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THE BEST ARTICLE EVER WRITTEN ABOUT OKLAHOMA CITY IN A NATIONAL PUBLICATION

by Steve Lackmeyer Modified: May 30, 2013 at 1:21 pm •  Published: November 8, 2012

I don’t write a headline like the one for this blog post lightly. I’ve read a lot of stories about Oklahoma City in national publications over the years, both in modern context as a reporter, and also in a historic context as a researcher for various book projects. The New York Times Magazine focus on Kevin Durant, the Thunder and Oklahoma City is expansive, thoughtful, skips the cliches so easily clutched by other outside writers, goes for the unexpected interviews (Bill Citty, someone I’ve known for 20 years, was a perfect choice of a tour guide), and showcases exactly what Oklahoma City was, is, and has yet to become. I am in awe. When I grow up, I can only dream and hope to be a great writer like Sam Anderson.

Below is an excerpt from his article. To read the full story, which you must, go here.

Bill Citty
Bill Citty

The full name of Oklahoma City is the City of Oklahoma City. The police chief of the City of Oklahoma City is named — I’m not joking — Bill Citty. (“Citty” is pronounced exactly like “city.”) Chief Citty, hearing that I was in town to write about his city, offered to give me a tour. He drove me around in his sedan, neighborhood by neighborhood, casually ignoring traffic laws, occasionally being honked at, for more than three hours. The last hour or so we spent at the Oklahoma State Fair, where he drove me around in a golf cart.

Chief Citty’s tour was my introduction to the civic paradox that is modern OKC: a city that, over the last 15 years, has managed to reinvent itself while other cities have melted down, a conservative town that happily submitted to a series of voluntary taxes, a place where the oxymoron “corporate citizen” almost begins to make some kind of sense.

Citty grew up in Oklahoma City, so he has seen, firsthand, the major phases of the last 60 years. He was born during the postwar boom, in 1953, when everything was awash in federal money. (It is one of the many paradoxes of Oklahoma that, despite all its rhetoric of rugged individualism and free markets, the economy has been heavily depending on the federal government for decades.) Citty’s mother worked for a gas company downtown, in an office in the First National Center, one of the defining masterpieces of the city’s skyline — a 33-story Art Deco tower with elaborate aluminum decorations based on King Tut’s tomb. As a teenager in the 1960s, Citty watched as the new malls and highways started sucking all of downtown’s energy out into the suburbs, leaving behind the usual inner-city decay. In the 1970s, after some years of hippyish drifting, he decided to cut his hair, shave off his beard and join the City of Oklahoma City Police Department.

It was 1977. Citty was assigned to patrol a downtown neighborhood called the Deep Deuce, an African-American community that had once been home to world-famous jazz clubs but had declined, by then, into a hub for drugs and gambling and prostitution. (Just before Citty joined the force, a serial killer dumped the body of a prostitute in the basement of a nearby church.) From his beat downtown, Citty watched the city’s economy boom with oil money. New houses sprouted everywhere. Then, in 1982, he watched it all go bust: banks, farms, oil — everything. People lost their new homes; thriving businesses closed. “What happened to us in the early ’80s,” Citty told me, “is what happened to the U.S. economy in ’08.”

Things were still bad in 1993, when the mayor of Oklahoma City, Ron Norick, persuaded his constituents to do something improbable: to voluntarily tax themselves in order to rebuild the city. The program was called Metro Area Projects, or Maps — a one-cent sales tax that raised more than $350 million. Over the next two decades, Maps and its sequels (the city is currently on Maps 3) would change almost every neighborhood in the city, especially downtown. It built a canal and a minor-league baseball stadium and a new library; it turned an endless stretch of empty warehouses into a vital shopping district; it overhauled the schools; it put water back in the river, which had been so dry that, for decades, the city had to mow it. And of course Maps built a basketball stadium, which would come spectacularly into play many years later.

In 1995, just as Maps was getting rolling, life in the city suddenly came to a stop. On an otherwise ordinary April morning, a 26-year-old terrorist drove a moving truck full of fertilizer and other chemicals into the heart of downtown and parked in front of the nine-story Federal Building. The explosion, at 9:02 a.m., killed 168 people and injured 684. Five blocks west, at Police Headquarters, the tile shook so hard and so many windows broke that Bill Citty assumed the bomb had gone off inside. He figured out its real source only when he saw that the paper raining down everywhere had come from offices inside the Federal Building. He made it there within 20 minutes and stayed for the next month. At that point, Citty was the department’s public information officer, which meant he had to wrangle the media, a suddenly gargantuan task. He became, in a sense, the link between Oklahoma City and the rest of the world.

As part of our tour, Citty drove me down to the Deep Deuce, which was now full of bright new brick apartment complexes. He drove me past the State Capitol, the only one in the nation with an oil rig in front of it. He drove me through Automobile Alley, a revitalized hipster pocket. He pointed out the public bike-rental program, Spokies, that opened over the summer. Half of the city seemed to be under construction. Near the basketball arena, an old elevated highway was being torn down: it was now just a lattice of concrete, with on- and offramps that ended in midair. The highway will soon be replaced by a grand boulevard — the Champs-Élysées of OKC — leading right to the Thunder’s home.

This public rebuilding helped bring in private investment, which in turn brought in more revenue for public works, which brought in more private investment — and these cycles eventually combined to make Oklahoma City a plausible home for N.B.A. basketball. When it arrived, the growth and the basketball amplified each other. “We’d have a lot of good things happening now even if we didn’t get the Thunder,” Citty told me. “But we got the Thunder because good things were going on, and now even better things are going on.” As an example, he drove me past the Devon Energy Center, the city’s new skyscraper, a 50-story steel-and-glass tube that dwarfs every other building in sight.

This, then, is part of the city’s love affair with the Thunder. It’s more than just a basketball team: it’s the culmination of 20 years of civic reinvention, and the promise of more to come. Over the last five years, the city and its team have undergone a perfect mind meld, so at this point it’s impossible to talk about one without talking about the other. After all of that sacrifice — the grind of municipal meetings and penny taxes and planning boards, the dust and noise and uncertainty of construction, the horror of 1995 — the little city in the middle of No Man’s Land has finally arrived on the world stage. While it’s there, it fully intends to put on a good performance.

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by Steve Lackmeyer
Business Reporter
Steve Lackmeyer is a reporter and columnist who started his career at The Oklahoman in 1990. Since then, he has won numerous awards for his coverage, which included the 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building, the city's Metropolitan...
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