Some people have told Mike Simons that his latest photography project is putting his life at risk. Simons, a staff photographer for the Tulsa World, is walking all 16 miles of Peoria Avenue, a busy street that slices from one end of Tulsa, Oklahoma, to the other, traversing the city’s richest and poorest neighborhoods along the way, the most rural to the densest. He started in North Tulsa, one of the rougher parts of town, and he heard from a few folks who thought it wasn’t a good idea.
“There were several readers who were very concerned for my safety,” he wrote in the second installment of “Street Level,” an occasional series that will run until he has documented the whole street, mile by mile. “I received phone calls and emails warning me of walking in many of these areas unarmed ... I appreciate the concern, however I am a community journalist. I have long given up any notion of being some kind of foreign correspondent. I love being a community journalist, but you cannot be a community journalist if you are afraid of the community you cover.”
He's going about his project methodically, parking his car and walking a mile, then walking back, going in and out of businesses along the way and shooting pictures the whole time. Just a few miles in so far, he posts frequently to Twitter and Instagram as he takes time for the project between his other assignments.
Among the people featured in the latest installment are a barber who sees his work as community service; a man who was disabled by a PCP overdose; a fellow riding home on a horse he had just bought; and two preteen girls playing in the parking lot of a Laundromat. Each person has a story, and they are stories Simons wouldn’t have heard if he hadn’t been walking.
In North Tulsa, he says, more people travel on foot because of economic necessity. In this city, as in much of the rest of the country, driving is the default method of transportation for those who can afford it. “It’s interesting that people find walking such a preposterous idea,” says Simons. “A lot of the people that were telling me not to walk over there are the same people who complain about Oklahoma being treated as a flyover state by the national media.” By walking through parts of his city that most people usually drive through as fast as they can, says Simons, he is breaking out of that “flyover” mentality.
Tulsa is not known for its pedestrian friendly infrastructure. Last December, a two-year-old boy was killed and his mother gravely injured by a driver on South Peoria, a crash that put focus on rising pedestrian fatalities and inadequate facilities for people traveling on foot.
Simons says that for the most part he hasn’t felt endangered by traffic, although he is surprised at the way that sidewalks will suddenly end, leaving him to walk in the grass by the side of the road. He did see one thing in the first few miles of his trip that shocked him, though.
On a stretch of Peoria Avenue between a housing project and a school, Simons crossed a bridge with no sidewalks. He did so alongside children who are forced to do the same every day on their way to class. The paper ended up running a story on the dangerous situation.
“Had I not done that walk I would not have seen what I did,” he says. “Nothing’s changed yet, but at least the state and the city are aware. They have to do something about it. I’m pretty sure a kid is going to get hit.”
That experience reinforces a simple truth about the difference between traveling through a city on foot and in a car. “Driving by at 40 miles per hour,” says Simons, “you just miss so much.”
Top image: Victoria White stands in the yard at the Comanche Park Apartments while her son plays outside on a warm day. (Mike Simons/Tulsa World)