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.
“That was a blessing,” said Randal Ice, Heritage East's homeowners association president.
Though it was platted and built around 1900 along with Heritage Hills and Mesta Park, Heritage Hills East found itself early on geographically peeled off from its neighbors by traffic-laden Robinson. Some of those neighbors assumed traffic would shift the one-by-eight-block strip from residential to commercial development at some point, Blackburn said, but that didn't happen.
So though Heritage Hills East has its own neighborhood association, it has worked in tandem with Heritage Hills and Mesta Park through most of its existence. The neighborhoods share maintenance on parks and medians as well as a mutual security patrol. The neighborhood associations are raising money now for new drinking fountains for the main park in Mesta Park.
That cooperation makes sense, Ice said.
“Our neighborhoods sit together like a jigsaw puzzle if you look on a map,” he said. “It makes a lot sense for us to coordinate our efforts because we're more successful together.”
All three neighborhoods have become Oklahoma City historic preservation districts — Heritage Hills became the first in 1969. Historic preservation, Ice said, sends a very important message to residents that it's OK to invest in their properties.
“I think that made more difference to the neighborhood than even traffic planning,” he said. “It's a signal from the city that this neighborhood is not going to be allowed to disappear; we're going to preserve it.”