Quick: what do you know about Oklahoma City? Chances are, if you’re over the age of forty, you’ll mention Timothy McVeigh and the destruction in 1995 of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building. One hundred sixty-eight people died then, and more than 500 were injured, in our country’s largest-ever attack by domestic terrorists. Of course, if you’re a sports fan, you may mention the Oklahoma City Thunder, a professional basketball team that has been frequently a contender but never a champion since the team moved there from Seattle in 2008. However, there’s a lot more to the place. A lot more. And journalist Sam Anderson spills it all out for all to see in his delightful account of the city’s history, Boom Town. In this amusing tale of a single mid-sized city, the true reality of America is revealed in all its contradictions.
Boom Town: The Fantastical Saga of Oklahoma City, Its Chaotic Founding… Its Purloined Basketball Team, and the Dream of Becoming a World-class Metropolis by Sam Anderson (2018) 435 pages @@@@@ (5 out of 5)
America revealed in a single quirky city
Anderson tells the story of this quirky mid-American city in breezy, conversational language. You can imagine him talking to you, often with a smile (or even a grin) on his face. From the city’s founding in the Land Run of 1889, through the lean years that followed, the booms and busts, the boosterism, the racial conflicts and corporate dominance, to the machinations that led the city to acquire an NBA team, Anderson brings the story into the present. Along the way, he paints a picture that can stand for America itself: the theft of Indian lands, the oil boom, the KKK and a race riot, the NAACP and the Civil Rights Movement, urban renewal, the all-powerful Chamber of Commerce, and the obsession with professional sports.
“One of the great weirdo cities of the world”
I live in a town that’s sometimes called Berzerkeley. But our madness pales beside the utter strangeness of Oklahoma City as Sam Anderson describes it. As he notes in the Prologue, “I have come to believe, after my time there, that Oklahoma City is one of the great weirdo cities of the world—as strange, in its way, as Venice or Dubai or Versailles or Pyongyang.” In Boom Town, he follows a handful of remarkable individuals who have left their imprint on the place.
- There’s Angelo Scott, the lawyer who brought sanity and stability to the fledgling community.
- Stanley Draper, the official with the Chamber of Commerce who dominated the city’s governance for four decades.
- Newspaper publisher Roscoe Dunjee and activist Clara Luper, whose decades of aggressive efforts finally succeeded in integrating the town’s businesses.
- The outrageously flamboyant rock star Wayne Coyne, leader of the Flaming Lips.
- Legendary author Ralph Ellison, who was born and raised (some of the time) in Oklahoma City.
- Gary England, a beloved television meteorologist who pioneered in investigating and reporting on the tornadoes and saved countless lives from the storms.
- Basketball superstars Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, and James Harden, whose spats and squabbles, ups and downs, kept sportswriters busy for years.
The limitations of so-called “conservative” government
If there are lessons to be learned from Boom Town, one is political. Because Anderson vividly illustrates the limitations of so-called “conservative” government. “It would be hard to find a place more dependent on the federal government,” Anderson writes, “—a city that was 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. The U.S. government had saved the people of Oklahoma City from starvation and bank failures. 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.” And that is one of the most obvious truths about America revealed in this account.
Oklahoma City today is ranked the twenty-seventh largest city in the US by population, with an estimated 650,000 people. It’s about the same size as Portland, Memphis, and Las Vegas. (But, given its location in a sparsely populated region, it’s only forty-first with 1.4 million people, in terms of its Metropolitan Statistical Area.)
About the author
Sam Anderson is a staff writer for the New York Times Magazine. Previously, he was a book critic for New York magazine, where he received an award from the National Book Critics Circle. Boom Town is his first book.
For further reading
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