It’s confession time. While I may be best known as a columnist and author who has documented and celebrated downtown Oklahoma City’s past, present and future, my earliest years were spent in New York. I was born a New Yorker, and lived there until I was eleven years old.
And the community I called home was none other than the cradle of modern suburbia – Levittown (Hicksville, New York – in the township of Oyster Bay).
Consider this excerpt from the Wikipedia entry on Levittown:
Levittown gets its name from its builder, the firm of Levitt & Sons, Inc. founded by William Levitt built the district as a planned community between 1947 and 1951. William Levitt is considered the father of modern suburbia. Levittown was the first truly mass-produced suburb and is widely regarded as the archetype for postwar suburbs throughout the country.
This was the town my mother called home throughout most of her childhood, and it’s where my parents bought their first house on a street called “Hope Lane.” The homes were an idealized reflection of suburban life in the modern world – televisions built into living room walls, one-car garages, and kitchens loaded up with cutting-edge appliances.
It’s a fuzzy memory sometimes – but one that came into clearer focus after I was recently contacted a childhood friend who lived on the same block. We were best friends, but after I moved, a valiant effort to keep in touch as pen pals faded as we became teenagers. Distractions and time take their toll.
The memories are good. Adventures at Jolly Rogers Amusement Park stand out as a favorite. I also remember trips to the “farmers’ market” – which was really a mix of food vendors and a flea market. My childhood memory of fast food does not begin with McDonald’s or Burger King, but rather the colorful burger joint down the street – Wetson’s. Carvel Ice Cream, in my memory, is still far better than anything found today at Braum’s.
Ricky and I were best of friends, running to the Mr. Softee ice cream truck as it approached our block, riding our bikes along the Levittown Parkway to buy Spiderman comics at the Grand Union shopping center, watching cartoons on WPIX, making cupcakes, playing with my electric train set, and, gasp! – pretending we ran a newspaper!
Yep. My dreams of becoming a journalist started back when I was just a kid pretending I was selling Weekly Readers in front of my home. I even had a toy printing press.
Looking back, the developers of Levittown did a lot of things right. It’s a version of suburbia that was lost somehow and replaced with a pretty boring grid of cookie-cutter houses and big box retail. And when I want to create special memories with my own kids, more often than not, we’re downtown.
There is no eloquent ending to this post… just some thoughts and memories to share on this beautiful Sunday in Oklahoma City.
It’s difficult to believe, but Foodies in Oklahoma City is not even a year old. Regular OKC Central readers might recall that I first wrote about Foodies at 1220 N Hudson and its owners, Bang Bui and Quyen Le, in November, 2011. At the time I noted how much I loved this neglected old diner. I was further impressed to discover a very likable young couple who had some incredible new recipes and twists on food to share with our community.
That winter, however, myself and a few friends who were equally impressed by Foodies feared this lovable little diner might go dark again. So I shared this story with readers, and it appears many came to fall in love with Quyen, Bang and their fun approaches to diner food as well. Business picked up – but Foodies still had its share of doubters. The bars on the windows, the crudely painted sign, the name itself (“express” doesn’t win over fans when an order can take 10-15 minutes to cook during big lunch rushes). Brian Winkeler, an incredibly talented graphics, branding and ad guy who is very fluent in the language of sarcasm mocked what was then called “Foodies Express.” His comments were dead-on – and destined to drag him into the cause of helping Foodies reach its full potential. Thus a conspiracy was born.
Brian Winkeler and fellow talent, Phillip Schroeder, quickly convinced Quyen and Bang to change the name to Foodies Asian American Diner and created a much needed sign and logo makeover. Winkeler and Schroeder went the extra mile, and provided the couple with graphics for new menus and even a redesign for the outside of the diner.
As Quyen and Bang made improvements, their landlord launched much needed repairs and changes as well. The crumbling old parking lot was repaved; the security bars were removed from the windows.
Quyen and Bang have proceeded with more improvements. Last month a dirty, torn up old kitchen table on the patio was trashed, and new patio tables were added.
More changes are set for inside the diner. A few people may recall that the diner still had its original bar top counters until the place was gutted by a short-lived Greek restaurant (I visited it once and found nothing to inspire me to return).
I took photos of the interior prior to the changes.
The diner counter was placed in storage; planning is now underway to re-install the seating and counter.
With a one-year anniversary nearing, the make-over is almost complete. I’ll be sharing the full story, including the challenges, obstacles and mistakes along the way, in an upcoming column.
Got questions about downtown? OKC Central Live Chat starts at 10 a.m. today at www.newsok.com. You can start submitting questions at 9:30 a.m. You can find links either on the NewsOK homepage or on the business page of the site.
I won’t deny that for all the headaches that come with my job, there are some pretty great perks that come with it as well. One of the greatest perks is the opportunity to meet and get to know very interesting people on a daily basis. In some cases, incredible friendships ensue. I am one of many folks in Oklahoma City who grew up falling in love with the work of artist Greg Burns. As someone who loves history and architecture, I’m pretty much the sort of guy who was destined to end up with several of Greg’s works on display in my home (my most treasured is a limited edition print of City Hall). My family still has a Greg Burns print of the old Western Avenue Graffiti Bridge – with the names of my sisters, brother, myself and parents all added into the mix of “tags” (a special addition Greg used to do at festivals if my memory still serves me well). Greg has, with his watercolors and pencils, created a great artistic history of our city and state over the past 40 some-old years.
A few years ago, a mutual acquaintance made an introduction – and I’ve counted Greg as a friend ever since. With all the changes going on with the downtown skyline, I knew it was just a matter of time before Greg would create new paintings our city. I’m flattered that he’s allowing me to share this one with OKC Central readers, and I look forward to driving around with Greg in the near future to discover other “new views” of our city.
Sometimes the cuts are brutal. And that’s the case with my Sunday story on families moving downtown.
Ah, gotta love the news biz.
So for those of you who follow my downtown coverage closely with this blog, I urge you to read this version of my Sunday story:
BY STEVE LACKMEYER
Richard McKown feels no pressure to advertise his newly opened Level Urban Apartments at NE 2 and Walnut Avenue. He doesn’t have to; the complex was fully leased when it opened last month.
Down the street, also along NE 2, construction plans are being readied for the next phase of “for sale” housing at The Hill after the once slow-selling units were grabbed up by a mix of empty nesters and young professionals.
Families, long missing from the equation, also are now in the mix.
McKown and other developers say they’re seeing a shift in the downtown population as housing picks up steam with the upcoming opening of Native Roots Market, downtown’s first grocery, and planning for a charter elementary school and streetcar system.
New residents include the owners of Native Roots, Matt and Sara Runkle, who along with their infant daughter, Stella, live full time in an apartment over the grocery. Two blocks to the north, Kurt and Charla Gwartney and their 12-year-old daughter, Elizabeth, are looking forward to when they can walk to get their groceries from their home at the Block 42 condominiums.
Similar aspirations are shared by Kyle and Kate Jones, who along with their 10-month-old daughter, Ramsey, are living at The Hill.
“The sense of community that is downtown is stronger than anything I’ve ever seen in any of the suburban communities I have worked in,” McKown said. “The opportunities are so tangible and real, and the housing choices are growing.”
Those housing choices were key to Kate Jones agreeing to move downtown — a move she admits she only contemplated after her husband bribed her with a new car.
She was worried about what opportunities would be lost for their daughter.
“Where is she going to learn to ride her bike?” Kate Jones recalled worrying. “Where will there be other children for her to play with? I wasn’t even willing to give it a chance.”
With the offer of a new car, the soon-to-be mom searched online. She rejected the first two for-sale housing projects she found because they were multilevel with living areas on the second floor. But she quickly warmed up to The Hill, which she said “felt homey,” and had amenities, including a two-car garage, to which she was accustomed.
When the couple bought their home on Russell Perry Avenue in Deep Deuce in 2011, it was the seventh one sold. Now all 32 units built at The Hill have sold, and developer Bill Canfield is moving forward with further development of what will ultimately be a neighborhood with 157 homes overlooking Bricktown and the downtown skyline.
Kyle and Kate Jones say they are happy to have the option of enrolling their daughter at the future John Rex Elementary, which will be built at Sheridan and Walker Avenues. Kyle Jones also is excited about the prospect of someday traveling to work via a streetcar system that is set to link Deep Deuce and MidTown.
Kate Jones admits her entire attitude about living downtown has shifted. She sees children enrolled in activities daily at Boathouse Row along the Oklahoma River, playing in Myriad Gardens, and frequenting other downtown venues. The couple routinely enjoy walking to the park, restaurants, shops and to Thunder games at the Chesapeake Energy Arena.
“I was very judgmental of downtown living,” Kate Jones said. “But I will never move back to Edmond. The traffic is terrible there. And I love where we are. I’m very glad he talked me into moving here.”
Friends who once mocked their choice of leaving the suburbs, Kyle Jones added, are now envious of their decision after visiting their new home.
The Gwartneys had a longer transition that started with buying a condominium at Block 42 as an investment while they lived at a parsonage provided to Charla Gwartney while she worked in Choctaw. When her job was moved to a church in Edmond without a parsonage, the family decided to make Block 42 their full-time residence.
Kurt Gwartney said when they first bought their condominium in 2007, downtown was still relatively quiet – the Deep Deuce apartments were open, but street-life was minimal.
“You see people living here now,” Gwartney said.
For Elizabeth Gwartney, who is enrolled in a “virtual school,” downtown is a vast classroom.
“When we were just here part time, it was a place we came to relax,” she said. “But now that I do virtual school, I can go to the Myriad Gardens or the art museum for my classwork. It’s all around me.”
Kurt Gwartney said the family loves to walk around downtown and observe the ongoing development. Owner of a dog, Sox, the family also discovered a thriving population of dog owners who congregate at the new dog park added to the Myriad Gardens.
Gwartney is rooting for transit advocates trying to extend the streetcar system along NE 4 through northeast Oklahoma City. The KGOU news director dreams of a day when he can hop on a streetcar to cover legislative sessions at the State Capitol.
McKown, meanwhile, is set on developing more housing just to the east of Level Urban Apartments along Oklahoma Avenue.
“I think we’re going to see a lot more people wanting to put down roots in downtown Oklahoma City,” McKown said. “I’m very optimistic and I think it’s a watershed moment for this generation.”