On a recent Friday afternoon in Tulsa, Oklahoma, I had America’s newest major attraction, Gathering Place, almost all to myself. Before the crowds descended on the 100-acre public park the following day for an opening ceremony and a free concert by The Roots, I explored the riverfront development with my tour guide, Megan, a PR pro in town from New York City. We climbed multi-story towers in the playground and slid down curling tube slides, played in the fog of Mist Mountain, wandered the shores of Peggy’s Pond, and on the swings of Swing Hill.
As Megan and I approached the perimeter of the new park where it abuts the Arkansas River, I was struck by a hazy familiarity and stopped dead in my tracks.
“Wait a minute,” I said, turning to Megan. “Where’s the pedestrian bridge?”
We walked a little further, to the crest of a new man-made hill, and there it was, decaying and cut off from the riverbank at both ends, like the ruins of an ancient aqueduct.
“A lot of beers got shotgunned on that bridge,” I said, wistfully. “A lot of weed got smoked.”
As a travel writer, I’m used to getting invites to distant lands. But the strangest invitation I’ve received was not to any far-flung destination. It was an invitation to spend a weekend exploring Tulsa on the occasion of the grand opening of Gathering Place — a park so sweeping and eclectic that it feels like it really might change the whole city. This wasn’t just odd because Tulsa isn’t the kind of luxurious assignment one envisions when dreaming of becoming a travel writer. It was odd because, for me, Tulsa is exceedingly familiar. It’s my hometown.
Tulsa has undergone an urban renaissance of sorts in the last decade and in many ways the city I left after high school bears little resemblance to the Tulsa of today. When I was a kid, the only growth in the city happened in its endlessly metastasizing strip-mall suburbs, those insipid monuments to cheap land and lack of imagination. Downtown Tulsa was a sleepy commercial district during the day and a post-apocalyptic no-go zone of vacant, century-old brick buildings and empty parking lots after dark. Then came the artists, then the art galleries, next the quirky bars and restaurants lifted straight out of hipster Brooklyn (the 80s-themed arcade bar, the high-end cocktail lounge), then there were the food trucks serving banh mi, gourmet hot dogs, etcetera, ad infinitum.