What prompted this piece was this little aside tossed off by the Prop, in parentheses yet:

[I]n Pavement Narrows ... arguments over a Historic District were rendered moot when the last pre-Revolutionary building was torn down last year to make way for [a] store that sells $300 hiking boots and titanium cross country skis.

I am, of course, drawn to that "pre-Revolutionary" description, since (1) I grew up in Charleston, South Carolina, which has a lot of that pre-Revolutionary stuff, and (2) I have spent most of the last thirty years in the general vicinity of Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, which, having been founded on the 22nd of April, 1889, has absolutely none of it.

For those who might wonder about the displacement of Native Americans on that date: well, it didn't happen that way. This area had been designated by treaty as Unassigned Lands, and while the Creek and Seminole Nations had right of first settlement, neither tribe had exercised that right. In January 1889 the federal government opened negotiations with them to buy them out; the tribes received about $2 an acre in exchange for dropping their interests, and on 2 March, President Harrison signed the enabling legislation to open the area for settlement.

The result, come April, was chaos incarnate: a town of around 10,000 created literally overnight. In fact, it was worse than that, since two rival townsite companies had come to plat the area, and they found themselves staring at each other from opposite sides of what was then Clarke Street. (If you lived here before and wondered why downtown north-south streets all seemed to bend or jog at Sheridan Avenue, this is why.) The two struggling townships were merged in 1890: a surviving drawing from the time shows development from Santa Fe west to Walker (half a mile) and from what is now Northwest 7th Street south to Southwest 7th (a mile).

The young Oklahoma City was constantly in flux, with generally mixed results: the town of Capitol Hill, founded in 1905 on the south side of the North Canadian River, was annexed in 1911, which was presumably good, and enabled by the state's infamous Senate Bill One in 1907, the city enacted its first set of Jim Crow ordinances to keep its burgeoning black population from venturing north of Northeast 2nd Street, which was definitely bad.

By the early 1960s, the city had grown to over six hundred square miles, and downtown, for many residents, was a long way to go for nothing; it was in 1961 that the Oklahoma City Urban Renewal Authority was first convened, and in 1964 urban architect I. M. Pei was asked to come up with a plan to save downtown. Pei's plan was bold and beautiful, but it also called for a tremendous amount of demolition, and once it was completed and people were still staying away from downtown in droves, city leaders started wondering if maybe they shouldn't have put more emphasis on preservation.

In 1969, Oklahoma City passed its first Historical Landmark and Preservation Ordinance and declared the Heritage Hills area, north of downtown, to be its first Historic District. (There are now ten.) While early guidelines were generally of the Thou Shalt Not variety, the city revised its rules from time to time, and more recently has developed a less-restrictive type of zoning called the Urban Conservation District. Once again, the results could be characterized as mixed: while the designated districts are indeed thriving, they're largely concentrated in the same part of town, the near-northwest, leaving large parts of the city, just as old and just as much in need of protection, out in the cold.

One area definitely frozen out was the old black neighborhood east of downtown. Deep Deuce, Northeast 2nd Street, once the center of African-American commerce in the city, was in deep disrepair, and the warehouse district to its south had started emptying out during the Thirties depression, never quite coming back to life. Into this urban jungle strode developer Neal Horton, who started buying up old brick warehouses in 1979 and two years later announced an ambitious plan for reconstruction which he dubbed "Brick Town."

Horton's plan died with the end of the oil boom in 1982, and Horton's company eventually filed for bankruptcy. Not much would happen for a while: in 1984, a warehouse at 101 East California was opened up for the first time as a Halloween haunted house, and in 1989, the Spaghetti Warehouse opened at 101 East Sheridan. A few venturesome souls followed, but the real boom wouldn't begin until completion of the Metropolitan Area Projects (MAPS), approved in 1993, which called for a waterway in the San Antonio style and a new minor-league baseball park in the area, projects which would take years to complete.

Bricktown, now one word, is still evolving, still in flux. But Oklahoma City always has been, ever since its haphazard beginnings in the spring of 1889. And if we've learned anything in those 115 years, it's that you don't necessarily throw something away just because it's old even if you can use it to sell $300 hiking boots and titanium cross-country skis.

(Disclosure: I live in one of those Urban Conservation Districts.)

The Vent

  14 November 2004

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 Copyright © 2004 by Charles G. Hill