In the 1950s, the district was the first major shopping location away from downtown Oklahoma City. Cars filled the angled parking spots on the street while people watched movies at the Tower Theater and browsed through stores of all kinds along the four-plus blocks on N.W. 23rd Street.
“It was new ground. That was before malls,” said Cathy Burris, co-owner of Lillian Strickler Lighting, which has been in the same location at 617 N.W. 23rd for nearly 60 years. “That was our heyday until our resurgence.”
As OKC grew and changed, shop owners abandoned the area in favor of malls or other shopping areas, starting in the late 1960s and mid ’70s, eventually leaving the thriving district rundown and nearly empty, Burris said.
Today, the area is enjoying a renaissance of sorts with new restaurants, stores and renovations. Once again, Lillian Strickler Lighting is surrounded by neighbors, and more are on the way.
“We’re on third generations of families here. We just stayed believing it was the best location for us,” Burris said. “It’s like waiting to be in the right place at the right time. We’re on the fringe of being an exciting place to be again.”
On the upswing
Reasons for the resurgence vary. Some credit revitalization of nearby neighborhoods like Paseo, Jefferson Park and Heritage Hills and nearby shopping hubs like the Asian and Plaza districts. The corridor from Broadway to Pennsylvania avenues along N.W. 23rd also benefits from affordability and proximity to downtown, Oklahoma City University and highways.
Burris said she thinks the city’s MAPS revitalization changed the pattern of the inner city and spurred the district’s regeneration. That, partnered with the work of the newly formed Uptown 23rd District Association, has made the difference this time, she said.
“I think younger people began to want to move closer into the city,” said Burris. “All of Oklahoma City feels a pride that we haven’t felt in years. Now they’re proud to be here and they want things to be better.”
In the last several years, the district has attracted the attention of a few developers and business owners who, in turn, fostered the growth of other businesses. In 2000, Cheever’s Cafe opened at 2409 N. Hudson. Eight years later came the opening of Cuppies & Joe, a bakery and coffee shop. More recently, Big Truck Tacos, Mutt’s Amazing Hot Dogs and other businesses have joined the corridor. Elizabeth Diefenderfer, Cuppies & Joe co-owner, said the diversity of the area, the community feel and the property — a renovated house — were just what her family had been looking for.
“Everyone has their own flavor,” she said. “It was definitely a leap of faith. We knew that there was potential. I just didn’t expect it to get to this level.”
Now, more developers and business owners are seeing the benefits and affordability of properties there, said Jennifer Seal, president of the association.
“Because it has kind of been a diamond in the rough for a while,” she said, “there are some good properties available.”
Seal and her husband, Greg, are opening Grandad’s Bar in the 300 block.
The Uptown 23rd District Association has plans for capitalizing on the growth, Seal said.
Members are eager to replace absentee property owners and add sidewalks to foster foot traffic and lure more retailers.
“Obviously it’s a benefit not only to the businesses but to the neighborhoods as well,” Seal said. “We want this area to be wonderful. We want people to drive through our area and be proud.”
Community spirit Marty Dillon, co-owner of Uptown Development, wants the Tower Theater to be part of the resurgence. He said he hopes to start renovation on the theater soon, with the help of tax credits.
“I’ve always liked the theater from back in the ’80s when I was in high school, and think it could be the focus of redevelopment in the area,” he said. “There are no other big historic theaters left.”
Dillon said the building will have room for retail and restaurants in front of the theater. He hopes to find tenants who will stay and contribute to the district.
Uptown Development also will soon finish renovations on another property in the district at 520 N.W. 23rd, which will soon house an artists’ workspace, a fencing studio and Aviano’s Italian Gelato & Sorbet.
Donna Guary, Aviano’s owner, said the area’s community spirit was a big reason she decided to open a business there.
“This fits in with how I feel about community and nurturing,” she said. “Then we really do become a family. I’m excited about 23rd Street. It’s definitely going up from here.”
Eric Long, research economist at the Greater Oklahoma City Chamber, is optimistic about the area’s future. Anytime a district has a large number of vacancies, he said, there are perceptions to overcome.
“Sometimes strength and unity is what is needed in a project,” Long said. “They’re definitely headed in the right direction. Sometimes the word-of-mouth or buzz about a new restaurant can really change the perspective about a district.”
Burris has the answer for anyone with doubts about what the district has to offer.
“It’s a great time to be here,” she said. “Just come visit.”