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Identity crisis


The John F. Kennedy district near downtown Oklahoma City works to lift itself out of a past filled with crime and dilapidation.

Tim Farley November 19th, 2013

One historically black Oklahoma City community is transforming its neighborhood, which has been troubled with high levels of crime and dilapidated housing for decades.

Change, however, has been slow.

For 50 years, the living conditions have been part of the history connected to the area generally bounded by NE 23rd Street to NE Fourth Street and from Lottie Avenue/Stonewall Avenue to Interstate 35 and long known as the John F. Kennedy district.

In the 1960s, the Oklahoma City Council officially declared those neighborhoods blighted. Since then, attempts have been made at revitalization, with little success. Most recently, the John F. Kennedy Urban Renewal project started about 10 years ago and happened to coincide with many of the MAPS improvements in downtown OKC.

Thanks to a public-private partnership, large, modern homes are being built in areas once dominated by slum landlords, gangs and crooks. Vacant lots that served as industrial outdoor storage areas are turning into upscale neighborhoods as former residents return. Since 2003, an estimated $25 million in new development has been added to the area with about 150 new single-family homes and 15 duplexes, according to Bill Eudy, real estate administrator with the OKC Urban Renewal Authority.

“Moms and grandparents grew up here in JFK but moved away to Edmond and north Oklahoma City. Now, they’re coming back and finding that the situation over here has changed,” said LaDonna Gilliam, sales and marketing director for Ron Walters Construction, Inc.

Walters Construction is one of several developers and builders working in cooperation with the Urban Renewal Authority to construct custom and spec homes that range in price from $106,000 to $300,000.

Up to 300 of the remaining structures inside JFK are owned by the Urban Renewal Authority, which sells them to developers at low prices. The area took on the name of the nearby John F. Kennedy Public School in 1966. The area also is morphing into a multicultural neighborhood.

“We’ve built homes for an IRS agent, U.S. Marshal, insurance agents, teachers and a downtown librarian,” Ron Walters said. “There’s a mix of everybody now.” In addition to singlefamily homes, developers like Walters and Ruth Joyce Colbert Barnes, principal owner of R.J. Colbert Enterprises, have built upscale duplexes and townhouses to attract employees and students from the nearby University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center.

Walters also cites a need for more commercial development to meet the needs of the new neighbors.

“If somebody ... want[s] to go to a hardware store, they have to get in their car and drive to Midwest City,” he said.

Passion to build
Barnes, a medical researcher by profession, returned to Oklahoma in 2009 intent to help rebuild northeast Oklahoma City. Her company, R.J. Colbert Enterprises, already has built two sets of duplexes near NE 16th Street and Lottie Avenue.

“I’m passionate about the northeast side for several reasons, but housing is number one,” she said. Barnes considers the JFK area as “one of the most important spots” in OKC because of its proximity to downtown and the health sciences center. Barnes also has plans to buy as many as 27 properties in the Culbertson Heights area and either build new homes or turn the lots into community food gardens.

 
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