I love reading about my home state, and Boom Town: The Fantastical Saga of Oklahoma City, Its Chaotic Founding, Its Apocalyptic Weather, Its Purloined Basketball Team, and the Dream of Being a World-Class Metropolis by Sam Anderson came with high expectations and strong recommendations. I wasn’t disappointed. Boom Town recounts the history of Oklahoma City from its founding with the Land Run of 1889 (as well as the illicit incursions of the Boomers some time before). On that day, people were so eager to stake their claims they forgot that cities needed things like roads and open spaces. Yet, out of this chaos came a growing frontier city that wrested the status of capital from its neighbor, Guthrie, to the north.
Oklahoma City’s chaos was tamed by the arrival of Stanley Draper who became a powerful figure as head of the Chamber of Commerce and wielded more influence than the city government. Under his guidance, the historic and unique buildings of downtown were demolished in the name of urban renewal, and the city annexed more surrounding land than it would ever need. He negotiated for the air force to conduct Operation Bongo, a six month test of resident response to sonic booms. When residents complained and wanted the experiment to stop, convincing the city council to take action, Draper stepped in and kept them from shutting down Bongo because it was for the good of the city. (It was not.)
Anderson also honestly delves into a dark corner of Oklahoma City’s past: it’s history of racism and segregation, but also profiles the hero Clara Luper, who led teenagers in sit-ins in downtown Oklahoma City over six years until all the diners were desegregated, though she was arrested twenty-six times in the process. Later, she supported sanitation workers during a garbage strike and helped them reach a favorable settlement with the city government.
I learned so much from Anderson’s historic account, and I can’t believe that this wasn’t taught in my Oklahoma History class, but on the other hand, I could have forgotten some details. Even more likely, our Oklahoma History class would not have highlighted critical information, preferring to glorify the early settlers.
Growing up, I went to Oklahoma City for special events, field trips, shopping, concerts, and to visit relatives. As an adult, I spent five years living in and around Oklahoma City (before the Thunder), and I would eat at Bricktown, go to games at the Chickasaw Bricktown Ballpark to see the Oklahoma City Dodgers. For a time, I worked at a government building across from the capital. Anderson describes the tragic tornado of May 3, 1999, and I remember that I was on a business trip, coming home that day. My flight arrived in Oklahoma City after the tornado had come and gone, and I remember everyone shell shocked from the damage. So, the book was also a little nostalgic for me, and at times, painful, especially when Anderson recounted the Murrah Building bombing in 1995.
Among the history of the city, Anderson weaves vignettes of Wayne Coyne, the Oklahoma native and famous frontman of the Flaming Lips rock band who is also famous for staying in Oklahoma City. Some readers might be even more interested in Anderson’s replay of how the Thunder arrived in Oklahoma City and their 2012-2013 season, the season they were supposed to win the championship, the first season after GM Presti traded James Harden to Houston. Without Harden, two stars remained, Kevin Durant and Russell Holbrook, and how they could work together without the stabilizing force of Harden could settle the fate of the season. While I like the Thunder as my home state team, I’m not all that interested in sports. Anderson, though, made the chapters about the Thunder so interesting, combining details about the plays, the stars, and the organization behind them.
One of the most impressive things about Boom Town is how deftly Anderson shifts styles from this expert sports writing to weather reporting, historical documentation, the trippy character profile of Coyne, and a surreal chapter in which he retraces the fourteen mile route of the Land Run on foot. No matter what voice he’s using, Anderson is engaging and often witty.
Boom Town is told basically in alternating chapters, from history to the Thunder, with epilogues that bring the book to the current time (earthquakes! more Russell Holbrook! fewer Thunder wins!). Although this might be the best way to structure the book, it did make for a bit of a choppy reading experience since the transitions weren’t always smooth or natural. And while there was some discussion of Native Americans and how the government stole Oklahoma from them, land they’d been given in exchange for land the government stole from them in the South and Southeast, I would have liked to see more about the intersection of Native American culture and the city. Finally, while Anderson provides a section on his main sources for the book, I’m still curious about his secondary sources and how he got access to the people he interviewed for the book.
As much as I liked Boom Town, it depressed me a bit. Thunder or not Thunder, Oklahoma City has made significant mistakes with annexation and urban renewal, and under the current ultra conservative city and state government, those mistakes continue. I suppose the hope is that now, more people are knowledgeable, active, and have an alternative, hopeful, inclusive vision of the city.