Editor's note: Steve Lackmeyer's OKC Central column was refocused for a weeklong series looking at Oklahoma City's revival.
The weekend of June 8, 2012, might very well go down as one of those historic moments in the history of Oklahoma City.
For many people, the quick immediate reasoning for such a conclusion is that Friday was when the world began to focus its attention on the city's first appearance in the NBA Finals.
One event, one attraction, one show alone does not make for an urban renaissance. Nineteen years ago a fairly radical proposition was pitched to residents: sporting fans, arts patrons, library supporters, the business community, river advocates, Bricktown developers and merchants and Meridian Avenue hoteliers all had to join up in supporting an unprecedented public investment in the urban core or gain nothing.
Now those very same groups all shared in the fruits of their decision to support the Metropolitan Area Projects that gave Oklahoma City so much of the momentum celebrated this week.
Without MAPS, there would have been no Thunder, no NBA, and no Finals. There would have been no drag boat races drawing thousands of people to the thriving boathouse row along the Oklahoma River. There would no movie screens to accommodate sold-out audiences attending the deadCenter Film Festival. And it's difficult to imagine the Red Earth Festival remaining downtown, with the parent organization's museum located next to what would be a closed, dark Skirvin hotel without the advent of MAPS.
“Rise Together.” The marketing folks employed by Clay Bennett in promoting the Oklahoma City Thunder couldn't have been more brilliant in crafting that slogan for the young team.
Oklahoma City, given a choice in 1993 by former Mayor Ron Norick to support a MAPS ballot that benefitted competing interest groups, chose to “rise together.” A long-divided arts community that struggled for years with multiple homes for the Oklahoma City Museum of Art settled their differences and built a museum that sought to rise up with the still fledgling downtown revival in the late 1990s.
The museum's board and its visionary director, Carolyn Hill, somehow saw the potential of independent cinema and added a theater as part of their new home. That theater is now the focal point of the deadCenter Film Festival, which moved downtown from its birthplace at the University of Central Oklahoma.
The deadCenter Festival moved to rise together with the museum, a revitalized Philharmonic, Oklahoma City Ballet, Carpenter Square Theatre and other arts organizations that have concentrated around the Civic Center Music Hall.
As more than 500 journalists from around the world arrived downtown to cover the NBA Finals, they had to be blind to not see that this downtown renaissance story far exceeded basketball.
The truth is, it was no big deal alone that the river was hosting thousands of drag boat racing fans last weekend. Indeed, it's common now for large crowds to gather along boathouse row throughout the year — now that the river is home to a variety of water sports.
It's also no big deal that the film festival drew large crowds to often sold-out independent movie screenings. It's no big deal that more than a half dozen Hollywood actors were in our midst. The film festival has grown exponentially since it started at UCO a dozen years ago.
It's no big deal that the Red Earth Festival continues to draw visitors from throughout the world, or that with so many competing attractions, RedHawks baseball remains popular with families enjoying one of America's oldest pastimes.
We've grown accustomed to seeing filled-up downtown hotels and restaurants. The continued influx of companies relocating their offices to downtown Oklahoma City (which not long ago struggled with vacancies) is even becoming a common occurrence.
But consider all of this took place at once, in front of a worldwide media whose view of Oklahoma City was based either on an extremely obsolete and never accurate portrayal provided by “The Grapes of Wrath” or severe weather.
I finished the week providing a tour of the city to two visiting French journalists, Stephane Kohler and Julie Glassberg, whose sole impression about the city before their arrival was formed by the 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building. It, too, is a part of the “Rise Together” story — and the Oklahoma City National Memorial remains a powerful part of much that has transpired.
Who couldn't connect personally with Charles Barkley after the NBA on TNT commentator, often harsh in his criticism of Oklahoma City, was suddenly quieted by his visit to the memorial?
Another frequent critic, sports writer Bill Simmons, wrote what is seen as an apology this week. He noted Oklahoma City is different, and reminded readers of how Thunder general manager Sam Presti insists each new player visit the memorial.
Indeed, it's been well reported how Presti advises his players “You just joined an especially close-knit community that's bonded forever by a horrific tragedy. This is like nowhere else you have ever played. You have to understand why they're wired this way.”
With apologies to Mr. Presti, he's half right.
The tragedy of 168 people, all innocents, including babies and children, murdered in the name of dividing us did indeed bring Oklahoma City closer together. But this is a community that has long enjoyed closer ties than most.
Oklahoma City, after all, is a town that didn't exist on April 21, 1888, and yet one day later, boasted a population of 10,000 all brought together by one crazy, frantic run for a fresh start.
It's a community that may have been divided north and south in the early 1990s, and yet it collectively shared embarrassment over the appearance of a river cut across the heart of the city.
Oklahoma City collectively bet money on a big pitch made by Norick that we could improve our community, that we could, by sheer will and hard work, make our community one that would make us proud.
The city doubled its bet with Mayor Kirk Humphreys and insisted on not cutting corners on this dream. And Oklahoma City ignored the skeptics and critics who said we couldn't have Olympic rowing on the river, we couldn't have a film festival that attracted some of our country's most talented performers and we couldn't add another skyscraper to our skyline. Residents cheered on current Mayor Mick Cornett as he ignored conventional wisdom that Oklahoma City couldn't host an NBA team.
The city collectively defied the skeptics, proved them wrong, and celebrated each accomplishment every bit as much as we mourned in the days after April 19, 1995. Starting in 1993, the message from Oklahoma City's leadership has been clear: Rise together. So how did we get to this week, where Oklahoma City stood proud on the international stage? We rose together.
Steve Lackmeyer is an award-winning business reporter and columnist who started with The Oklahoman in 1990. He has covered downtown development since 1996. He authored three books on the history of downtown Oklahoma City: “OKC Second Time Around,” “Bricktown” and “Skirvin,” and a third book on the construction of Devon Energy Center is due for release in the fall. His OKC Central column appears in The Oklahoman business section every Tuesday.