To get a feel for what joining forces can accomplish, simply stroll the grassy median cutting the center of Robinson Avenue south from NW 22.
Traffic provides a distant hum in the background, and on a recent cool afternoon, flecks of snow cling stubbornly to the yards of nearby homes. Winter-stripped trees throw stark shadows across Robinson, disturbed only by the occasional passing car. Otherwise, the street is quiet.
Go back a few decades, though, and it was a different story. Robinson and nearby Broadway served as main arteries in and out of downtown Oklahoma City. Just picture a big portion of the traffic pushing through Centennial Expressway every day being dropped onto the four lanes of Robinson. Then speed it up.
“We had traffic just flying through the neighborhood,” recalled Heritage Hills East resident Debbie Blackburn, a former state representative long involved in public service.
She and her husband, historian Bob Blackburn, saw the neighborhood transformed.
“I can remember when my son was 3 or 4, I was afraid for him to play in the front yard because of the commuter traffic going back to Edmond and other places,” she said.
Some vehicles would detour onto residential streets to avoid the traffic lights and stop signs along the main thoroughfares. Many topped 60 mph by their home on NW 22, Blackburn said, “like we were a racetrack, a freeway.”
Then two important things happened.
One, Heritage Hills East residents joined forces with their neighbors in Heritage Hills and Mesta Park in the mid-1980s to hire independent consultants and craft a traffic plan to restore the sanity. City officials were receptive, though the details went through many rounds of tug-of-war between some business leaders and residents over the next several years.
The result, though, closed off several streets with cul-de-sacs, reworked traffic lights and stop signs and converted several one-way streets to two-way.
“It had a radical alteration on our quality of life, that plan,” said Debbie Blackburn, now an Oklahoma Housing Finance Agency trustee. “It's probably the biggest thing we've all done together.”
Then Interstate 35/Centennial Expressway was dedicated April 21, 1989, just ahead of the Oklahoma Land Run's 100th anniversary a day later. The 2.5-mile stretch, running from north of NE 36 on Broadway Extension south to the I-35/Interstate 40 connection, gave commuters more direct access to downtown — away from neighborhood streets.