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Great Plains Metropolis

A new book tells the story of Oklahoma City, past and present. August 24, 2018
Cities

Boom Town: The Fantastical Saga of Oklahoma City, Its Chaotic Founding, Its Apocalyptic Weather . . .  Its Purloined Basketball Team, and the Dream of Becoming a World-Class Metropolis, by Sam Anderson (Crown, 448 pp., $28)

New York and Chicago are the subjects of numerous legendary books; Los Angeles is a character in an untold number of films. But too many American cities, even big ones, don’t have a single good history written about them. Sam Anderson, staff writer at the New York Times Magazine, has taken up the task of documenting the story of a second-tier American city with his debut book Boom Town, about Oklahoma City.

Traditionally a backwater Great Plains capital, Oklahoma City has started to emerge as one of America’s up-and-coming places. Anderson was drawn to this story through an assignment to write a Times Magazine feature about the “fairy tale” season of the NBA’s Oklahoma City Thunder in 2012. Sensing a bigger story to be told about the city and its basketball team—formerly the Seattle SuperSonics, having relocated in 2008—he stuck around and wrote Boom Town. The book is two stories in one: a conventional history, recounted through major events, and a portrait of a present-day city on the make, told through the story of the Thunder; of Wayne Coyne, front man for alternative-rock band The Flaming Lips; and of Gary England, the dean of local weathermen.

Oklahoma City is the rare place that emerged in a single day: April 22, 1889, with the legendary Land Run, when the U.S. government opened up unassigned plots (taken from Indian tribes) to white settlement on a first-come, first-served basis. (The “Sooners” of University of Oklahoma football fame were those who had snuck in early to stake out their claims before everyone else.) Sited at the confluence of a railroad line and a river, Oklahoma City was preselected as an auspicious location for a capital city; settlers could claim only urban-size lots, as opposed to 160-acre rural homesteads. By sunset of Day One of the Land Run, the city had gone from empty prairieland to a bustling metropolis, with about 10,000 people. Before the first well was sunk or building foundation dug, the new town’s enterprising citizens had laid out streets and begun organizing local government.

It’s one of the great founding stories of any city, but understanding the Land Run gives insight into the challenges Oklahoma City faces in maintaining a positive mythos. Nowadays, the displacement of the Indians is seen as such an injustice that the city’s founding is often portrayed with ambivalence. Much of the city’s history consists of such mixed events, whether ambivalent or tragic, like the 1995 bombing of the federal building by Timothy McVeigh, which first brought Oklahoma City to contemporary American consciousness. Oklahoma City residents were unambiguously the victims in this attack, and the city justly takes pride in how it came together in response to the carnage. Yet the somber nature of such an event also requires restraint, not celebration. Even the city’s main industry, oil and gas, though an economic juggernaut, is disreputable in the precincts of elite America.

A flaw of many urban histories is that they are written by locals who set out to create the city’s “authorized biography.” As an out-of-towner, Anderson avoids this drawback. His observations are not entirely positive, which enhances the book’s credibility but may not earn it a good reception locally. Anderson’s history is cautiously optimistic; his narrative is told in episodic form, interspersed with present-day vignettes. This back-and-forth approach makes the book read, unfortunately, like a collection of disconnected newspaper articles, though only a portion of it was previously published.

The book’s main flaw is that Anderson is overly focused on personalities. His present-day material devotes too much space to basketball players Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, and media personalities like Coyne and England. The book tells us more about them than about the city, and the athletes’ stories, in particular, will date quickly. (Durant now plays for the Golden State Warriors.) I was left with more questions than answers about Oklahoma City itself. Anderson doesn’t dive into its civic identity or culture. When Coyne suggests that he might want to attend church, Anderson visits Lifechurch.tv one Sunday, but otherwise shows no curiosity about the religiosity that he assures us dominates the city. He seems unaware that the YouVersion Bible app mentioned during the service is a highly successful high-tech startup launched by the church. YouVersion, which contains more than 1,700 Bible translations in more than 1,200 languages, has been downloaded nearly 300 million times. Why, despite decades of effective boosterism that Anderson ably highlights, did Oklahoma City fail to become a mega-growth story like Dallas, 200 miles south? What makes it different from Tulsa? Questions like these go unasked.

To be fair, though, Anderson never claimed to be writing the ultimate book on Oklahoma City. His book is just one take on it—and the city should hope that more will follow. Anderson’s readable style makes Boom Town a breezy introduction to a city that America is likely to hear more about in coming years.

Photo: katsrcool/Wikimedia Commons

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