Santa Fe Avenue seems to have exactly the same relationship to Oklahoma City that the Wall used to have to Berlin: all the good stuff is widely perceived as being on the west side of the divide, and anything to the east is either dying slowly or, well, dying quickly.

To be sure, this particular analogy grows more dubious the harder you push it — for one thing, no one is stationing troops on either side of the road, and for another, the vaunted Bricktown development is actually east of Santa Fe, barely — but the same old story prevails: as the west flourishes, the east flounders.

Part of this, of course, is the result of historical racial segregation. Santa Fe Avenue is named for the railroad company whose tracks ran nearby, the wrong side of which was reserved for African-American residents, courtesy of Jim Crow. And while it requires rose-colored glasses — thick ones — to think that Oklahoma City today is truly a racially-integrated community, it is no exaggeration to say that substantial strides have been made; most people have gotten over the racism with which they were raised, or at least make the effort to appear so.

And it's not just a question of ethnicity, either. While Oklahoma City proper covers over six hundred square miles, an area larger than all five boroughs of New York City combined, larger even than the sprawling city of Los Angeles, almost all its growth has been to the north and west. Sooner Road runs twenty miles or so, north and south, through the middle of the county; mostly, it's beyond city limits. Again, historical factors play a role here. Tinker Air Force Base (whose western boundary is Sooner Road) was planned to be way out in the sticks, and before the base was built (and before the city could expand in its direction), it was discovered that a local entrepreneur, the late W. P. (Bill) Atkinson, had already acquired quite a bit of land just north of the base site and was planning a town of his own. Atkinson's Midwest City, now grown to twenty square miles and 50,000 people, has become the de facto shopping center for the eastern half of the county, but it's perceived by marketroids as being isolated from Oklahoma City and not big enough to support major chains (beyond Wal-Mart, which will locate anywhere it can find parking space) or anything even remotely trendy. Being nowhere near remotely trendy myself, I didn't have any problem with the concept, until this morning.

On the way back from work, I passed by the local Hastings superstore and spotted the Going Out Of Business signs. This was Hastings' only location in the entire county, and I had always assumed that they had located here because the competition was as far away as possible; while admittedly Blockbuster or Hollywood Video are damned near everywhere you look, record stores (all right, CD stores) of any merit are conspicuous by their absence, and you won't find a Borders or Barnes & Noble, let alone a good local bookseller, within ten miles. (To extend the Los Angeles comparison, this isn't even the San Fernando Valley; this is by-god Barstow.) Clearly there was, or should have been, a market just waiting.

Yet Hastings failed, and will close its doors once its inventory is liquidated. And while I was grateful for the opportunity to pick up a wholly-unnecessary Zeppelin box for cheap, I admit to being somewhat disturbed by the closing. So far as I can figure, the most logical explanation seems to be that out here we're used to not having easy retail access; when we want something beyond the usual Wal-Mart offerings, we shrug our shoulders, squeeze into the SUV, and make the trek to the west side, where we happily pay the seven-eighths of a percentage point in extra sales tax to a municipality that most of us don't even live in.

Does this boil down to "Support your local merchants"? I suppose it does. Or maybe it's time to move. Then again, I work on the east side, and more important, not as far east as where I live — and there's a lot to be said for a daily commute that doesn't involve driving directly into the sun. And after all, Barnes & Noble is only a mouse-click away. Besides, I don't hear anyone urging the mayor of Oklahoma City, "Mr Humphreys, tear down that wall!"

The Vent

21 April 2001

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 Copyright © 2001 by Charles G. Hill