OKC vs. Tulsa: Rivals No More?

A civil civic conversation
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Great city rivalries exist and thrive, jovial in their mutual disdain, across the country: Dallas vs. Ft. Worth, Kansas City vs. St. Louis and, of course, the greatest of them all – Oklahoma City vs. Tulsa.

For decades, Oklahoma City and Tulsa were like two squabbling siblings, with a fully formed rivalry between them. Tulsa was a little snooty, Oklahoma City was a little rough around the edges. As former Oklahoma Gazette editor Mike Easterling wrote in a feature for the website Skyscraper City:

Even though Oklahoma City has always had a larger footprint, had a higher population and has been the seat of state government since 1910, Tulsans could take pride in their city’s cultural superiority, its status as the epicenter of the oil business and its physical attractiveness, marked by green, rolling hills, a historically significant river and a thick urban tree canopy. It was a sophisticated, urbane Midwestern city with Ivy League sensibilities.

By contrast, Oklahoma City was a flat, sprawling, utilitarian, prairie town with a pronounced dislike for anything that smacked of elitism – especially those snooty, transplanted easterners who resided up the turnpike. In Oklahoma City, the cowboy was still king, even if he was all but a historical anachronism by midway through the 20th century. Culture was measured in terms of Frederic Remington paintings and the thickness of broiled steaks. There was no more obvious symbol of the city’s plainness than its so-called river, which, as the old joke goes, had to be mowed three times a year.

Dr. Bob Blackburn, who recently announced his plans to retire from his decades-long post as executive director of the Oklahoma Historical Society, explains why Oklahoma City has historically been the dusty, scrappy country mouse to Tulsa’s top-hatted, monocle-sporting city mouse. “The ‘turnpike rivalry’ goes back literally to the 1800s,” Blackburn says. “Oklahoma City had a head start on Tulsa, having been incorporated in 1890. Tulsa wasn’t for eight more years. When Tulsa caught up in the 1920s, the rivalry heated up.”

Another man with first-hand experience navigating the often-choppy waters between the two cities is former Oklahoma Governor Brad Henry, who led our state from 2003 to 2011. “It’s been my observation that Oklahoma City and Tulsa have not always worked well together, and in fact there’s been a competition. As governor, I used to lament that fact, and often said it was time to work together to build a better state,” Henry says.

“It seemed to me that there was always a feeling from Tulsa leaders that Oklahoma City ‘got’ more than Tulsa, and Tulsa had a chip on its shoulder. Oklahoma City is the capital, and more state resources are here,” Henry says.

The two cities’ landscapes, heritage and leaderships were all very different. “Oklahoma City’s economic prosperity, its base, was land and commerce. Goods flowed in and out. It’s a prairie city, with no built-in natural beauty and deep topsoil. It was part of Oklahoma Territory,” Blackburn says, adding that Oklahoma City leaders were generally possessed of an impetuous, bold wildcatter mentality. Risk takers.

Buildings constructed in Oklahoma City were likely to be built by individuals – the Colcord, for example. “Charles Colcord didn’t spend a lot of money on ornamentation. The Colcord is a plain building,” Blackburn says.

Tulsa, by contrast, was founded on oil and industry, and was part of Indian Territory. “Tulsa has had more of a mid-Atlantic culture from the beginning. In the 1920s, it was the oil capital of the world. Its landscape, rolling and hilly, in the foothills of the Ozarks with big trees, was naturally beautiful,” he says. Much of its early citizenry came from Pennsylvania and brought their Eastern sensibility with them. Its corporate citizen base and Wall Street backing underwrote the Art Deco masterpieces the city is known for. “When you are backed by Wall Street, you say yes to Tiffany glass, and yes to Art Deco skyscrapers,” Blackburn says.

“Philanthropically, the two have historically been different, as well. For example, Oklahoma City’s Aubrey McClendon was a risk-taker, a wildcatter. He could be reckless and aggressive,” Blackburn says. Tulsa’s George Kaiser was the opposite, he added. “Kaiser could be described as deliberate, corporate and structured.”

So the rivalry is easy enough to explain. But as our world has systematically become smaller, thanks mostly to technology, the metaphorical distance between Oklahoma’s two biggest cities is shrinking by the minute. Mayors Bynum and Holt are driving forces of this new dawn, but Blackburn also points to another pair of politicians whose collaborative relationship got the ball rolling. “Oklahoma City Mayor Mick Cornett and Tulsa Mayor Dewey Bartlett Jr. had a great relationship,” Blackburn says.

Cornett was mayor of Oklahoma City from 2004 to 2018, while Bartlett was mayor of Tulsa from 2009 to 2016.

“I do think it’s improving,” Henry agrees. He speculates that in addition to technology, a generational shift may be at play. The two mayors are among the youngest members of Generation X, on the cusp of the Millennial generation. “Maybe they are more collaborative by nature, and OK with more diversity than generations before them. Maybe they’re more open-minded about all kinds of things – including, God forbid, Oklahoma City and Tulsa collaborating together.”

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Oklahoma’s latest mayoral dream team recently allowed 405 to conduct a COVID-19-appropriate interview via an email Q&A. Answers have been edited for length and clarity:

Why did you want to be mayor?
HOLT: Having served at literally every level of government, I knew that nothing is as rewarding as being at City Hall. I couldn’t imagine a better job than being the mayor of Oklahoma City, and (felt) that if I ever had the opportunity to run and serve, I should take it.
BYNUM: I’ve wanted to be the Mayor of Tulsa since I was a little kid. My grandfather was our mayor when I was born, so I grew up hearing from people about what an important job it was. As an adult, I found that there is no job in public service where you can make a greater daily positive impact in the lives of people you love than being mayor of your hometown. I ran in 2016 because I did not feel we were aiming high enough as a city, and because I wanted to rally our community behind addressing century-long issues of racial disparity.

Mayor B, what do you love most about Oklahoma City?
Oklahoma City woke up early to the reality that the competition among cities in the 21st century is global, and that led to some truly visionary work to make Oklahoma City a world-class city. I love the ambition of the city, and it is home to my favorite mayor.

Mayor H, what do you love most about Tulsa?
Obviously, it’s a cliched answer, but it’s still the right one: Gathering Place. We were there opening weekend, and we very much look forward to getting back for more exploration.

How did you guys become such good friends? Did you know each other before?
BYNUM: We’ve been friends for 20 years. If you’d told us back when we were low-level staffers on Capitol Hill that we would be the mayors of Oklahoma’s two largest cities at the same time, I think we would’ve thought that sounded awesome but improbable. All the credit for our friendship goes to our wives, who were in a Bunco group with another rookie staffer named Kendra Horn. They introduced us, and our careers have followed eerily similar paths since then. Today, our wives are still close and our kids – we each have a girl and a boy – are roughly the same ages, so our families enjoy any opportunities we have to spend time together.
HOLT: Yes, we’ve known each other since we were staffers in D.C. at the same time nearly 20 years ago. Our wives hit it off in that same time period. Even though we may not have been in regular contact in the intervening years, we followed each other’s careers. When it started to come together that we would be elected mayors of our hometowns about the same time, we were communicating more and more. We made a point to spend a whole afternoon together in OKC soon after I was elected. We’ve communicated every few weeks since. Now with COVID-19, we communicate hourly.

What have you learned from each other?
BYNUM: Well, his mic drop at the opening of Scissortail Park was the coolest thing I’ve seen a mayor get to do. So, I’ve learned to be jealous! Just kidding. David is a much smarter strategist than I am. When it comes to elected leaders, the heroes in history are the ones who first identified the right thing to do and then figured out how to build support for the right thing through communication. It’s not enough to know what the right thing to do may be – you have to be able to bring people along with you. David is one of the best communicators holding elected office today when it comes to that approach.
HOLT: I’ve always said that OKC and Tulsa are like bizarro versions of each other. We face so many of the same issues. So, I always look to how he’s handling things as sort of an Earth-2 version of what I’m doing, and it often causes me to look at something a different way. With COVID-19, when suddenly we were faced with the exact same issue at the same time, it was an amazing opportunity to have someone in virtually the same position that you could play off of, observe and talk to.

How do you feel that Oklahoma’s two biggest cities can work together to help our entire state?
BYNUM: Based on all the data I’ve seen from our health department, thousands of lives were saved because of quick action taken by cities in our two metro areas in the early stages of the pandemic in Oklahoma. I’m not aware of any time in our history as a state when OKC and Tulsa worked together more closely than we have this year to protect the ability of our healthcare systems to treat those suffering from COVID-19. And that didn’t just benefit our two cities; it benefited the entire state. I think it shows what good can be done for Oklahoma when OKC and Tulsa are working together as a team, and I am hopeful that will be an aspect of this challenging time that stays with us moving forward, long after the pandemic subsides.
HOLT: If OKC and Tulsa were joined as one city, it would be a top 25 metro. Cities are the most relevant political subdivision in modern life, and the bigger the better. We need to capitalize on what we have and working together is the only way to do that.

Tulsa Skyline

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Behind the Divide
Bridging the gap between the Tulsa and OKC music scenes

In those pre-coronavirus days when people crowded into clubs to hear local musicians, both Tulsa and Oklahoma City artists and fans could agree on one thing: There has been a sharp divide between the two cities. Each has its own stars in all genres, but those who have yet to achieve national prominence rarely make it from one end of the Turner Turnpike to the other.

Until fairly recently, Tulsa had an enormous advantage over Oklahoma City in both its culture and its sheer number of venues, having given rise to Bob Wills, Leon Russell and Dwight Twilley, among others – and boasting one of the most sought-after venues in America, Cain’s Ballroom. In 2018, Tulsa ranked No. 8 among music markets for the number of major artist concerts per capita. It not only beat Oklahoma City by that metric; it bested music meccas like New Orleans and San Francisco.

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At the top of Tulsa’s venue food chain is the BOK Center. The 11-year-old venue is able to book more concerts than its OKC rival Chesapeake Energy Arena, in part because BOK does not have a major sports team that calls it home. Because Chesapeake Arena must schedule around Oklahoma City Thunder games, it often misses out on major acts.

Chesapeake Energy Arena Night

In other areas, Oklahoma City has shored up its business with the proliferation of mid-sized venues to compete with Tulsa’s Cain’s Ballroom and Brady Theater. Since 2015, Oklahoma City has added three venues with mid-sized capacity – The Criterion, The Jones Assembly and Tower Theatre – that attract more touring acts, but Tulsa wins by having more small venues and clubs that serve as home bases for local musicians. Destinations like Mercury Lounge, The Vanguard, IDL Ballroom and The Colony are hospitable for local acts and touring performers, and they enjoy an added advantage of being walkable.

While Oklahoma City’s metro has popular small venues – 89th Street – OKC, 51st Street Speakeasy, Opolis, The Blue Door – there is no cohering district; each is miles away from the other. And because Oklahoma City’s small venues are outnumbered by Tulsa’s equivalent spaces, Tulsa artists are not as incentivized to come down the turnpike.

Except, of course, when Norman Music Festival is in full swing. This annual free event attracts around 80,000 attendees to see more than 140 acts, most of whom are Oklahoma artists. It is the great melting pot of Oklahoma music, in which Tulsa and Oklahoma City musicians share stages and reach new audiences. For music lovers, it is an all-you-can-eat buffet.

Despite those rare occasions of coming together, the OKC metro has its rising stars like Husbands, Academy Garden, Kat Lock and Goldenface, while Tulsa has Paul Benjaman, Cutty Forever, Republican Hair and Casii Stephan, and achieving a significant following in both cities is rare. When it does happen, it is usually because an artist has achieved regional or national acclaim – think Jabee, Samantha Crain, Johnny Polygon and John Moreland.

Ferris O’Brien, program director for The Spy FM, said the level of division can vary, depending on the audience. He said indie acts are doing what they can to make the turnpike trip less bumpy.

“I think that each city has its people in the know or the ‘cool kids club’ in which, over the past few years, that ice thaw may have begun,” O’Brien says. “But on the scale of the masses … it’s still sub-arctic.”

Jerry Wofford, former Tulsa World music writer and current education and public programs director for the Woody Guthrie Center, said he is seeing more movement between the two cities.

“I think both cities have had a rich history of music that both cities are fiercely proud and protective of,” he says. “But more and more, the cities and the music scenes in them can’t operate in a silo. I have seen more and more crossovers and inclusion of musicians in each other’s scenes, and it feels like whatever rivalry or rub was there was giving way to cooperation and collaboration.”

One example of an artist who has forded the divide, Wofford said, is Oklahoma City’s Carter Sampson.

“We’ve had her play a few times in our theater with folks from Tulsa, and I know she’s done Mercury with Tulsa folks regularly,” he says. “I think it’s in the hip hop scene some, too. Especially for the Fire in Little Africa project that recorded back in March.”

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