Sunday, August 3, 2008
Rename SW 25th Street
In some places along SW 25th Street in the old Capitol Hill district, the street signs actually read "Commerce Street." In most places, the street signs read "SW 25th Street" and the addresses for all businesses along here are split between 25th and Commerce. So which is which?
To me SW 25th Street resembles the decay of the Capitol Hill district following the advent of Crossroads Mall and the white flight to points in Cleveland County. This is just a part of the century-plus long history of the Capitol Hill district which became around 1900, and was formally chartered in 1905, just two years before Statehood in 1907. What exists today along SW 25th Street is merely a reminder of the once-thriving city that once stood here right after the turn of the 20th century.
Capitol Hill is basically an inner city ghost town. It is the equivalent of towns like Picher, which had over 30,000 inhabitants and then whithered away because of air not fit to breath, and now recently, a tornado. Or like Tombstone which had 15,000 and then whithered away after fires, floods, and emptied mines. Capitol Hill was once a thriving independent suburb of OKC. Even though past population statistics for Capitol Hill (prior to merging with OKC) are nonexistent, the 1910 Census shows OKC having around 65,000 residents. One year later OKC annexed the City of Capitol Hill, but Capitol Hill retained a degree of separateness and over time the area had suffered significant population losses, business had entirely left once-booming Commerce Street, and the once autonomous district clinging for its identity was virtually dead, and not long after, it's rich history and identity was dead, too.
Long forgotten were the days when the city was a 1910 "Moore" or "Midwest City." Though the reality is that comparing Capitol Hill to a historic version of Moore or Midwest City is an insult to the quality of city building that existed back in the day. The Suburban Railway Company operated a streetcar system in the city, with a line that ran up and down Commerce Street, which was the downtown for the south side of Oklahoma County, and of course, the streetcar connected to rail across the river in OKC. And long gone are the department stores on Commerce Street, like Brown's, and Penney's (although Sears is still on S. Western after several decades in business). And most forgotten of all is the neighborhood's Irish heritage, which is mentioned in this Dustbury post. The truth is that S. OKC's strong Catholic Heritage runs much deeper than Hispanic migration. The reason for Catholic institutions like St. Mary's, the Mount St. Mary School, St. James, and so on, is because the kind of suburb Capitol Hill became was one assembled of stout Irish heritage. It may be unfathomable for anyone who has trekked through the area in the last 20 years and thought the Oklahoma Opry was a little out of place.
Today there are good feelings all around Capitol Hill over a revival. Life has been poured back into historic Commerce Street. Shows still go on at the old Oklahoma Opry, to the west traffic backs up on Western Avenue for many blocks during the day. East of the Opry, there are now shops, bakeries, Mexican eateries, American eateries, businesses, law firms, community organizations, and so on. The new streetscape along Commerce Street has brought in new businesses and activity into the district. A large swath of S. OKC that used to have abandoned homes and no activity or street life now boasts families in homes that have found the American dream in Capitol Hill. Churches enjoy packed congregations, whether they're one of the 4 Catholic churches in the area, or one of the dozens of Baptist, Methodist, or other denomination churches. Schools are so packed that a majority of Maps for Kids money is actually being allocated for new and expanded schools in S. OKC.
There are good feelings all around Capitol Hill, but much work remains to be done. It is doubtful if the city is willing to make the kind of investment in Capitol Hill that has been proven to work in several other areas of the inner city. It is time to bring back Capitol Hill's heritage and identity. Many of the original south side families are still there on the south side, and others would be astonished. Many of the original graduates of Capitol Hill High School and U.S. Grant High School still live in S. OKC, just right on the other side of I-240. Many of the elderly in the area trace their families to the original 1889 Land Run, and remember running family businesses butcher shops, bakeries, groceries, newspapers, etc that all called Capitol Hill home. It is time to bring back the legacy of Commerce Street, because perhaps then the area will be as close as it ever was to its once-thriving self. Dominoes will fall into place once SW 25th Street gets completely reverted back to its original name. There are so many things one can imagine that could turn Capitol Hill into a star, or at least an exciting and vibrant modern, urban district. But first let's just bring back Commerce Street, just like it was.