Nearly 50 years ago, with downtown retailers struggling as the suburbs spread farther and farther to the southeast toward Broken Arrow, Tulsa devised a plan to pull development back closer to the Arkansas River.
With a combination of zoning regulations and infrastructure projects, the idea was to encourage residential construction south of Interstate 44 along Peoria Avenue and Riverside Drive, where residents would have relatively quick access to the Central Business District, according to the archives of the Tulsa World. And the plan worked brilliantly throughout the 1970s, with new single-family housing and apartment complexes stretching all the way to what was then the outer fringe of the city at 71st Street.
Unfortunately, the neighborhood’s development peaked just in time for the oil bust of the 1980s, when property values plunged and apartment vacancies skyrocketed. The middle class fled, mostly back to those southeastern suburbs. And Section 8 housing filled the gap.
By the ’90s, parts of the Riverwood area had become south Tulsa’s first neighborhood with a poverty rate above 30%.
The number of high-poverty neighborhoods has grown, not only in Tulsa but nationwide over the past 40 years, according to a recent study by the Economic Innovation Group, a Washington, D.C., think tank. In fact, the number doubled from 1980 to 2010. And while the growth slowed down in the 2010s, the COVID-19 crisis could kick it back into high gear.
In Tulsa, high-poverty neighborhoods in 1980 included swaths of north Tulsa and pockets across west Tulsa, according to EIG’s data analysis. And by 2018, with the most recent data available, all those same neighborhoods remained high-poverty with the addition of several more, including Riverwood and stretches of east Tulsa along with parts of midtown east of the Inner Dispersal Loop.
A neighborhood can sink into poverty easier than it can climb out. And that’s because individual families are more likely to sink than climb, says Courtney Cullison, an analyst focusing on the issues of economic opportunity and financial security at the Oklahoma Policy Institute.
“Once you slip under the poverty threshold,” she says, “you get caught in the cycle.”
You can’t pay bills on time, which puts you in debt, which keeps you from paying the bills on time. In Oklahoma, wages simply haven’t kept up with living expenses over the years, Cullison says, and 26% of jobs no longer pay enough to support a family of four above the poverty line.
“As the middle class thins out, a few are climbing into a higher-income level,” she says. “But there are a lot more who are slipping down into lower-income.”
When a neighborhood does escape poverty, it usually doesn’t happen by families becoming better off but through gentrification, with higher-income homebuyers moving into the area while pricing out the existing residents.
“The people are still poor,” Cullison says. “They’re just living somewhere else now.”
In other words, revitalizing one area might simply create another pocket of poverty in a different part of town. Unless, of course, we actually deal with poverty itself.
“We need to focus on what the residents need” and not just what “the neighborhood needs,” Cullison says. Education. Health care. Higher salaries. Debt relief.
That’s the best kind of revitalization.
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