(Gary Lee spent years as a travel writer for The Washington Post. He is now co-owner of Las Canteras, a Washington DC restaurant where he tends bar downstairs -- I used to stop by regularly, order a Sour Haas, and hear the story of how he discovered the avocado infused drink at the Ritz Carlton in Santiago, Chile.
Below is an excerpt from a Culture11 piece he wrote about Tulsa, Oklahoma. There is so little good writing available about Midwestern cities that I begged his permission to reprint it here, stripped of the timely stuff in the original piece. Thus we begin mid-article.)
The unlikely combination of fine art and homespun folksiness is a Tulsa hallmark. The breadth of cultural venues is one of the biggest and most surprising attractions in this city. There is an art gallery, music hall or literary club for just about every taste. For visual art fans, there's the Gilcrease Museum, one of the finest repositories of western art in the country. For opera buffs, the Tulsa Opera, conceived way back when Tulsa was little more than a dusty road and a general store, presents a fine run of productions of Verdi, Wagner and other great composers. The classics are not your thing? Rock music and spoken word poetry are also strong parts of the city's fabric.
What sets Tulsa's cultural scene apart from St. Louis, Denver or many other cities is a populist Southwestern frontier spirit. Even with the prosperity brought on by oil money in the 1920s, it still has the plainspoken manners of the South and unpretentious tastes often associated with the West. Locals might attend a performance of Rigoletto and then repair for a barbecue ribs and potato salad dinner. Cain's ballroom, a downtown concert venue where local rock music fans flock to watch performances of groups like the Ramones, has never managed to shed its early beginnings as a horse stable.
To be sure, Oklahoma's second city (after Oklahoma City), a vast expanse of well-manicured residential neighborhoods and parks that quickly gives way to open pastures and oil fields, doesn't register on most radars as a stronghold of literature or, for that matter, of any other genre of art. With population of 387,000 it's only the 45th largest city in the country. And the location, in the northeastern corner of the Sooner State, is nowhere near the top of most folks travel lists.
If East or West Coast dwellers think of Tulsa at all, they imagine a dot on the map in the vast blob of mid-America between Tuscaloosa and Tucson. Drivers crossing the country along Route 66 have found in Tulsa a logical mid-point between the two coasts, a place to pull off the road and dig into a steak or catch a nap in a motel. Bible Belt enthusiasts are smitten by the city's groundswell of churches and other religious institutions. Their Tulsa is anchored by the campus of Oral Roberts University, built and named after the nationally known televangelist and graced by a 60-foot high bronze sculpture of a pair of praying hands.
Oversized hands aside, one challenge to exploring Tulsa's arts scene is that the arts sights are not concentrated in a single area. Like many of the cities in the American Plains, Tulsa spreads out wide. Its land surface, 186 square miles, encompasses dozens of residential neighborhoods and business districts. The downtown area, home to a couple of dozen magnificently preserved Art Deco buildings, is otherwise pretty sleepy. The Brady District, a warren of low rise brick buildings just north of downtown, has been turned into a 'hood of funky bars and ethnic restaurants. Cherry Street, a couple of miles south of downtown, is lined with coffee houses and art galleries. Brookside, a mile further south, is a stretch of upscale restaurants and clubs. Navigating it all requires a car and a good map.
In my latest trip to "T-town" I started my tour of the arts horizon at the Gilcrease. Both the works displayed and the setting -- the woodsy neighborhood of Gilcrease Hills, located ten minutes by car northwest of downtown -- capture the rugged aura of the Southwest wonderfully. The museum owns more than 10,000 paintings, sculptures and artifacts, including many world class works. Foremost among its possessions is one of biggest collections of works by Thomas Moran, the British born 19th century painter known for his broad canvases of western landscapes. It also has an impressive display of sculptures by Fredric Remington, the 19th century master of bronzes.
The Gilcrease's landscapes and bold sculptures of cowboys and Indians absorbed my attention. "Shoshone Falls on the Snake River," a brilliant Moran work depicting water spraying down a dramatic fall, is one of the most celebrated works on permanent display. Albert Bierstadt's 1870 "Sierra Nevada Morning," a depiction of daybreak in a stunning range of mountains, is a piece I stared at in awe for fifteen minutes.
The after dark scene belongs mostly to a hip, diverse set of Tulsans -- and visitors. Considering the city's size and off-the-beaten trek location, Tulsa hipsters constitute a bigger demographic than you would expect. According to Richard Florida, a nationally known urban affairs expert, Tulsa has an impressive "creative class" -- a tribe of musicians, artists, writers, designers and other free spirited souls. Using his "creativity index," Florida ranks Tulsa in tenth place (after Little Rock and Birmingham) in his list of the most creative medium-sized American cities.
But where does Tulsa's creative class hang? Many of the younger generation gather in the rock music, jazz and indie music clubs. Their options range wide. Cain's Ballroom is the first stop for many. Ever since the Sex Pistols put the cavernous downtown performance hall on the rock 'n' roll map with a performance in '78, it has been the top stage for local and traveling rock acts. Located on the southern fringe of downtown, the Mercury Lounge is the place for smaller live rock performances. Even on slow nights the jazzy jukebox and great selection of cheap beers make it worth the trip. The Jazz Hall of Fame, a handsome Art Deco train terminal transformed into a performance hall, draws an older diverse set of jazz fans.
Besides the music clubs, there are other locales where a casual visitor can drop in without much fuss. One of my favorites is the Gypsy Coffee House, a downtown haunt oozing with warmth and free spirit, where youthful poets and writers gather every Tuesday to listen to whoever steps up to the open mic, sip java and critique each other's work.
With only one Saturday night out, I opted for Soundpony, an indie music hangout located north of downtown, a block from Cain's ballroom. It's a small and unassuming bar with bicycles hanging from the ceiling and walls -- a nod to the owners' cycling passion. PBR and other beers are pretty cheap here and thus flow freely. There is always a youthful free wheeling crowd, including many Tulsa indie musicians and their friends. Local and national indie bands appear on the small stage.
I confess a certain partiality to Tulsa's literary scene. I was born here, and as a ten-year-old began my writing career here with a series of fictional short stories about a hostage crisis in a Tulsa junior high school.
These days I find the city's literary side is remarkable for its range and accessibility. A steady line-up of poetry and prose readings takes place in bookstores, coffee houses, and libraries across the city. The University of Oklahoma holds an annual celebration of books, featuring 70 nationally known writers, at a Tulsa performance hall.
And the main focus of my latest Tulsa trip was Nimrod's literary festival. The magazine, published twice yearly at the University of Tulsa, sponsors an annual competition for the best emerging poetry and prose writers.
The Nimrod Society brings the winners to Tulsa to read from their works. The event, open to the public, is also major for locally-based poets and prose writers. Dozens of hopeful local penmen showed up to attend workshops and have their work critiqued by nationally known writers invited to the conference. I, too, took part, offering a workshop on travel writing and a reading of a book I am writing about Native America.
The remainder of the piece is by now outdated, but all in all, it's a rendering of Tulsa that's made me want to visit ever since I read it.
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