God bless Mary Jo Nelson. I thought the world of the woman. I read her stories in The Oklahoman starting in the late 1970s, when I was in Jr. High, straight through high school and college.
She wrote about downtown. She wrote about architecture. She wrote about urban design. And she wrote about history. I loved every word of it.
And it wasn’t long after I got my start at The Oklahoman that Mary Jo retired. Sure, she continued to contribute over the years, and did some great analysis pieces following the 1995 Murrah bombing and the history of the buildings that had to be torn down. But her heyday was over, and really, no one stepped into her shoes. I doubt anyone ever will.
I know, you’ve read my tributes to Mary Jo before and you’re probably tiring of it.
But wait. Mary Jo Nelson was wrong.
Yep. She was wrong. No, not wrong about everything. But in her hatred of the crimes of Urban Renewal – the demolition of the Criterion, the Baum building, the Warner and other treasures – her efforts to mentor and advise me included a constant admonition. “Why,” she’d ask, “haven’t you gotten the people at Urban Renewal indicated yet?”
And yeah, she was serious.
I’d sheepishly answer I hadn’t seen or found anything that would be considered an actual crime.
But the message was clear. In Mary Jo Nelson’s eyes, Urban Renewal was a crime. The Pei Plan was a crime.
But the more I look into this history, the more I learn about I.M. Pei and the city fathers who attempted to carry out his plan, the less convinced I am that they were criminals.
I believe it’s time to reconsider all we’ve been told, all we believe when it comes to this story, and discuss possibilities that would probably make Mary Jo recoil with disgust.
Yes, there were things done badly. Bad choices were made. It’s hard to come up with any conclusion to the Criterion Theater and Baum Building being torn down to make way for the Century Center plaza that doesn’t end with “how utterly stupid.”
But in the light of day, with no bias, could the case be made that the people who relentlessly pursued the Pei Plan were heroic? Is it possible that Pei was a visionary whose worst crime was his failure to chastise locals who corrupted his ideas? Is it possible that everything we know, everything Mary Jo Nelson believed, is tainted by an effort, conscious or unconscious, to make Pei the scapegoat for our own bad choices?
This next week the final touch will be added to www.impeiokc.com – display of the complete Pei Plan. Read it for yourselves, and then prepare to see Pei’s vision of downtown OKC, 1989, with your very own eyes….