Though Anderson’s empathy for Oklahoma City shines through, Boom Town isn’t a work of boosterism. The author refuses to skip over or whitewash the more unfortunate episodes of the city’s past. Anderson gives ample space to the local civil-rights hero Clara Luper and the relentless backlash she and other African Americans endured during their sit-in campaigns in the ’60s. The book also explores how Oklahoma City—under the guise of “urban renewal”—has since corralled many of its black citizens into “islands” on the East Side, segregated by freeways and giant corporate parking lots. Anderson also unpacks the formation of the “Indian Territory” in the late 19th century: how tribes from all over North America were physically marched into present-day Oklahoma, and how even that last vestige of freedom for the Creek and Seminole Indians—2 million acres of land—was later reassigned to the white settlers.
Elsewhere in Boom Town, Anderson meticulously maps the physical outlines of the city—the largest in the world by size (in the early ’60s) at more than 600 square miles—and how key administrators shaped a skyline and later tore it down, one excruciating demolition at a time. In another especially poignant episode, Anderson details the city’s courting of United Airlines. Ultimately, the multibillion-dollar company chose to build a new repair facility in Indianapolis, unwilling to subject its workers to Oklahoma City despite lavish corporate incentives.* “United could not imagine making its employees live there,” Anderson writes. “Indianapolis had NBA basketball, NFL football, public transportation, a downtown canal, and renovated old buildings with shops and restaurants and hotels. Oklahoma City had a dry riverbed and a blasted vacant downtown and empty restaurants.” By rolling this loss into the narrative, Anderson allows the airline to serve, however briefly, as the opposition, embodying a mentality that the city has long struggled against.
Every city, every town, has an epic tale, but it can be hard to locate a through line, the tissue connecting every major figure, historical event, and local affair. Writers and critics sometimes talk of place as a character itself, referring to some hazy sense that setting plays a crucial role in a story. In Boom Town, that character is squarely in the crosshairs. Oklahoma City, “one of the great weirdo cities of the world,” is Anderson’s protagonist, and the elements he chooses to include all build on the notion that “in its excesses, its imbalances, its illusions, its overcorrections, its lunges of pride and insecurity, its tragedies, and its improbable achievements, [Oklahoma City] says something deeper about the nature of cities, about human togetherness, than a more well-rounded or traditional city ever could.”
In one early and particularly hypnotic chapter, Anderson chronicles the infamous Land Run of April 22, 1889, authorized by President Benjamin Harrison. When the bugle sounded at noon, settlers raced in to fill the “Unassigned Lands,” formerly the Indian Territory. That night, after the chaos had temporarily calmed and the campfires had lit up, a voice carried over the new settlement: “Oh, Joe! Here’s your mule!” Surely the initial announcement was practical, but then someone else repeated it. And another, until the whole encampment—ensnared in some odd social phenomenon—was shouting the nonsense together. “The place was so new and precarious, so strange,” Anderson writes of the incident, “that its residents had to shock themselves into community using whatever method they could find—the way a human body, freezing to death, tries to generate its own heat by shivering.” That interpretation is indicative not just of Anderson’s skill as a writer, but also of the level of detail he’s culled from countless hours of research and reportage.