The Plaza District OKC: a roots movement of dreamers & risk-takers

Velvet Monkey Salon on The Plaza District, photo by OK4arts

 

If you live in Oklahoma City and still haven’t been to the Plaza District you’re out of touch.

 

When we first found The Plaza District four years ago my wife wanted me to turn the car around and drive home. It didn’t look inviting, with bars on the windows and broad empty streets.  I’d heard about this up-and-coming district and was all gung-ho.  She was just scared.

“Lock the doors,” she said, “I’m not getting out of the car.”

Collected Thread on the Plaza District

Collected Thread on the Plaza District, photo by OK4art

Back then if you didn’t come at the right time The Plaza District could be a real disappointment. On that day nothing seemed to be open, and it felt like maybe nothing ever would be again.

Thankfully we came back a few weeks later for one of their monthly Live on the Plaza street parties and the place was totally transformed. The broad pavements/sidewalks were almost crowded (now they’re actually crowded), every business was open, the quality of the art in some of the galleries was high, there were things to buy from the boutiques that were worth buying, things you couldn’t find anywhere else in OKC, anywhere else in the world in fact.

They served beer in the galleries, people milled around chatting, introducing each other to their friends, gathering around art installations out on the street.  It was a whole other side to Oklahoma City that I’d longed for, and hadn’t realized was missing, until I found it.  I even used Apartment Locator to see if we couldn’t find a nearby apartment to rent in Gatewood or Crestwood, but demand was outstripping supply, as it still does today.

Wall display at Bad Granny's Bazar

Wall display at Bad Granny’s Bazar

What the Plaza District really has going for it is what it stands for. It’s the wrong kind of businesses (galleries, an urban-winery, a lingerie store, a thrift store, a pie shop, a hot dog restaurant, a dance studio) in the wrong part of town (on 16th between Penn and Classen Boulevard), independently owned, and without any big-name brand stores or restaurants to anchor them: by rights it should never have worked, and yet they’re still making it work.

In the beginning a few tenacious people (like Dylan Bradway and The Lyric Theater*) felt a vague stirring and they bought or rented cheap run-down stores, sensing the area’s potential.  These first stores grew like weeds between paving slabs, slowly, arduously at first, making the place habitable, eking out room a millimeter at a time.  Now their anchor is momentum, buzz. The Plaza District is the poster-child for grass-roots urban development by independent risk-takers who through hard work and a little luck made something special – an alternative.

Velvet Monkey Salon on The Plaza District


Velvet Monkey Salon on The Plaza District, photo by OK4arts

The people buying up pretty little historic houses in the nearby Gatewood, Las Vegas and Crestwood neighborhoods are similarly motivated, and they’re being rewarded with neighborhood-wide improvements and rapidly appreciating property values (good schools are still an issue – if that’s a consideration try Crestwood Elementary).

Authenticity is what you get at The Plaza District. Sure it may be hip and artsy and a little flaky, but just like Holly Golightly was a “real phony”, the Plaza District is a “real flake”, it’s not for show, and there are still no guarantees.  These businessmen and women are hanging on by their fingertips rather than the nails now.  A lot of hard (and excellent) work has gone into growing and promoting the district by the 16th Street Plaza District Association and Kristen Vails, its executive director. Kudos: organizing that bunch of artists and dreamers would be like trying to lead hippies into battle.

 

plaza district festival 2013

 

So how do you get the full Plaza District experience?  Ideally you’d hit up the Annual Plaza District Festival (28 Sept, 2013), or one of the monthly Second Friday street parties (Live on the Plaza).  Otherwise make it any Friday or a Saturday night for the a watered-down effect.  I’d recommend starting at Saints Pub and then making your rounds after the happy hour food deals have elapsed.

An artist friend who has displayed in the Plaza District told me the other day that his friends back in Portland are starting to get excited about visiting OKC, and they never have before.  Word has gotten out about Wayne Coyne’s (a Plaza District regular) new gallery Womb (soon to be on Automobile Alley) and they’re getting ready to book their plane tickets.

You can be sure they’ll be spending that first Friday night in the Plaza District.

To get a real feel for the district check out this excellent video made by James Harber.

This post is part of the OKC Mapped project

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