Oklahoma City: fire in the ashes

March 25, 1996|By Neal R. Peirce

OKLAHOMA CITY -- Shall the tears from this youthful prairie city's burden of grief ever dry? Recovery still seems distant, even with the approach of the April 19 anniversary of the explosion that stamped out 169 lives and scarred thousands more.

Night and day, people come, in cars, on foot, to stand and gaze at the grassy rectangle where the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building stood. Behind and around, indeed for blocks distant, gutted buildings are reminders of the blast's immense power.

A scientist from Pennsylvania expresses his awe at seeing a woman approach the chain-link fence that surrounds the site and stuff a small teddy bear and flowers into the metal openings.

Across the way a lonely, gaunt tree -- probably doomed by damage from the blasting force --struggles to stay alive.

Talking with Oklahoma City civic leaders, I found each profoundly moved by the recovery struggle. Some had counseled survivors and relatives of victims -- absorbing outrage and pain, yet growing personally, each said, from the experience.

Some were working on plans for the memorial at the site, acknowledging how difficult it was proving to create a process -- much less a final memorial design -- that would satisfy people who had suffered such immense trauma and loss. As one counselor noted, ''Some people view this as the burial site of their children.''

Most memorials to victims of tragedies are built years later, when emotions have cooled. But in Oklahoma City today, the demand for early memorialization is close to overwhelming. There's even the concern that fund raising needs to be done soon, before more such tragedies intervene.

For while the bombing showed the depths of human depravity, Oklahoma City's response -- from the rapid, professional work of the emergency teams to the earnest, professional work citizen and government leaders are giving today to the memorial and the task of rebuilding a shattered downtown -- shows the best of what we can be.

Brought together by a bomb

Ironically, the bombers united a drifting, unfocused community. The employees of the federal building were an Oklahoma City microcosm -- white, black, affluent, working-class, from inner-city to upper-class suburban communities. And they worked on shared ground. Downtown Oklahoma City is ''everyone's'' property -- even if many people had forgotten that. Bombing a suburban shopping center, a private office building, would not have had the same deep impact.

The downtown had suffered immense disinvestment, starting with urban renewal in the '50s and '60s, culminating in the region's oil and banking bust of the '80s. Even before the bombing, empty store windows and blocks of razed or derelict buildings blighted the scene around and near the city's skyscrapers. ''Downtown had lost its soul,'' one observer noted.

Councilman Mark Schwartz notes that a so-called ''MAPS'' (Metropolitan Area Projects) campaign, begun in 1992, looked to revive downtown Oklahoma City with a stunning variety of plans: a big new sports arena to draw a major hockey or football team, a 100,000-square-foot library and learning center and, in the ''Bricktown'' warehouse area, a river-walking area like San Antonio's. Voters in 1993 approved a 1 percent sales-tax add-on for five years to raise $285 million for the projects.

But if reviving the city's center was a project of hope before the bombing, it became a region-wide imperative because of it. Today the people of the Oklahoma City citistate appear to have taken emotional repossession of their downtown. They smile at each other again on the streets.

It helps that the federal government has pledged $40 million to replace its destroyed office structure and another $40 million to rehabilitate the near north section of downtown where the Murrah Building stood.

Lots of free counseling is pouring into town. The National Endowment for the Arts and the Urban Land Institute appointed panels to analyze downtown's future and came up with proposals for all sorts of new attractions and ways to knit them together in a pedestrian-friendly setting.

Neither the arts endowment nor the urban institute suggested Oklahoma City try to recapture major retailing -- long since lost to the malls in America's lowest-density city. Both did suggest downtown be a regional entertainment center and gathering spot, with good restaurants, better-planned streetscapes, market-rate housing, parks, bikeways and careful historic preservation.

In November, the strongly conservative Daily Oklahoman ran a series on deepening poverty in older neighborhoods surrounding downtown -- a journalistic initiative across class and race lines that would have been less likely before the bombing.

And a Citizens League of Central Oklahoma, drawing on grass-roots leadership from people in towns and neighborhoods across the region, has emerged from a careful ''2020'' visioning process spearheaded by the Association of Central Oklahoma Governments. One priority: reconstructing a proud downtown and meeting place for the citistate.

Oklahoma City's immense difficulties on the memorial issue remain. But as Theodore White wrote years ago of war-ravaged, recovering Europe, there is bright fire in the ashes.

Neal R. Peirce writes a column on state and urban affairs.

Pub Date: 3/25/96

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