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City council members reach out to Southside residents, talk of development, partnership


An Oklahoma Watch forum with Michael Brooks-Jimenez, Gloria Torres, and Meg Salyer at Capitol Hill Methodist Church in Oklahoma City, Thursday, April 16, 2015. - GARETT FISBECK
  • Garett Fisbeck
  • An Oklahoma Watch forum with Michael Brooks-Jimenez, Gloria Torres, and Meg Salyer at Capitol Hill Methodist Church in Oklahoma City, Thursday, April 16, 2015.

Editor’s note: This story is part of a monthlong series that explores the neighborhoods in urban Oklahoma City.

The heart of the Capitol Hill neighborhood in south Oklahoma City is only two miles from downtown — geographically speaking, that is.

Like Interstate 235 to the east, the Oklahoma River serves as a barrier between the heart of the city and a growing minority community, creating a distance between cultures, investment and education that can feel farther than a couple miles for some residents.

“It boils down to trust. There is no question about it,” said Councilman Pete White, representative of Ward 4 and a native of Capitol Hill.

The lack of trust, or at least apprehension from south OKC residents, was on display at an Oklahoma Watch forum last week called Talk With Us. The event allowed residents to ask questions for a panel of community and city leaders. The forum remained civil, and citizens and panelists were engaged.

But many of the questions asked highlighted the view that those living south of the river often feel like an afterthought, especially when they see dramatic growth in downtown supported by public dollars.

“Your downtown is your heartbeat,” said Meg Salyer, councilwoman of Ward 6, which includes both downtown and parts of south Oklahoma City. “The MAPS program was to get blood pumping to create a city that our kids would want to stay in.”

Salyer, who was one of the panelists, acknowledged the city had invested heavily in downtown over the past decade. But she added that the city’s focus was moving toward other communities, including the southside, which would be the location of one of the city’s new wellness centers through MAPS 3.

“The wellness center at Capitol Hill High School was originally designed to be a senior wellness center, but what we discovered is the Hispanic community is going to make it multi-generational whether we do or not,” said White, who attended the forum. “[The wellness center] is going to embrace the cultural aspect of south Oklahoma City.”

Community engagement

While the city begins to pay more attention to south OKC, neighborhoods are also looking for ways to increase organization and attention. Neighborhood Alliance of Central Oklahoma (NACOK) has hired a community organizer dedicated to the southside, which was paid for with city funds.

“This position [was created to] specifically help bring in more citizen engagement and neighborhood organization to the southside,” said Georgie Rasco, director of NACOK. “We are holding more of our workshops in south Oklahoma City, just trying to bring more attention to the resources that are available to the citizens there.”

Open Streets OKC, which has hosted two successful events along NE 23rd Street, also plans to take its next street-closing festival to south Oklahoma City in an effort to invite north residents to the south.

The 25th Street corridor in Capitol Hill, once a prominent business center, experienced a period of blight before beginning to see new businesses, many Hispanic-owned, come in.

The district’s revival is not complete, but during last week’s forum, Salyer said she views it as an up-and-coming neighborhood.

“I think Capitol Hill is absolutely the next right place for that to happen,” Salyer said about the growth of commercial district revitalization in OKC.

Other members of the panel were Gloria Torres, Oklahoma City Public Schools’ lone Hispanic board member, and Michael Brooks-Jimenez, a southside attorney.

“It’s important to know that our priority is our families,” said Torres about the growing Hispanic community that is concentrated south of the river.

Brooks-Jimenez said the growth of the Hispanic community adds unique needs to southside development and growth, especially as it relates to the city’s involvement.

“At the Oklahoma City Police Department, one of the things they have been successful at is [letting Hispanic citizens] know they can feel free to call the police and not have to worry about their immigration status,” said Brooks-Jimenez about the population of undocumented citizens. “The approach to community policing on the southside has been productive.”

The city hopes stronger ties between residents and police, continued capital investment and more neighborhood associations south of the river will help residents feel more pulled into the larger city.

White said forums like those hosted by Oklahoma Watch, bringing together south OKC residents to openly discuss their concerns, will improve trust and communication, which he views as the most important factor.

“Where you start to find success is when you have trust, and that is very difficult,” White said. “[The city is] working to bring about that kind of trust by associating with one another, by coming to meetings like this. I can’t expect you to trust me if you don’t know me, and it goes both ways.”

Print headline: Growing together, City leaders view a bridge of trust as key to the growth of the southside.

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