A friend’s recent interest in publishing a piece on life in near north Tulsa in the 50’s had me contemplating memories from my time growing up at 228 E. King Street. So I set out to share some of my fondest memories from those good old days.
I was born in Newton, Kansas while my father was serving as a U.S. Naval fighter pilot in the south Pacific during WWII. After the war, my family and I moved to Tulsa from Wichita in September of 1947, four months before my 3rd birthday. We closed on our house at 228 E. King St on October 13th, 1947. The purchase price was $8,750.00. The earliest memories of my youth were of growing up in that neighborhood and in that house.
Before purchasing our home, my parents apparently visited numerous neighborhoods in Tulsa and eventually settled on the King Street house for a variety of reasons, including the affordability of the homes and the abundant amenities of the neighborhood, which included many small businesses.
There were grocery stores, dairies, cafes, drug stores, florists, repair shops, laundromats and much more, almost all of which were within easy walking distance. My mother was not really fond of driving and walking was her preferred method of travel in the neighborhood.
By the time I was school age I was a regular at the soda fountain at Curry’s Drugstore at Latimer and north Main St. I had my first Cherry Coke there, and I loved the chocolate milkshakes. Curry’s was a little over three blocks from my house and I remember walking there alone at a very young age, maybe as early as age 5 or 6.
I liked to go and read comic books and just hang out. Mr. Curry was a nice man and he knew most all of the neighborhood kids by name. I was shocked and saddened to learn that he had shot and killed an armed robber some years after we moved away, after he had been victimized multiple times. It was so out of character for him. Curry’s Drug was a bonafide neighborhood institution in the 50’s. Anyone who did not enjoy the benefits of such an experience while growing up really missed out.
My family also frequented Gray’s Cleaner and the Bakery in the same block as Curry’s. If memory serves there also was a barber shop there where I got virtually all of my haircuts until we moved, including my first crew-cut as a child.
I took piano lessons from Lucille Smith who taught in her home across the street from Curry’s. Of course I also remember Allen’s Ice Cream, another Tulsa institution just a few blocks away. Their son, John, worked for my father as a teenager for a time delivering merchandise. My dad had an aluminum cookware franchise and sold direct to the public with free delivery included.
The nearby Presbyterian Church also played an important role in my youth. Located at 205 W. King St, it is now The Parish Church of St. Jerome. In those days my parents were not particularly inclined towards regular church attendance but they did insist that I walk to the church, a few blocks from our home for Sunday school every week. I began singing in the Choir while in 3rd Grade and continued for several years. I vividly remember the first time I got to ring the church bell; it was a pretty big deal for me. The weight of the bell was enough to lift my entire body as I held on during the upswing. Sometimes, on feast days and special celebrations my parents would attend the main Sunday worship service if the youth choir was performing.
I joined cub scouts as soon as I was eligible. My mom was the den mother and meetings were held in our home. When I was old enough I joined the Boy Scouts of America, Troop 5, and we met in the basement of the First United Presbyterian Church. So, obviously I spent a lot of time in that beautiful building. It was really nostalgic to visit there almost 50 years later when Bonnie and I were invited to attend the dedication of St. Jerome’s.
The C.R. Anthony’s store in the Osage Hills Shopping Center is where we bought most of our clothes, including my Buster Brown shoes. By the time I reached middle school we had to go downtown to Harrington’s to buy Boy Scout uniforms and jeans because Anthony’s did not carry Levi’s and that is what you were expected to wear if you were “cool,” in the 50’s.
The Safeway Store on north Denver (now the Tulsa County Election Board) was our neighborhood grocery. And don’t forget the Pines Theater on Cincinnati, just north of Pine Street. It was a favorite of many who lived in my neighborhood. On Saturday’s the Pines would have double or triple features with a ton of cartoons, all for $25 cents. It was about 5 or 6 blocks from my house and we walked, without parental supervision, even under the age of 10.
When the Dr. Pepper bottling plant opened around the corner from our house I was a regular, enjoying so many free samples that I got tired of it and have never much cared for Dr. Pepper since then.
As children we were warned to stay away from the brick yard (or brick pits as we called them) a couple of blocks east of my house, because there was a very high cliff. It would have been extremely dangerous if anyone were to fall off. Naturally, since it was forbidden, the neighborhood kids could not stay away from it. I remember once taking some old 78 RPM records down to the brickyard cliff, sailing them off and watching them disintegrate as they slammed into the stacks of bricks 40 or 50 feet below.
For a year or two I participated in a youth wrestling program at Immaculate Conception School, northeast of Haskell Pl and east of Denver. We got great volunteer training from Morey Villareal, the head wrestling coach of Will Rogers High School, winner of multiple state championships. With his wife and 6 children, Morey was also my next door neighbor on King Street.
The Boston Beer Garden was a popular haunt for neighborhood men and my Dad would occasionally go there with some of his friends or guys he worked with. I don’t think my mom really felt comfortable there and she seldom ever went with them. It had a bit of a reputation as being a rowdy place in those days. I don’t think fights among patrons were terribly uncommon in those days.
Of course, Tulsa Country Club was a fixture in the neighborhood but not many people I knew could afford to belong there. It had a looming chain link fence around it and was off-limits to non-members. The original clubhouse was a really cool building and it was a huge loss when it was destroyed by fire.
For me, the Cheyenne Playground or Cheyenne Park is also worth mentioning. Emerson School had a chat playground so we played our home baseball games at Cheyenne Park. Also, Owen Park and the Newblock Park public swimming pool were very much a part of the youth experience for those living within a two or three mile radius. They were both considered gathering places for the community and were usually packed with people when the weather was nice.
Looking back, it is amazing how things have changed so much since those days when parents use to allow their children so much freedom to roam. We walked or would ride bikes all over the place. I was riding my bike up to the top of Reservoir Hill, or to Owen Park while I was still in elementary school. I simply do not ever remember being fearful or feeling unsafe in my neighborhood as a child growing up.
My first job was as a Tulsa Tribune newspaper carrier at age 12. Of course the Tribune was an afternoon daily newspaper but I also delivered the Sunday Tulsa World to my customers as well. That meant I was out all alone at 4:00 in the morning and neither my parents nor I ever thought a thing about it or worried about my safety in the least.
The demographics of near north side were a bit of a mixed bag as I recall. My immediate neighborhood, including the 200 Block of East Jasper and King Streets was very diverse, with many school age children, some retirees, and mostly single family homes with the exception of one small apartment building.
I would describe it as a working class neighborhood which included both blue collar and white collar workers; although I suspect most of the white collar types were more likely clerical employees rather than executives or upper management.
I have been asked if my old neighborhood was well-kept or run down, what the houses looked like and what present day neighborhood it would remind me of.
I suppose we all tend to romanticize a bit about our childhood and the neighborhoods of our youth. It is hard not to look back through rose colored glasses. While my reflections may be a bit nostalgic; I still think they are fairly accurate. For the most part the houses were modest but predominantly well maintained with simple but well-kept landscaping.
There were also some really nice and rather extravagant homes and of course there were also a few dogs, but overall it was a place I was proud to call home. It definitely did not come off as the poverty stricken area with poorly maintained structures in awful disrepair like we see in so much of the area today. Neighborhood blight and decay does not happen overnight but the startling differences between the before and after is rather remarkable when you can see both at the same time, as in photos.
It was what I would call a proud neighborhood populated by working class people and families. People generally took care of their homes and yards. There were trees everywhere. Even as an experienced REALTOR, I cannot really think of a neighborhood that would easily remind me of the one I grew up in, primarily because of the mixed use atmosphere, combining single and multifamily homes with shops, commercial and retail businesses and some scattered industrial uses. The closest that come to mind are those residential neighborhoods near 15th & Peoria, but obviously they are much more upscale now than my neighborhood was then.
You might find a neighborhood that would mirror the housing but not the rest of it, like the corner drug store and other amenities. It seems there is not really much middle ground any more, neighborhoods are more likely to very affluent and extremely well maintained, or just the opposite, run down and neglected. It was not like that back in the 50’s, at least not in my neighborhood.
Quite unlike any other neighborhood I have ever lived in during my lifetime, I knew virtually every family on my block and the block next to me. I knew the children; I knew the parents, what jobs they had and in some cases I knew their extended family members. I truly felt like I belonged to a community.
Our neighborhood was definitely segregated and everyone knew the well-defined boundaries, which zigzagged throughout the area. We lived on the south side of King Street which sits on a hill. The homes on the north side of the street had a steep grade behind their backyards, falling away to the neighborhoods to the north below. The residential areas south of King Street were exclusively white and everything to the north was pretty much all black, at least on the east side of Cincinnati. There really was no mixing of the races in those days, not in my neighborhood.
As detailed earlier, I felt safe growing up. In the eleven years I lived on east King Street I never had a key to our house and as far as I remember we never locked our doors unless we were going out of town on vacation. Even when we went to the lake on weekends we left our house unlocked. In the early 50’s the milkman made deliveries inside our back porch where the ice box was located. Knocking was not expected or necessary.
That said, as a young child growing up I heard rumors from neighbors that a white man had been killed on his front porch during the race riot, just a few lots east of my home. Until recently, I was never able to confirm if that rumor was true or not. A friend came across one report that it was actually a woman who was killed. In any case, unlike many of my peers who grew up in south Tulsa, I had indeed heard about the race riot very early on in my life. Keep in mind that it had happened only 26 years before we moved to Tulsa.
Although my paternal grandfather, a dentist, was reportedly a member of the Kansas KKK, I never experienced any sense of racism in my immediate family. The only N word I ever heard in my home while growing up was Negro. My parents were respectful of people of color even though they did not have any as close personal friends. I never felt a sense of fear, mistrust or doubt about any of my African American neighbors and I never sensed that any of the people on my block did either.
Until the 7th grade I thought we were rich. My dad usually drove a new car and we had a boat at Lake Ft. Gibson. I always had new clothes to start the school year. My parents liked to entertain and we traveled frequently to visit friends and relatives out of state. What more could you ask for?
When I crossed paths with black folks in those days I tried to be friendly and respectful but otherwise kept my distance and so did they. All of that changed when I was in the 5th grade. Following the Brown verses the Board of Education Supreme Court Ruling in 1954, Emerson and Burroughs became the first two integrated elementary schools in Tulsa. In the fall of 1955, two African American students enrolled at Emerson including a boy named Riley McCaskill.
Quite unlike the turmoil that embroiled Little Rock High School a couple of years later, the integration of Emerson and Burroughs was uneventful and the new students were accepted without any fanfare or resistance. Riley was a handsome and athletic boy who went on to star on Emerson’s baseball team which competed well in our little league conference. While we did not hang out together at each other’s homes we did become pretty good friends and I have very fond memories of him to this day.
After leaving elementary schools we parted ways and went to different middle schools and did not keep up with each other. From what I recall Riley went on to star in sports in high school and attended OSU on an athletic scholarship. Over the years I have tried unsuccessfully to track him down to catch up and compare notes on our life experiences after we left elementary school.
Until 1957, that near north side area was all I knew. I don’t honestly remember ever being south of 11th Street until I was 12 years old. When I finished elementary school my mother did not want me to attend Roosevelt Junior High because it was too big. Central High was over-crowded so Tulsa Public Schools kept the 10th graders at Roosevelt. My mom did not like that idea so she applied for a transfer and I attended Horace Mann Junior High School in downtown Tulsa.
During the fall of my first year at Horace Mann I met a lot of kids who came from Lee School. I befriended many of them and visited their homes in Maple Ridge and Sunset Terrace. What an eye opener it was for me, to see how a few of them from some of Tulsa’s wealthiest families lived compared to what I was used to. Admittedly, I was envious and decided I wanted to move to “south” Tulsa, defined by me in those days as between 15th Street and 31st Streets from Riverside Drive to Peoria.
In early 1958, after looking at older homes in Sunset Terrace, my parents bought new construction in the Max Campbell VI addition at 38th Place and Yale, much to my chagrin. The house was okay but it was in a neighborhood with dozens and dozens of other houses that looked just like ours. It was flanked by a major arterial and abutted a giant field where Southroad’s Mall was eventually built.
So, I got my wish and we moved to south Tulsa, albeit not the south Tulsa I was looking for. Quite honestly, I never felt more isolated in my life than I did after we moved and I absolutely hated living there. It was nothing like the neighborhood where I grew up in north Tulsa. There was no Curry’s Drug store, no Owen Park, no Pines Theater, no atmosphere, no trees, no quick bus ride downtown. I was living in a neighborhood that was filled will cul-de-sacs, not connective streets and in the 5 years I lived there I met almost no one other than my next door neighbors.
I spent virtually every waking moment from 1958 until I graduated high school in 1963, hanging out with my friends in Brookside, on Cherry Street and in traditional midtown neighborhoods, wishing I could live there. Although I was not really anxious to move back to north Tulsa, I missed the sense of community I enjoyed in the old neighborhood and more than anything, I missed downtown Tulsa. I really felt stranded.
You see, by growing up on the near north side, I always felt connected to downtown. I was a regular at all of the downtown movie theaters, including the Ritz, Orpheum, Majestic, and Rialto. Our family went to virtually every parade and public event downtown. As a youngster I used to ride the bus downtown by myself on the weekends and during the summer to go to the movies, to go swimming at the YMCA to eat some original Coney’s, and to just hang out and go window shopping or people watching.
Downtown was a fun place to go and a fun and exciting place to be. It was the hub, the center of activity, not only Tulsa but of the region or even the universe as far as I was concerned. I remember the street cars, the train station, the ice house, the Christmas decorations, the Pig Stand Drive Inn and the people, lots and lots of people, filling the streets and sidewalks.
Enjoying such a self-contained mixed use neighborhood in my youth is what inspires me today to fight for the reestablishment of such inner-city Tulsa neighborhoods through mixed use zoning and form-based codes. With so many benefits which accompany such districts it is hard to understand why there is so much resistance and opposition to them from some businesses and real estate developers. My guess is that most of them never experienced such a concept and they don’t know what they missed.
At 69 years old I am hopeful that downtown Tulsa and its surrounding historical neighborhoods will come full circle and once again become a vibrant and exhilarating center of energy and creativity. After decades of stagnation we are finally seeing positive signs that it can and will actually happen again.
The bottom line is this. I absolutely loved the neighborhood that I grew up in. The experience is hard to describe to anyone who never had a sense of belonging or a sense of community growing up, living in the city but not unlike also living in a small town, on Main Street. With downtown just a few minutes away we had no reason or need to venture out anywhere else. Everything we needed was nearby, mostly within walking or biking distance, our church, our school, our drug store, our cleaners, our barbershop and so much more. And while we always had a car or two in the driveway we were not strangers to public transportation.
Growing up in near north side in the 1950’s was a great experience. Ask anyone who lived there during those years.