Monday, February 28, 2011

Beyond the Story: A Three Part Essay on life, death, and resurrection in the 74126, Part One: Why Us?

The following three part post is from a lecture I gave as the keynote last fall at the Social Work Day held at the University of Oklahoma in Norman. To go beyond the recent cover story about us in the UU World, this essay is a good place to start.

Part One:

The first question for us today will be why talk about the Turley, Far North Tulsa, Oklahoma area? The quick answer, and it is fitting for the place we are gathered in or coming to you from today, is that there has been “a perfect storm” that hit our edge community, where urban and rural and small town literally bleed into one another, and made it a shadow of a community, fitting for the downtown skyscrapers that you can see off and on from our place.

This collision of forces and events over the course of little more than one generation turned the area from a mostly blue collar working class fairly cohesive and fairly homogenously ethnic community with a culture of collaboration and a core of social groups, into a place of great social fragmentation, where our main zipcode of 74126 has the lowest life expectancy in the wider area, 14 years lower than a zipcode just six miles due south of us on the same street. There has been a great emptying out of both people and places for community to happen. So much so that we used to think of community as a simple noun, as a thing. Now we are learning to think of it as a verb, as something that must be continually enacted for it to actually exist. We will look at more of how this happened. But keep in mind it is not a case of the past was better and something we want to get back to—not at all; and likewise we will see how the current state, the real and perceived weaknesses and scarcity, can actually be an advantage for creating the kind of community that our emerging future will favor.


Why talk about the Turley area? I believe nearly every metropolitan area has a two mile radius area like ours, but we are especially representative of a perfect storm of cultural forces that make us a teachable place, at this teachable moment. For me, as for the Community Services Council in Tulsa, Turley is a part of Far North Tulsa. Turley is the unincorporated, past the end of the sidewalk,literally, part of Far North Tulsa.

Once upon a time, when I was very very little even before starting school, Turley was for all of Far North Tulsa the closest concentration of businesses including movie theater, pharmacies, several groceries, a doctor and dentist, homes, civic groups, churches, schools up to ninth grade, park, small airport, children’s home, water department, fire department, community center, merchants association, rodeo grounds, skating rink, and small farms. There was at this time before the building of McLain High School in the late 1950s a few miles of relatively undeveloped land between Turley, which was mostly white and American Indian, and the other parts of North Tulsa, primarily the segregated African American section closer toward downtown and the wealthy white Reservoir Hill housing community, and then toward the other working class white neighborhood to the east called Dawson. Dawson was in the city limits of Tulsa where Turley was not. Nor was Turley, like the other fairly separate towns in north Tulsa County like Sperry and Skiatook and Owasso, incorporated as its own town though it was as large or larger than they were. Also Unlike them, and unlike the other unincorporated neighboring community to the west over into the Osage County called Barnsdall 55, which kept its own school district until it closed, Turley had ended its independent school district back before World War Two and became a part of Tulsa Public Schools. I would love to have time to do some historical research into the discussions that went into that decision, and into the decisions about why Turley never incorporated in its formative and growing years.

I have been told by family that there was fear from merchants that taxes would be levied to support the school in the future and for the growth like for a football stadium that would mean taking land from around the school to expand it. That would mean there was in the town’s DNA, and this was just coming out of the Great Depressioin, a sense of scarcity or fear, of collaborating for greater community benefit. It might have been part of the reason for not seeking to incorporate the town, though of late when community association members sought to incorporate it took them three times through the state legislature to get the approval because of the nearness of the boundaries of existing cities and towns. I have a hunch that in the past my ancestors simply felt that it was too much bother for too little gain given that the town looked and acted like a self governing community. They had no idea of the changes that would come that would begin decimating all the community social capital and infrastructure and connections that they took for granted.

So coming out of World War Two, and with the rise of the baby boom population, the community had no local self government and no local control of its schools. But the business owners lived in town; the churches were full and ministers lived in town; the schools were full and teachers for a large part lived in town or nearby; the Sheriff’s deputy lived in town; the fire department volunteers worked and lived in town; and the children of the area by and large went to school together and to churches in their areas and played sports or were in scouting groups in after school leagues and groups with their classmates who lived within walking distance of one another. All of that is now gone.

The community had been built by those of the Builders generation who had a forward looking frontier settling vision, sustained by The Greatest Generation that went off to fight World War Two and Korea or to maintain homes and community during it. And then came Television, and our world got both bigger, transporting us to so many places—Vietnam, Watts, the moon; and smaller, making us feel attached to those places, all at the same time. Communication changes precede culture changes and worldview changes. As we know there soon became with the Baby Boom generation, my generation, a preference for all things bigger and bigger and bigger: schools, rock concerts, churches, stores. Small communities were dissipated in the wake. Dislocation, meaning our sense of community was no longer what it had been, happened first to us culturally and then to us physically. Everything began to get bigger, to inflate, right before all the air went out.

The Turley Methodist Church, the first Turley church, grew so much during this time that in the early to mid 60s it moved out of its place in the middle of the community where it had begun and moved halfmile west to a hilltop where a new building was constructed with a great view near a newly built subdivision. It could assume that everyone would still go out of their way to find it and the folks in the new housing edition, which was annexed by the city of Tulsa by the way, would flood into it. Which they did at first. And then, the year after the new church building opened, probably the largest square foot building in the community, the Tulsa Public Schools integrated. Began, I should say, to integrate the far northern schools as the first areas.

The perfect storm hit. Integration was good, long overdue. But Racism created the phenomenon of white flight as residents fled to the other parts of Tulsa and especially to the suburban towns which began their great rise in population at that time, and concurrently with that as more families of color moved nearer the schools where their children could now attend, few new white families moved into the area. Between 1960 and 2000 the white population in North Tulsa declined by 50 and 60 percent or more; the black population in some segments of North Tulsa, particularly the old north or previously segregated area, also declined by fairly similar percentages. Along with this occurred the departure of the major oil companies from Tulsa to Houston and elsewhere, and with them the trickle down to the blue collar jobs of the ones who lived in the Turley area. And the pressures on working class families became more intense as prices rose, salaries didn’t keep pace, unions were marginalized, the gap between those with “just” high school education and college education grew wider, as a culture of consumerism and acquiring stuff grew dominant, and in part as a result of those pressures addictions of many kinds, and gangs, increased. And other companies as they grew began to move farther away from downtown and near Westside and further out on the edges of Tulsa making the commute harder for those remaining in Turley, and for all the kids who grew up and went to school in Turley their jobs were elsewhere for the most part so they went where those were, and as they had young families too at that time, they also succumbed to the white flight and new places to where the new schools and money was flowing. It was both the American Dream, and its shadow side. I think of the Perfect Storm forces as a kind of collaboration itself, like that between low education unemployment addictions and gangs, that fed the abandonment of our place; and why a kind of collaboration that puts communities, neighborhoods and land and people first is the antidote.

Even as my wife and I were finishing up at McLain High, the college prep classes of advanced science and math and other advanced courses were being cut from the curriculum. And soon after we were graduated, and our senior school year was the first for McLain to have a black homecoming queen (just about all after that were), and we had at the time a fairly well integrated school, by the numbers if not by the spirit, but soon after that the school system transformed the historic segregated black high school in town also on the northside into a magnet integrated school that attracted many students with the best grades and discipline records to it, both black and white, many that would have kept going to McLain and to other schools in the area. The magnet high school had white students from all sides of Tulsa attending it along with core black students from the local area, but, of course, the white families who sent their children to school on the northside did not move to the community surrounding the school, nor invest in it. So the communities continued to decline.

Pretty soon you had a situation with McLain High School where at one time when it was founded in 1959 it was virtually all white, and American Indian; and by one generation later, it was virtually all black and was being treated in large part as a glorified technical school, not bad in itself of course, but it was not all that different from the way the previously segregated black high schools had been treated in cities across America. McLain even lost its name for several years; becoming the Tulsa School For Science and Technology; not it has the McLain name back, but alone among the Tulsa schools, all of whom like it now have some form of magnet programs, it still has the added on descriptor of Science and Technology.

This has lasting effects. As at McLain we sometimes have reunions for the same class years with black alumni and white alumni meeting and celebrating separately, and little connection between the grades from the years when it was all white to all black; with just a few of those years such as in my time when it had a nearly equal mix of students based on ethnicity. McLain was the last school in the Tulsa system to have an alumni and community foundation, and it just got started this past summer, in an effort to begin the slow process of reversing all of this disconnection. McLain is the high school for our area; there are no private high schools in the area unlike in other areas. The school has a real and symbolic effect on the life of the community and down into the elementary schools in the neighborhoods.

The re-segregation of our schools and area is both real and an illusion. When people think of North Tulsa they often think Black Tulsa and only of that which is in the city limits. But North Tulsa has always been, as we have seen, a place of great ethnic diversity, at first a segregated diversity, but now you will find all races in the section 8 housing, the neighborhoods, the stores, and some of the schools. When people think of Turley they often think of Poor Whites. But over the years more and more black residents have been moving in and staying in all of the neighborhoods. And we have always had sizable numbers of our original American Indian inhabitants. These stereotypes, rooted in some real statistics, are held by people within Far North themselves, both white and black, both in city limits and outside. The other night I was at an event at McLain and met African Americans who thanked me for coming across town to support the school; I set them straight and that confounded them even more, I think, because, to their defense, there has been a real lack of support, or collaboration, between whites and blacks who are both living in Far North Tulsa. This is embedded early in life. For example, the students who begin school at the elementary school in Turley’s unincorporated side, a majority now of white students, will not go on to the predominantly black middle school and if they do they won’t by and large go on to McLain, predominantly black. In fact many of the white children who live in the Turley area transfer now to nearby Sperry public school, or to private schools, or charter schools and never enter into the traditional Tulsa public schools that are feeder schools to McLain.

Between 1960 and 2000: the population of Far North in general declined 15 percent, but the population of those under the age of four years old, young families, fell 53 percent; the population over 65 percent gained 205 percent.

In just the past ten years The elementary schools enrollment in our area declined 31.5 percent; the two closest to us declined 55 and 42 percent. In just seven years between 2002 and 2009, the two elementary schools closest to us drifted apart in ethnicity; at one school, Cherokee, the historic Turley school, black students declined in this period 52.9 percent having 65 such students out of a total 221; however, school officials tell me this year the figures have changed a bit again and there is a more equitable balance and the school is one of the most diverse in the system with a third white students, a third black students, and a combined third Hispanic and American Indian; during the past ten years the other elementary school, the newer one built in the late 60s early 70s to handle that growth that had just occurred but was about to bottom out, retained an overwhelming black student population with just 12 white students out of 147. In the middle and high school level, the racial and ethnic concentration is also evident: In 2009 there were 523 students at McLain, 27 of whom were white. Compare that with the historic black high school Booker T. Washington, an academic magnet school that draws from all across the city, which had the same year 1270 students, 515 of whom were white and 512 of whom were black. Adding in the far north public middle school with its 379 students, of which 46 were white, and for the two Far North schools in our area sixth grade to twelth there are 902 students, of which 73 are white students.

The upshot of this, of all this, is the continuing deepening fragmentation of all parts of the surrounding community from each other. And that race and class issues are a part of it, but not all of it. Still, we will not undo what has been done until we can, in the spirit of abundance, talk about race and class. For what keeps much collaboration from happening among residents who remain is the old shame that we have missed the boat of the American Dream; as civil rights leader John Perkins of Mississippi has described it about the areas he lives in, among blacks and whites, if we are still living here, we begin to think that there is something wrong with us; otherwise like other whites or others of color with money and education we would live somewhere else; and if there is something wrong with us than we must deserve what we get, or rather what we don’t get, for living here. We embed shame and that keeps us silent and silence preserves the status quo.

So, that Methodist Church I was telling you about, the harbinger of the growth in the area after WWII and up to the mid Sixties? As the neighborhoods changed ethnic makeup around it, and as the culture of church going shifted, it began to shrink in numbers as soon as it hit its peak; now in its big building, few attend on Sunday and some of those drive back into the community to do so. And its building from the 1920s that it had left when it had outgrown it? Well it housed different ethnic oriented congregations for the next forty years then has sit empty for the last few years, a kind of ghost witness to all that used to be growing and thriving around it but which has also been abandoned and in many instances demolished so there is no physical trace of what once was. This includes one of the original Turley High School buildings, the tallest building in the area for years and years, built in 1920 and demolished in 2005, with, I must add, a lot of wonderful architectural elements and history and even school books still inside.

When my wife and I moved back in 2005, though we had been back all the time with my extended family having remained in the area, Gone were the local owned groceries and lumber companies and most cafes, movie theater, pharmacies, doctor and dentist, gone were the civic groups (except the odd fellows lodge which still meets but most of its members are from elsewhere), the churches as noted were struggling, other churches mostly African American in culture would rent storefronts or buildings in the area for the cheap rent but as they grew they moved into the city side of the area to be available for community development block grants and to be closer to where the ministers lived; the schools were now down to the fifth grade and each year enrollment was a challenge and attendance maintaining a chore; when we moved back there was a 80 percent mobility rate for the elementary school during the year; gone was the community center, airport, the children’s home was a correctional facility privately owned, no merchants association for decades and only a small few who supported the community; the water department and fire department continue but continue to struggle. The rodeo grounds continue but for those who live outside the community mostly, just like the county park has been gutted of shelters that were attractive for local area families and in their place were put larger sports complexes that draw in people from the suburbs; the youth have to leave the area to be in sports leagues now and to play outside of their community; and the small farms have been changed into auto salvage yards. The post office in Turley moved from near the school to a small strip of businesses and is threatened now with closure. And as I like to mention there is no pizza delivery for most of the northside just a few miles away from downtown in Tulsa, one of those taken for granted community building especially for youth aspects of life. Such a small thing, I know, but related I believe indirectly to a very big thing. That just between May 1 and August 4 of this year, there were 311 reported shootings, the bulk of them in or near our zipcode. That doesn’t count the ones on the unincorporated side; and doesn’t include the unreported ones.
This is why our zipcode has the lowest life expectancy in the Tulsa area, fourteen years lower than that of the zipcode with the highest, just six miles south of us, right along the same street.

So all that history to give you a sense of the place as it was and as it is. A perfect microcosm of the cultural changes and forces that have created the fault lines in community. And remember, as the theologian Jorgen Moltmann puts it, that the opposite of poverty is not property, but the opposite of both is community. ….

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