On the plane to the wilds of Oklahoma from the mellow suburbs of Connecticut, I’d been reading Boomtown, the great Sam Anderson profile of the wild swings in the development history of Oklahoma City (OKC) since the late 19th century. So I was ready for what the cab driver told us: “Every single good thing that ever happened here was a gift from the oil companies.”
The cabbie was a kindly grandfather who cherished lunches with his grown grandchildren, so it was hard to push back against his view. But I have to admit I was dying to know more about the only place I can think of, outside of Texas, that experienced the tragic boom and bust economy of my home state of Alaska.
Anderson’s book subtitle, The Fantastical Saga of Oklahoma City, Its Chaotic Founding, Its Apocalyptic Weather, Its Purloined Basketball Team, and the Dream of Becoming a World-class Metropolis, is like one of those too-long movie trailers that threatens to tell you the whole story. But the part about becoming a world class metropolis is where my primary interest lay. I was attending a staff retreat in OKC, but also planning to attend the Annual Congress for the New Urbanism, where some of the most innovative thinkers about city design were gathering.
For years, OKC has been doing a lot of heavy lifting to become more attractive as a place to live. An innovative Tax Increment Financing (TIF) program puts 1% of the city sales tax base into funds to create new amenities and services. This program, organized into 14 different districts, resulted in a lot of cool things in the city, like streetcars, urban river walks, beautiful public art, gardens and a shiny downtown where parking is $10.