Downtown Oklahoma City sprang from nothing and grew into the heart of the city, twice.
Jim Cowan and Brent Brewer along the Bricktown Canal. Cowan is the former director of the Bricktown Association, and Brewer, the son of the late Jim Brewer, carries on his father’s vision of a vibrant Bricktown.
Photo by Brent Fuchs.
On the morning of April 22, 1889, Oklahoma laid out equal opportunity for anyone willing to put hard work into building it into the place that would provide the opportunities they couldn’t find elsewhere.
Boomers who had finally convinced the government to open the Unassigned Lands had their sights firmly set on the Sante Fe Railroad’s Oklahoma Station as the place to build their new city.
Nearly overnight Oklahoma City was built on the backs of men who saw the potential for a great city. Oklahoma City’s founding fathers exploited Oklahoma City’s mid-continent location on the shores of a river and the crossroads of the railroad system to attract businesses. A warehouse district was created to service the railroad, and industrial sectors and downtown popped up to house and provide shopping for the new residents.
From the day of the Land Run until the state was admitted into the Union in 1907, the population of Oklahoma City grew from about 10 railroad workers and support staff to more than 30,000 residents.
The next decade would see the population increase by 100 percent. The growth remained among the nation’s fastest until the Great Depression halted development nationwide.
Depression Halts Growth
The Great Depression’s impact was minimized as oil was found below Oklahoma City in 1928 just before the stock market crashed. The influx of oilmen and prospectors provided jobs and stimulated the economy with retail business. Still downtown was not immune from the havoc of the economic crisis and private investment and development halted in the city.
Suburbanization and federally subsidized highways after World War II all but killed downtown Oklahoma City. By 1947 the streetcar tracks were ripped from the city streets and downtown became a place people came to work during the day. Retail left downtown as developers invested in building along the new highway system where their money would go further.
The warehouse district built on the railroad slowly turned into a ghost town as interstate commerce was moved from tracks to trucks.
Slash and Burn Renewal
The post-World War II era saw a period of urban decay that ate a doughnut hole of rot in most inner cities, says Bob Blackburn, executive director of the Oklahoma Historical Society. Through the 1950s and 1960s, the rot spread to the outlying suburbs, and there was a national inner city issue. The federal government stepped in with a program of urban renewal so that cities could make development in the core as cheap as it was in the suburbs, Blackburn says.
“A good site downtown is an empty site,” Blackburn cites as the philosophy.
An Urban Renewal Authority was established by the city council, and Oklahoma City embraced its efforts with a vengeance, demolishing Victorian brownstones, the historic Biltmore Hotel and leveling much of Deep Deuce – the once-thriving black section of Oklahoma City – to make way for I-235. Historic preservation wasn’t a consideration.
“Oklahoma City was more aggressive in getting federal funds than any other city in the U.S.,” says Blackburn.
World-renowned architect and city planner I.M. Pei was hired to assist with the urban renewal. The resulting Pei Plan unveiled in 1964 called for a near wiping of downtown to make way for mixed-use buildings, a convention center, hotel and an outdoor garden that would bring retail and residential growth back to downtown.
Public opinion over time would cast a dark shadow on this period of urban renewal as a great loss. Historic treasures were razed with little benefit of the forecasted retail or residential growth, leaving much of downtown vacant lots. However the Myriad Convention Center (now the Cox Convention Center), the Myriad Botanical Gardens and the Sante Fe Parking Garage did slip out of this period.
Boom and Bust
In the 1970s, Oklahoma City found itself in the middle of another oil boom – this one so large that TV commercials told viewers that if they didn’t have an oil well they should get one. Blackburn says bankers were loaning money out like crazy. Downtown was graced with the first new privately funded buildings in more than 30 years, including the Kerr McGee Building (now home to Sandridge Energy), Liberty Tower (now Chase Tower), Fidelity Bank (now Park Harvey Center) and the Sante Fe Parking garage.
The oil boom quickly came to a close when a surplus caused prices to fall. In 1982 Penn Square Bank collapsed, the first of more than 100 banks that became insolvent during the 1980s. Penn Square’s depositors took major losses, and Oklahoma City was sent into what Blackburn calls the Second Great Depression.
“People were moving out. Oil, gas, farming and ranching were down,” he says.
Any development that had been in the plans was ceased. Downtown was but a shell of what it had been or was supposed to have become.
Brick By Brick
In 1979 Neal Horton took a gamble on the purchase of brick buildings in the abandoned warehouse district that miraculously had been ignored and thus saved from urban renewal’s ravages. He saw the potential for an entertainment district, but wasn’t able to surmount the economic decline of the 1980s.
Jim Brewer took up the campaign and invested in Bricktown in the mid-1980s. He spent the rest of his life promoting and developing the area and was known as the unofficial mayor of Bricktown.
In 1989, 100 years after the birth of Oklahoma City, Texas-based Spaghetti Warehouse became the first restaurant in Bricktown, pushing downtown a baby step toward rebirth.
“Spaghetti Warehouse was only opened for dinner. People would already be lined up at 4 p.m.,” says Michael Dean, the spokesperson for the Oklahoma Historical Society.
The out-of-the-gate success inspired Brewer to open O’Brien’s Bricktown Club, and in 1992 he opened the state’s first brewpub, the Bricktown Brewery. The same year, the Blazers began playing hockey at the Myriad Convention Center just steps from the Brewery, generating traffic.
“Blazers hockey played a huge role,” says Jim Cowan, Bricktown Brewery’s first general manager. He later became owner and subsequently served as director of the Bricktown Association.
Bricktown became a destination as businesses like the Brewery held concerts and hosted festivals; Brewer brought events to the district. Its location at the intersection of the city’s major highways as in the center of the city made it a suitable common meeting place for people coming from every corner of the metro area.
“In the early ‘90s, people who lived in Oklahoma City had been in Dallas’ West End and wanted something cool like that,” says Cowan.
Cowan says the hope that Oklahoma City could be home to something like Dallas’ West End prompted Oklahoma City to support it.
He points to passage of the one-cent sales tax to fund the Metropolitan Area Projects (MAPS) as a sign of the huge civic pride that Bricktown was built on.
“Bricktown to me symbolizes the fact that we were the underdog and we did it. And we did it because we were willing to invest in ourselves,” Cowan says.
MAPSing out the Future
While Bricktown was growing from private development, the city’s center was in need of a major overhaul. Oklahoma City was regularly passed over as a location for corporate headquarters and mayor Ron Norick got sick of being a “bridesmaid on economic development.”
“We always came in second place,” says Norick.
When United Airlines passed over Oklahoma City, it was the final straw for Norick. The city had voted in a one-cent sales tax to fund facilities at Will Rogers Airport for United Airlines that would be put in place only if the airline chose the city as its headquarters. He wagered that if voters were willing to pay money to improve Oklahoma City for someone else, they would be willing to pay money to improve Oklahoma City for themselves.
He convened committees to look at performing arts, sports, business and every other aspect of the city. He hired a consulting firm to get feedback on how to attract business to downtown. The outcome was MAPS, a set of nine improvements to resurrect downtown.
The city’s triple-A baseball team was in jeopardy if their facility was not upgraded. A new ballpark would be built in Bricktown. A canal would also wind through Bricktown to draw people to the area.
The severely outdated Civic Center Music Hall would receive a makeover, and the city’s aging library would be replaced. A trolley system would service downtown and Bricktown.
The North Canadian River that was drained as a WPA project during the Great Depression would be rehabilitated to create opportunity for outdoor activities along its shores.
The Ford Center (now Chesapeake Energy Arena) would be built as a venue for sports and music and the Myriad Convention Center expanded to create more opportunity to play host to national conferences.
Aside from improvements to the Fairground to secure Oklahoma City as the horse showing capital of the world, all MAPS development was proposed for Bricktown and downtown.
Norick wanted a central location to create an area that would attract restaurants, bars and retail. He wanted MAPS to be a catalyst for private development. And he was adamant that the improvements be considered one project.
“If we passed the convention center, or if we passed the river and the trolley, what did we have? Nothing,” he says.
Only as one project could the initiative succeed. He says because some people like arts and some people like sports. The sports people weren’t going to vote against the proposal because of the arts inclusion, but they probably wouldn’t vote for the arts development alone.
Then he took it to the citizens of Oklahoma City and asked, “Wouldn’t you like to have your kids work and live in Oklahoma City instead of Dallas or Chicago?”
At the end of 1993 the voters agreed to pay a one-cent sales tax to fund MAPS.
United By Tragedy
While the City of Oklahoma City was saving up those pennies to begin construction, an act of unthinkable violence rocked the city’s core. The bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in April 1995 united the city.
“People ask me, ‘Was the bombing good for Oklahoma City?,’” says Kirk Humphreys who served as Oklahoma City’s mayor from 1998 to 2003. “No, I do not believe the bombing was good for Oklahoma City. But I do believe our response to the bombing was good for Oklahoma City. I think we amazed ourselves.”
Humphreys says the city’s long-standing inferiority complex was shattered as citizens realized the city was special in its own right. The city’s fixation with other cities as examples of all the things it was not melted. This sea change created a willingness to grow Oklahoma City.
“It didn’t make us, but it did reveal us,” says Humphreys.
Finish MAPS Right
The citizens of Oklahoma City had trust issues with the city and remained skeptical of MAPS until the Bricktown Ballpark opened in 1998. Humphreys was successful in changing attitudes toward MAPS and passed Finish MAPS Right, a measure to extend the one-cent sales tax when MAPS went over budget.
Humphreys says without this, Oklahoma City would not have the arena, which means that the city would also be absent the Thunder. Without MAPS he believes downtown might not even have the Devon Tower today because the city would not have been attractive to the kind of people needed to grow Devon Energy.
“When I got elected mayor we kept very few of our college graduates,” says Humphreys. “We were exporting our human capital.”
The revitalized downtown has created job opportunities where once there were few. Now, young people have a reason to stay in Oklahoma after college.
In 1999, at the grand opening of the Cox Convention Center, Humphreys was looking out the window and two blocks away saw the boarded up Skirvin Hotel.
“It was a hulking symbol of failure,” he says.
After laying out his options he decided he did not want to be the mayor who tore down the Skirvin. The city bought the Skirvin in an effort to better control the flow of its investment into the renovation. In 2007, it was reopened, a milestone without which, Mayor Mick Cornett says, the downtown renaissance would have been hollow.
The Second Great Decade
Blackburn credits the opening of the Bricktown Ballpark in April 1998 with propelling downtown into full-blown renaissance and beginning what he calls Oklahoma City’s second great decade.
“It’s a different city now,” Blackburn says.
The outcomes of the downtown renaissance are great, but most agree the revived spirit was the greatest accomplishment.
“I think people feel proud. It is bigger than bricks and mortar,” Norick says.
Cowan agrees, “You could highlight the businesses. But to me it is civic pride. I think we have the Thunder today because of downtown and Bricktown.”
Humphreys says the renaissance of downtown gave Oklahoma City the heart that every great city must have.
“Much of it is yet to be written. MAPS3 is going to propel us into a whole other generation of downtown improvements,” says Cornett.