Oklahoma was never a place I thought I would want to spend time, but lately, America’s lesser-visited cities have intrigued me – often these experiences have altered my views and changed my mindset. Thanks to an opportunity sponsored by the George Kaiser Family Foundation and Small Girls PR, Tulsa, Oklahoma was a new place on my radar. This city in middle America piqued my curiosity after spending almost my whole life on the east and west coasts. In one weekend, I discovered why Tulsa is both rich in history and the city of the future, a city that seems to be on the cusp of an expansive creative explosion! It was not at all what I imagined.
Tulsa, located in the northeast coast of Oklahoma (and the second largest city after Oklahoma City) feels like a place where you could thrive and easily test out your creative entrepreneurial ideas. You could move to this city in your 20’s or 30’s with a dream and make it happen, especially with the low cost of living. You wouldn’t be a small fish in a big sea like LA or NYC.
Tulsa felt diverse and progressive. One night we met a knowledgeable beer sommelier at Heirloom Rustic Ales who not only plays in a metal band but mentioned how he writes for their Alternative Weekly newspaper. Another night we met a single dad who works for the Chamber of Commerce and bought a nice 4-bedroom house for $125k. Another Tulsan returned to his childhood home after big city living and raved about his brand new 2-bedroom apartment in downtown Tulsa for around $1000 a month. These prices are unheard of in Los Angeles. At the First Friday Art Crawl in Tulsa Art District, wet met Black Moon Tulsa, a black artist collective that’s breaking standards, pushing innovation and cultivating creativity among the local community. First Fridays exist not only in Venice, California but here in Tulsa too. While snacking on free hot cider and churros for the community, we admired art, mingled, and watched in amazement as Living Arts showed scantily clad transgender performers bringing art to life while erotic videos paired with artwork of a naked statuesque black man caught our attention. This was not what I expected in middle America.
Tulsa was once a thriving “oil capital of the world” for most of the early 20th century and the city’s success in the energy industry prompted construction booms in the popular Art Deco style. This can be heavily felt in Downtown Tulsa where today there are 61 registered historic buildings and was once the heart of the oil capital district. An art deco tour by the Tulsa Foundation of Architecture starting at Topeca Coffee in the historic Philcade Building will point out the subtleties and history you may miss around the neighborhood – the Art Deco zig-zag style, gold leaf, plaster ceilings patinaed with cigarette smoke from Prohibition-era, Italian travertine ceilings, stained glass windows, androgynous images painted on the ceilings of the Bank of Oklahoma, and basement tunnels once used to get out of the heat or to hide during Prohibition times. Imagine Pretty Boy Floyd or Machine Gun Kelly hiding in the darkened tunnel since with riches came threats on your life like kidnapping. The winter felt like a lovely time to visit, with the holiday décor and Christmas trees donning each structure. As we exited a building to admire the European-like gargoyle sculptures, a smaller version of the World Trade Center built in the 1970s by the same architect loomed over us. The oil industry’s “funny money” was beyond good to this city, and now instead of tearing down its past, Tulsa is reinventing the future with adaptive reuse. Tulsa has a heart.
Like every city, Tulsa has a twisted past. One of the first prosperous black communities in the 1920s thrived here in an area now known as “Black Wall Street” which was obliterated in 1921 due to violence towards blacks. Not often told in history books, this bustling black neighborhood was burned down, displacing 10,000 people overnight. Later, the government targeted this area with air raids killing presumably more than 300 people. The hurt and disbelief of not being acknowledged with any sort of retribution over 90 years later seem to still run deep today when talking to the minister in the basement of the A.M.E. church where people hid during this domestic terrorist massacre. The vivacious black minister Pastor Robert Turner in the basement of the A.M.E church (the only thing spared) in the Greenwood District shared that he will keep preaching because “all survivors died with no justice.” The Vernon African Methodist Episcopal Church has now been added to the National Register for Historic Places.
In the last three months, Tulsa has received a major boost with the new Gathering Place in the center of the city. This 465-million-dollar riverfront park – free for everyone – is where mid-century meets nature park. The 100 acres were designed with the common goal to unite people from all areas of Tulsa. Sixty-six of the 100 acres are now open. A giant living room called The Lodge is outfitted in Scandinavian style wood design with a fireplace and ample cozy spots to sit, read, eat, relax, or socialize. The mesmerizing design style of the space has been used for Santa photo ops and Acapella groups.
In addition, the Gathering Place includes a children’s museum, $2 ice cream, sky gardens, a lake with paddleboards, a cafe with deck jutting out on the water, a room called the Cabinet of Wonders filled with exotic and intriguing curiosities, and soon a skate and bike park. Sustainability and inclusion are thought of everywhere – as part of the design and play structures – from wheelchair accessibility to sensory-sensitive play areas for those with autism. Want to make art in a boathouse? Want to take your baby to play in the baby adventure playground? The space is literally for everyone. Kids can enjoy the sensory garden or play-style learning opportunities based on STEM. The children’s playground is loaded with bodily-kinesthetic options to make music, play with water, or just swing or slide, but so beautifully designed, adults will want to get in on the action. Since the Gathering Place is already so popular, shuttles are being considered to ease transportation stress. Everyone can find their place here, feel special, and find programs that interest them.
The thriving restaurant and bar scene offers many choices you would expect to only find in a big city. Staying in the historic Tulsa Arts District at the Fairfield Downtown Arts District Hotel allowed for easy exploration in this unique, walkable neighborhood with a vibrant sense of work and play. Nearby the hotel, shows are still regularly performed at historic Cain’s Ballroom and just a short walk away you can learn about American history through music at the Woody Guthrie Museum. In a quick rectangular area, I snacked on pork fried rice at packed Lone Wolf, sipped on coffee at artsy Parisian-style Gypsy Coffee House, and picked up some specialty dark chocolate from Glacier Confection started by a Vietnam vet. At Shuffles Board Game Café in the historic Archer Building, I marveled at rows and rows of board games, like a library filled with actual tangible games where you can sit and socialize over a coffee or a cocktail and play loads of new games with humans. Today this sort of concept feels like it is needed now more than ever with our digital overload.
Soon the city will attract more visitors with plans to open the OKPOP museum, an Oklahoma pop culture-centric building highlighting the creative spirits that sprang up in Oklahoma and spread to the rest of the world via Route 66. The former home from the classic film The Outsiders will be turned into a museum and the Bob Dylan Center (with his archives) will be unveiled in Tulsa around 2021.
Besides stellar BBQ at places like Burn Co BBQ, the craft beer scene is exploding with boutique beers in retro buildings. Quaint and cozy Heirloom Rustic Ales and American Solera tap room, named the best brewery in the US, should be at the top of your list. Try 6 oz beer pours with options like Pineapple Whip, GOODberry, or Maple Dilemma. Both places serve intricately crafted beer while the vintage décor reminded me of something you might expect to find in Palm Springs, LA, or Joshua Tree. A new food hall called Mother Road Market boasts over 20 restaurant and retail concepts, which makes choosing one dish impossible. Opt for fried coconut shrimp and fried avocado slices with Jamaican festival bread from Nice Guys Shrimp Shack or fries topped with bulgogi beef from Umami Fries. The Nashville hot chicken from Chicken and the Wolf looked popular from the long lines. Find tacos, lobster rolls, BBQ, and even the Falefelopolis which features healthy bowls packed with falafel and veggies. End your food tour with an ice cream sandwich from OK Cookie Monster.
In one night, we dined at the female-chef-driven Duet Jazz with the dimly lit ambiance feeling more like New York City before scooting down below for a live jazz show in a packed house. If that wasn’t enough, we ended up down the road at The Max Retropub, where we sipped on affordable themed cocktails named “Breakfast Club” and “Hasselhoff” while playing retro arcade games from my 80’s past. Old school movies projected on the walls while happy revelers played pinball and I crushed Ms. PacMan. Good nostalgia.
Next up on our Friday evening in Tulsa was a hip-hop show in Fassler’s Beer Hall where all ethnicities intermingled cheerfully over good beer and tunes. Saturday night we started at art-deco style romantic Vintage Wine Bar where we sampled small-production wines with a wine flight and watched a gaggle of girls down chambongs, horn-like glassware filled with bubbly. Afterward, the Uber let us out in front of a London red phone booth where we found local favorite Hodges Bend across the street. Feeling more like a New York City bar with its brick-walled space than what I imagined in Tulsa, the jam-packed dark spot donned in colorful Christmas lights and multicolor tinsel is where you should come for adventurous cocktails and to meet new friends. Later that night some of our friends ended up country line dancing at the popular disco Whiskey 918.
Before leaving the “third coast” we brunched at contemporary all white fruit and vegetable-driven Oren in Brookside which felt like we might be in a new quieter version of Melrose in West Hollywood. Our group’s discussions quickly turned to could we leave the fast lane of NYC, LA, and San Fran behind to move here and why wouldn’t someone move here? Already a Brooklyn writer was figuring out how he could move to Tulsa and apply to TulsaRemote.com offering applicants $10,000 to live in Tulsa for their first year, along with a $300 monthly housing stipend, and a free coworking space called 36 Degrees North (similar to WeWork).
Although neighborhoods are revitalizing, they are not trying to price people out. No traffic jams. Easy flight connects. A city that is birthing ideas and culture everywhere you turn. Tulsa is experiencing a Renaissance and returning to a world-class city. Why not Tulsa?