- Alexa Ace
- from left East End Merchant Association vice president Brandi Jones, secretary Skye Latimer and president Victoria Kemp continue working to attract and grow more businesses in northeast OKC.
Northeast Oklahoma City Renaissance served as a catalyst for newly formed East End Merchant Association, which continues the efforts to establish a commercial district. The goal is to transform northeast Oklahoma City into an “attractive destination that preserves the rich African American history and rekindles its vibrant cultural and economic activity.”
East End was recently announced as the official name of the association. While it was voted on twice, Skye Latimer, association secretary, said there was some contention surrounding it.
“In trying to encompass everything that this district could be and has been, there were some great opportunities for great names,” Latimer said. “But this one did win twice, and that was a vote by the people who live here, people who work here. This is what they wanted to be called.”
Since its creation, the nonprofit association formed an executive board, created committees, opened a bank account and is finalizing bylaws and its mission statement.
“[Association president Victoria Kemp] summed it up really beautifully in our last meeting,” Latimer said. “She said that we want to bring awareness to this district, we want to empower the businesses that are here, we want to become more aware of how the dollar is turning over here, grow new businesses and attract new businesses.”
The group wants the district to feel inviting, so Kemp said she hopes to put up public art like murals and sculptures throughout the area. Part of the reason some people dislike the East End name is because it doesn’t explicitly mention anything representative of the area’s black culture.
“We really want to see art that represents our experience in Oklahoma,” Kemp said. “People already know that this has been a majority African American neighborhood, and for those people who are mad that that’s not in the name, art is the way we can, A, let people know that this is us and, B, make it more beautiful and interesting for people to come and see. I can just see that down 23rd Street, every block or two blocks, that there is a piece of art that represents what our experience has been in Oklahoma.”
First Security Bank & Trust Company, 1541 NE 23rd St., will host a bison sculpture outside their building. Kemp said John Day, the bank’s senior vice president, attends monthly meetings and has been instrumental in helping the revitalization efforts.
“The old president is retiring, so he is about to be the president of the bank,” Kemp said. “He actually already had a plan in place to do a mural on the eastside of his wall, but then when we said, ‘bison’ and we were looking for a place, he asked if he could host the bison. … We want to see the other businesses that are already here, especially the corporate businesses, step up because art is expensive. For us to try to raise dollars to actually build art would take a significant amount of money, so if we could get Tinker Federal Credit Union to erect something — Church’s [Chicken], OnCue, we know COOP [Ale Works] is eventually going to be in our district. The east side starts on Broadway [Avenue]. If we could get all of those corporations to just step up and erect something significant that is a nod to our experience in Oklahoma, we’d be on our way.”
Through ethical revitalization, the group also aims to retain and showcase its history and culture.
“We as a board and as a community and as a team want to really express the rich history that’s here and the art that’s here,” Latimer said. “Putting art in public places really gives people ownership and a sense of community on those spaces. By doing that, we know that that will bring in more people and more businesses and help us achieve our goal.”
Caring businessesVice president Brandi Jones said another goal is to ensure the people who live in the area are able to remain there as they work to ethically revitalize neighborhoods.
“Even with everything that’s going on with the lack of resources that we have over here for the community, we’re still looking to help them stay,” Jones said. “We want to give the community and the people here something to be proud of when you step outside your door, when you walk down the street, when you take your kids to school. My goal is also to help the kids over here on the east side with education, with activities, with everything that they don’t have. … Whatever it is that we can provide to help with the youth.”
The recent closure of Smart Saver, the only grocery store in the 73111 ZIP code, blindsided members of the community, but Jones said it is just another obstacle they will have to tackle and overcome together.
“Even with the grocery store being gone, if we have to give a ride to the grocery store in Midwest City, then that’s what we’re going to do,” she said. “It’s nothing that we haven’t been through before, and I think it’s going to make way for something better. … [We want businesses] that want to be in the community and help the community as well. If you’re a business over here, you have to give back, and the grocery store wasn’t one of them.”
Through the new commercial district, Latimer, Jones and Kemp want to emphasize the need for businesses that truly become part of the community and respect northeast OKC.
“When you looked at the grocery store, they didn’t respect the store. It looked terrible, and if it doesn’t look like something that is cared for, if you don’t look like you respect it, I don’t think other people are going to respect it either,” Kemp said.
“[We want to see] developers that are coming over here to revitalize the community and help the community, not try to come here and try to take something that belongs to someone else,” Jones said.
The association hosts monthly planning meetings that community members attend to help with their goals, provide feedback and receive information. Officials said they commonly hear that there should be no reason to leave the east side for any basic needs.
“We’re really hoping to see all kinds of development. There’s room for everything; we need everything,” Kemp said. “We need a health food store. We need a hardware store. We need clothes, shoes, retail — you name it.”
Through their continued efforts to attract more people and businesses, Kemp hopes to change the idea and narrative of what northeast OKC represents.
“We want them to think this is an amazing place to come and visit and to live and to shop and work, and then also we want to hold other businesses accountable that are already here,” she said. “When we talk about what we want the east side to look like, when you drive by [dollar store buildings], theirs is one of the worst. There is trash outside, there is public drunkenness that is allowed and you’re closed at 10 [a.m.] because you don’t have air conditioning.”
The association is now accepting donations of any size to help with its overall efforts.
“What a beautiful opportunity we have to come into this community and tell the children and tell the people who live here that they are worthy of these dollars to beautify their area, that they have value and that we see them and that we want to uplift where they live,” Latimer said.
The next commercial district planning meeting is 6 p.m. Sept. 12 at Florence’s Restaurant, 1437 NE 23rd St. Email Latimer at firstname.lastname@example.org for more information on donations.