Art museums, boozy bike rides & Hamilton: the emergence of OKC

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As a 13-year San Franciscan who travels regularly, life in this world-class city already feels like a vacation. But despite the international vibes of our beloved city by the Bay, as I think about my future and where I want to eventually settle down, living costs of San Francisco become increasingly more ridiculous.

When I first received the invitation to attend an LGBTQ media trip in Oklahoma City, I wondered what a town in the Great Plains wanted with a group of gay reporters. Ever curious, within a few weeks I was hopping a 6am flight to the red soil of OKC.

My travels to other big cities sometimes start feeling like Everytown, USA with their long queues for brunch and dimly-lit craft cocktail bars with exaggerated prices. Upon landing in the calm, quaint, un-bustling OKC airport and taking seemingly-abandoned back roads into downtown, I was immediately fascinated with discovering the city’s culture. Where the hell is everybody? And what do they do for fun?

It felt nearly apocalyptic at 4 p.m. when there wasn’t a hint of traffic or delays during what would be commute hours elsewhere. Then, just past the Taco Bell and gas station, appeared the modern brick facade of 21c Museum Hotel, and inside was a contemporary world of imagination. 

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A kaleidoscope illustration of smiling Michelle Obama and Oprah Winfrey was nearby a life-size sculpture of Confessions on a Dance Floor Madonna. Behind the registration area, an unfamiliar yet intriguing art piece --  fashionable khaki trench coat and jeweled necklace -- was displayed near a recognizable work by portraitist Kehinde Wiley. 

“Welcome home,” I thought to myself. Art museums are a must for me when traveling and 21c seamlessly combined pop art with plush accommodations. 

During the opening reception of our media trip, held at sunset on the hotel rooftop, we were welcomed by Mayor David Holt, the 39-year-old Republican who took office in April. 

“I think, candidly, many would be surprised by the look and feel of Oklahoma City,” Mayor Holt told me. 

To get an idea of OKC’s social scene I asked him to detail his ideal date night, which he did without hesitation. The Jones Assembly, a spacious indoor-outdoor venue of upscale American fare, was at the top his list. “Our food culture is something we pride ourselves on,” he added.  

“If you’re into sports, there’s no better fan experience than the Thunder [basketball team], great fans, great atmosphere. Hollywood would be Hollywood without the Lakers, but most other cities need that pro-sports team to have the blue ribbon that’s bestowed on other American cities.” 

Cheers from Vast, a 49th-floor hotspot inside Devon Tower.

Cheers from Vast, a 49th-floor hotspot inside Devon Tower.

If the ample sites of construction are any indication, OKC is quickly earning their blue ribbon.  

Already going up is a new contemporary art museum, an American Indian Cultural Center that Mayor Holt says will “rival the one on the National Mall in Washington,” a 605-room Omni hotel, and a new convention center. 

In July 2019, the Broadway knockout musical Hamilton will stop in OKC’s Civic Center Music Hall for a three-week run. It became nearly impossible to get Hamilton tickets in San Francisco without paying an arm and a leg; I predict similar success for Oklahomans. 

An unexpectedly satisfying activity was our afternoon of boozy bike riding lead by Ryan Fogle, founder of Ride OKC, a guided cycling tour of downtown. Fogle’s experience as an architect offered information about some of the city’s most noteworthy structures, including the 52-story Devon Tower which punctuates the city skyline and the allegedly haunted Skirvin Hotel, first opened in 1911. 

Something like Ride OKC works well on uncrowded roads. I couldn’t imagine pit-stopping for a pint of lager at multiple breweries then navigating busy metropolitan streets full of buses, cars, and pedestrians in a small gang of cyclists. 

Pedaling through the Historic District, feeling cool breezes and seeing gorgeous trees of Autumnal oranges, yellows, and reds was one of my favorite activities all week. 

I think, candidly, many would be surprised by the look and feel of Oklahoma City
— OKC Mayor David Holt

Soberingly somber was my visit to the Oklahoma City National Memorial and Museum. Similar to how the AIDS epidemic obliterated and united San Francisco, Oklahoma City became stronger together after the bombing of the Murrah Federal Building on April 19, 1995. 

The deadliest act of domestic terrorism in U.S. history has left a hollowed spirit in the city. The museum, opened in 2000, attempts to fill the void by honoring the 168 people who died, first responders, and the countless survivors who were injured or effected. 

Museum Collections Manager Helen Stiefmiller, who handles the personal items that belonged to those who perished, survived, and rescued, said it’s an honor to do her job.  

“We have walking, breathing constituents and they give us their stories,” Stiefmiller said during a private tour of the museum archives. “I get to meet all the people who survived this and lived through this. It’s an honor to work with them and know that I’m preserving their loved ones memories and their experiences.” 

Stiefmiller said, “The community came together [after the destruction] and said, ‘No way, you can’t divide us.’ I think that’s one of the most powerful parts of this story.” 

Helen Stiefmiller, left, handles archival items inside Oklahoma City National Memorial and Museum.

Helen Stiefmiller, left, handles archival items inside Oklahoma City National Memorial and Museum.

“[Similar to] the aftermath of the AIDS crisis when people made the quilt, we have people who make things, but here we have a permanent place [to preserve them],” she added. 

As I did final edits to this article, chalk-written names covered the Castro Street sidewalks. World AIDS Day is a reminder of San Francisco’s own hollow hole left in a community after deadly disaster; each name an echo of the past. 

Surely the invitation to visit Oklahoma City was intended to show a progressive, inclusive, welcoming town that’s emerging into a hub of culture and tourism; which it did. It also provided an opportunity to experience a different type of city life. 

And though I haven’t completely thrown in the towel on my San Francisco digs, OKC opened my eyes to the possibility of living in a city without pretense.  

See for yourself. Check out visitokc.com

Tony TaylorOKC, LGBTQ, lgbtq media