The Man Who Owns Downtown Tulsa
TULSA, Oklahoma - Not long ago, what's now the Brady District was a no-man's-land, a place to avoid at all costs.
It was filled with rent-by-the-day boarding houses and drunks lying in doorways. Those doorways they were lying in were all that remained of Tulsa's original neighborhood, and David Sharp wanted to save those buildings before "progress" destroyed them all.
When Sharp bought the old Fox Hotel building at Main and Brady in the early ‘80s, it was being used as a liquor store—a very successful liquor store. It was the biggest seller of cheap Night Train wine west of the Mississippi.
"It's hard to exaggerate how bad it was. I would come down in the morning, and I officed in the back, in the old liquor store office when I first started, and I would scoop people out of the way," Sharp said.
And when he hung a closed sign on the liquor store's front door, Sharp, a college history major and disenchanted attorney, probably sparked the Brady District's long, slow comeback.
"I remember that some people started crying and started banging on the door," Sharp said. "And then somebody would push somebody out of the way and try the door, and that would start a little something."
Sharp didn't realize at the time that he'd started a little something, just by trying to save what remained of downtown's original building stock.
When he came back from college in Arizona, he was shocked at what so-called urban renewal had done to his hometown.
"To me - I know it was considered progress – but, to me, the heart of the historical part of downtown had just been gutted," Sharp said.
So, he snatched up the May Rooms building and another at Second and Elgin and the Fox and the Boston Apartments and the old Regal Hotel, all of them five-dollar-a-night boarding houses, and all of them packed with down-on-their-luck renters.
Sharp didn't want to be a slumlord, but he didn't want the buildings knocked down, either. It was a quandary, until his phone began to ring.
"'Inexpensive' was one of the first words I heard in most of these conversations, but 'Do you have an inexpensive space where a person could come down and do a little painting?'" Sharp said. "The artists started coming in and renting space and that allowed me to slowly start closing down rooms."
Until he closed them all. He turned off the power and water in the rooms atop the Fox Hotel and they're still that way today.
Sharp can't tell you off-hand how many buildings he owns in the neighborhood. He owns some outright, and some are partnerships. Some are still waiting for ideas to breathe life back into them.
But walk the streets with him, and he'll make sure you meet the artists to whom he leases space, who still put the "arts" in "Brady Arts District."
"It was like the wild west," said craftsman Jim French. You'll know French's place by the smell of sawdust as you pass.
We found him making a china cabinet he'd been commissioned to craft for Ponca City's Marland Mansion, using nothing but blurry old photographs as a guide.
He's been renting this space from Sharp since 1985.
"It was a pretty rough neighborhood," French said. He said of how he ended up in the neighborhood, "…this wall here was the exact size of a backdrop I needed to paint for a job coming up. I measured it and it was perfect. So who knew?
David Sharp did.
He was able to keep the neighborhood standing, physically, by patiently crafting its comeback, making sure artists like Mel Cornshucker had reasonably-priced places to do their work. A handful are still paying the rents they were decades ago.
"The people coming by, a lot more exposure, people are more curious, they'll stop in and look…I'll give 'em a tour of the place," Cornshucker said.
Those who've been down here a while sometimes worry that its comeback will go too far, but Sharp said the involvement in the neighborhood of the George Kaiser Family Foundation will keep that from happening.
Apart from his splashy investments, Kaiser has worked behind the scenes to keep artists at the forefront of the neighborhood. And his involvement has made it easier to move projects ahead, meaning any bulldozers that show up in Tulsa's original neighborhood these days will be building, not tearing down.
"I think the Brady Arts District is now part of downtown Tulsa and part of downtown Tulsa that everyone in Tulsa can be proud of," Sharp said.
The consensus seems to be that, within five years, this Brady neighborhood will be built-out, and then redevelopment will move on to other city neighborhoods, like The Pearl District at 6th and Peoria, where David Sharp has some properties now.
Until then, he also still has some big industrial hulks just north of us that he's waiting to redevelop into something.