I promise I’ll get back to daily blogging next week. In the meantime, here’s a reward for those of you who have continued to check in while the blog has been relatively quiet.
How much new downtown development will we likely see announced in 2011? $10 million? Nope, higher? $20 million? Nope, higher. $30 million? Nope, higher. $40 million?
Will we see new hotels? Housing? Retail?
Have a happy new year.
Every Dec. 24th I post this column by my hero, the late great Mary Jo Nelson, not as a bitter look back, but rather as a reminder of how much of the Christmas magic that was lost when she wrote this column, and how much of it we have recaptured since. I think if Mary Jo were alive today, she’d be pretty amused by Santa racing his Segway down Park Avenue (which my son and I witnessed the other night), the ice carving and skaters at Bicentennial Park, the snow tubing at the ballpark, and all the other wonders that make up Downtown in December.
. . . And to Downtown, a Good Night
By Mary Jo Nelson
Sunday, December 25, 1983
There is no doubt in the mind of any kid growing up today in Oklahoma City. Santa Claus is a suburbanite. His realm is the shopping mall.
Like the city’s children themselves, contemporary Santas don’t know about downtown, let alone ever see it.
It wasn’t always that way. For a half-century or more before downtown was razed, the heart of Oklahoma City glowed with the very soul of Christmas. To folks past 40, ghosts of magical Christmases past hover downtown. The season turned it into a wonderland.
The multiple-story limestone and brick department stores employed plenty of friendly, helpful clerks, and stocked enough goods that within a few blocks, you could buy anything on your list.
The streets and buildings were decked out from top to bottom with lights and bells and stars and garlands. Inside and out, the stores sparkled with brightly-burning bulbs, tinseled greenery, bells that jingled and animated figures.
Windows in John A. Brown, Kerr’s and Halliburton’s department stores were taken over by mechanical creatures that danced endlessly simply because Christmas was coming. And somewhere in a quiet corner, those who sought it could find a tiny figure in a creche, detached from all the fuss and yet, somehow, the center of it.
Few people can remember that during the 1930s and who knows how long before, Oklahoma City staged an annual Christmas parade that rivaled the modern Macy’s. It is preserved in historic photograph collections.
Apparently patterned after New Orleans’ Mardi Gras, it featured stilted and costumed storybook characters who marched up and down the city’s brick streets, along the streetcar tracks. Tens of thousands turned out to watch, jamming the broad sidewalks and spilling over onto the wide streets, so close they could reach out and touch the paraders.
The highlight always was Santa Claus himself, riding a genuine sleigh drawn by eight real, live reindeer. It required three or four men to keep the deer in line, but if anybody noticed, no fuss was made about it. Neither was any notice paid to the wheels that substituted for the sleigh’s runners.
The streets themselves were a wonderland for children. Utility poles were transformed to forests of decorated Christmas trees, and strings of lights across Main and Grand (now Sheridan), Broadway and Robinson illuminated the night sky. Stores strung colored lights along their facades, five and six stories high, creating fanciful shapes.
Small Oklahoma towns would drive busloads of children to the capital for the Yule scenery.
Historian Jordan Reaves, then of Pauls Valley, “always found some excuse” to come to Oklahoma City at Christmastime during the 1920s and 1930s.
“You had Woolworth’s on one side of Main Street and John A. Brown’s on the other, and between those two stores, you could find anything in the world you wanted for Christmas,” Reaves remembers.
“Then after I moved to Oklahoma City and was working downtown, during the 1950s, I would rush into Brown’s on Christmas Eve and find a woman clerk and plead with her and she never failed to bail me out. She was always sympathetic and helpful and if she wasn’t selling what I needed, she would suggest something and tell me exactly where I could find it.
Now, that’s all gone by the board.”
Mrs. O. Alton Watson remembers taking her three children to visit Santa at Brown’s.
“Even after Ann Sheridan (her eldest) was old enough to know there wasn’t a Santa, she and the others were just paralyzed with excitement,” she related. “You knew all the clerks in the store and they knew you. It was just wonderful.”
Both Mrs. Watson and Reaves recall the crowds as one of the things that made Christmas downtown special. “They had those wide sidewalks, and they were just jammed with people,” Reaves said. “You couldn’t walk. You had to work your way down the street.”
“There were so many people you couldn’t move in the stores, even at night,” Mrs. Watson remembers. “The stores were so beautifully decorated and the toy departments were outstanding. The thrill of it was wonderful.
“Now, it’s too split up. There are just too many shopping centers, and the lights and excitement (of downtown) were something you just don’t get at the shopping malls.”
Mrs. John D. Frizzell had just finished seventh grade when her family moved here from Tulsa. That 1922 Christmas and others to follow will never be forgotten.
“Oh! It was a big deal. The big excitement was you would drive down to Main Street and try to get a parking place in front of Brown’s or Kerr’s or Halliburton’s. Then you would sit in the car and just look at the decorations and watch the people go by,” she said.
“The windows were just lovely. The first animated Santa and snow man I ever saw were in Brown’s window at Christmas.”
Mrs. Glenn Lockwood recalls the windows, too. Each year, she said, Brown’s would have a different scene of automated figures. One year, the story featured Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, all busily preparing for Christmas Day.
“Some Christmases, it would be a Nativity scene, and all the animals surrounding Baby Jesus’ crib were animated.”
Edgar S. Vaught Jr. remembers the community Christmas trees that dominated Main Street just east of Broadway.
“They always had a huge Christmas tree, about three stories tall, and a big lighting ceremony,” he said. While Vaught said he still sees animated figures and lighting in various places over the city, he hasn’t since seen anything approaching the massive volume of splashy lighting and decorations that used to turn downtown into a fairlyand.
The brilliant Christmases of the 1930s were dimmed slightly by the World War II years of 1941-45. Decorators substituted great Vs (symbolizing victory) for bells that had swung across major streets.
When the war ended, Christmas regained some of its glitter. Then post-war city councils routinely approved just about any commercial development proposed, bringing a proliferation of shopping centers.
Urban sprawl set in, and urban renewal doomed many downtown businesses.
Finally, the sturdy old store buildings themselves were destroyed.
Such stores and such Christmases may not be seen again, says Milton Kamber, whose family started in business downtown more than 60 years ago. “We were pioneers,” he said.
From its last Main Street location as a division of Kerr’s, Kamber’s moved to Penn Square, then later to North Park Mall, removals that became the norm with urban renewal.
Today, the contemporary lights of major banks and one giant corportion have replaced yesterday’s yuletides. Except for these, Christmas, like the merchants, has abandoned downtown.
“I know this,” says Kamber. “It will never come back. People will not walk and look for a parking place when they can drive right up to my door.”
Trust me, it’s been a busy week. I’d love to tell you about the building I toured last Friday, or the people I shared lunch with. I’d love to tell you about the stories I’m chasing after. I’d love to tell you why I think some wonderful, incredible things are ahead for downtown. I’d love to say that I have a clue as to how all the different puzzle pieces awaiting to be put together next year will work out in 2020 (I have no clue). I’d love to tell you about how I’m witnessing shifts in thinking (dare I use the 1990s buzz phrase “paradigm shift”?). And yet, as evidenced by the NE 2 sidewalk and some other tidbits coming up (has anyone tried parking along NE 4 yet?), I’m hearing there may still be some folks who either weren’t in the room or weren’t listening when Jeff Speck, followed by the Urban Land Institute, came to town.
Curious as to whether anyone sees this sidewalk as a source of pride for our city’s water department. Two weeks ago I posed the following questions to Debbie Regan with the city’s water utilities department, which required this grate construction blocking this sidewalk:
1. What is the risk of lowering the grate (an inch or so) so that it is flush with the sidewalk and doesn’t impede pedestrian traffic? Is it really a life or death situation if the grate is lowered?
2. How big of a deal would it be to move the water meter if lowering the grate is unacceptable?
3. Regardless of expense, would this sort of sidewalk impediment be accepted in front of Devon tower? The Skirvin hotel? City Hall? The mayor’s house? The homes of Larry Nichols, Aubrey McClendon, Tom Ward or other prominent city leaders? Would you really tell them, “tough, it’s too expensive to move?”
HERE’S A BONUS QUESTION:
4. What does this sort of sidewalk arrangement say about Oklahoma City’s engineering standards? What does it say about the Oklahoma City Water/Waste Water Utilities Department? What does it say about its responsibility to provide residents with sidewalks that are as safe and free of barriers as streets are for cars? Or are we back to treating pedestrian access as an afterthought to vehicular access?
OK, I confess. I’ve been selfish. For five years now I’ve been receiving great Christmas cards from Rand Elliott and not sharing them with you. No offense to any of my friends, but the cards from Rand are pretty much my favorites.
In early years Rand simply sent out cards showing different photos of his his offices in the historic Heierding Building. But then Rand began to discover some stunning views of his building, the Buick Building, and before long, photos in general of his beloved Automobile Alley neighborhood (Rand and his firm Elliott + Associates Architects have been longtime supporters of the area, often donating their time, talent and effort to its revival).
This one is truly wonderful:
Dustin Ragland has an “OKC Urbanism” Christmas wish list …
Someone stop building the following in central OKC: Convention Centers, Large Avenues, Apartments for Upper Middle to Upper Class only. Corollary: Build a damn grocery store before you build anything else. Period. For the love of Jane Jacobs don’t build a convention center.
To read the whole thing, go here.
Have no doubt, the guys on the Thunder have proven to be a great fit for the city – you get the impression that when they’re out and about fulfilling the NBA’s mission of giving back to the community, they’re not just doing the job, they’re really into it. And kudos for that.
But the photo on the front page of today’s paper didn’t mention the unknowns who made this event possible… SandRidge Energy employees who raised money to buy shoes and provide holiday cheer for these kids, and Baptist’s Athletic Supply in Shawnee, which sold the shoes at a “significant discount.”
Merry Christmas everyone.
It’s interesting to see how politicians try to redefine history for various purposes. Today’s flashback consists of photographic proof of the moment Oklahoma City conquered its past demons, rediscovered its downtown, and never looked back.
It was a moment of triumph for Ron Norick, the mayor who truly brought the city back from the abyss. As mayor, Ron Norick turned the city, psychologically devastated by the oil bust of the 1980s and the terrorist bombing of April 1995, into what was recently described by the World Mayor Project as “one of the most vibrant and economically booming cities in the U.S.”
It was Norick who balanced recovery from the bombing with the delicate, complicated and unprecedented effort to remake the urban core, and turn around the city’s self-image, through MAPS. Looking back, it’s amazing to consider what he accomplished.
What’s even more amazing is that at his moment of triumph, the opening the ballpark, the pending opening of the canal, Norick retired from politics, letting his successors build upon what he achieved, and in the process, soak up the glory.
Those who followed in Norick’s footsteps built upon his legacy – but it’s his legacy.
To understand the significance of these crowds, consider the canal boasted just ONE restaurant (Chelino’s) and no other real attractions. This was truly a revival moment, and for anyone to take that away from Norick, well, can that be anything but historical revisionism? And if yes, than to what purpose?
Remember, it was Norick who endured the tragedy, the circus, the unprecedented recovery required after the 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building. What hit Oklahoma City that day was devastating. With my own eyes I saw some individuals grandstand, trying to use the moment to raise their public profiles. Norick did no such thing. He didn’t use the tragedy to enhance his national standing. He led … stoically, quietly, effectively. And OKC needed such an approach. While navigating the turbulent politics behind implementing MAPS, Norick had to set the right tone, mourning our losses, but also leading the city forward in such a way that the bomb-damaged areas weren’t just repaired, they were made better than they were before.
Norick was so detached from grandstanding and claiming credit that more than a dozen years after he left office, the community’s memory may fade and credit for Norick’s work may end up being diluted and given to those not worthy. There is no George Bush standing with firefighters in the rubble of 9/11 type photo of Norick. The best I could find is the following: