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.
Ward 2 Councilman Mark Schwartz got on board early on, though, helping the Paseo group craft its plans. It incorporated as a Community Development Corporation in 1991, legally called Oklahoma City Housing Services Corp., to encompass its wider-ranging mission to revitalize neighborhoods throughout Oklahoma City. In the Paseo, it does business as Positively Paseo.
But without money, Positively Paseo couldn't carry out that mission. City officials assumed Positively Paseo would do its work through private funds, but they weren't forthcoming. One family donated its restaurant site and two adjacent lots to the organization in 1992, but the properties had to sit idle.
But in 1993, Garner Stoll changed the game for Positively Paseo. Stoll, director of Oklahoma City's newly created planning department, pulled money from a city trust fund to pay for an Urban Land Institute study of an area including the Paseo.
That study, in a nutshell, found the Paseo was a perfect fit for revitalization efforts.
“It backed up everything that we had said since 1987,” Blackburn said.
Vindication got things rolling for Positively Paseo. The city council got on board, Community Development Block Grants began coming in, and Positively Paseo was finally able to buy land and pay a staff. The group started on its first house in 1994. It recently sold its 24th house, and rehabilitation work has started on the 25th.
Stoll left the city amid discord in 2000, but Blackburn said she still remembers the last bit of advice he gave her: “Do not give this up because you all are at the top of the hill,” he told her, “and you are ready to roll down and really make a difference.”
The spark and vitality in the Paseo bears out Stoll's estimation. Property is in high demand, and it's drawing a mix of young families, young professionals and retirees. Art galleries, music venues and restaurants keep the commercial area lively, and the residential streets are normally quiet.
Blackburn said she delights in seeing the result from what was essentially a bunch of neighbors putting out a call to action. “It's wonderful now to see where it's gone,” she said.