Left: Kendall Whittier Mercado is a multi-cultural artisan market on the 1st and 3rd Saturday of the month, May through October. Shoppers can find unique handmade jewelry, clothing, shoes, blankets, baskets, original art & crafts, and much more. Credit: Kendall Whittier Main Street. Right: A young visitor to Kendall Whittier plays the public piano under the Whittier Square Clock Tower. The piano serves as an art installation designed by local elementary school students as well as a free instrument for all to play. It was in Kendall Whittier during the summer of 2019 as part of Saied Music’s “Play Me, Tulsa” initiative. Credit: Kendall Whittier Main Street
“Kendall Whittier exemplifies the power of the Main Street Approach to truly transform a district,” said National Main Street Center President and CEO Patrice Frey. “In just 10 years, Kendall Whittier Main Street has radically changed the perception of their neighborhood and become the center of community life for its residents.”
Kendall Whittier was a bustling shopping district from the late 1920s through the 1950s, but when a highway bisected the neighborhood in 1967, the area struggled to recover. By the early 2000s, the neighborhood was known as Tulsa’s red-light district– home to vacant storefronts and adult-oriented businesses. When KWMS got its start in 2010, the district had a 35 percent occupancy rate. Thanks to community-led business recruitment and retention efforts, occupancy has grown to 100 percent today. Kendall Whittier is now home to a mix of galleries, breweries, restaurants, and non-mainstream retail. With 40 new businesses opening since 2013, occupancy in Kendall Whittier has grown to 100 percent today. In all, KWMS has seen a total of 350 jobs created and $158 million private dollars reinvested.
To overcome its perception as an unsafe area, KWMS developed a façade grant program to both beautify the neighborhood and reward private investment. They also grew an events calendar from one public event in 2013 to more than 20 events annually. From art walks and outdoor concerts to yoga and food truck festivals, KWMS aims to offer free or low-cost programming that appeals to everyone in the community. Kendall Whittier is among the most diverse neighborhoods in Tulsa, and a multicultural artisan market provides authentic outreach to the neighborhood’s large Hispanic population.
KWMS’s robust partnerships have also been key to developing the area, including a public art project that saw five new murals created to add to the vibrancy in Kendall Whittier. Local foundations have added to the district’s success by launching a new food hall, entrepreneurship hub and affordable housing.
“For the last decade, Kendall Whittier Main Street has been working hard to transform a historic neighborhood back to its early days as Tulsa's first suburban shopping district,” said Jessica Jackson Seay, Executive Director of Kendall Whittier Main Street. “Through listening to residents, thousands of volunteer hours and quite a bit of elbow grease - and, of course, the proven Main Street Approach - Kendall Whittier is now a funky little place for Tulsans to gather with other creatives and to feel a sense of community and support locally-owned businesses.”
Left: During the inaugural Ale Trail, participants gather in Heirloom Rustic Ales, where the event started and ended. Heirloom is one of three breweries currently in the district while another one in the middle of a $1.6M renovation project. Credit: Kendall Whittier Main Street. Right: Volunteers painted and planted artistic, colorful geometric shapes as an abstract flower art installation in 2017 while waiting for a new, permanent flowers and greenery. Credit: Kendall Whittier Main Street.
Even after COVID-19 forced many businesses to temporarily shut their doors, no businesses in the district have permanently shuttered due to the pandemic. KWMS credits a Rent Relief Program with making all the difference. Funded by the National Main Street Center’s Grills Fund for Main Street Revitalization, local foundations, and private donations, KWMS gave out $36,200 in rent relief from May to July.
KWMS has been so successful that it inspired a citywide Main Street program modeled after their approach. In January 2019, the City of Tulsa launched a “Destination Districts” program in partnership with the Oklahoma Main Street Center to revitalize commercial districts throughout the city. The program focuses on powering the economy and creating new opportunities for Tulsans, with a focus on expanding equity across the city.
“We are very proud of Kendall Whittier Main Street for receiving the 2020 GAMSA," said Buffy Hughes, Director of the Oklahoma Main Street Center. “The turnaround of this district has been miraculous but not without concerted, concentrated effort by the program's board of directors, volunteers, residents. and Tulsa city leaders. We look forward to continued progress within Kendall Whittier.”