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Erasure in OKC's Historic Preservation and Gentrification: Interview with Krystle Robinson-Hershey

Updated: Sep 24, 2020



The following transcript is a shortened version of the interview that took place on June 28, 2020. The conversation's entirety can be found under the Interview section of the website menu.



Talking with Krystle was a truly rewarding experience. I encourage you to take the time to read the complete interview for the full discussion of these topics. Krystle shares that the Black community depends on itself for historic preservation after being left out of the narrative for most of American history. Preservation methods include sharing pictures on the wall, storytelling, tours of the area, and education. As we discussed in the interview, these tools for historic storytelling are not currently utilized by modern Deep Deuce. Rather, the businesses and leadership use buzzword phrases to market the area as historic yet fail to consult African American people or welcome them to work and live in the area. Krystle expresses that a lot of the Black community feels unwelcome by the Deep Deuce population. From unspoken rules to the direct actions of businesses and leaders, they feel like they have been pushed out the neighborhoods they created. Due to Urban Renewal in the 20th century, Black neighborhoods like Deep Deuce were slowly dismantled through various methods to further segregation and stop Black communities from furthering equality, unity, and success. Having little input or involvement from the Black community in the restoration of the area shows that though Deep Deuce, on the surface, claims to preserve the history of the community, their actions prove to be more self-serving, and less focused on actually respecting and valuing the original Deep Deuce community. Krystle feels that historically preserving an African American neighborhood must include input and involvement from the local Black community. This is especially important considering the role that leadership and the white population played in dismantling the original Deep Deuce. When trying to understand the meaning behind the actions of historic preservation, race is an essential component to examine because race played a significant role in urban change throughout the past century.

Looking at Eastside today, the racist structures of the past that caused the destruction of communities like Deep Deuce are still being upheld, thus making it even more important for African American people to have more autonomy and support in their communities to actually preserve their own history authentically and rebuild what has been destroyed or damaged through racist actions and policies. It begs the question, do the buildings and objects being preserved have valuable meaning when the original community is highly excluded from the preservation process, as well as excluded from the "restored" version of the neighborhood?


 

Interview



Anna: Can you tell me about your business?

Krystle: Sage Apothecary is almost 2 years old. I’ve been making products for 7 years. I developed Sage Apothecary as a tool for a lot of people to introduce self-care to themselves and for others. It’s important to me that all of the herbs I use, that they all have different cultural meanings, history, and ability. I use those to connect to others, to help them on their own journey of self-care and relaxation.

Anna: Are there any stories that you can think of that express the culture of Oklahoma City? 

Krystle: Yah, we hear, there are beautiful places around Oklahoma City that are no longer open. There used to be, like, a Black social area that had an amusement park. This is where Metro Tech is. There used to be an amusement park out there. Down 23rd, right after Grand, there used to be a skating rink and bowling alley. There was an indoor social hangout place. It was really really cool. When you meet others in the community who were children at that time, they tell you about all these cool things that used be on the Eastside for people of color to go out and socialize. It's really sad, those buildings still exist but the businesses are long gone, you know. There used to be grocery stores, convenient stores. There used to be a variety of clothing stores because we weren't allowed to shop with others. We had to create our own community so as our communities were stripped of everything little by little, the people began to flee in an attempt to have a better life, and this is what's left. We're trying to bring back, not only the culture, but the beauty of what's here. You see that a lot here in the city, but we're taking it back. We're opening up more restaurants and more businesses whether it’s with my company or it’s with a local bakery. Or a barbershop or a doctor’s office. It's just, it's beautiful. We still all work together to bring those things to our community and we've stretched out what our community really is...because we don't all live in the same area anymore. We're constantly sharing about how to make our community proud and how to rebuild it. 


Anna: The last time we spoke, we talked about Deep Deuce a bit, and how you felt like Black businesses weren’t welcome there. Can you tell me more about what you’ve seen?

Krystle: I noticed that a lot of businesses that were either in Bricktown or Deep Deuce were pushed out. Whether that was through rent increases, just modifying the area—they weren’t allowed to stay. Prices weren’t affordable or there were complaints on things like, a noise complaint, for example.

But if you have bands playing at a facility, then it’s not going to be like a little quiet place. And I think that removing the culture from Deep Deuce was important. And that meant making it look more suburban, including the noise level, and the type of people they decided they wanted to be a part of Deep Deuce. And I think that’s unfortunate because it takes away from the culture. Kinda like going to New Orleans and just seeing pictures of jazz musicians and not hearing jazz music in the streets.


Anna: What does it mean to you for a space to be whitewashed or white-centered? What differences can be seen between a whitewashed space and a space that isn’t whitewashed?

Krystle: I think the difference is, when a business is white-washed or white-centered, you know, the pictures on the wall, they’re not of people of color, or the pictures on the wall are of people of color, but people of color don’t work there. They don’t live there or conduct business there. You give the illusion of being inclusive without the tangible effects of inclusiveness. It’s like loving Black culture but not Black people.


Anna: Do you think whitewashing is a problem in OKC? What are the unique ways it’s happening here?

Krystle: Oh yah, absolutely. Deep Deuce is a great example, so is Bricktown. There were a few businesses that have opened in Bricktown. Over time, they were all forced to close because they either were told that, you know, they weren’t allowed to be there because of the patrons they had coming into their business or things like that. So, over time, there would be these laws or rules created, these unspoken truths created, in areas that push citizens of color out.


Anna: Understanding that Oklahoma City, as well as the rest of the nation, didn't make any effort to preserve African American history until around the 1960's, how have you witnessed the community preserve their own history and how has it been done differently than white history, which was able to be saved in a more "official" way? 

Krystle: We preserve our history by telling each other stories that have been passed down for generations and taking our children to different cultural spots or places of business and showing them, maybe, wonderful pictures that's on the wall. Telling them why we choose to eat or shop there. What it means to our community. I think that we work hard to preserve our history a variety of ways. Through education, storytelling, and passing down, even fighting for one another to ensure that we can continue to grow together. 


Anna: I feel like, when you state that history is preserved by going to businesses and seeing pictures on the wall, this shows in a big way how big of a problem it is that Deep Deuce is claiming they are preserving history, yet, not including the authentic methods or tools of historical preservation that you described. 

Krystle: Yah, I mean if you look at it, what's on the walls there? Nothing. If we didn't have historical papers and historians, like the ones at Langston University, giving us the information we need, we would not always know the stories that we share with one another. It's almost lost at times.

Anna: Trying to find information online about the history of Deep Deuce has been very difficult. It definitely doesn't feel accessible even though it was such a big part of Oklahoma City's history. 

Krystle: It's awful actually. It's really disheartening and that's why it's important that we preserve our own stories whether it's newspaper articles or a brochure or pamphlet. We keep those things in our culture, within our homes and families, so that we have documentation and proof that it exists. If you're depending on, perhaps, an entity that doesn't have any interest in telling the story of Black businesses, then you're never gonna get the information you desire because why would they want that to be told? 


Anna: How can historical preservation of an African American neighborhood be done better and more authentically in your opinion?

Krystle: It should, and have to, include businesses of color…It’s like taking Greenwood in Tulsa and turning it into an all-white neighborhood and area, when historically that’s not what Greenwood was. Same thing with Deep Deuce is what’s happened. I think that businesses of color should be allowed to be there. I think as far as that plan, there should be rent on loan purchase agreements that are much more flexible and affordable in the purchasing of those options for those tenants. Because if you raise the rent an exuberant amount, for example, $5000 a month, but you have forced them to take their business elsewhere where they can’t generate that kind of revenue fast enough to meet the rent, then how can they survive? And [survive] well? I think there should be a financial break there and give them a chance to grow in order to be successful.

Anna: Can you talk a little more about the ways you feel like the city or the state has created barriers that have set up failure for businesses of people of color? 


Krystle: For example, on 23rd [street], you are no longer allowed to sell things on the side of the road, whether it be potatoes, you know, it’s on 23rd. I believe it’s from Broadway all the way to almost or past Grand. With that being said, if those types of rules are put in place that people of color, in areas where they've always sold things openly to one another, whether it's cabbage or spinach or potatoes, or anything, and they've always done that, and there's rules put in place to quote on quote "cleanse the area" to make it more palatable for others who want to come in and purchase. I think those things are disheartening because there's people in the community trying to make a living. Closing things like grocery stores; it makes it difficult for other grocery stores to come in when you allow an abundance of dollar stores to come in. Dollar Tree, Family Dollar, Dollar General. The problem with that is once those dollar stores come in, it dismisses or deters grocery stores from wanting to come into our neighborhood because people often times will go and shop in those dollar stores for their immediate needs, which impacts the grocery store. The real question is why are so many of those type of stores being allowed in Black areas? 

Anna: I think we're seeing that with the recent protests stemming from George Floyd's death. They are bringing up all of these other problems occurring in Oklahoma City. For a lot of people, it feels like the area is improving and progressing. We see the use of the words like "revitalization" a lot, but on the other side of it, there's these communities that done have as much of a mainstream platform to talk about what’s going on in their communities. Do you feel like that speaks to the cultural erasure that's going on in the city as gentrification progresses?

Krystle: Oh yah. Gentrification really feels like it was designed to bring a certain level of individuals into the fold of the community and leave others out. When you look at the places downtown, how often do you find that people of color are able to afford those places to live? So, often times, depending upon their social and economic level of development, they can't. It's interesting because if you dig a little deeper, their grandma and their great grand mother lived in those areas. Or their property is taken over by eminent domain. So, it's really really just sad, it really is. Even if you look, not just downtown, but if you look a little further over, where OU medical center is, and how slowly but surely they bought up so much rich historical property—neighborhoods that once people frowned upon to live in, and now they're flocking to buy property that very same way. It's near the hospital, there's medical students, it's a great place to live, you know, but prior to that, in the Black community, they're looking for other forms of support for home ownership in the area, improving their schools in that area—those opportunities aren't shared.


If you look at schools like John Rex and you look at the demographic of John Rex and look at boundary levels—look at how light it is. It's amazing that John Rex, a brand-new elementary school here in Oklahoma City, just recently built in the last few years, sits on the Eastside of Oklahoma City, but does not serve very many minority students of color. How many Black kids do you see at John Rex? Not nearly what it should be. 


Anna: What language do you hear being used to talk about gentrification and justify it?

Krystle: You hear words like "urban." Words like "revitalize." Words like "refresh." Words like "develop," or "partnership." But nobody has even started asking the question, "well, who were the partners at the table?" You hear a lot of things like that, and so you hear that people are teaming up and collaborating.

"In the community we’re going to have this brand-new partnership." And the question is, well who are the partners? Often times the partners don't include people of color and so, well, who were the partners deciding who the partners were? You hear words like that in our community a lot. 



Would you say that the way the Black business community operates is a continuation from the days of Deep Deuce or is this something new? 

Krystle: This is the norm in the Black community. That we go out and work hard to support one another. Nobody else shops and supports us. We know that we have to support each other in order to stay open and thriving. We encourage others to spread their wings, you know, in our community and beyond our community for longevity. If you have a great product or business, people are going to love your business once they get exposed to it. We try to really give one another exposure. We try to share. I think that has trickled down from other historical areas and individuals who had businesses here in Oklahoma City for a long amount of time. You know, they're kinda your business ancestral parents. There's those who can support you that can tell you about different practices and different things and different buildings and what they used to be, and try to really remind you what culture is really about and how to bring culture into everything you do. 

Anna: Do you think your community has the tools to get it back to how it was before on your own, or do you think there needs to be some changes by those in power, those who make policies and are in charge of historical preservation, that really need to change before you feel like you can achieve the goals that the community is wanting to reach?

Krystle: I'll be honest. I don't think that community has all of the resources that it deserves. I don't think that they have access to all of the knowledge that they would need to be successful as quickly as they need. I think that is unfair. I think that it's going to take a lot longer to get those things done. Such as, you know, during COVID, getting PPE. How many businesses of color we're actually given money in the first round? How many businesses of color, you know, really and truly understood what they needed to have ready and available on a timeline to be successful? The information was not given in a timely manner. And that's what you see a lot in this community. You see the information and resources not be in place out openly and so if you don't know where to go get it and how to go get it, often times we're left behind. 


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