Welcome to OKC
A newcomer’s guide to life in the metro
Photos by Matt Payne
Our little patch of heaven is a friendly, ever-changing place. We have a low cost of living, a non-stop crop of excellent new restaurants and things to do, an active community filled with people who will smile and chat with you while waiting in line – and we top it off with short commutes and an average of 231 days of sunshine a year. Especially around this time of year. We’re glad to have you, neighbor … here’s a little of what you should know.
A Little Backstory
Around here, we appreciate the bustling civic life all the more because it wasn’t always like this. Our city has been born at least twice. The first time was April 22, 1889, when some 50,000 settlers gathered at noon, waiting to rush out into the prairie and claim homesteads. OKC popped up in a matter of days.
For decades after that, it ebbed and flowed, and our once-vibrant downtown became a ghost town as people left the urban core for the ’burbs. Oil boomed and busted, as it tends to do, and by the late 1980s, the place felt bleak. But then, everything started to change.
From the “past is prologue” department: “Oklahoma City was reborn in 1993 as a result of the first MAPS initiative, which was proposed by Mayor Jim Norick,” says Kristy Yager, director of public information and marketing for the City of OKC. “MAPS made a huge difference in the way residents and visitors view Oklahoma City.”
It’s an energy that hasn’t even begun to let up yet. “We are working hard to continually evolve,” Yager says. “We don’t like to stand still. Our goal is to keep moving forward, always improving, in as many areas as we can.”
It’s a philosophy former OKC Mayor Ron Norick (whose term was 1988-1998) shares. He’s the architect of the first MAPS initiative, which created the infrastructure for a lot of what we take for granted in central Oklahoma today. With the first MAPS, we built the Chickasaw Bricktown Ballpark (formerly the SBC Ballpark), the Bricktown Canal, the beautiful downtown library and the Chesapeake Arena (originally called the Ford Center), renovated and added 100,000 square feet to the Cox Convention Center, completely renovated the interior of the Civic Center Music Hall, dammed and added locks, trails and amenities to the Oklahoma River, jazzed up the fairgrounds so we could attract more events and added a set of trolleys to zip people to and fro downtown. These were phased out in 2010.
MAPS 2, dubbed MAPS for Kids, was passed in 2001. It is still in progress, and consists of hundreds of projects to improve school buildings, upgrade technology and bolster transportation by adding bus fleets. MAPS 3 is happening right now. It will add a new convention center to downtown, along with the 70-acre Scissortail Park, senior centers, streetcars, Riversport Rapids kayaking center, the Bennett Event Center at the fairgrounds, biking and running trails, city sidewalks and infrastructure improvements to the city. Will there be a MAPS 4? Excellent question.
When asked the slightly-less-excellent question, “If Oklahoma City were a person, what kind of person would it be?” Cynthia Reid, VP of communications and marketing for the OKC Chamber, graciously kept a straight face, looked thoughtful for a moment and then replied that it would be an eternal optimist. “Oklahoma City was settled by people who came here to seek a better future. They were people who maybe didn’t make it someplace else and who forged bravely into Oklahoma, and I think that early spirit continues,” Reid says.
Right now, in addition to getting the new streetcars ready for passengers, the city is working on streets through its Better Streets, Safer City program, and preparing to unfurl an expanded recycling program. Paper, plastics, tin/aluminum/steel cans, glass jars and bottles, cardboard and paperboard (such as milk cartons) all can be recycled.
“The new recycling program is a win for both our city and our residents, and is something we know our customers have wanted for a long time,” says Jennifer McClintock, spokesperson for the City of Oklahoma City utilities department. “It’s not only more convenient in terms of the amount of materials people will be able to recycle, but the addition of cardboard will really cut down on the amount of waste sent to our landfills. Ultimately, the new recycling program is part of a longer-term initiative to help stabilize our landfill grown and ensure sustainability of our solid waste program for years to come.”
“Everything we do as a city is focused on the same purpose,” Yager adds. “We want to build a city that will retain our children’s children. We always think about how a program or initiative will impact our children.”
One of the many things we’ve been doing right over the past couple of decades is the diversification of our economy. Our city now has a thriving technology sector, focused in two areas whose overlap has yielded some innovative collaboration: aerospace and bioscience. “We’re an emerging location for research, with assets like Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation (OMRF) and the OU Health Sciences Center,” Reid says. The growth in OKC is happening so fast, Reid pointed out, that between the writing and the reading of this story, things will have changed even more.
“Everything we do as a city is focused on the same purpose. We want to build a city that will retain our children’s children.”
- Kristy Yager
Sue Hollenbeck, director of sports business for the OKC Convention and Visitors Bureau, agrees that diversification is key. Her job (and her passion) is sports. She studied to be an athletic trainer in college.
“My job is to sell Oklahoma City to rights-holders and help bring in tournaments, meetings and other sports-related events,” Hollenbeck says. She’s been with the CVB for ten years, and her first big project was helping to open the Chesapeake Boathouse. “We have so many sports and sports events in Oklahoma City – through the Thunder, the Big 12 Women’s Basketball Championship, USRowing, the U.S. Olympic Committee’s training site at Riversport, the Dodgers and the events Bart Conner and Nadia Comaneci host.”
Of course, one of the primary events to shape the course of your new city’s destiny was the bombing of the Murrah Federal Building, which happened on April 19, 1995. “I recently read that 60 percent of the people who live here now didn’t live in Oklahoma City at the time of the bombing. Our goal and our responsibility is to teach the story of that day to everyone,” says Kari Watkins, executive director of the Oklahoma City National Memorial & Museum.
“We created what has become known as the Oklahoma Standard on that day. I don’t think people did anything different that than they would have any other day; people outside of Oklahoma were just watching. To explain it is difficult. The fabric of our community, our grit and our unity are a real anchor for Oklahomans,” Watkins says.
Oklahomans have been pulling together to help one another as long there has been an Oklahoma. “I think that has spilled over and become a part of our DNA as a city, and it’s helped us get over the bumps in the road. Pulling together the way we did after the bombing, as awful as it was, gave us the confidence as a city to know that there is nothing that we can’t handle, and there is nothing we can’t pull together and accomplish.”
Hitting the High Notes
The city’s communal efforts have paid off in quality of life. From drag gospel brunches to live cattle auctions, Oklahoma City is exploding with unique opportunities – not only for Oklahoma newcomers, but also for those of us who have lived here for years. Across the city are experiences we never knew existed, have forgotten about or can experience again, but in a new manner, such as watching a film while floating in the Oklahoma River. Maybe you’d finally like to take that art class you’ve been thinking about in the back of your mind, or see the city from atop a huge Ferris wheel. Make this a summer full of amazing experiences ... we have plenty of recommendations, big and small.
►Food & Drink
Onion Burgers at Nic’s Grill
Local burger enthusiasts are happy to wait in line along Pennsylvania to enter the tiny, cash-only counter for a Nic’s burger. There’s a new spot in Midtown, but the fragrant old-school atmosphere of the original can’t be beat. Many say these are the best burgers in OKC.
Ludivine’s Midnight Toast
When thinking of the exploding culinary scene in Oklahoma City, it’s hard not to see Ludivine as one of the prime movers. Dining at the innovative eatery is always a delight, but ringing in the weekend here is an absolute blast. Each Friday, they select a charismatic Oklahoman who takes the mic and offers a toast to close out the week. If you happen to be dining at Ludivine beforehand, consider the bone marrow luge.
Food and tunes at The Jones Assembly
Kind of a new kid on the block – the building is vintage, darling, but the revamp is exciting and new – this bar/restaurant/music venue is a beautiful example of urban repurposing. The young people love it. The food is creative and delicious, and the atmosphere is too cool for school. Of note: the Frosé, a frozen rose wine concoction topped with a gummy bear. So summery.
Happy Hour at Sonic
Don’t know when Sonic’s happy hour is? Your Oklahoma City citizenship is on shaky ground, friend. Sonic is to our part of the country what Dunkin Donuts is to the Northeast: Both are home-grown favorites that have spread nationwide, or nearly so. Sonic throws more than a million (!) drink combinations at you, though, and that wins. Plus, carhops and excellent onion rings. During happy hour (2-4 p.m. daily at most Sonics), all sodas and slushes are half price. The more you know …
Gospel Brunch at The Boom!
There is no shortage of brunch spots where a Bloody Mary can roll a hangover on into Monday, but this little gay gem offers something a little unusual for here in the Bible belt. The show features Kitty Bob and Norma Jean, two cross-dressing gospel singers whose raunchy performances are so sidesplitting that they will leave you rolling in your omelet. As long as you don’t mind a little good natured (hilariously harsh) teasing, this is the most fun you’ll have eating in Oklahoma City. Shows at noon and 1:30 p.m. Reservations are essential.
Dinner on the lake at Red Rock Canyon
Few places in the world transition from day to night with the swagger of Oklahoma. That is to say, our sunsets are the finest in the world. Nothing enhances one further quite like watching sailboats glide across a lake, over a glass of wine and a live saxophone blowing in the distance. The only place to get all that in one neat package is at Red Rock Canyon at Lake Hefner on Friday nights. Make sure you get there early to get a seat on the patio; you’ll feel like you’re on vacation.
Strawberry banana cake at Leo’s
Leo’s Barbeque, located on Kelly and 36th, definitely brings it when it comes to smoked meats – but if there’s one piece of cake that you eat this year, you need to make sure that it’s the strawberry banana cake from Leo’s.
Rooftop drinks at the O Bar
More and more rooftop opportunities are popping up across the city, but drinks on the patio of the O Bar, located on the seventh floor of the Ambassador Hotel, are a cut above.
Brunch at Café Kacao
Housed in an old Wendy’s on Classen, Café Kacao’s Guatemalan menu and coffee bar are great anytime, but Sunday brunch is the best. No booze and no performing drag queens, but the crispy motuleno or the French toast will blow your mind.
Beef and atmosphere at Cattlemen’s Steakhouse
Open since 1910, Cattlemen’s is the oldest continually operating restaurant in Oklahoma City. It’s been won and lost in a card game. Its Stockyards City location is part ramshackle Wild West and part bygone beauty queen, but there’s no arguing with its authenticity. Before you know it, you’ll be daring family and friends from up north to order the lamb fries. It is an experience as truly Oklahoma as they come.
Sunset picnic at The Wheeler Wheel
In 2008, Wheeler District visionary Blair Humphreys’ brother Grant made a quirky-yet-prescient eBay purchase: the old Santa Monica Pier Ferris wheel. The relocated, refurbished Wheeler Ferris Wheel has rapidly become one of the city’s visual icons. Surrounded by pavilions, giant sculptural letters spelling OKC (created by artist extraordinaire Hugh Meade), the occasional food truck and hammocks where visitors lazily watch the sunset … with a picnic, it is the perfect evening. Rides are just $6 per person – parking is free – and the view is sensational. Take it for a spin this summer.
Cattle Auction in the Stockyards
Head down to the Stockyards Monday mornings for an experience like no other – as the sun rises over dozens of pens teeming with nervous bovines, cattle are herded into a small holding pen as cattlemen look on, somehow following the auctioneer’s frenzied chatter. That’s right, think “old guy in a cowboy hat,” monotonously but at a fever pitch, calling out, “One-dollar-one-dollar-one-dollar-can-I-get-two-two-dollars-two-dollars-can-I-get-three SOLD for three dollars …” to a room of stone-faced buyers. These auctions have been taking place in the state for more than a century, and are nothing short of fascinating.
Nighttime at the OKC National Memorial
OKC has grown up a lot since the tragedy that altered the city forever. Our memorial is one of the nation’s most somber and beautiful – and while seeing the Outdoor Symbolic Park by day is one thing, to be there when the sun sets and the lights go on is transcendent, and deeply moving.
Summer Movies Outdoors
It may be the season of blockbusters, but that doesn’t mean you have to go to a theater. On Wednesday nights, you can stretch out on the lawn of the Myriad Gardens, kick back on a picnic blanket and catch a flick – starting with Minions 3 on June 20 and running through August. And Riversport Rapids transports the moviegoing experience to the water; Floating Films returns June 2 with Jumanji and gives viewers the option of watching from the riverside or on a raft or tube.
Wild Encounters at the Zoo
The Oklahoma City Zoo is a warm-weather must every year, particularly for those who have children. However, the experience can be much more than simply wandering through the grounds: Wild Encounters at the Zoo offer visitors an opportunity to get up close and learn about some of its most popular creatures, including Galapagos tortoises, grizzly bears, flamingos, rhinos, elephants and sea lions.
►On the Horizon
Stuff to do in OKC for the rest of 2018: A partial list
deadCenter Film Festival, June 7-10 Oklahoma’s largest film festival and one of the “Top 20 Coolest Film Festivals in the World” and “Top 50 Festivals Worth the Entry Fee,” according to MovieMaker Magazine.
Red Earth Festival, June 8-10 at the Cox Convention Center Since 1987, Red Earth has drawn participants and spectators from around the world while celebrating native cultures in the region and the country.
OKC Pride Weekend, June 22-24 A three-day street party, all leading up to the parade, arguably OKC’s most vibrant, at
6 p.m. June 24.
Red, White and BOOM, July 3 It’s a family-oriented, lawn-chair-bringing event at the State Fairgrounds, and a free concert presented by the Oklahoma City Philharmonic, with excellent fireworks.
White Water Bay You know you want to go. This OKC mainstay has been giving people water wedgies since 1981.
Wheeler Crit Every Tuesday, March through September, some of Oklahoma’s best cyclists race the Wheeler District’s North Loop. Spectators are welcome, no charge.
Plaza District Festival, Sept. 29 Pop over to the Plaza District at the end of the month for great music, excellent food, local art and spectacular people-watching. It’s our mini-“Portlandia.”
Myriad Gardens Walking Tour, Sept. 29 It’s an ideal occasion to join this monthly event by meeting in the lobby at 10 a.m. for a guided tour of natural beauty.
Wanderlust Pop-Up Shops, Oct. 13 Eighty groovy vendors plus food trucks at the Wheeler District, all bathed in that glorious early fall sunshine.
Haunt the Zoo, Oct. 20-28 For 35 years, little kids (and parents) have loved the OKC Zoo’s sweet, not-too-spooky event.
Quarter Horses, Nov. 1-17 The Lucas Oil AQHA World Championship Show returns to State Fair Park in OKC. Owners, exhibitors and fans will notice changes when they view the 2018 tentative schedule, which is now available online under the schedule tab at aqha.com/worldshow.
The Devon Ice Rink Located on the east side of the Myriad Botanical Gardens, the rink is open through early February, and is a great way to have wintertime fun … and exhaust visiting family members.
Opening Night, Dec. 31 Presented by Arts Council Oklahoma City, Opening Night is a family-friendly New Year’s Eve celebration featuring venues large and small, and performances of all types. Bundle up and stay for the fantastic fireworks finale.
►Exercise & Outdoor Activities
Rooftop Yoga at Plenty mercantile
Why not elevate your experience – literally – by checking out rooftop yoga at Plenty Mercantile in Automobile Alley? Part of OKC’s Yogafest line-up, Plenty Rooftop Yoga is scheduled Tuesdays at 6:30 p.m. through the month of June, with whisperings of extending it through the summer.
For decades, the downtown stretch of the Oklahoma River was only barely, sort of, technically a river. Ask a longtime resident, and they’ll tell you it was the only river that had mowers on it instead of rowers. That was just a dozen or so years ago, but the difference now is dazzling. Riversport has put together a remarkable lineup of opportunities to get out onto the water this summer. They offer courses in stand up paddleboarding, kayaking, sailing and rowing that take place on the Oklahoma River and on lakes Overholser and Hefner. Discovery courses are available for all, plus more advanced and in-depth courses for those who really take to the water.
Do you love history, art and architecture … but also beer and riding bikes? Then you’ll love spending a Saturday with Ride OKC. This incredible company launched this year and takes visitors on a tour from downtown to Bricktown, Midtown and beyond, stopping at notable homes, buildings and street art. The half-day trip is punctuated with stops at local breweries, including Twisted Spike, Anthem, Stonecloud and more.
Yoga at 21c
Yoga is good for you, but yoga surrounded by one of the city’s most impressive art collections in our world-class 21c Museum Hotel is an experience that takes it to the next level of consciousness. 21c offers yoga every Saturday at 10:30 a.m.
Nothing elevates a meal more than fresh produce, and Oklahoma City has no shortage of farmer’s markets to explore to get those locally sourced fruits and vegetables, flowers, honey, baked goods and more. Make a morning checking out all the goings-on at any of these festive marketplaces.
Farmer’s Public Market
311 S Klein, OKC
OSU-OKC Farmer’s Market
Saturdays 8 a.m.-1 p.m.
400 N Portland, OKC
Paseo Farmer’s Market at 612
Saturdays 9 a.m.-12 p.m.
612 NW 29th, OKC
H&8th Night Market
At the corner of Hudson and 8th, H&8th Market returns this year on June 1 with more food trucks and shopping options than ever. What began as a way to induce folks down to Midtown has quickly become the premier food truck event of the city, and is not to be missed.
►Learning for Life
Art Classes on the Paseo
There’s nothing like picking up a new hobby or revisiting an old creative passion, and Oklahoma’s oldest artistic district, The Paseo, offers all kinds of opportunities for young and old to flex those creative muscles. Paseo Pottery, Stained Glass Class at Prairie Arts Collective, Painting Classes at Paseo Gallery One, Brayer and Brush Adult Artisan Workshops and Su Casa Needlepointing are all unique opportunities to hone your craft or learn something new.
Private Mixology Classes
Want to turn an average cocktail party into an unforgettable event? Have the expert mixologists from Blue Label Bartending OKC come to your party and teach you and your guests how to craft some of the most popular cocktails in the world. Classes run from an hour to three hours, and cover everything from the beverages’ history to appropriate glassware.
►A Note From Your New Mayor, David Holt
“I became the 36th Mayor of Oklahoma City on April 10. I’m the youngest OKC Mayor in a century, which I think symbolizes a lot of changes happening in our community – all good changes caused by the investments of earlier generations in the last 25 years. I love Oklahoma City, and I love our momentum. The MAPS projects have built a great quality of life that has caused families like mine to choose Oklahoma City. But though we have come a long way, we’re not finished yet.
“Over the next few years, we’ll have important conversations about a MAPS 4, about a vision for public education and about incorporating our city’s diversity into our decision-making. I think Oklahoma City’s best days still lie ahead, and I think we’ll get there by working together. I think our unity has been our strength; our city’s unique ability to set aside our differences to seek a common purpose. That idea of ‘one OKC’ will guide me as I lead our city into its next chapter.”
►Nuts and Bolts
An OKC user’s guide to the mundane and practical
Water rationing: Odd/even watering days are in place, so if your address is an even number, you water on even days.
Action Line/Center/App: The City of OKC wants to know about code violations, problems in neighborhoods, tall weeds in yards, violations of historic preservation rules, potholes and anything you need help with. There’s a free app (OKC Connect), or you can email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 405.297.2535.
Public or private schools: Like in any large city, some schools in our districts are outstanding. There’s a great school locator tool on the OKC Public Schools website, here: excensus-guidek12.net/oklahomacityok/school_search/current/. A private school guide is available here: abetterlifeokc.com/education/private-schools/.
Dog licenses: don’t need them. But please spay/neuter/vaccinate.
Neighborhoods: To learn about your neighborhood association, the Neighborhood Alliance can’t be beat. Visit nacok.org. For a good list of Oklahoma City neighborhoods and districts, try the Chamber’s super-thorough site: visitokc.com/about-okc/okc-districts/.
There are 638,000 people living in Oklahoma City, within which there are 621 square miles and 26 different school districts.
Culture: Cultural organizations and attractions are plentiful. Check out the OKC Philharmonic, Oklahoma Children’s Theatre, OKC Museum of Art, OKC Ballet, Lyric Theatre, Carpenter Square Theatre, CityRep, Canterbury Voices, Individual Artists of Oklahoma and many, many more. A great list can be found at alliedartsokc.com.