A few years ago, Frank Arnold’s retro burger joint began bridging the well-established divide between west Tulsa and everything on the other side of the river.
The opening of Arnold’s Hamburgers 31 years ago offered a welcome relief to families on the city’s west side, where dining options are scarce. The ’50s-themed restaurant — somewhat modeled after the dine-in from television’s “Happy Days” — quickly became a community staple.
Locals frequently stop by for a burger and shake while listening to oldies blasting from a vintage jukebox. Many customers know Arnold by name.
The diner’s quaint charm and occasional car show even lures outsiders across the Arkansas River, a feat residents admit isn’t easy. Arnold said he saw a real boost after renting billboards along Tulsa highways four years ago.
Now the new faces seem to outnumber the old. While Arnold appreciates the new-found popularity, he said introducing folks to the area also benefits those who live there.
“We have drawn a lot of people over here who normally wouldn’t come to the west side,” he said.
But despite increased efforts in the past decade to revitalize a community surrounded by a modernizing suburbia, west Tulsa remains in danger of being left behind.
Since the heyday of thriving neighborhoods and booming schools, the area has experienced a slow exodus of families, especially those with young children. Longtime and new residents have differing opinions about what led to the demographic shift.
Some blame urban renewal and a lack of higher-paying jobs for middle-class families. Others point to the housing stock, which tends to be smaller and older than what today’s families seek. Some say the isolation due to separation by the river and a history of belittlement from other Tulsans stigmatize the area.
Most agree that west Tulsa has been on the decline. Perhaps the most obvious sign is the turbulent state of the neighborhood schools, which are undergoing consolidation and grade reconfigurations after years of shrinking student populations.
‘They called us the River Rats’
At the time Donna Savage graduated from Webster High School in 1966, her class consisted of about 300 students. She estimates that about 700 made up the sophomore to senior classes, which composed the high school at that time. Last year, about 450 students attended Webster, from freshmen to seniors.
Savage, president of Webster’s alumni association, said the schools once played an essential community role and that most students walked the same halls their parents and grandparents had before them.
She recalls when the high school marching band was massive, drawing attention at local parades. Students worked diligently on writing scripts and rehearsing for the annual Cavalcade, a west Tulsa event until the 1960s.
What Savage and so many others love about west Tulsa is the small-town feel, even though it’s part of the second-largest city in Oklahoma. Residents harbor an extraordinary amount of loyalty for the west side, sharing a close bond with those who grew up here.
Savage said the negative perception comes from “outsiders” — Tulsans living on the east side of the river.
“We were always referred to as being a rough area of town when I was growing up,” Savage said. “There was always that mindset that we were rough because of the refineries. They called us the River Rats.”
Years of animosity, she said, led some of her neighbors to believe that Webster has always been unfairly targeted by the city. While cleaning out a closet at the high school recently, Savage found a notebook with news clippings about a 1979 attempt to close the high school. Westsiders responded, flooding the community with T-shirts and bumper stickers emblazoned “Save Webster.”
Although it’s difficult to pinpoint what sparked the falling enrollment, Laura Undernehr said there are plenty of contributing factors.
“The community just kept getting older and older,” said Undernehr, former principal at Clinton Middle School. “That’s my wrap on it. At the time I was in school, in a one-block area, there were nine kids. Now there’s not one child on that block, but the people still live there. They don’t move out.”
Undernehr and others say there is a lack of homes for sale in west Tulsa. Instead of putting their houses on the market, aging residents often stay put until death and then give their properties to their families.
The available houses are usually considered too small and old to attract younger families, being traditionally equipped with a single bathroom, a one-car garage and three bedrooms.
“I know some people who tried to buy a house, and they ended up in Berryhill because they had two restrooms and four bedrooms,” Undernehr said.
John Autry, a longtime west Tulsa educator who is now retired, said urban renewal drove out natives who weren’t happy with the influx of newcomers. Some of the area’s oldest neighborhoods were replaced with new developments in the ’60s and ’70s to bring in residents. The community lost its sense of tradition and loyalty that had thrived for generations, he said.
“With urban renewal came people who were used to moving a lot and didn’t really set up roots,” Autry said. “As a result of that, we didn’t have the pride in our community or our schools that we had here for so many years. I think a lot of people just wanted to find a smaller community, which they found in Jenks and they found in Berryhill, much like what they grew up with.”
As schools underwent changes, retail stores throughout west Tulsa closed, including at the Crystal City shopping center. With developable land limited in west Tulsa, neighboring towns grew as developers moved out of the city.
Gary Percefull, a school board member who has represented the westside schools since 2003, said the area’s population has been dwindling since the 1960s. Census data also shows an aging community with a shrinking number of school-age children.
“The area became victim to proximity to the suburbs,” Percefull said. “Almost all your new construction is outside the city limits of Tulsa. It’s going on in Owasso or Broken Arrow or Jenks or Bixby or Sand Springs. I think a lot of younger families, if they can afford it, are moving to suburban areas where they can buy a new house.”
Percefull said west Tulsa families started opting for suburban districts over neighborhood schools. For example, more than 100 children who could have attended Park Elementary School last year went elsewhere.
“We don’t know where they are,” Percefull said. “If we don’t have records on them, it means they’re going out of district or they’re home-schooled.”
Efforts to revitalize schools included renovating Clinton Middle School into a sleeker, more modern building in 2009. Webster implemented a broadcasting and digital media magnet program to draw students interested in journalism and communications careers.
Those innovations weren’t enough, and enrollment numbers continue to wane.
After the district announced earlier this year that school patterns would be changing on the west side, the center of controversy — or the 900-pound gorilla in the room, as Percefull calls it — is Webster being underutilized. The building is serving less than half of its 930-student capacity.
“That was very obvious,” Percefull said. “It’s an expensive high school to run because the population was so low. The last thing the district wanted to do — and certainly the last thing I wanted to do — was talk about consolidating a high school like Webster that is a big part of the whole community’s identity on the west side of the river. So we didn’t talk about Webster. That never did come up.”
The district’s final plan closes Park Elementary, Remington Elementary and Early Childhood Development Center-Porter. Those students will move to the Clinton Middle School building, and the middle-schoolers will be located at Webster. Some parents were furious.
After living in the Mountain Manor neighborhood for more than a decade, Andrea Cheatham uprooted her family because she didn’t want her 12-year-old daughter attending school with juniors and seniors. She didn’t want her twin boys, who attended Remington Elementary and were recently diagnosed with autism, to go to Webster a year from now.
In June she moved to Collinsville, where she has a choice of two school systems. The decision wasn’t easy. Her daughter loved her first year at Clinton, and Cheatham was active in her neighborhood association.
“I’m really emotional about it,” she said. “I raised my kids here. They grew up here, and they’re sad about it. I’m going to miss my neighbors. This is a close-knit neighborhood. We feel safe here.
“I’m just a little resentful that it’s because of the consolidation that I decided to pick up and move. Things could have been different. I’m just really disheartened to see what happened.”
The Mountain Manor Neighborhood Association’s current president, Nicole Nixon, was on the fence about sending her children elsewhere but is reluctantly giving the newly named Clinton West Elementary School a trial run.
The 31-year-old mother of two — one of the biggest critics during the consolidation meetings — says she felt betrayed by the district.
“It seemed like their decision was already made up, and they decided to have these community meetings to pretty much just pacify the community,” Nixon said. “Nobody, not one person at any of the meetings, stood up and said this was a good idea. We fought hard to keep our schools.”
Revitalizing west Tulsa
The formation 10 years ago of the nonprofit organization Route 66 Main Street brought a considerable amount of commercial regrowth, such as the revival of the Crystal City shopping center on Southwest Boulevard near 33rd West Avenue. There’s also been the creation of the Oklahoma State University Center for Health Services and a litany of events at River West Festival Park.
Main Street Director Jessica Brent said west Tulsa could be one savory attraction away from establishing the area as a smart place for businesses to move.
“That’s kind of what we’re looking for — a brewery or a cafe, something that is going to bring people together, draw people over here and signal that this is a place to be,” Brent said.
Percefull thinks west Tulsa is primed for a population resurgence, although he’s not quite sure how to get there.
“I’m a bit mystified and frustrated as to why we haven’t had the same kind of residential growth or population of people living in the area,” he said. “I think it’s a great area. It’s the land of opportunity within the city of Tulsa because there’s a lot of great infrastructure, but you have to cross the bridge to get over here.
“For some reason, that’s kind of like the Great Wall of China or something. People just feel like they’re leaving the state if they have to drive across the bridge to get to the other side of the river.”