Sam Anderson, Boom Town: The Fantastical Saga of Oklahoma City, Its Chaotic Founding, Its Purloined Basketball Team, and the Dream of Becoming a World-Class Metropolis (2018)
When I fantasize about living in Oklahoma City, I mentally install myself in the Regency Tower, a 24-story downtown apartment building put up in the late 1960s. By comparison to the surrounding built environment — newer, for the most part, than even the city's mere 131 years would lead one to expect — the Regency ranks as a classic. It has also proven itself as a survivor, standing as it was just a block away from the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building when the latter was destroyed by the 1995 car-bombing that remains many Americans' sole association with the Oklahoman capital. The Regency sustained only cosmetic damage, despite a proximity to the blast such that an axle of the explosive-packed Ryder truck crushed a car parked nearby. It was that VIN-stamped part, in fact, that hastened the capture of Timothy McVeigh, the embittered Gulf War veteran who'd masterminded the bombing.
Sam Anderson includes such memorable facts all throughout Boom Town: The Fantastical Saga of Oklahoma City, Its Chaotic Founding, Its Purloined Basketball Team, and the Dream of Becoming a World-class Metropolis. The book was published in 2018, three years after my own first visit to Oklahoma City. I stopped there, as I imagine more than a few do, in the middle of a cross country road-trip. Interstate 40 had already offered up the likes of Barstow, Flagstaff, Albuquerque, and Amarillo, and later would come Memphis, Knoxville, Asheville, Raleigh. Of the time I spent in all these places, somehow my evening, morning, and afternoon in Oklahoma City left the sharpest impression. This owed less to visiting the site of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building, now the affecting if somewhat literal Oklahoma City National Memorial, than to the surprisingly robust urban gestalt I sensed while walking around its environs.
"OKC is in the midst of a downtown renaissance," Anderson writes, "a growth whose improbability — after decades of busts and self-inflicted disappointments and unspeakable tragedies — has made the place almost legendary among contemporary American cities." On nearly every stop of the road trip I heard locals express surprise at the revitalization of their city center ("I'd never have believed downtown could be like this"), but in Oklahoma City I felt it right there on the streets. That impression could have been enhanced, I admit, by the pumpkin festival, which happened to be going on in the Myriad Botanical Gardens beneath Devon Tower, the brazenly out-of-scale "850-foot glass skyscraper that is the most literal possible monument to the city’s grandiose self-image." And it certainly didn't bring me down to have a cappuccino at Elemental Coffee, which in the book's acknowledgments Anderson calls "my OKC office."
Only five minutes' walk from the Regency, Elemental would surely be my OKC office too. But for all the vividness with which I imagine life in Oklahoma City, I know full well that I'll almost certainly never live it. This has less to do with a lack of desire than a lack of viability: I occasionally make fun of South Korea, where I actually live, for its overwhelming capital-centricity, but the fact remains that I instinctively categorize all my peers in the United States as being in New York, Los Angeles, or "someplace weird." Anderson, a non-fiction writer like myself (albeit one of considerably higher status), lives in New York — a sensible choice, given his staff position at the New York Times Magazine. I myself lived in Los Angeles before my transoceanic move, which I made just weeks after completing the transcontinental drive that introduced me to Oklahoma City.
In Anderson's case as in mine, the only way to live or even spend significant time in non-major cities (to say nothing of small towns, which don't do it for me anyway) is to write about them. It was writing, in fact, that brought Anderson to Oklahoma City in the first place, sent as he originally was on assignment to cover "the city's improbable new pro basketball team, the Thunder, which had evolved, with almost unbelievable speed, from a morally tainted laughingstock to one of the most powerful collections of talent in sports." The story of the Thunder constitutes one of the main threads running through Boom Town, and even to a reader with as little knowledge of basketball as myself, the names of its star players — the mild and methodical Kevin Durant, the paradoxical control-freak loose cannon Russell Westbrook, the iconically bearded James Harden — rung bells nevertheless.
Whatever my sense of the Thunder's importance in the 2010s, I had no idea until Anderson informed me that the team used to be the Seattle Supersonics. This is a slightly embarrassing admission given that I did most of my growing up in the Washington State of the 1990s, in whose zeitgeist the "Sonics" were a modest but constant presence. (I seem even to remember attending an actual game or two.) Commercial phenomena like Microsoft, Starbucks, and Nirvana, to say nothing of the flourishing indie-comics scene whose fruits I so enjoyed as a preteen, made the greater Seattle area feel at times like the center of the world. Back then, "when Seattle’s stock was high, OKC’s was bottoming out. Downtown was abandoned; young people and major industries were fleeing. It would have been hard to imagine a less culturally relevant place. When Seattle was hip, Oklahoma City was tragic."
It was in my Seattle fourth-grade classroom that I first heard of the Oklahoma City bombing — and, more likely than not, of Oklahoma City. For the next couple of decades until I saw the place for myself, all my mental images of it involved firemen covered in concrete dust cradling lifeless-looking infants. The good publicity and civic pride generated by the Thunder's period of victory notwithstanding, many without first-hand experience of Oklahoma City presumably retain a similar thinly harrowing conception of it even today. The title Boom Town must thus strike them as in somewhat poor taste, at least until they read the book and find that it refers to Anderson's sweeping theory of "a place where powerful forces came together from great distances, creating crises of equilibrium." Plunging himself into the history, geography, and culture of Oklahoma City, Anderson sees booms everywhere around him.
Among the most important of these booms is the one that trails behind supersonic aircraft, which put an end to International Geophysical Year dreams of supersonic passenger flight. It thus also put an end to Oklahoma City's dreams of becoming a supersonic flight hub, a status promised by the federal government in exchange for its participation in "Operation Bongo," a 1964 experiment meant to determine the effects of pounding a metropolitan region with sonic booms for six months straight. This was just a few years before the debut of the Seattle Supersonics, their name a tribute to nearby Boeing and its government-funded contract to develop supersonic transport, whose sonic-boom problem hadn't quite yet proven insoluble. "What no one knew, at the time, was that supersonic flight was doomed," Anderson writes, "and the Seattle Supersonics were also doomed, and it was largely, in both cases, because of Oklahoma City."
A nonfiction writer envies Anderson such connections, which his subject seems to provide in abundance and in his rendering read as almost implausibly convenient. So do the various other booms that occur throughout the book, from Westbrook's habit of shouting "Boom!" after making a three-pointer to the nineteenth-century agitation for the opening to settlers of the "Unassigned Lands" of Oklahoma by "rabble-rousing frontiersman" David Payne and his group the Boomers. It was Payne's efforts, in part, that lead to the Land Run of April 22, 1889, which at noon on that day opened the territory's borders to 50,000 such settlers at once, all of whom were free to claim any land they could stake out. "The Land Run was, even by the standards of America, absurd. It was a very bad idea, executed very badly," writes Anderson, especially at the confluence of river and railroad that would become Oklahoma City.
"It would be hard to think of a worse way to start a city" than the Land Run and the agonizing period of ad-hoc organization and reorganization that followed. But it would also be hard of think of a more vivid and thematically resonant founding story to include in a city book like this. (Before the settlers rushed in, it seems the prairie was full of chickens that engaged in a distinctive mate-calling ritual called "booming.") Anderson begins Boom Town not with the Land Run but with a brief "Visitor's Guide to Oklahoma City." First, he advises the reader, "get yourself a car. You won’t be able to survive here without one." Instinctively I wondered how true that really is; upon moving to Los Angeles I assumed I would have to get myself a car, but soon realized I could survive there without one.
This was the first unexpected parallel I noticed between Oklahoma City and Los Angeles, but certainly not the last. Each has in the early 21st century experienced a downtown renaissance, but in the early 20th century each also enjoyed a flowering of architecture "eclectic to the point of absurdity." Each sits atop oil deposits that have encouraged the incorporation of derricks into its built environment, each has a civic consciousness seated to a great extent in an NBA team, and each has displayed great ambition as well as an inability to "meaningfully distinguish between its fantasies of the future and its actual present." Despite its comparatively small population, Oklahoma City occupies a land area comparable in vastness to that of Los Angeles: this was the result of the postwar "Great Annexation" that pushed city limits outward so relentlessly that, by 1961, Oklahoma City had become "bigger" than Los Angeles.
The Great Annexation was helmed by Stanley Draper, who as the head of Oklahoma City's Chamber of Commerce exercised a Robert Moses-like influence throughout half of the 20th century. (Bringing Operation Bongo to town counts among his late-career "achievements.") In another of Boom Town's coincidences, this one "cosmic," Draper was born in 1889, just like Oklahoma city itself. "Rarely have a city and a citizen been so perfectly matched. Draper was as obsessed with cities as OKC was obsessed with being a city." One could say that the North Carolina-born Draper set for his adopted hometown the goal of becoming the "world-class metropolis" of the book's subtitle, and the city's "purloined basketball team" — somewhat underhandedly acquired as the Supersonics were — would have done him proud. Befitting an aggressive figure in postwar American urban development, he was honored with an eponymous elevated highway that plowed right through downtown.
Anderson portrays Draper's legacy as rather mixed, but he also locates the symbolic event of Oklahoma City's urban self-destruction in 1977, the year after the local power broker's death. This was the demolition of downtown's Biltmore Hotel, which before the war had "made OKC seem big-time." Within a block "you could get your hair cut, pick up flowers, buy a necklace, see a movie, or shop at a specialty store that sold only vacuum cleaners." But though the Biltmore once "stood at the center of a whole thriving world," by the mid-70s "downtown was something very different. No one came there for fun anymore. All of those shops had moved out. The streetcar lines had been torn up and replaced by buses." Such was the fate of many American city centers in that period, drained of life by new freeways and the massively subsidized suburban developments to which they led.
Downtown Los Angeles may have become a notoriously stark example of this urban exodus in the second half of the 20th century, but its experience was painless compared to that of downtown Oklahoma City. Los Angeles still has its own Biltmore Hotel, as well as many other reasonably elegant buildings from the late 19th and early 20th century that, not immaculately maintained but not knocked down either, held out great promise to a new generation of loft-dwellers. Oklahoma City, at the behest of a young I.M. Pei, destroyed not just the Biltmore but most of its downtown, in theory to clear space for a gleaming, angular, freeway-fed agglomeration of office buildings, convention centers, shopping malls, and parking garages. Drawn up in 1964, the "Pei Plan" stands as one of the most aggressive examples of the destroy-it-to-save-it programs then commissioned by cities desperate to reverse their decline.
Nearly every major U.S. city made a bet on "urban renewal" of this kind in the 1960s and 70s, but Oklahoma City went all-in. (Even Pei wanted to preserve the Biltmore, Anderson notes, but the city government's appetite for destruction won the day.) The gamble didn't pay off: apart from the Myriad Botanical Gardens, little of the Pei Plan figures prominently into the Oklahoma City of the 21st century, an economic bust having beset the city after most of the demolition but before most of the new construction. Unlike so many other American downtowns, Los Angeles' included, Oklahoma City's didn't even get anything as notable as a John Portman atrium hotel out of the deal. In the very year of the Biltmore's implosion, however, it did inaugurate an undeniably impressive bureaucratic-modernist hulk of concrete and tinted glass: the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building.
Amounting to "180,000 square feet of logistics and errands," the Murrah Building was "a candidate for the most boring place on earth," as Anderson puts it. But it also stands, or stood, at the intersection of several of his book's themes, a major one being Oklahoma City's counterintuitive but thoroughgoing dependency on the federal government. This is a city created "on someone else’s land, by federal fiat and then bailed out and subsidized more or less constantly to ensure its survival and flourishing"; even "the renegade capitalists of the oil and gas industry, the source of the modern city’s booms and busts, prospered largely through the generosity of huge federal tax breaks." This in a city (and state) long enamored of its own mythology of rugged, independent individualism — somewhat different in sensibility than, but internalized to a similarly delusional degree as, the individualist mythology of Los Angeles.
Anderson saves April 19, 1995 nearly for last. As the one story most readers already know about Oklahoma City, it benefits from being retold only after a variety of other stories have given its setting a sense of place: the story of the Land Run; of Stanley Draper and urban renewal; of local civil-rights icon Clara Luper; of the Thunder and James Harden's beard, "one of America’s most famous hair things"; of Flaming Lips frontman Wayne Coyne (raised in Oklahoma City and a resident ever since); of deified television weatherman Gary England, in whose studio Anderson is present during the approach of the largest tornado in recorded history. The bombing, when it comes, almost reads as a kind of weather disaster, explicable but only up to a point. (Jon Ronson, no wearer of tinfoil hats, once called it the one much-theorized event about which be suspects the public hasn't heard the full story.)
Within living memory, the history of Oklahoma City seems to break down into two periods: before the bombing and after. In the years leading up to its most disastrous "boom," the city languished in one of its most disheartening busts: amounting to a "dry riverbed and a blasted vacant downtown and empty restaurants that served chicken-fried steak," it found itself losing corporate favor to the likes of Fort Worth and Indianapolis. Then came Metro Area Projects (MAPS), a sales tax-funded program for improvements to downtown: filling in the river, for example, but also building libraries and stadiums. Though it could have halted MAPS at a stroke, the bombing seems actually to have had an unexpectedly galvanizing effect; by the time bringing an NBA franchise to town began to look like a long shot rather than a pipe dream, there was very nearly a town to bring it to.
Whereas domestic terrorism forged Oklahoma City's "national brand" not so long ago, recent years have brought into focus the distinct entity of "OKC," "the brand name, the PR creation, the city of the renaissance, of momentum and opportunity, of boosterism, the realm of the chamber of commerce." (The comparable divide between Los Angeles and "L.A." comes to mind, not that I've convinced many to acknowledge it.) "It’s easy now, as an outsider, to show up downtown and fall in love," though one presumably falls in love more with OKC than Oklahoma City. Yet "despite the Thunder, despite all the new restaurants and coffee shops and the bike-share program, downtown OKC still has a particular way of feeling devastatingly barren — something deep in its DNA, the original prairie asserting itself, whispering emptiness through the thin concrete crust of civilization, the wind circulating its absence into every inch of open space."
In their vividness and colloquiality, these words provide a fair representation of Boom Town's prose style. When first I saw it announced, I was excited not just by the prospect of a whole book about the city that had so intrigued me on my stop there a few years earlier, but by the prospect of that book's being written by Anderson in particular. I'd been reading him for years, at least since his visceral but understandable 2009 trashing of Thomas Pynchon. His New York Times Magazine work of recent years includes thorough, conversational profiles of such cultural figures as Rick Steves and Weird Al Yankovic, each in his own way (as indeed is Pynchon) a representative of modern American culture. So, less obviously, is the subject of the one Anderson piece I've re-read more than any other: "The Fierce Imagination of Haruki Murakami."
Haruki Murakami the man is, of course, Japanese. The city of Tokyo, where Anderson travels to interview him (a rarity for the appallingly stingy magazine industry, even a decade ago), "turned out to be intensely, inflexibly, unapologetically Japanese." Yet having grown up self-immersed in "American culture, especially hard-boiled detective novels and jazz," Murakami the novelist is, in all but language, American himself. Just as Anderson's keen instinct for finding the core of American-ness in a subject made him the right man to profile Murakami, it also made him the right man to cultivate the obsession with Oklahoma City that drove him to write an entire book on the place. This is an unusual quality in American writers of his class, effectively relegated as they are to New York and Los Angeles in a country that has always considered its big cities exceptions to its culture rather than exemplary of it.
Boom Town is a magazine journalist's book, and it executes that profession's standard practice of oscillating between multiple dramatic stories with an near-parodic vigor. But Anderson is blessedly unaffected by the kind of reportorial piety that would deny him a role in any of these interwoven narratives. Here he makes his own Land Run by walking five hours to downtown from the bleak hamlet of Choctaw; here he attends the exhumation of a century-old time capsule; here he joins Wayne Coyne and his coterie in the surreptitious project of painting a rainbow along a public street. "As I explored Oklahoma City," he writes, "I got into the habit of asking the people I met — architects, journalists, historians, policemen, athletes, planners — to show me around their OKC," looking to eventually "overlay all these different maps" and "understand how the many worlds inside of the city related to one another."
To anyone who writes or reads seriously about cities, such an endeavor will sound tantalizing indeed. Anderson even gets a driving tour from Daniel Orton, the only Thunder player who actually grew up in Oklahoma City. Orton then lived in the Founders Tower, a 1960s high-rise built in a cylindrical Googie style complete with revolving restaurant. Though architecturally superior to the Regency, its location can't compete: "an odd relic of the era of the Great Annexation," it stands five miles from downtown. They motor through "a vast outdoor museum of America’s big box stores and chain hotels and fast-food restaurants" as Anderson relates the native son's ambivalence-at-best attitude toward his hometown: "Oklahoma City didn’t even occur to Orton as a place to be excited about, because it hardly even really occurred to him as a place. The neighborhoods he grew up in were mainly zones of traffic interrupted by malls."
Orton is a few years younger than me; Anderson, a few years older. Much of this American generation, broadly defined, passed its youth in such suburban and exurban nowhere. Hence the supposed Millennial desire, fodder for a thousand 2010s trend pieces, to live in "walkable" urban environments equipped with the aforementioned coffee shops, food trucks, and bike-share systems, and if not a proper transit system then at least a streetcar line or two. Without these amenities, I doubt if Oklahoma City would inspire any of my fantasies, however infrequent and hazy. Yet they're hardly enough by themselves to have inspired an enduring fascination with a city in which I've spent less than 24 hours. Could Oklahoma City really be, as Anderson claims it is, "one of the great weirdo cities of the world — as strange, in its way, as Venice or Dubai or Versailles or Pyongyang"?
Much of Oklahoma City's strangeness must spring from its being just like other American cities — relatively new, instinctively accommodating to cars, heavily invested in professional sports, abject in its relationship to big business, not yet recovered from devastating postwar suburbanization, late to trends it then embraces with an awkward urgency, anxious about its status, driven throughout its history by an admirable if often hypocritical spirit — only more so. It thus could hardly have failed to capture the imagination of a professional exegete of American culture like Anderson. I suspect he found himself obsessed in Oklahoma City with the same question that lodged in my mind when first I got to Los Angeles (surely another candidate for a great weirdo city of the world): "How did it get this way?" And I imagine that, even after writing this book in response, he feels he has yet to find out.
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His current projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall, or on Facebook.