Today’s Downtown OKC 2020 guest blogger is a good friend – Doug Loudenback – whose blog www.dougdawg.blogspot.com is a wonderful mix of history, current events and unbounded love for all things involving the NBA Thunder (with a residual affection for the Hornets). When I first asked Doug to step into this conversation, he was at first hesitant pulling off his “aw shucks, what do I know” bit. Don’t let Doug fool you for one moment; he’s as informed about what’s going on in this community as anyone I know. Now, without any further delay …
Steve asks us to answer, What should downtown Oklahoma City look like in 2020, and how can this vision be best achieved? Having already read the answers presented by Dennis Wells and Casey Cornett, as well as the indirectly presented answers of Blair Humphreys both here and in his great blog and of Nick Roberts in his blog, I am immediately struck by the near-vacuum in the minuscule room in my brain labeled, “Downtown 2020.” The room likely wouldn’t even exist but for your questions, Steve.Truth is, I’m neither a planner nor a visionary. I’m not an I.M. Pei or, much better than that, a Neal Horton. I’m not a Mayor Ron Norick. I don’t contain within me one iota of a “grand design” and likely never will.
Maybe that represents a left-brain dominance in me and maybe the creative elements of whatever right-brain I have just don’t work. Or, more likely, I have none of any of the above at all. My wife, Mary Jo, is not particularly impressed with my forays into writing about Oklahoma City’s past – she tells me that I should write a novel involving all such things which might make the New York Times best seller list. But, that presupposes that I have the capacity to come up with a creative, perhaps a devilish plot, and then stuff into that plot lots of interesting fictional characters which will result in a best-seller on or off of the New York Times list. With all respect to my sweet wife, that just ain’t gonna happen.
So, when pondering Steve’s questions, nothing came out of my brain when I put the quarters into its mental slot machine. No 2-of a kind, no 3-of a kind, certainly no 4-of a kind, and absolutely and for sure no royal flush. “Damn machine,” I thought to myself – but then I remembered that I’ve hardly ever won a bet in my life. But, that’s another story altogether.
Time for me to take another tack.
I began to think about Steve’s queries in a different way – what perspectives do I have that some don’t, and how have I been spending most my time, say, for the past three years? I do have volumes of thoughts, interest, and time spent about Oklahoma City’s history, as well as a writing here and there. Could my interest in Oklahoma City history somehow relate to Steve’s inquiries? I wasn’t, and am not, at all sure about the answer to that, but here you go.
My approach in formulating this response is to regurgitate Steve’s questions and pose to myself an entirely different pair of questions than he did, they being, “What do I miss most about the ‘old’ downtown, the days before anyone in these parts ever heard of I.M. Pei?” and “How do my answers relate, if at all, to what I would like to see when Oklahoma City 2020 rolls along?
The questions rephrased, it’s not so hard to come up with answers to the first question, shortened to be, “What do I miss” about the old downtown Oklahoma City. The answers are these:
1. Downtown was busy, very very busy. Not only were the worker-bees downtown, the shopper-and-fun-seeker bees were downtown, too. People, lots of people. All that busy-ness felt good and it was exciting when I’d come to visit as a little kid or teenager coming to “The City” from Lawton (where I largely grew up though being born at St. Anthony’s). And, movies? The Criterion, State, Midwest, Cooper Cinerama, as well as then lesser-rans like the Majestic and the Folly (as well as a lower tier of lesser-rans which shall not be mentioned) were all downtown. The curtains around the theater stages weren’t just trim – they were real – and the decor in the audience halls jumped out at you whether you looked side-to-side or up-or-down. If space existed downtown, it was used one way or another. Downtown was the city’s vibrant heart – the center of just about everything other than state government, schools, medicine, and maybe some other things I’d add if I put my mind to it. It was busy.
2. Downtown wasn’t clean, it wasn’t orderly, but it was downright messy. Downtown had everything ranging from the heart of business with a pair of skyscrapers one could gawk at to pool/domino halls like the Central Club, the Empire, and Herman Vestal’s where bookies took bets and Minnesota Fats played pool, to fine and/or elite and/or popular dining (the Cellar, Bishops, the old Beacon Club, the Petroleum Club, Anna Maude’s), and, for some, the right place to go for a drink during the prohibition era (the Black Hotel, but only as I understand it, of course). And, for sure, stores like John A. Brown’s, Rothschild’s, Wards, Sears, Streets, Haliburton’s, etc., provided a shopper’s paradise, plus downtown had the movies mentioned above. One could step into downtown in the morning and venture into an endless realm of expected and unexpected happenings, some good, maybe some not so good, and at the end of the day wishing that there was time for more. That’s what “downtown” was. For those who didn’t work downtown, the disorder and messiness meant that, on a good day, one might find unexpected surprises not known from the last visit, even the last visit were yesterday.
3. The architecture was eclectic. This point is somewhat redundant of the above but I mean it a bit differently. Whether a building was built in 1910, 1920, 1930, 1940, 1950, all buildings were tied together as being integral to and a part of the meaning of “downtown” Oklahoma City. Nothing was the model of what “should be” and everything was part of the whole that “was.” The First National Center, Ramsey Tower, Petroleum Building, OG&E, ONG, Baum Building, etc. etc. etc., were all parts of the recognizable whole even if they were radically different in style. That’s what happens naturally when a city is built over decades of time.
“OK, OK,” I thought to myself, “What’s the point of what I’ve said above?” I perceive myself to be a realist and know that what’s gone is gone and that it’s just not going to and cannot possibly return. So, I hit the brick wall, no ideas, no thoughts, and, from the brick wall, developed a really serious headache. The old stuff is not going to come back, not the John A. Browns, not the grand old theaters, not the crummy pool halls, none of it. It is all gone.
My left-brain was bruised, dismayed, and forlorn, and it had nothing to say. Through arduous training, it knows when to stop talking, and it did. But, my less disciplined right-brain has never learned that lesson. At the point that my left-brain shouted, “Stop,” it shouted to me, “Start.” It said, “Oh ye of little faith. What if downtown in 2020 was also eclectic, was also the center of where people came who wanted to have fun, and was also downright messy?”
Left-brain says: “The plans I’ve seen so far look anything but eclectic and chaotic. Those plans are ultra orderly and rather look like a suburban residential model which has been transformed and plopped into downtown grid with nice rows of things showing where everything ‘should be’ and in ‘just the right areas, sort of like a gated downtown without the gates.’ Everything is ‘just so.’ Am I wrong?”
Right-brain agrees, but says, “It doesn’t have to be that way.”
In what I’ve seen so far, there is no room for chaos, sin, or serendipity, and the plans in no way lend themselves toward creating a Phoenix of the old downtown which made it the endearing place that it once was. No doubt, the new plans are slick but in their slickness they leave the messiness, the grit, if you will, behind. The plans I’ve seen so far call for a beautiful, pristine, controlled, and wholly managed city of the future, as slick as those plans are to see. And I’m a sucker for slick plans posited by my city’s leaders, ever since Ron Norick, when I began to trust such people.
This time, though, it is different than MAPS I. The issues facing the city are not the “do or die” circumstances presented in 1993. Then, we voted “Yes,” and we are all the better for having done so. But, the issues today are much different – today, we aren’t faced with dire straits if a negative vote is cast. Instead, we are faced with the more pleasant and less dramatic question, “What is the best thing to do, next,” having already experienced the successes of MAPS I. Back then, bluntly put, the question was whether we as a city were going to go down the toilet or would instead pull ourselves up by our bootstraps. We chose the later. We are not in that dire circumstance today.
So, what’s the environment today as the questions are being considered?
With apologies to all, can you say with a straight face Sylvester Stallone’s 1993 movie, “Demolition Man,” in which a futuristic California city was planned to the nth degree by master planners but was as cold as ice? I admit and understand that the example is exaggerated and may not be the best analogy, but it’s the one that comes to my unimaginative and pedestrian mind. In the movie, it was necessary to resuscitate Stallone from hibernation to deal with the Wesley Snipes character who had already been resuscitated by the city’s master planner to regain control over the city’s underworld (i.e., people like you and me – people who thought freely and on their own). Of course, Snipes was even a worse guy than Stallone in the overall scheme of things, and, in the end, Stallone killed Snipes and chaos ruled supreme! Yea! Everyone was happy, and Sandra Bullock actually KISSED Sylvester Stallone on the lips and, presumably, no one got any more automatic city-fines for saying words like “shit” or worse.
IF there is a point to make from the movie, it is that good order and city planning are not all that there is, just as Peggy Lee wondered so long ago. Good order and city planning aren’t “all that there is.”
The point I’d like to make here is this: city planners, be you the mayor, council members, or others involved, make room for chaos and for serendipity. The beloved Oklahoma City downtown had plenty of both. Worse, don’t impress upon downtown an artificial suburban model where everything is lined up “just so.” That didn’t work with the Pei Plan and voters will not likely approve of a second version of the same tune, particularly after some Bricktown property owners have just sat on their properties waiting for a good deal for sale all the while making Bricktown progress more difficult to occur. We are tired of that and don’t want to see it again, vis a vis the perimeters of whatever Core To Shore turns out to be. Perimeter property should not be included in Core To Shore, perhaps other than conditions which mitigate against just sitting on, and not developing, adjoining properties, so to avoid the Bricktown experience. I’ve not thought through about how this might be done, but I think you get my drift.
So, what have I got to offer to this discussion other than the prospects of chaos? Nothing, nothing at all.
I’ll close this rambling by wholly agreeing with what Dennis Wells has already said. In all of this, DO NOTHING which would chill the maturation and development of those inner-city developments which are already in place in Bricktown, Midtown, Automobile Alley, Flatiron, and leave such things to private investment for it to develop as it will. Bricktown, Midtown, Automobile Alley, Flatiron are generally healthy creatures, but they are young and some are frail. Any city plan for 2020 should take care to insure and not impede their survival.
I like movies and movie lines. In this respect, the movie 2010 comes to mind when at the end the message was sent in uppercase: “ALL THESE WORLDS ARE YOURS – EXCEPT EUROPA. ATTEMPT NO LANDINGS THERE.”
Seems like good advice to me. Our “Europa” is Bricktown, Midtown, Automobile Alley, and Flatiron, our recently developing children of the inner city. Leave our Europa alone.
See, I told you that I’d have nothing particularly imaginative to say. But, I was invited to speak, and there you are.