The Paseo Arts District offers one of Oklahoma City's more striking back-from-the-brink stories, especially to those who remember when blight and crime stalked the streets there.
For decades the Paseo has stood out as an artists' Mecca and haven for those whose ideas might run against the current, where even the shopping district offers a feast for the eyes in the soft lines and bright hues of its Spanish revival architecture.
But time and the 1980s oil bust were hard on the Paseo. Property values dropped. Residents cleared out, heading for cheaper, newer housing in the suburbs.
A 1987 historic architectural and housing survey — the prelude to becoming a historic preservation district — served up equal dollops of good and bad. The good: The 27 square blocks making up the Paseo retained about 75 percent of the original housing stock. The bad: Almost 50 percent of those houses were vacant.
Ron Franz, neighborhood association president in 1987, told The Oklahoman then: “Today, a house (in the Paseo) will not sell, and an apartment building is more likely to be burned than bought.”
Franz, an architect, was among a mix of residents and business people who joined that year in effort to reverse the decline. It was a diverse group, ranging from Betty Bruce, who founded what may have been Oklahoma City's first after-school program at nearby First Presbyterian Church, to business owner Michael Smith. Attorneys, real estate professionals and others all brought something to the table.
Residents from surrounding neighborhoods, fearing the “black hole” in the Paseo might pull down everyone's property values, also joined the effort. It included Heritage Hills East resident Debbie Blackburn, who now serves as Positively Paseo's president.
Paseo's commercial area was holding up, Blackburn said, but the residential area was in a free fall. Boarded up houses and empty, overgrown lots blighted the landscape while crime and gang activity blighted the lifestyle.
“There were some really good people living there, so we thought this would be a logical place to start (revitalization efforts),” Blackburn said.
But it was slow going. City officials were leery of using Community Development Block Grants to rehabilitate buildings instead of demolishing them. They were also hesitant to focus those grants on a single area instead of spreading them across the city map.