How to Kill Main Street and Make it Look Like an Accident
Admiral Boulevard and Admiral Place are more than just major east-west arterial roads in Tulsa. It’s the the place where north and south meet, and the dividing line between the Cherokee and Muscogee (Creek) Nations. It was for the last reason it was known as Federal Drive in its earliest years. Later, it was co-signed State Highways 11 and 33, then Route 66 — America’s Main Street — connecting Tulsa to Chicago and Los Angeles, and later, U.S. 75.
It’s the road farmers took to deliver their goods to the markets in the city. The adjacent neighborhoods featured a wonderful mix of apartment buildings, family-owned grocery stores and general stores, craftsman-style homes, cafes, barber shops, furniture stores, shoe shops, jewelry stores, billiard halls, a theater, public schools, hotels, taverns, beauty shops, and more.
Put simply, it was an active, vibrant, desirable place for more than half a century.
Then we did something terrible, and very intentional, to it: the construction of Interstate 244, a bypass for I-44 just a few miles to the south. This project, called first the Crosstown Expressway, then later renamed the Martin Luther King Jr Expressway, destroyed and isolated many neighborhoods along its 15.8-mile path through Tulsa: Red Fork, Whittier, Greenwood, Brady Heights, Cherokee Heights, Barton, Gillette Hall, among others.
As an aside, the MLK name is a bit ironic, since the highway created a physical barrier largely along racial and socio-economic lines. The name has also apparently been forgotten. In 2012, the Tulsa City Council decided to rename Cincinnati Avenue for Martin Luther King, Jr because they thought there were no roads in our city named after the civil rights leader. Citizens and business owners in largely-white, affluent neighborhoods in midtown got the council to abandon the idea to rename the entire stretch, and instead, only the parts of Cincinnati Avenue in north Tulsa, a majority African American part of town, were renamed.
This story was picked up by Reuters and published by the Chicago Tribune, which pointed out:
This city, where a history of racial tension was inflamed by the Good Friday shootings of five black people, plans to name a street in honor of civil rights pioneer Dr. Martin Luther King but only the section that passes through a predominantly black part of a city.
Could the issue have been resolved if the City Council checked to see if in fact, there already was a road named for King? Who knows. Back to I-244’s construction:
It created a massive, physical barrier between downtown and north Tulsa (while destroying Greenwood for the third time), took thousands of homes and businesses, separated commercial areas from the neighborhoods they served, and forced the decline of entire neighborhoods near its route. It remains a physical scar, and its effects are still felt by the neighborhoods that straddle this 8-lane highway. Mention Admiral and any cross street, and people curl their nose. It’s looked down on as a place no one wants to go.
The highway was originally proposed to follow Fourth Street, but that plan was nixed after lawsuits were threatened and voters rejected a right-of-way bond package to fund it. Similar fights happened over a plan to route 244 alongside Southwest Blvd and the railroad tracks in west Tulsa. Voters rejected that plan, as well, but I-244 got built there against the community’s wishes. After the bond package failure for the 4th Street route for the Crosstown, the Tulsa Metropolitan Planning Commission (TMPC) created a committee to study new routes, and the current route was proposed. At the time, Harold Wise, the consultant hired by the city to study the proposed routes, said:
From Yale avenue west to Lewis avenue to Peoria avenue it would stay as close to Admiral boulevard as possible “without disturbing existing commercial development and at the same time keeping existing residential areas from being split.”
I wish that had been true, but it clearly wasn’t. The map below shows the residential and commercial areas and streets demolished for the highway right-of-way from downtown to Lewis Avenue:
Red: Areas Demolished; Yellow: Street connections lost
Within a decade, thousands of homes and businesses were demolished to make way for the highway. A close-up of the destruction is below.
Admiral, Before & After
‘Tornado? No, Just Road Work’
How bad was the destruction? The above is an actual headline and accompanying photo from the January 3, 1966 edition of the Tulsa Tribune. An excerpt from the story reads:
It Looks Awful But It’ll Later Be Expressway
The path of the Crosstown Expressway, shown in The Tribune Airphoto at right looking west from Harvard Avenue, looks as if it had been hit by a tornado. It hasn’t. This is what city builders call progress — first step. The sad story is it will be years before the picture looks much better.
Any direction you look, the scene is very much as that above where old houses and other buildings make way for Tulsa’s first eight-lane expressway.
After combing through more than a dozen editions of the Polk Directories from 1957 to 2000, I was able to calculate the destruction in terms of total commercial and residential units on each street from Iroquois Avenue in downtown, east to Sheridan, a total of 4.35 miles. In that time, Admiral Boulevard suffered the worst devastation, losing 456 units, or 77% of all addresses on the street.
The Worst Year
Between the 1965 and 1966 editions of the Polk Directory, 265 units along Admiral Blvd were demolished, representing a one-year loss of 46%. That same year, 1st St saw 117 units razed, along with 99 units along Admiral Pl.
In this year alone, 481 of the 1,754 addresses along these roads were demolished. Over time, as more residents and businesses moved out, even more structures were razed.
For this project, I examined address listings in the Polk Directories for E Admiral Blvd, E Admiral Pl, and E 1st St, from Iroquois Avenue in downtown, to Sheridan Avenue on the east. I counted the number of address listings on these streets in half-mile increments. These directories, which are a gold mine, include the names of the businesses and people living at each address. It also lists vacant addresses, which is particularly helpful because we can use it to partially gauge the health of the real estate market. I plan on doing the same analysis for the 40 north-south streets that were affected or removed completely by the construction of I-244.
Using the chart below, you can view the impact these demolitions and the problems associated with the highway had on neighborhood stability.
Trapped Residents, Ham’s Prison
Highway construction did more than just displace families and businesses. It also stranded several families who refused to sell their homes to the state. One stretch in particular captured the attention of the local media: Three blocks of Admiral Blvd, between Pittsburgh and Sandusky.
Their homes remained, but the street was removed to make room for steeply-sloped retaining walls that line the highway. With the street gone, these families had no way to access their homes except by climbing over chain link fences. Greeting guests meant installing a string with a bell at one end, and having them use ladders to climb over fences and walk through neighbors’ back yards. Water lines were also removed or altered, and the remaining residents were forced to pay to re-establish any connections to the system.
One resident, Charles Ham, took matters into his own hands after being harassed by state and city officials, and the police. Police officers heavily damaged the interior of his home while conducting a raid under false pretenses. Ham left his home as-is and started offering tours of the damage. He named his home “The Pigs Museum” to irritate the police, and erected a large sign facing the highway advertising it. The difficulty of getting to his home meant he had to rely on others for necessities:
Neighborhood kids, some of whom used to swim in his private pool, bring him razor blades and magazines. His sister delivers his mail, which he has had routed to her house. His niece buys his groceries and hands them to him over the fence.
The police forcibly removed the sign, and Ham was arrested for supposedly violating the city’s building code by erecting the sign. The fire marshal closed his swimming pool because it didn’t have a drain or filtration system. It was fed by a natural spring.
An access road was never built, even though Admiral still exists on the blocks immediately east and west of this block (it looks to me like the road was removed out of spite). All but two of the homes on this stretch have since been demolished, though 15 of the original 50-ft-wide parcels/lots still show on city maps. The home nearest Pittsburgh now has a gravel driveway running through the back yard. The other home, in the middle of the block, is inaccessible, has been vacant for decades, and sits alone on the hill, slowly rotting.
See the following articles for more of this sad story:
7 Families May Be Cut Off From Homes. Tulsa World, February 21, 1968.
Expressway, Barbed Wire Form ‘Cell’ for Tulsan. Tulsa World, July 29, 1972.
‘Pigs Museum’ Sign Comes Down. Tulsa World, August 30, 1972.
Effects on Ann’s Bakery
In 1998, while Michael Bates was running for city council, he knocked on the door of Ann Bay, owner of Ann’s Bakery, a veritable Tulsa landmark. Ann and her husband Raymond founded the bakery in 1938 when they lifted their home at 7 N Harvard and built the bakery underneath it (see above. To see more historic photos of Ann’s, head over to Tulsa Gal). Eventually, the bakery added a second floor, the house was removed, and the Bays moved a block away to a house at 1st & Admiral. Bates recalls:
The day they learned the expressway was going to cut between their house and the bakery, her husband sat down on the curb and wept.
Bates adds, “The bakery survived, of course, but the residential area was cut off from its commercial district, damaging both.”
In a 1995 interview with the Tulsa World, Ann called out the construction of I-244:
A business setback was when the city of Tulsa bought a northern portion of her business to build the I-244 expressway.
This blocked two accesses for deliveries. It also took a critical parking lot. The business survived.
The key word is “survived”. If this project was so beneficial, businesses wouldn’t be forced into survival mode. The construction of this highway hurt neighborhoods in every way imaginable. It made it more difficult for folks to walk to the local bakeries, grocery stores, barber shops and taverns from their homes. This hurt businesses, forcing untold numbers of which to close.
The highway introduced high-volume traffic noise into quiet neighborhoods while turning many residential streets into highway service roads. All of this made homes lose value. People moved out. Schools closed. Huge numbers of productive properties were eliminated from the tax rolls. With fewer families, neighborhood school populations fell, forcing many to close.
The ripple effects of building I-244 were vast, devastating, and have been felt for more than 50 years now.
Personal History Reveals A Pattern
In my research, I realized that both sides of my family witnessed the devastating effects this highway brought. Relaying the stories of those neighborhoods quickly revealed a pattern:
- The state and/or city propose a highway.
- Nearby neighborhoods oppose it.
- The state builds it anyway.
- Neighborhoods get hollowed out.
- Families leave.
- Businesses are forced to close.
- Schools close.
- Property values plummet (along with ad valorem taxes).
- Buildings fall into disrepair, and are demolished.
- The neighborhood suffers for decades.
In 1963, my mother lived with her grandparents in a craftsman-style home just a few blocks west of downtown at 123 N Nogales Ave. She talks about being able to walk around the corner to the school she attended (Washington Irving School — Tulsa’s oldest extant school), past the apartments her grandfather managed, and to the corner grocery store to buy sweets. Just a few years later, houses directly north and directly east of hers were torn down to accommodate I-244.
Streets that once connected the neighborhood to downtown and Owen Park to the north were severed, replaced by a 20-ft tall concrete barrier to support the highway. The county bought nine square blocks, tore everything down, and replaced homes and apartments with a massive jail. A homeless shelter, related social service agencies, and bail bondsmen moved in next door.
Cut off by two highways and the river, and ignored for decades, the Owen Park neighborhood fell into disrepair. Irving School closed in 1974 but the building was kept. Apartment buildings were demolished, the neighborhood grocery store vanished, and more homes were eventually demolished, including the one my mom lived in.
The end of North Nogales Avenue. Highway in the background.
For decades, relatives of my dad owned the Jeffries Lock & Key Shop at 2224 E Admiral Blvd. Housed in a cottage-style former filling station, the shop operated at the corner of Admiral and Gillette, just west of Lewis in the Kendall-Whittier neighborhood, from the 1940s until 1982 when it was purchased by Admiral Safe. The building is still there, but its neighbors weren’t so lucky. Several neighborhood streets were removed for I-244, along with the houses, apartment buildings, and businesses on those streets.
Again, neighborhood access to the commercial areas was cut off except for major arterial streets. The remaining businesses suffered, as did the neighborhood, and folks moved elsewhere. Whittier Elementary, another of Tulsa’s oldest schools, now abutting the highway, suffered severely, and eventually it closed and was demolished. In recent years, the neighborhood has begun to rebound from these disastrous decisions, and is again becoming a unique, thriving area full of restaurants, shops, Tulsa’s only remaining historic theater, creative studios, etc. These days, the I-244 is visible from the old key shop, which is just half a block away and faces a gravel parking lot overlooking the sunken highway below.
University Park, College & Admiral
I attended the University of Tulsa, whose campus is just a few blocks south of Admiral, between Delaware and Harvard. In the 30s and 40s, there was a busy commercial strip surrounding the corner of Admiral Place and College Avenue, the street that led directly from the campus. It featured a coney restaurant, a few cafes, a barbershop, and several other businesses, and was frequented by TU’s students. Dozens of bungalow duplexes and small apartment buildings aimed at students and young people filled in the area to the north.
You can guess what happened in the 60s: everything in the path of the highway, including College Avenue between Admiral Pl and Admiral Blvd, was bought by the state, then demolished. Both Admirals became one-way service roads to accommodate exits and on-ramps. A 20-foot-tall mass of earth went in, and the highway was built on top. Cut off from the university, this small but thriving commercial strip died. Most of the buildings from the era are still there, but many are vacant, used for storage, or have the windows boarded up. What was once an inviting, comfortable area is now desolate and practically devoid of any activity. It could become something nice that benefits the neighborhood again, but for now, it’s dormant.
I now live near Admiral again, this time in White City. This stretch of Admiral, like the rest of the street at the time, was a very popular and stylish commercial corridor. If you didn’t live downtown, you probably shopped on Admiral. When World War II started, a new bomber plant was built at the airport, and Admiral was widened to four lanes so workers could get to and from the plant as quickly as possible.
When they widened the road, no curbs were installed east of Hudson, no sidewalks were installed, and there was no delineation between traffic lanes and parking in front of the shops, restaurants, and apartment buildings. As a result, the entire street became a pedestrian’s nightmare. As traffic sped up, people moved further and further east, taking businesses along with them.
The construction of I-244 sealed the fate, with even more homes and businesses destroyed, replaced again with huge concrete barriers and a massive highway overpass. Eventually, a turning lane was added, making the now 5-lane street nearly 60 feet wide.
Most of the windows in buildings that remain on the stretch of Admiral between Yale and Fulton are now boarded up. The buildings themselves either vacant or used to store vehicles. There’s a cash-for-plasma center. Next door, an old neon sign for a once-popular furniture store at 5026 E Admiral Pl hangs alone, rusting. Though run-down, the buildings still have good bones.
With the right redesign of Admiral (including a road diet), lots of trees, facade improvements, and interest from local entrepreneurs, this stretch could become something really interesting and lively again.
Between 1974 and 1980, a Kmart was built at 5305 E Admiral Pl, just west of the highway overpass. After it permanently closed in 2003, a manufacturing company bought the building and erected a black aluminum fence around the property.
In 2016, QuikTrip, a Tulsa-based gas station chain, decided to abandon its store on the northeast corner of Admiral & Yale for a new location across the street on the southeast corner — something it does on a regular basis. In doing so, it bought several lots containing 5 homes and 8 businesses abutting their newly-acquired property, and tore them down so they could use the land as a construction staging area.
Now, those lots, all 81,804 square feet of them, sit empty, a mixture of gravel, dirt, and grass (visible in the aerial image above). In total, QT now controls more than 172,000 sq ft on that corner, with no plans for the now-vacant field. That’s almost 2 square city blocks. When the new store opened in December, they abandoned their old building across the street, which was constructed in 1991. That building lasted all of 25 years, and the lot is now vacant. There are dozens of examples of new QTs across the street from abandoned QTs all over this city.
Highway Expansions Continue to Divide Area Towns
Maybe all of this seems like ancient history, but it appears we have forgotten the lessons from our mistakes in the 60s and 70s. In the 1990s, ODOT forced the town of Skiatook to accept widening its historic main street (Rogers Blvd) to 4 lanes, while replacing angled parking with parallel spaces and cutting down the width of the sidewalks in front of stores, restaurants, dry cleaners, antique shops, and the library. At the time, ODOT warned the townspeople if they didn’t accept the widening plan, ODOT would build the highway elsewhere and kill the town’s restaurants and retail by driving traffic away from the town. The town acquiesced.
Threatening the economy of a small town is a common tactic among state departments of transportation, which control a large number of Main Streets across the country. Use Google Streetview and drop yourself in any number of small towns and you’ll see the state DOT has insisted that widening is the only option, most often to disastrous results. In Oklahoma, look at Kingfisher, Okemah, Pawnee, Okmulgee, Collinsville, Bartlesville, Enid, Woodward, etc. Each of these had a four-lane highway rammed right through their downtown.
Within the past few weeks, ODOT recently held another public meeting to talk about their proposal to re-route and widen Highway 20 to five lanes in Claremore (brochure here — but watch out for DOT propaganda like the word “improvement”), diverting traffic away from their downtown. ODOT has claimed for years the road has too many curves and is dangerous, when in reality the curves slow traffic down. We know that the design of roads and the widths of lanes can either encourage or discourage speeding and can make a street safer or more dangerous.
Those 4- or 5-lane designs that have been forced on so many small towns are the kind that encourage speeding, which makes it more dangerous not only to drive, but to anyone walking, riding a bike, or in a wheelchair. After all, these are towns we’re talking about, not wide expanses of uninhabited fields. ODOT is proposing 14-foot-wide outer lanes, 12-foot-wide inner lanes, and a 14-foot-wide center turning lane, all with curbs and gutters. 12-foot-wide lanes are standard on Interstate Highways, and have no place in a town. 14-foot-wide lanes are just plain crazy. This is unacceptable in 2017.
The ODOT plan for Highway 20 in Claremore doesn’t just smooth out the curve, cut off downtown, and encourage speeding. It also calls for the removal of at least a dozen homes, and would rip apart several established neighborhoods. Just like we did in the 1960s and 70s.
In all, the 3.5-mile project is estimated to cost $42 million. Oklahoma already can’t afford to properly maintain the roads we have. Replacing a two-lane road that works fine with a $42 million, extra-wide, dangerous, 5-lane stroad that will displace families just to shave a minute or two off drive time is financially irresponsible and morally bankrupt.
What You Can Do
ODOT’s public comment period for this project is open until March 9th, so make your voices heard.
Show up to meetings. Ask tough questions. Hold DOT officials to account. Demand Context Sensitive Solutions, which are encouraged by the Federal Highway Administration. This Streetsblog article wisely recommends:
One important piece of advice for communities: Take information from state DOTs and other high-level transportation agencies with a grain of salt, Charlier said. “When people start saying that this higher authority is requiring something, ask for documentation,” he said. “Some of the things we hear engineers say are not really true.”
“We hear citizens being told things like this: ‘The FHWA requires level of service C in year 20,’” said Charlier. “Baloney; it’s not true. The federal government does not provide guidance at this level.” Charlier recommends that concerned citizens “chase” those kind of statements “back to the source.”
References and Resources
Polk Directories are available for viewing at the Tulsa’s Central Library. Following are newspaper articles from the Tulsa Tribune (TT) and Tulsa World (TW) used in my research, in reverse chronological order:
• TT — Paving the Crosstown — Memorial
• TT — $1,102,962 Contract is Awarded on Crosstown — Bridge Work at Delaware and Admiral
• 1995–01–30 TW — Ann’s Bakery Has Sweet History in Tulsa
• 1984–07–25 TW — MLK Sign
• 1978–08–02 TW — I-244 Attractive But Dangerous — Highway Officials Wonder What Will Happen Next
• 1973–04–21 TT — Crosstown Gets Business Play
• 1972–08–30 TW — Pigs Museum Sign Comes Down
• 1972–07–29 TW — Expressway, Barbed Wire Form Cell for Tulsan
• 1972–05–06 TW — Last Link Opened on New Crosstown
• 1972–05–04 TT — Experimenting Eyed on New Crosstown Connection
• 1972–04–27 TT — Crosstown Paving Downtown Finished
• 1972–04–03 TT — Crosstown Gets Mileage Signs
• 1972–03–14 TT — Interchange Lanes Ready for Concrete
• 1971–12–21 TT — Delays in Crosstown Highway System Disclosed
• 1971–07–23 TW — Shape of Inner Disperal Loop Ringing Downtown Tulsa
• 1971–03–09 TT — Crosstown to be Finished
• 1971–03–02 TW — Crosstown, IDL Pacts OKd
• 1971 TT — New Road History Tortuous — Crosstown Evolution Explained
• 1970–10–15 TW — Crosstown Works Well, Enginere Here Reports
• 1970–10–14 TT — Crosstown Motorists In a Jam
• 1970–10–06 TW — Roads Director Gets Lost on Expressway
• 1970–10–02 TT — Crosstown Dedication Plan Ready
• 1970–09–27 TW — Time to Airport Shaved — Crosstown Expressway Helpful
• 1970–09–06 TT — Crosstown Crosses The Delaware
• 1970–09–04 TT — Gilcrease Leg, Crosstown Open
• 1970–08–28 TT — Sign of the Times
• 1970–08–25 TW — Crosstown Opening Delayed, New Date is Sept 7
• 1970–08–10 TT — Tantalizing Sight — I-44 Junction
• 1970–08–08 TT — Traffic Flow Reroute Map
• 1970–07–23 TW — Sign Troubles to Delay Opening of Crosstown
• 1970–07–22 TT — Crosstown Use Postponed — Turtles ‘s Go-Go for Crosstown
• 1969–11–28 TT — New Traffic Detours Set — Interchange Advances
• 1969–11–26 TT — Sight for Sore Eyes — aerial photo
• 1969–11–06 TW — Expressway Job to Block Admiral Traffic Ramp
• 1969–10–11 TT — Expressway Finish Should Cause Area Boom
• 1969–09–30 TT — Crosstown Work Speeds Up
• 1969–09–03 TW — Bids on Crosstown Nixed as Too High
• 1969–08–24 Okla Journal — Giant Mole Burrows Under Tulsa
• 1969–05–30 TW — Big Steel Goes Up Along Crosstown Route — Downtown photo
• 1969–01–05 TW — Crosstown Surfacing Bids Near 1968–11–26 TT — Work on Crosstown Here Continues to Push Westward
• 1968–11–20 TT — Waiting for Paving 1968–08–05 TT — No Longer A Dream — aerial photo
• 1968–06–19 TT — Crosstown Construction Boost Is Due — Work Slated East of River For 10 Miles
• 1968–06–14 TW — Crosstown Overpasses Start at Ground Level
• 1968–04–13 TW — Slowly but Surely — aerials from Sheridan
• 1968–04–01 TT — $6.2 Million Highway Job For Tulsa Up for June Bid
• 1968–02–21 TW — 7 Families May Be Cut Off From Homes — Water Supply a Problem, Too
• 1968–01–16 TW — Crosstown Piers Undressed
• 1967–12–27 TW — Bridging The Crosstown Expressway — photos
• 1967–05–02 TW — Snag Delays Contract in Crosstown Project
• 1967–04–12 TW — $1 Million Bridge — Hudson
• 1967–04–05 TW — Crosstown-Gilcrease Interchange — aerial photo
• 1966–08–12 TT — Nothing in Envelope Except $1,250,000
• 1966–06–26 TW — Tulsans to Be Faster 1966–05–28 TT — Lyons Reports Rapid Word on Crosstown
• 1966–01–13 TT — Tornado, No, Just Road Work
• 1965–05–01 TW — May Be Mabee Here, But Signs Will Read I-244
• 1965–03–10 TW — Why The All-Fired Rush
• 1965–02–03 TW — Mabee Expressway Title Offered to End Dispute
• 1963–04–08 TT — Crosstown Expressway Top Tulsa Bargain in Dollars
• 1962–02–20 TT — Stilts Rise High at Downtown Interchange
• 1960–10–13 — Crosstown, Sequoyah Interchange ‘s Crosstown Expressway Route — Accord Reached on Turnpike Study
• 1957–07–20 TT — Taxes to Cost Tulsa More Than Freeway — Either Way, We Pay
• 1957–02–01 TT — City Backs Relocation of Planned Expressway — 57th West Avenue Route Favored
• 1958–08–28 TT — Scale Map of Route Okayed by TMPC for Crosstown Expressway
• 1956–07–18 TT — Central Freeway Top Need, Expert Claims — Crosstown Much More Important Than North Loop
• 1956–05–22 TT — Group to Choose Freeway Route
• 1955–09–08 TW — Suit Threats on Freeway Plan Hurled
• 1955–08–26 TT — Highway Department Map Shows Proposed Route of Eastside Freeway
• 1955–08–25 TW — Expressway Map Details Eastern Leg