Betsy Horowitz, naysayer

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Goodbye Tulsa has a remembrance of Betsy Horowitz by her son Andrew. Betsy Horowitz was a Maple Ridge neighborhood activist who was part of the successful fight to stop construction of the Riverside Expressway through her neighborhood in the 1970s. She moved to the Dallas area a decade or so ago, and she passed away earlier this year.

I only met Mrs. Horowitz once and that only briefly -- her daughter Jean Ann was a classmate of mine at Holland Hall, and the Horowitz home in Maple Ridge was one of the sites of the Junior-Senior party. But I heard plenty about Betsy during the mid-seventies. It wasn't unusual for one or more Holland Hall parents or alumni to be serving on the City Commission or running for office, and my group of friends paid more attention to politics at every level than was usual for middle school boys. (On my bulletin board through the summer and fall of 1974: The list of candidates for state office from the Tulsa Tribune.)

What I knew about Betsy Horowitz was filtered through the local newspapers and the KRMG morning show. At best, these sources told me, Betsy was a joke, an overweight loudmouth. Her son Andrew mentions that people connected her with feminist Bella Abzug, an outspoken feminist of the day.

At worst, she was a dangerous obstructionist, standing in the path of progress. As a map-obsessed kid, I was all about seeing the dashed "proposed" lines on the map turn into broken, colored "under construction" lines and ultimately into solid, completed freeways. Anyone standing in the way of that was by definition a Bad Person, so it was easy for me to fall in with the conventional view.

I don't know if it was an actual news report or just a silly rumor that she had had her mouth wired shut as part of a liquid diet weight loss plan, but the conventional wisdom was that this was a good thing and wouldn't it be nice if it were permanent. (I'm not the only one who remembers this.)

My other vivid memory of Betsy's political career is her radio ad for one of her mayoral campaigns. A parody of Charlie Rich's crossover country hit, the lyric ran, "Betsy will stop what goes on behind closed doors." The ad communicated a problem that persists today at Tulsa's City Hall -- a hallmark, in fact, of Mayor Taylor's administration -- with deals being done behind the scenes and presented to the public and their representatives as a fait accompli for their ratification.

It's easy now to see that Betsy Horowitz was a valiant defender of neighborhoods against heedless destruction in the name of moving cars around. She and her allies not only stopped a freeway, but they made the renaissance of Maple Ridge possible and gave us the start of Tulsa's extensive trail system.

The Riverside Expressway's route was conceptualized in 1956, but firmly set in 1962. The expressway was planned to follow the Midland Valley Railroad right-of-way from Riverside Drive to the southeast interchange of the Inner Dispersal Loop. If you want to see the path of the expressway -- where the exits were planned, what buildings would have been sacrificed -- there's an atlas in the Central Library map case:


Comprehensive functional plans for the long range highway needs for Tulsa, Oklahoma; Tulsa metropolitan area expressway system. Prepared under the direction of the Oklahoma State Highway Dept. in cooperation with U.S. Dept. of Commerce, Bureau of Public Roads.

As you drive the boulevards of Maple Ridge today, it's easy to forget that the district was not always popular and beloved. In the post-war period, Tulsans of every class wanted new, and wealthy Tulsans built homes along the ridge to the south-southeast, toward Southern Hills Country Club. With an expressway planned, Maple Ridge homes could very well have followed the pattern of big, old homes in urban neighborhoods in other cities -- subdivision into apartments and slow decay. Many Maple Ridge homes were badly "wreckovated." It wasn't until the expressway was off the map that the cachet of Maple Ridge began to return.

The Goodbye Tulsa piece links to a Wayne Greene column about Betsy Horowitz in the Tulsa World from 2008 which begins:

Is it safe to say something nice about Betsy Horowitz yet?

She's been gone from Tulsa 11 years now. Has enough time passed that her many enemies -- and many, many friends -- are willing to listen to someone say she was right about at least one thing?

Evidently it takes being dead or at least long gone from Tulsa, and no longer a threat to anyone's big plans, before it's safe to credit a naysayer with being right. The same column points readers to Wayne Greene's blog entry explaining why it's OK to praise Betsy Horowitz's neighborhood activism while damning White City resident's opposition to the Tetched Mahal on the other side of I-244. (I have a feeling I'll get some grief over that epithet, but I think it's a good pun, so it stays.) There are certainly distinctions, but the arguments Greene puts forth in support of the activists who fought the Riverside Expressway would have been torn apart as obstructionist nonsense by his predecessors on the World editorial page.

At root, the White City and the Maple Ridge activists are both about trying to preserve the quality of life in a neighborhood against plans that sacrifice that quality of life for the sake of some presumed greater good. The usual arguments against the neighborhood are that the impact on quality of life won't be as great as the homeowners fear, that the homeowners are selfish for putting their own desires ahead of the needs of the general public, and that the plans have been on file at the "local planning department in Alpha Centauri for fifty of your Earth years, so you've had plenty of time to lodge any formal complaint and it's far too late to start making a fuss about it now."

I'm reminded of World editorial writer Ken Neal's sendoff to Vince Sposato, a New York-born troublemaker like Betsy Horowitz, an opponent of urban renewal who was actually displaced by an expressway, and a frequent candidate for office. The World's obit states:

His love of politics was born from a love of people, according to his family.

In the 1950s, he championed civil rights and special educational needs. In the 1960s, he fought against urban renewal and the taking of people's homes without just compensation.

In 1974, Sposato found himself fighting for his own home. The city had condemned the property because it was needed for part of the construction of the Inner Dispersal Loop. Sposato eventually lost his fight for the house that he and his wife had owned for 22 years.

At the time, I advised the members of the Reform Alliance on the City Council, who were facing sharp criticism for not rolling over on the issue of suburban water service, not to hold their breath waiting for the approval of the Whirled: "If you want the Whirled to say something nice about you, drop dead."

It's interesting that both Horowitz and Sposato came to Tulsa from New York, where confrontation in politics and in daily life is a given. Tulsa needed, and still needs, dissidents who are willing to be pushy and willing to be called obnoxious. I'm sure they were told numerous times, as I've been told, that they needed to tone it down, work within the system, don't ruffle feathers, don't rub people the wrong way. They probably did try that, and they no doubt learned that playing nice only makes it easier for your cause to be ignored. And when you stand up for something and are persistent, you are going to be called angry, obsessed, rude, etc., even if you are as pleasant as can be. Every "troublemaker" on the City Council started out trying to work within the system, convinced that the previous troublemakers failed by not being nice enough.

A comment on one of the World stories, posted by a sometime commenter here, challenges the significance of Betsy Horowitz's leadership role in stopping the Riverside Expressway. I have no doubt that the legal challenge of which he writes was essential. But politics doesn't stop at the courthouse door, and without Horowitz's willingness to call public attention to the issue and to take a heap of ridicule as her pay, I doubt the court challenge would have been successful. (I would love to know more specifics about the court case.)

In the midst of ragweed season, I should mention one other significant contribution made by the Horowitz family to Tulsa's quality of life: Dr. Leon Horowitz, Betsy's husband, was a founder of the Allergy Clinic of Tulsa.

Wayne Greene wonders when it's safe to praise a naysayer. I'm wondering when it's permissible to fix blame on the individuals and institutions who, time and again, pushed schemes that the naysayers rightly warned against. Why do we never give due credit to those who were right and due blame to those who led us to disaster?

MORE: Tulsa District 7 City Councilor John Eagleton recalls that in 1968, after he was hit and dragged by a car as he was crossing 21st Street on his walk to Lee School, Betsy Horowitz took up the cause of school crossing safety and school zones. (He heard about this second-hand, as he spent the Summer of Love in a body cast.)

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9 Comments

Jeff Shaw Author Profile Page said:

I think its fair to draw distinctions between activists, naysayers and troublemakers.

More than anything, activists get big things done. They actually have accomplishments - but it's not because they're nasty to people, its because they were ultimately right about the thing they are passionate about. Naysayers and troublemakers often lose the support of people they need to make things happen.

A short list of activists:

Mother Teresa - activist;
MLK Jr. - activist;
Jane Jacobs - activist; and
Jesus Christ - activist.
Betsy Horowitz - activist.

I would be careful not to use the words interchangably, lest the meaning of all three lose their impact.

We can never know what impact a Riverside Expressway would have had - good or bad.

Further, its probably not a stretch to speculate that had Mrs. Horowitz been elected mayor, her activist days would have been over.

Jeff, it's easy to praise people like Betsy Horowitz and to recognize that she was right long after she's left the scene, long after the fight is over.

Everyone of the people you mentioned (with the possible exception of Mother Teresa -- I don't know her story well enough to say) was considered an obstructionist, a naysayer, or a dangerous troublemaker in his or her time by those in power. There's a long list of people throughout history who fought for what was right but were vilified and persecuted by the powerful and their allies: Socrates, Samuel Adams, Martin Luther, Benigno and Corazon Aquino, Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan, Viktor Yushschenko, countless known and unknown dissidents in Communist nations.... In the eyes of those whose plans are threatened by dissent, the dissenter is always simply out to cause trouble, out to block progress out of sheer perversity, out to upset the established order of things.

While we can't know with precision the impact of the expressway on the surrounding neighborhoods, we can see what happened to Tulsa neighborhoods that were bisected by an expressway. Take a look at that atlas I linked, which overlays the expressway location on aerial photographs, and you'll be struck by the amount of urban erosion that has taken place adjacent to the expressways that were built.

Peter Walter said:

Good article. I remember being at their house as a child, too. The expressway would have destroyed the neighborhood. I am so glad that she helped stop it.

Jeff Shaw Author Profile Page said:

Here is the distinction I'm trying to make. It wasn't a slight on your article. It's very good.

"More than anything, activists get big things done. They actually have accomplishments - but it's not because they're nasty to people, its because they were ultimately right about the thing they are passionate about.

Naysayers and troublemakers often lose the support of people they need to make things happen."

Naysayers and troublemakers hardly ever accomplish anything. People in these categories need enemies to survive.

Activists build their causes with people - not by tearing down, but by building up.

There should be an distinction in these words. Don't accept inaccurate definitions of words that others use for their own rotten purposes.

The A Team said:

Mr. Shaw,

I'm curious, in your opinion, which category does Michael Bates falls into?

I agree with Michael. The activists in this town who critically analyze the issues this city faces, ask the tough questions and question the answers will have to drop dead before the powers that be and the Tulsa Whirled has anything nice to say about them. Until then, they should only expect to be vilified for their vision and demonized for their dissent by the special interests seeking to silence or discredit them.

Bob said:

I remember Betsy Horowitz from days gone by.

Her heart was definitely in the right place.

May she rest in peace.

She was routinely vilified by the Lorton's World, receiving their patented smear jobs day and day after day.

She joins a long line of Tulsa community activists or Reformers who have been derided and politically destroyed by the Lorton's World.

Good people who simply stood in the way of their Oligarchist, hegemonist Agenda of the Lorton's World.

Let's name a few recent victims of that patented Smash-you-in-the-Face job:

Betsy Horowitz
Vince Sposato
Anna Falling
Todd Houston
Chris Medlock
Jim Mautino
Michael Bates

Others?

The A Team said:

Roscoe Turner

Sam Roop
Jack Henderson
Darla Hall

The A Team said:

Michael Slankard
Will Wilkins

About this Entry

This page contains a single entry by Michael Bates published on September 21, 2009 11:54 AM.

Signs of Greenwood's rebuilding was the previous entry in this blog.

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