POSTED ON JANUARY 31, 2007:
Catch it while you canNot as flashy as fireworks, but a healthy does of history would be a worthy way to celebrate our State's Centennial
What's the right way to celebrate a state's Centennial? How do you appropriately mark 100 years of history?
Of course there should be parades and concerts and fireworks, and there will be. But those things are all commonplace, and simply amping up the degree of spectacle -- Longer parades! Bigger stars! Fireworks and lasers downtown! -- still doesn't connect the celebration with the thing being celebrated.
Oklahoma's centennial year ought to be a year when all Oklahomans -- natives and newcomers alike -- encounter our state's history in a way that engages our imaginations. While every year is a good year to study Oklahoma history, this is a year that ought to be hallowed to that purpose, a year for remembering where we came from and how we got to where we are today.
Of all the planned centennial activities the one that best embodies that goal is the exhumation, this June 15, of a Plymouth Belvedere. The car was buried on June 15, 1957, on the northwest corner of 6th and Denver, on the grounds of the then-new Tulsa County Courthouse.
It isn't just a car that they'll be bringing out of the ground. The car is part of a time capsule of items collected to inform us, the Tulsans of the 21st century, what life was like in mid-20th century Tulsa.
According to the official website for the event, buriedcar.com, the time capsule includes documents on the history of Tulsa's churches and school system, maps, aerial photos, statements from Tulsa's former mayors on their accomplishments, copies of the program from Tulsarama! -- Tulsa's celebration of the state's semi-centennial -- and Tulsa, I.T., a glossy, 44-page magazine for visitors to the city. They even threw in the contents of a lady's purse, including bobby pins and a bottle of tranquilizers.
In all, it ought to be a fascinating snapshot of life in Tulsa 50 years ago. I hope that they'll photograph everything that comes out of the time capsule, digitize the documents (high res, please!), and put it all on the Internet.
1957 was an interesting year. It is recent enough to be in living memory -- childhood for the early Baby Boomers, high school and young adulthood for my parents' generation -- but distant enough to be a very different world.
In '57 Tulsa was still a compact and urban city -- nearly a quarter of a million people in less than 30 square miles -- but the seeds of destruction for downtown and the inner city were already being sown.
The new County Courthouse had recently opened and the first massive downtown redevelopment project -- the Civic Center, originally just four blocks between Denver and Frisco, 4th & 6th -- was just beginning to take shape. Early suburban neighborhoods and shopping centers had been opened. The city's first freeway plan had been drawn up, but none of the freeways had been completed yet.
1957 seems to be the year that Tulsa dubbed itself "America's Most Beautiful City" -- the slogan is mentioned in a June 1957 Reader's Digest article, and it's prominently displayed on the Chamber's map of the "Tulsa Tour," a self-guided driving tour of city points of pride.
My dream is to create a snapshot of Tulsa as it was in 1957. As we try to recreate a lively, dense urban core for Tulsa, it would help to have a vivid picture of what Tulsa's urban core looked like when it was dense and full of life. I've undertaken this as my own personal centennial project, and I've already begun posting some information I've collected on my blog at batesline.com.
This snapshot would include lots of maps. There would be city-wide thematic maps, showing the distribution of churches, grocery stores, gas stations, movie theatres, and bowling alleys. There would also be downtown block maps and neighborhood shopping district maps that would show what you would have seen as you strolled down the sidewalk in 1957. For source material, we'd have the Polk Directory (the "criss-cross" directory that lists homes and businesses by street and number), the Yellow Pages, Sanborn fire insurance maps, and ads from newspapers on microfilm.
Alongside the maps, there would be photographs and personal reminiscences. My hope is that the maps and lists and photos would stir up long-buried memories -- memories about where people shopped, how they celebrated holidays, what they did for recreation and entertainment, what they listened to on the radio and watched on TV, memories about family and school and church and neighborhood -- details that are deemed too ordinary to be worthy of the history books.
The Internet is making it easier to collect those details. Roland Austin, an alumnus of long-gone Riverview Elementary School, is collecting early '60s memories of the school and neighborhood on his website (http://members.aol.com/raustin13/rivrview.html). Tulsa TV Memories (tulsatvmemories.com) has become a kind of water cooler for folks who have worked in broadcasting in Tulsa -- some who are still here, and some who long ago moved on to bigger markets -- but it isn't just about TV. It's become a catchall for recollections about life in Tulsa, with a particular focus on the '60s and '70s.
In addition to capturing these details of everyday life, this centennial year is an appropriate season to capture memories associated with events that shaped our history.
A good example is Holly Wall's article (Got MLK?, UTW Cover Story, 11-17 Jan.) about local ministers and their memories of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Men like G. Calvin McCutcheon can help us understand how far we've come with respect to civil rights and how far we've yet to go.
In researching my Cover Story this week ("The River Revue," Page 14.) about the history of river development plans, I spoke to architect Rex Ball, whose firm developed the 1968 River Lakes Park plan.
He was able to recall many interesting details about the development of that plan and its connection to earlier concepts for damming the river and developing on its banks.
Putting his hands on a copy of the executive summary for that 1968 plan helped Ball recollect those details from the far reaches of his memory. As he told me, all those details are still stored up there, but it's not always easy to find a path to them.
As we begin the process of creating a Comprehensive Plan for our city for the first time in 30 years, as we consider plans for reviving neighborhoods and developing on the river, we need to tap into the memories of those who developed the plans and were there when the decisions were made that made Tulsa what it is today, for better or worse -- architects like Rex Ball, who also served as head of Downtown Tulsa Unlimited, and Robert Lawton Jones; former Mayors Jim Hewgley and Bob LaFortune; and zoning attorney Charles Norman, who as City Attorney shaped our city's land use regulations.
Documents and news stories from the time can tell us the what and where of those earlier plans, but only these people -- and countless others who worked behind the scenes -- can tell us the why.
It's tempting to scoff at a document like A Plan for Central Tulsa (1959) because with the benefit of hindsight we see it as the root of so much damage that has been done to the heart of our city. We need to understand that intelligent and well-intentioned people had good reasons for the recommendations they made. It ought to give us a degree of humility as we craft our own plans for the future.
Oklahoma's centennial year ought to be a year of collecting memories both trivial and tremendous. I'd welcome your help with my "Tulsa 1957" project, and I would love to interview people who were involved with the planning decisions that helped mould Tulsa into its present shape.
Consider creating out your own book of memories. Bob Greene's To Our Children's Children is one popular collection of questions that will prompt you about details that you may consider unimportant but which younger Tulsans will find fascinating.
Fireworks fade and parades don't go on forever. Memories can, but only if we capture them while we're able.
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