwartney said when they first bought their condominium in 2007, downtown was still relatively quiet – the Deep Deuce apartments were open, but street-life was minimal.
“You see people living here now,” Gwartney said.
For Elizabeth Gwartney, who is enrolled in a “virtual school,” downtown is a vast classroom.
“When we were just here part time, it was a place we came to relax,” she said. “But now that I do virtual school, I can go to the Myriad Gardens or the art museum for my classwork. It’s all around me.”
Kurt Gwartney said the family loves to walk around downtown and observe the ongoing development. Owner of a dog, Sox, the family also discovered a thriving population of dog owners who congregate at the new dog park added to the Myriad Gardens.
Gwartney is rooting for transit advocates trying to extend the streetcar system along NE 4 through northeast Oklahoma City. The KGOU news director dreams of a day when he can hop on a streetcar to cover legislative sessions at the State Capitol.
McKown, meanwhile, is set on developing more housing just to the east of Level Urban Apartments along Oklahoma Avenue.
“I think we’re going to see a lot more people wanting to put down roots in downtown Oklahoma City,” McKown said. “I’m very optimistic and I think it’s a watershed moment for this generation.”
At OKC Talk, there is a discussion about Deep Deuce and MidTown. The basic gist is an excitement over how Deep Deuce is becoming a truly walkable, mixed-use downtown neighborhood, while the same folks are disappointed about how much empty and undeveloped land persists in MidTown.
Now, for some perspective with the help of some photos. Remember, Deep Deuce development got started in 2000. MidTown development got started in 2006. Bricktown, by the way, was started way back in 1979.
When I first joined The Oklahoman in 1990, Deep Deuce was no-man’s land, a once proud black neighborhood that was letting out its last gasp. The drug dealers were pretty much gone already – and just a few vagrants remained. Buildings were burned out, boarded-up, and catching fire.
Yep, that was my introduction to Deep Deuce – covering fires.
But as Bricktown thrived throughout the 1990s, it wasn’t that difficult to see how a revival of the area and few remaining old buildings might occur. And indeed it has. First with the opening of the Deep Deuce Apartments about a decade ago, then followed by the openings of the Deep Deuce Grill, Sage and Wedge Pizzeria in the old boarded up buildings. Then came in the for-sale condominiums – Block 42, Central Avenue Villas, the Hill, 2nd Street Lofts and the Brownstones at Maywood Park. Say what you may about the mixed sales success of these properties, but they have added a diversity and stability to Deep Deuce. Now we have the next wave of development underway – the Level Apartments, an Aloft Hotel, and the announcement of a Native Roots Market set to open early next year in the Level development.
Expect a coffee shop and restaurant, meanwhile, to open on the first floor of the Aloft. And despite some questionable design of the first floor of the 2nd Street Lofts, life is beginning to emerge there as well with part of the space now home to a salon.
More development is on the way – both announced (4th Street apartments by Ron Bradshaw), and unannounced (more housing, more mixed use commercial). What we end up with in the near future is perhaps the city’s first truly dense, mixed-use downtown neighborhood sandwiched between Bricktown and the central business district. (and keep in mind it ultimately extends to 4th street, so it also includes a gallery and mechanic’s garage).
All in all, not bad work. And no, I’m not aware of any plans for the streetcar system to go through Deep Deuce, nor have I heard much discussion of such.
I know, I know, City Water Utilities Division Director Marsha Slaughter is thinking I’ve forgotten this sidewalk blockade along NE 2 that she says can’t be avoided because relocation of a water meter under the grate would cost taxpayers $100,000. Forget that an upscale hotel is being built across the street. Forget that an upscale apartment complex, likely with a grocery, is being built one block east. Forget that this street is emerging as downtown’s ideal mixed use corridor.
Forget all that. And forget spending $100,000 to make the street more walkable and improve the aesthetics. A decision has been made, at city staff level, not by the city council, that the aesthetics and walkability of this sidewalk is not worth spending $100,000.
Now let’s move on to Core to Shore, where there is NO DEVELOPMENT TAKING PLACE other than what city leaders are hoping to force into creation through the spending of millions and millions of taxpayer dollars.
The only certainty out in Core to Shore is a park that voters approved as part of MAPS 3. There is no development set for east of the park along Robinson Avenue.
But the city council on Tuesday will be asked to spend $168,000 on a tunnel under Robinson to allow visitors at the park to safely cross under Robinson to go to …??? The price includes creation of a decorative arch to accommodate wishes to have nice “aesthetics” for the tunnel.
So let’s get this straight: the city is OK spending $168,000 on walkability and aesthetics in an area where this is NO private investment, but won’t spend $100,000 to fix its own eyesore in an area where at least $40 million is being invested this next year alone.
Folks, this is your city council. They answer to you. If you wish to tell them you approve or disapprove of this prioritization, you can email them at the following:
Mayor Mick Cornett: email@example.com
Ward 1 Councilman Gary Marrs: firstname.lastname@example.org
Ward 2 Councilman Sam Bowman: email@example.com
Ward 3 Councilman Larry McAtee: firstname.lastname@example.org
Ward 4 Councilman Pete White: email@example.com
Ward 5 Councilman Brian Walters: firstname.lastname@example.org
Ward 6 Councilwoman Meg Salyer: email@example.com
Ward 7 Councilman Skip Kelly: firstname.lastname@example.org
Ward 8 Councilman Pat Ryan: email@example.com
So now we’ve got Level apartments under construction, the Aloft hotel ready to start up as soon as the detox moves and Ron Bradshaw preparing to move forward with an apartment complex as well.
Expect even more announcements in the next few months. Deep Deuce is emerging as downtown’s first fully-mixed neighborhood.
But what if…..
It could look like this?
Oklahoma City has been vigilant in recent months in constructing new sidewalk wheelchair ramps a street corners throughout the metro – even at intersections where there are no sidewalks.
The stretch of NE 2 between E.K. Gaylord and Walnut Avenue at least has sidewalks – and wheelchair ramps. This pedestrian corridor will be an increasingly important one in the future as the 2nd Street Lofts are joined by an Aloft Hotel and a large apartment complex to the immediate east Imagine all the people who will be able to walk from the hotel and their homes to the Central Business District and Automobile Alley.
Of course, when they use the sidewalk along NE 2, they’ll also have to walk around this big fenced in above-grade utility grate.
I’m stumped as to how this sidewalk meets ADA requirements.
Planners, developers, city officials – I know you’re out there reading this site – how in the world does this make any sense? Did someone at Public Works really look at these sidewalk plans and say, “oh yeah, this will work just fine?” Is this not an embarrassment to someone?
Hard as might be to believe, but just a decade ago Deep Deuce was a no-man’s land where development seemed to be an odd and unlikely prospect. Of course we know today it’s downtown’s most vibrant mixed neighborhood, home to restaurants, offices, a market and plenty of housing. Penny Owen, once one of The Oklahoman’s best feature writers (she left the paper a few months ago), joined me in trying to capture the area’s past and future with this 1998 front page story:
Sentimental Journey Proposals Revive Deep Deuce Memories Deuce
By Steve Lackmeyer, Penny Owen
Sunday, October 25, 1998
The good times still come easy for James “Doebelly” Brooks.
All the 78-year-old Deep Deuce diehard has to do is close his eyes, raise his face to the ceiling and turn his protruding bottom lip into a smile. The music, he says, flows into his ear, then stops at his heart, long enough to kick in a rhythmic ba-boom, ba-boom. Then his foot starts tapping. Then it all comes back.
Doebelly picked his dance spot from the sounds traveling down NE 2, in the once-flourishing black business district often just called the Deuce.
It just took an earful to know where Don Cherry was blowing his trumpet, where Charlie Christian was jamming or whether Count Basie was in town.
Dancing got Doebelly married once. He stole the show on another night when he urged a not-so-attractive dance partner on the floor.
“There was good times and bad times,” says Doebelly, eyes still shut tight. “The bad times was when I couldn’t get down there.”
Deep Deuce is just a memory now. Only a handful of buildings remain, and they are boarded up and desolate. But at least two competing developers envision a revived Deep Deuce where remaining buildings are restored and a place is created where hundreds of new downtown dwellers can live.
How serious is such interest? Urban Renewal officials have the task over the next few months of deciding who gets to invest at least $15 million to rebuild Deep Deuce. At the same time, some folks fear Deep Deuce will become a commercialized urban playground devoid of its rich past.
“It will come back, but it won’t be the same,” laments Charlie Nicholson, an organizer of Deep Deuce’s annual Charlie Christian Jazz Festival. “Too much of (commercialization) will kill it.”
According to the state Historical Society, Doebelly was the last resident to leave his beloved Deuce, where he propped up a hand-painted sign pointing folks into a chair for a good shoe shine. Doebelly called Deep Deuce home for 65 years before leaving for good in 1995.
Now, he opens his eyes to a cluttered living room several miles away. His shoe shining bench sits on his front porch, next to a Black Chronicle newspaper rack.
He misses the Deuce, where prominent black businessmen, rich in dreams, fought for justice and swapped stories on the sidewalks, in the barber shops and at Ruby’s Grill.
The Deuce was a small, spirited town, though a forced one, where segregation drew the lines where blacks could and could not live.
Doctors, lawyers, dentists and insurance agents mingled at the Slaughter Building at NE 2 and Stiles Avenue. The building’s third floor was an auditorium that featured the likes of Bill “Count” Basie, the Blue Devils, Charlie Christian and Jimmy Rushing.
Strolling the streets regularly was Judge A.B. McDonald, who smoked a fat cigar and carried an old suitcase stuffed with cash.
“He looked something like Howard Hughes, except he was black,” Doebelly said.
Locals would holler, “Hey Judge, whacha got in that case?”
“None o’ yer business,” he’d snap back.
Doebelly recalled how McDonald got the word “Negro” taken off the official ballot. He also used an entire block to grow vegetables along NE 7. Everything and everybody was within walking distance.
Kids, too, hung around NE 2 – especially on Saturdays, when they’d take in a movie at the Aldridge, Oklahoma City’s first black theater. They might take in an ice cream cone as well at the old Bethel Drug Co. – a place straight out of Norman Rockwell, with glossy wooden floors, ice cream chairs and a soda jerk behind the stretched-out counter.
Even if developers succeed in bringing the neighborhood back to Deep Deuce, Doebelly doesn’t expect them to re-create the camaraderie he still can revive in his mind. “If you was sick, they come to see you. If you couldn’t do your house, they’d come and do it for you.”
Preachers sat around the kitchen tables and prayed with folks. Mostly, people just got together.
“If I came over to your house and I got outta line, I got a whuppin’ there,” Doebelly recalled fondly. “If I had my way, I’d go back down on Second Street.”
Why Did Deuce Die?
Not every building in Deep Deuce is boarded up. Good Baptists still attend church at Calvary Baptist Tabernacle on the corner of NE 2 and Walnut. Patients still visit Dr. G.E. Finley at his building across the street.
Three surviving buildings along NE 2 are listed on the National Historic Register. They’re not architecturally significant – but they’re historical, said Dr. Bob Blackburn, deputy director of the historical society.
Blackburn and others say there is more than one culprit responsible for the area’s demise.
“In the 1960s and even into the ’70s, there was still a thriving business district that had the area’s historic character.”
But like most inner cities, the Deuce fell victim to sprawl.
“The young generation, they went car crazy,” Doebelly said. “People stopped walkin’ the streets.”
Then came Urban Renewal.
Urban planners across the country launched a war against blight that called for demolition of old buildings, often without regard for historical significance. Urban Renewal in the 1970s often replaced old ornate structures in need of repair with lots that remain empty today.
The opening of Interstate 235 cured downtown of traffic snarls that resulted from Broadway Extension turning into a three-lane residential corridor south of NW 36. Highway builders, however, removed dozens of homes and businesses that kept Deep Deuce going.
“The life blood was gone, so the heart died,” Blackburn said.
Music and the Deuce
Deep Second was our fond nickname for the block in which Rushing worked and lived, and where most Negro business and entertainment were found, and before he went to cheer a whiter world, his voice evoked a festive spirit of the place.
Indeed, he was the natural essence of its joy. For Jimmy Rushing was not simply a local entertainer, he expressed a value, an attitude about the world for which our lives afforded no other definition.
We had a Negro church and a segregated school, a few lodges and fraternal organizations, and beyond these there was the great, white world. We were pushed off to what seemed to be the least desirable side of the city, and our system of justice was based upon Texas law, yet there was an optimism within the Negro community and a sense of possibility which, despite our awareness of limitation (dramatized so brutally in the Tulsa riot of 1921), transcended all of this; and it was this rock- bottom sense of reality, coupled with our sense of the possibility of rising above it, which sounded in Rushing’s voice….
We were still too young to attend night dances, but yet old enough to gather beneath the corner street lamp on summer evenings, anyone might halt the conversation to exclaim “Listen, they’re raising hell down at Slaughter’s Hall,” and we’d turn our heads westward to hear Jimmy’s voice soar up the hill and down, as pure and as miraculously unhindered by distance and earthbound things as is the body in youthful dreams of flying.
- Ralph Ellison, from “Shadow and Act,” 1964.
Opinions differ as to how NE 2 and the surrounding area became known as Deep Deuce. Some believe the term alludes to the wild times that could be found among the community’s jazz clubs and beer joints.
Blackburn offers a much more mundane explanation.
“If you travel along Second Street, and you go across the tracks, first you go along a little rise where the Calvary Baptist church is, and then you go down,” Blackburn said.
Despite such explanations, many will forever associate Deep Deuce with jazz, rhythm and blues.
Musicians who journeyed to the Deuce included Louis Armstrong, Pearl Bailey, Cab Calloway, Fats Domino, Ella Fitzgerald, B.B. King, James Brown, Ray Charles, Bo Diddley, Nat King Cole, Duke Ellington, Ike and Tina Turner.
Benny Goodman wooed hometown favorite Charlie Christian to New York City several times to perform.
Oklahoma City had its own sound.
While jazz in the eastern states sounded closer to New Orleans-style tunes, Oklahoma City jazz had more of a swing to it, said Nicholson, who collects and sells old records in his store along Classen.
“Individuals would come in and just cook it. Everything walked and talked and moved,” Nicholson said of days long gone. “They were on a magical journey.”
Along came Zelia Breaux, the so-called “godmother of music,” who taught jazz to the likes of Jimmy Rushing and Charlie Christian at Douglass High School.
“She was one of those gifted teachers who could motivate students,” Blackburn said. “She created this culture of music.”
Deuce nightclubs and beer joints vibrated with a creativity and wholesomeness that was a whole lot of fun – but not very lucrative.
Musicians who had any aspirations, or who simply needed to fill their wallets, were forced to leave Oklahoma City behind for their careers, Nicholson said. They headed for bands in other jazz-rich cities – like Memphis and Chicago.
Officials with the Oklahoma City Urban Renewal Authority promise none of the remaining buildings will be destroyed to make room for the new Deuce. Development proposals pitched last week offer different visions for saving what’s left of the area.
Nicholson wonders if the original spirit of Deep Deuce jazz and the district’s character can survive such commercialization.
“How’re you gonna let ‘em vent if you got ‘em all stiffed up, charging $3 a head?” he wondered. To really bring jazz back will mean bringing the black people back into the district and all the emotion.
“You can’t go back and do what was done,” Nicholson said. “But if the jazz is good, people will come.”