Chances are, if you ask a local where to get the best tacos or pho in the city, they’ll point you to East Tulsa. The first time you venture out that way, you may see only drab strip malls and forbidding six-lane thoroughfares. But look closer and you’ll find one of the most vibrant cultural nexus points in Tulsa.
Longtime residents have known this forever. (I’ve been shopping at Nam Hai for tea, lemongrass, and oyster sauce since I was in middle school.) Now, designated as the Tulsa Global District, the area is getting a boost of visibility and a new plan for growth that aims to benefit residents and visitors alike. Its first big event happens March 5, when The Square at Nam Hai turns a parking lot into a festival plaza for a full day of experiences that showcase the brilliance of this incredibly diverse and dynamic part of the city.
So what is the Tulsa Global District, exactly? First and foremost, it’s a place where people live and work. Executive director Luisa Krug gave us the rundown. “We're really focused on the commercial area around 21st and Garnett—from about Highway 169 to the east to Pancho Anaya to the west, and then from about 17th Street to Martin Regional Library, which is at 26th Street,” Krug said. “There are a little over 200 businesses in the area, and a lot of the business owners are Hispanic, Latinx or Asian.” Krug said the percentage of Hispanic, Latinx and Asian residents in the district is more than double the rest of the city. “Those communities are just growing at an astronomically faster rate than the rest of Tulsa County. When you see positive growth in the county, a lot of it is coming from our immigrant communities and our communities of color,” she said. “To me that's really exciting. I hope that in a couple years we have an Afghan restaurant! It's constantly going to be changing, but hopefully we can create something that's welcoming for immigrant entrepreneurs, a place where people want to have their business.”
As of 2020, the Tulsa Global District is also an organization—an official City of Tulsa “destination district” and an Oklahoma Main Street community—which means there’s new capacity in place to strategize on behalf of those residents and entrepreneurs, and to bring more Tulsans out to experience things they wouldn’t get elsewhere in the city. The destination districts program started in 2019 as a commercial revitalization effort that focused on places that have been disinvested in over time, but had a unique historical or cultural significance for the city—places like the Global District or the Greenwood District. “I always give this example: nothing against Brookside or Cherry Street—I love going to those places—but that's not what we were looking for because, while they obviously have needs, they've had investment over time,” Krug said. “So how do we find those places where cool things are happening, but they haven't had that investment? Then really target that investment and create a program that focuses on those areas.”
A strategic plan for the Tulsa Global District is emerging through feedback gathered from the community; through dedicated efforts of Krug and her board to make sure public events and other initiatives reflect the authentic diversity of the area; and through assistance from national design firm Yard & Company and the Congress for New Urbanism, which recently published an in-depth look at the challenges and opportunities that exist in the district. (CNU is holding its annual conference in Oklahoma City March 23-26.) Hallmarks of the plan include walkability, public art, placemaking, and economic vitality, all driven by hyperlocal engagement with district residents’ needs—and The Square at Nam Hai event, Krug said, is an effort to “show what’s possible for the future in a temporary way, so it makes more sense to people.”
“One of the things we've talked about a lot is all of the parking lots,” Krug said. “The parking lots are huge and in disrepair and just not really a place for people. When you think about all these cultures that have different cultural events, how do we give them a place to have those? How cool would that be, to have something every couple of weeks in the Global District that people can just come to and enjoy? So we decided to build a temporary Plaza. We don't really have that kind of public space in east Tulsa. We’re trying to create that and, you know, show people: what if we did invest in public space?”
It might look a little something like the festival planned for Saturday, which includes performers representing many of the district’s cultural communities—from Ther Yang playing a Hmong instrument called the qeej to the powerhouse dancing of Baila Tulsa. “It was really intentional that we balanced having Hispanic and Latinx performers with Asian performers,” Krug said, and the response from area talent has been phenomenal. “I think people are really excited to hear that someone wants to celebrate their culture.” The day will also include family activities from the likes of Philbrook and FC Tulsa, local vendors, live mural art by VNICE, plus food from The Red Tacos, YoYo (frozen yogurt snacks), and Manila Ice (Filipino street fare). Come during daytime hours for family-focused activities and all the great performers, then stick around till the event wraps up at 9pm for some hangout time with DJ Klave.
Trust us: you’ll want to come back often. Look for the Tulsa Global District to make sure this good time isn’t just a one-time thing, but the start of real, sustainable renewal for the people, places, and possibilities of this vibrant local zone.
If you go
The Square at Nam Hai
11528 E. 21st St.
Saturday, March 5
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