The Pearl District is an area of the city just to the east of downtown Tulsa, located between I-244 and 11th Street, and between the downtown Inner Dispersal Loop (IDL) and Utica Avenue. On November 2nd, 2005 the Tulsa Area Metropolitan Planning Commission released a plan amending a part of the detail plan for planning District 4 of the Comprehensive Plan for the Tulsa Metropolitan Area. The plan amendment can be found at https://www.cityoftulsa.org/COTlegacy/documents/6thStreetEntire.pdf.
Pearl District History
With the discovery of oil at Red Fork in 1901, investors, wildcatters, and their families, began to pour into Tulsa. Additional oil finds in the area allowed this boom to continue the next 30 years. By then, Tulsa was well-established as the “Oil Capital of the Nation”. Development in the 6th Street Neighborhood reflects this initial explosion of growth, followed by and extended period of stability, and ultimately a period of decline. This pattern is repeated in many of the older parts of Tulsa. Review of early business directories indicates rapid growth in the 1910s and 1920s, an extended period of sustained success through the 1960s, and a period of decline beginning in the 1970s.
The “platting”, or subdividing, of land in the 6th Street Neighborhood began in 1909. At this time there were already a few buildings in the area. Located along the Missouri Kansas Texas (M.K.T.) rail line, there was a glass factory, cannery, and an oil depot. Continuous construction of new houses and industry in the area over the next decade helped bring about the development of a number of commercial businesses supporting industry and residents.
The 6th Street Neighborhood was east Tulsa in 1912. A quick examination of businesses in the area14 reveals that by 1930, this area was firmly established as a diverse, mixed-use, urban neighborhood. The neighborhood thrived as it continued to cater to the downtown central business district, a large industrial district, and several working-class residential areas. There were a variety of offerings nearby, and the mix of shops and businesses along 6th Street were eclectic by today’s standards. Nevertheless, these successfully coexisted for over 50 years.
Examining business records along a sample area, a two block long stretch of 6th Street from Peoria to Rockford Avenue, one can begin to understand this odd mix of businesses. From 1920 to 1964, the local residential population seemed to adequately sustain two small groceries, as well as a barber shop, drugstore, dry cleaner, shoe repair shop, beauty shop, tavern, and restaurant. Along with these neighborhood services, there were other businesses that provided goods and services to adjacent industrial areas as well as the nearby downtown business district. Along 6th Street in this tiny sample area, one would find several auto body and auto repair shops, the original location of Ehrle’s Party and Carnival Supply, and a machinery supply shop, lunch counter, electrical supply, saw sharpening service, and several print shops. Another unique characteristic of this area is that it housed quite a few upholstery and furniture refinishing shops.
Today, the dry cleaners, groceries, and similar stores catering to the local residential population have moved out of this location in favor of larger sites with higher traffic volumes. Unfortunately, there are almost no services of this kind left within easy walking distance. This is perhaps not so much a reflection of drastic changes in the needs of the neighborhood. More likely, it is just another example of a tactical shift in the way we distribute (and consume) goods and services in this country. The “bigger, cheaper, faster” ethos of prosperous, post-war America has consolidated services in remote locations.
In spite of the nearly complete loss of neighborhood-oriented service business, the rest of the business district looks remarkably like it did 60 years ago. There is still a concentration of auto repair establishments, print shops, upholsterers, trades suppliers, manufacturers, and cabinetmakers. Many of these businesses continue to thrive. Perhaps the most damaging trend in the long history of this neighborhood is the shift from owner-occupied housing to rental housing. The exodus of homeowners began in the mid-1950s and continued through the 1980’s. Today, owneroccupied housing accounts for only 12% of the housing stock in the neighborhood. Many of the 75-year old rent houses in this neighborhood are now sub-standard due to decades of inadequate maintenance. More than any other factor, this shift from homes to “income properties” has created a malaise that discourages investment, and promotes a host of undesirable activities that are primarily the result of poor stewardship.
Cars and trucks were certainly an important part of the landscape in the 1930s, as evidenced by the number of auto repair facilities that served the large downtown business population. Overall, cars were not as important as they are today. Housing, employment, and goods and services were distributed over a fairly compact area. As a result, many of the people in this neighborhood could take care of their needs on foot, by mail, or via public transit. They often had no need for a car. Further evidence of this is found in the development style of the period. Building owners generally did not provide off-street customer parking. Buildings were also placed near the street, offering a strong pedestrian orientation in a building vernacular that included awnings, large display windows, and relatively ornate building entrances located on wide (by today’s standards) sidewalks.
Through the mid 1930s, trolleys augmented wellestablished pedestrian movement by offering quick connections to downtown, the University of Tulsa, and Cherry Street. In the 1950s, frequent bus service replaced the trolleys. Today, 6th Street 3rd Street, 11th Street, and Peoria Avenues, are still major public transportation corridors.
Multiple bus routes travel through the 6th Street Planning area on their way to and from the Downtown-Denver station and parts of midtown, North Tulsa, the airport, and South Tulsa. An important thesis promoted in this plan is that the 6th Street neighborhood can once again prosper as a pedestrian and mass transit-oriented neighborhood, building on the infrastructure that remains. New residents are moving into this area in compact, high-quality housing units. In coming years, it will be possible to once again sustain neighborhood-oriented service businesses here, and without displacing the well-established industry and trades. The Vision for the neighborhood, as seen by those who live and work here, is a return to the old eclectic mix of housing, merchants, offices, and industry.