Cities: July 2003 Archives

The Tulsa Time Blues


I said earlier that Tulsa was mentioned in an essay the new issue of The Next American City. I received permission from Kevin Adams, the author of the essay, to post it here and distribute it. He also provided me with some additional material -- specific policy recommendations which flesh out his ideas. Here is his bio from the magazine:

KEVIN ADAMS works as an economic development analyst for the metropolitan planning organization of Southern New Jersey and Southeastern Pennsylvania. He is a native Tulsan, but aggravated with the lack of residential choice in his hometown, currently resides on a traditional American street in the heart of Center City Philadelphia.

Here are a few excerpts from the article; the full article is linked at the end of this entry.

Here's how he begins:

I recently met a woman who had given up her job as a Houston oil company executive to sing full-time in a national touring company. I asked her if she had ever performed in Tulsa, and what she thought of the city. Her response was polite and restrained. After some prodding, she admitted that it was one of the least hospitable cities she had visited. Car-less and trapped in a downtown hotel, she and her fellow performers couldn’t wait to get back on the road.

About the 1997 "Tulsa Project":

In the late 1990s, Tulsa’s city government proposed a grand building scheme known as the Tulsa Project, hoping to rescue Tulsa from its image void while revitalizing the downtown. The effort resembled countless other so-called urban revitalization schemes that larger cities had employed, with a few twists.

Tulsa’s big idea was to take a failed model and scale it down to Tulsa size. ...

About the current vision process:

While it’s exciting to see community spirit thrive in the face of so many failures, the friction from our collective wheel-spinning is becoming unbearable. I want to scream out to Tulsans to think. If these projects are getting us nowhere, what’s the point of yet another?

Tulsans understandably want an American city to be proud of, but we should slow down and think about the quality urban places we love and why we love them. Is New York just its skyscrapers? Is San Francisco only a bridge? What do these cities, big or small, have that Tulsa does not?

Is Tulsa a real, defineable, urban place? No, but it could be.

In its present form, all of Tulsa looks suburban. Even downtown is more an office park than an urban village. Cars are used for all trips. Consequently, each element of city life—housing, jobs, stores—is increasingly separated from others by miles of asphalt, creating a city of parking lots, expanding highways, and little else. How can an outmoded, suburban Tulsa compete with a shinier and even less dense suburb on our fringe? We should leave the suburban market to the suburbs and try to develop a new urban market for ourselves, incorporating the time-honored principles of Jane Jacobs’ school of urbanism. We should focus on creating exciting urban streets, which will encourage personal and economic exchange qualitatively different from the social and economic interactions of the suburbs.

Richard Florida has received a lot of press recently for his new book about the "creative class" and how a city prospers when it is a place that the creative class wants to be. There was a review of his book in the first issue of The Next American City.

In the latest issue of American Enterprise, Joel Kotkin questions some of Florida's assumptions, and observes that most of the growth today is occurring in family-friendly and business-friendly regions, like southern California's Inland Empire:

Alvarez, who bought his Ford-Lincoln agency seven years ago and added a Jaguar dealership last year, has boosted his sales from ten cars per month in the mid 1990s to 114 a month now. He credits most of his success, and that of the other 15 dealers at the Riverside Auto Center, to the remarkable demographic and business growth that has made the Riverside-San Bernardino region of Southern California into arguably the strongest regional economy in the nation. Since June 2001, this highly suburban region east of Los Angeles, known locally as the Inland Empire—with a population exceeding 3 million people—has enjoyed annual job growth of over 3 percent.

No other area of the country of comparable size has experienced anything like this rate of job creation during the current soft economy. According to, California’s overall job numbers fell by 0.2 percent during the same period (driven largely by a rapid collapse of the over-inflated, over-hyped tech sector in the San Francisco Bay area), while the national rate dropped by a full percentage point.

The striking success of the Inland Empire—and the poor performance of places like San Francisco and other glamour economies of the late ’90s such as New York City, Boston, and Seattle—sharply rebuts recent conventional media wisdom on the underpinnings of economic growth. In the late 1990s, a trendy argument launched by academics and propagated by journalists held that future economic growth depended on attracting high-technology workers and affluent yuppies. It was said that this in turn would happen only in places with lots of graduate students, artists, bohemians, homosexuals, and unmarried singles packed into a vertical city with loads of nightlife. In other words, places exactly the opposite of the sprawling, highly familial, lower-bourgeois Inland Empire....

Kotkin identifies a number of growth cities that don't fit the "Creative City" mold -- not only family-friendly, but more accommodating to business, and less wedded to high-tech.

America’s new growth spots tend to be economies centered around basic industries like construction, distribution, retail, and low-tech manufacturing. This can be seen in the relative success of such diverse economies as Portland, Maine; Sioux Falls, South Dakota; and McAllen, Texas. Some tech centers—like Boise, Raleigh, Austin, and Provo—also rank as family-friendly locales, with well-above-average rates of married-with-children households.

In addition to being much more family friendly places, today’s growth regions tend to differ from fashionable but economically lagging parts of the Northeast and coastal California in another way: They have different attitudes toward business and enterprising. Places like the Inland Empire are very friendly toward founders and builders of business establishments. In these places, expansion is regarded by citizens, local government, and regional media much more as a good thing than as a source of problems. That attitude is reversed in many more culturally liberal regions—and in the national media.

Tulsa seems to fit this description to a T -- so why aren't we prospering in the same way as Provo and McAllen? Kotkin doesn't say, but I'll suggest that Oklahoma is not as friendly toward capital formation and job creation as it needs to be, and that's a change that can only be made at the State Capitol, by modifying our tax and regulatory regimes.

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This page is a archive of entries in the Cities category from July 2003.

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