The Biggest US City That Shouldn’t Exist
By Robin Kaiser-SchatzleinOctober 12, 2018
Boom Town by Sam Anderson
The closest starting point was more than 15 miles in every direction, and he calculated it would take about an hour before he saw his first settler. Still, he fired off a symbolic gun blast at noon, the official start time. Moments later, “sooners,” people who snuck into the territory illegally, exploded out of every nook and cranny: ditches, treetops, gulleys, patches of prairie grass. By that evening, Oklahoma City had a population of almost 10,000. And so, the history of Oklahoma began with the symbolic explosion of a gun, and then the unreasonable explosion of people.
In Sam Anderson’s new book, Boom Town, he suggests that the Land Run is far too anodyne a name and “should be called something like ‘Chaos Explosion Apocalypse Town’ or ‘Reckoning of the DoomSettlers: Clusterfuck on the Prairie.’” What is certain is that the Land Run is one of the more farcical events that ever happened in America.
Boom Town is a history of Oklahoma City, and it is not a straightforward narrative. The book weaves many different stories, non-chronologically, into a rag-rug tale. It blends sports reportage with history, narrative journalism, and essay. Anderson is a journalist who has written articles about myriad topics, from Michelangelo’s David to a defense of addictive phone games to a wintertime roadtrip to Mount Rushmore entitled “Why Does Mount Rushmore Exist?” Boom Town’s scope is no less broad.
The majority of the story is that of the 2012–2013 season of Oklahoma City’s improbable basketball franchise, the Oklahoma City Thunder. Short chapters about the season are interspersed with short chapters about a dizzying array of other topics: deadly tornadoes, the story of Timothy McVeigh, the Civil Rights movement, the life of Flaming Lips frontman Wayne Coyne.
In the five years Anderson spent writing this book (his first), he discovered a giant untapped well of information that he couldn’t fit easily into a traditional format. A governing conceit is that of four distinct booms: the Land Run, followed by the discovery of oil in 1928, the discovery of natural gas in the midcentury, and the hydraulic fracturing fortunes of today.
A reporter who attended for Harper’s called the first event “one of the most bizarre and chaotic episodes of town-founding in world history.” Settlers occupied the territory so thoroughly that there wasn’t any room for streets (or parks or government buildings or stores). Stiles’s federal soldiers couldn’t enforce order because most of them had gone AWOL in order for grab land for themselves. Into this fray walked the sober Angelo Scott, who organized a respectable government even as the settlers ran out of food. The population shrank precipitously, rising again after the discovery of oil in the 1920s and the reign of city planner Stanley Draper, who tore up poor neighborhoods in the name of highways and made racism an architectural reality.
In a countervailing narrative, Anderson introduces Roscoe Dunjee, the early 20th-century publisher of an African-American newspaper called the Black Dispatch. Dunjee manages to print his paper for nearly 20 years, giving voice to a powerfully marginalized black community. In the 1950s, Oklahoma City finds a jubilant Civil Rights leader in Clara Luper. She stages consequential nonviolent sit-ins with school children in the 1960s, is arrested 26 times, and continues to be a powerful force for desegregation her entire life.
Natural gas is eventually discovered in the Anadarko Basin, meanwhile, and more highways and parking garages are built over the wreckage of Art Deco buildings of the early 1920s. The government evicts minorities from neighborhoods. A young I. M. Pei is called into town. Fresh off a project to revitalize downtown Cleveland, in which he proposed to level 163 acres of the city center, Pei arrives in Oklahoma City with an even grander vision: level 528 acres. You could have spilled a mug of coffee on a dining-table-sized version of his map, and have slated fewer buildings for demolition. But the town leaders love the idea: this will finally make them the destination city they have always dreamed of!
Anderson describes this episode with dark flair. High on Pei’s proposal, the city rabidly bulldozes and blows up buildings, some that aren’t even on the hit list. Then the boom goes bust, there’s no money to build the proposed glass and steel mega-malls and mega-offices, and downtown Oklahoma City enters the 1970s looking more like bombed-out Dresden than the utopia they imagined.
During economic downturns, the city is as desperate as a parent trying to find Christmas toys at the last minute. Anderson’s saga of Operation Bongo II highlights the pathos. In 1964, the city agreed to let new jets test the effects of their sonic booms on the population. “The allegedly mild aural discomfort the chamber of commerce promised turned out to be rather severe,” Anderson explains. “Residents experienced this as two incongruous claps of thunder. Houses shook. Dishes clattered in cabinets. People leaped from their beds. Windows cracked. Plaster fell from ceilings.” The trial left citizens so harried that it was eventually abandoned.
Another tale of desperation happens in the late 1990s. United Airlines wanted to relocate their corporate headquarters, so they put out a call for proposals. After the shock of the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995, the city was once again down on its luck, possibly at the nadir of its existence. They want United badly. But United puts out a press release saying that while OKC’s bid was by far the best, they simply could not imagine asking their employees to live there. Histories of Oklahoma City tend to be sunny and boosterish, but Anderson does the reader a favor by not shying away from heartbreaking tales like this.
Hydraulic fracturing, also known as fracking, brought a fourth economic boom to Oklahoma City in the 2000s. Flush with capital, the citizens dreamed again of civic greatness and pined for a major sports franchise. Energy moguls Clay Bennett and Aubrey McClendon picked up on this desire, focusing on the task of bringing an NBA team to Oklahoma City. They buy the Seattle SuperSonics and, while publicly promising to keep them in Seattle, scheme to relocate the team to Oklahoma. Despite lawsuits, they transplant the SuperSonics in 2008, rechristening them the Thunder. After only one unsuccessful season, the team explodes. They reach the playoffs in their second season, and they make the finals in their fourth, benefiting from three young potential all-stars: Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, and James Harden.
This is where Anderson originally entered the story. The New York Times Magazine sent him to cover the Thunder’s 2012–2013 season. He is a gifted sports writer who finds high drama not only in the play-by-play narratives of individual games, but in the off-court dynamics as well. Kevin Durant plays the calm, talented giant, while Russell Westbrook is cast as the muscle-shredded maniac. Durant and Westbrook are the ego and id of Oklahoma City’s boom and bust cycle.
The Thunder find their way to the playoffs, but tragedy strikes as Westbrook destroys his knee in freak accident on the court. Durant can’t carry the team on his shoulders alone. The Thunder drop out of the playoffs. The 2012 season ends too soon. While they come close to the championship in subsequent years, by 2016 they lose Harden and Durant to other teams. Aubrey McClendon, found guilty of fraud, drives 90 miles per hour into a wall, dying in what appears to be a suicide. Citizens learn that fracking is the cause of the earthquakes that now plague OKC. The bright dream of the city’s triumph fades away, once again.
It’s not Anderson’s goal to render the city as sad. He empathizes with and loves Oklahoma City for all of its weirdness. He doesn’t slum with pity or rage. But he is at his best describing farces and historical tragedies in sober, simile-rich prose (e.g., “Sports interviews are a special category of non-conversation, and this was particularly true in Oklahoma City, where a typical Thunder media session was a call-and-response of non-questions and non-answers so relentlessly empty that it became almost profound, like the chanting of Buddhist monks.”) His telling of the Oklahoma City bombing story is also powerful. He purposefully emulates the structure of John Hersey’s Hiroshima, tracking the day through the lens of characters that we have already met earlier in the book.
Anderson’s book argues that even though a city might be doomed, it can still be interesting. In fact, that might make it more interesting. In a jaunt of narrative journalism, Anderson impulsively decides to walk the original path of the Land Run. On his walk he finds a desolate, impoverished landscape. Empty, abandoned strip malls. Miles of cream-colored vinyl siding. Drivers scream at him from cars. It’s hot, dry, and there is no respite from the sun. Aside from the modern structures and vehicles, it’s similar to the experience the original settlers had. The environment is still flat and forbidding.
He begins to understand the insanity of Oklahoma City, a place that has so few practical reasons to exist. A place that, every 40 to 50 years, receives a new lease on life, like an alcoholic given a new liver. Anderson realizes that “OKC was more than just a city; it was an existential crusade, an attempt to assert the primacy of consciousness, of human life, in this endless sea of nothing.” Oklahoma City is, after all, a totally improbable place for humans to settle; the residents are Sisyphus and the city is their rock. Only sheer will keeps it going. The city is monument to the full extent of ambition and folly.
Robin Kaiser-Schatzlein is a journalist living in Brooklyn, New York.
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