A Travel Writer Returns To Tulsa And Finds A New Sense Of Inclusivity

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Tusla Tourism

On a recent Friday afternoon in Tulsa, Oklahoma, I had America’s newest major attraction, Gathering Place, almost all to myself. Before the crowds descended on the 100-acre public park the following day for an opening ceremony and a free concert by The Roots, I explored the riverfront development with my tour guide, Megan, a PR pro in town from New York City. We climbed multi-story towers in the playground and slid down curling tube slides, played in the fog of Mist Mountain, wandered the shores of Peggy’s Pond, and on the swings of Swing Hill.

As Megan and I approached the perimeter of the new park where it abuts the Arkansas River, I was struck by a hazy familiarity and stopped dead in my tracks.

“Wait a minute,” I said, turning to Megan. “Where’s the pedestrian bridge?”

We walked a little further, to the crest of a new man-made hill, and there it was, decaying and cut off from the riverbank at both ends, like the ruins of an ancient aqueduct.

“A lot of beers got shotgunned on that bridge,” I said, wistfully. “A lot of weed got smoked.”

As a travel writer, I’m used to getting invites to distant lands. But the strangest invitation I’ve received was not to any far-flung destination. It was an invitation to spend a weekend exploring Tulsa on the occasion of the grand opening of Gathering Place — a park so sweeping and eclectic that it feels like it really might change the whole city. This wasn’t just odd because Tulsa isn’t the kind of luxurious assignment one envisions when dreaming of becoming a travel writer. It was odd because, for me, Tulsa is exceedingly familiar. It’s my hometown.

Tulsa has undergone an urban renaissance of sorts in the last decade and in many ways the city I left after high school bears little resemblance to the Tulsa of today. When I was a kid, the only growth in the city happened in its endlessly metastasizing strip-mall suburbs, those insipid monuments to cheap land and lack of imagination. Downtown Tulsa was a sleepy commercial district during the day and a post-apocalyptic no-go zone of vacant, century-old brick buildings and empty parking lots after dark. Then came the artists, then the art galleries, next the quirky bars and restaurants lifted straight out of hipster Brooklyn (the 80s-themed arcade bar, the high-end cocktail lounge), then there were the food trucks serving banh mi, gourmet hot dogs, etcetera, ad infinitum.

In a sense, Gathering Place is the capstone on 10-plus years long rejuvenating effort by the city. (The park’s developers insist its name is “Gathering Place” without the article “The” or even “A”, as though it was named by a Russian speaker or a small child, but I struggle to get behind that grammatical atrocity.) Megan’s PR firm had been hired to show off the city’s new duds, including Gathering Place, which is how this Okie ended up getting a tour of my hometown from a Bay Area-born New Yorker.

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As a Tulsa native, I felt obliged to show Megan the relics of the old Tulsa where I misspent my youth, like the Alien Landing Pad (a prime makeout hill, great view), the Manhole (a sketchy crevice on an abandoned bridge, good for drugs/graffiti), and what’s left of my old high school (the year after I graduated most of the building was razed and replaced). Megan introduced me to more recent—and, it must be said, more hopeful—additions to my city; the businesses and non-profits established by Tulsans with more grit and creativity than I have, who stuck around to create something cool when I left in search of cool things other people had already created.

She also took me to Shuffles, a “board game cafe” with great pub food, something called “Oklahoma Sauce” that will ruin ranch dressing for you, and an impressive library of board games to pair with your beer(s). And Glacier Chocolates, where the espresso and gelato honestly rival anything I had in Italy weeks earlier. And Magic City Books, the unicorn of urban revival: a newly-opened brick-and-mortar bookstore.

The businesses I just mentioned are all located in the Tulsa Arts District, one of those transformed sections of downtown. Much of the credit for that transformation goes to philanthropic gifts, like The Woody Guthrie Center, that anchored development in the neighborhood the way Tulsans hope Gathering Place will for the entire city. Were it not for a small group of generous rich people, Tulsa might be a terrible place to live, and it certainly wouldn’t be the genuinely lovely city it is today.

One of these donors stands above them all: George Kaiser, the son of refugees from Nazi Germany who turned his father’s oil company into a banking and energy empire that has made him the 65th richest American and (as of 2017) one of America’s top 20 philanthropists. Though Gathering Place is Kaiser’s biggest gift to Tulsa—indeed, at $456 million, it’s the largest private gift to a public park in U.S. history—it’s not his only one, by a long shot. His foundation has given substantial (and, in a state with a government largely run by religious fanatics and country club reactionaries, badly needed) support to early childhood education and community health programs. But the Kaiser Foundation’s most impactful gifts to Tulsa may be its most symbolic, like the Bob Dylan Archive.

If it sounds strange to you that Bob Dylan’s notebooks, correspondence, and other personal ephemera should be housed in Tulsa—a city to which the music legend has no particular connection—know that it sounds just as strange to a native Tulsan. Growing up in Tulsa, one was keenly aware of one’s status as a denizen of a third or fourth tier city in flyover country. The Tulsa of my youth was obsessed with its supposed status in the 1920s as the “Oil Capital of the World” (I was born in the 1980s). It was a city about the past without a clear vision for the future, a place one was from, not a place to which one willingly moved. Tulsa was the kind of city that got ridiculed on TV sitcoms, not the kind one expected would become anything as cool as the forever home for Bob Dylan’s stuff.

And yet there it is, housing the archive of one of pop culture’s most iconic icons. It’s that kind of symbolic power that could make Gathering Place such a transformative new park.

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In addition to showing Megan the places where I killed brain cells as a teenager, I gave her a tour of poverty-stricken north Tulsa and recounted some of the city’s troubled racial history. We visited the two memorials to the 1921 Tulsa Race Riot — the worst racial pogrom in modern American history — in which as many as 300 (or more) black citizens were murdered and a prosperous black neighborhood, Greenwood, was systematically destroyed. I explained how, contrary to what most people believe, black Tulsans actually rebuilt Greenwood after the riot to become relatively prosperous once again, and how it was a much more recent crime, the tragedy that was “urban renewal” of the 1960s and 1970s and the construction of a highway loop around downtown, that cleaved a permanent concrete gash through the heart of Tulsa’s historically black neighborhood and sealed its impoverished fate.

It’s this history that makes Gathering Place so symbolically important. Unlike that previous misguided attempt to revitalize the city, Gathering Place was intended from inception to be inclusive. The park is situated on a major artery, Riverside Drive, that connects Tulsa’s majority-black north side with the wealthier, majority-white south side, and near a bridge over the river to the low-income white west side. Free shuttles connect the park to the far-flung neighborhoods of largely segregated Tulsa. Inclusion is in the name itself: Gathering Place. The promotional advertisement is a music video featuring a diverse group of Tulsa kids, with black children conspicuously front and center.

If Bob Dylan’s archive coming to Tulsa has symbolic value for this white Okie—and it does—then so does the essential inclusivity of Gathering Place. Hope comes in many forms, but grand public works with deeply-rooted symbolic value can be some of the most enduring. I hope next time I come home I arrive to discover that the park has lived up to its promise.

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This trip was hosted by Tulsa’s tourism group. You can read more about Uproxx’s press trip policy here.

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