It sits back from the street, almost always at an angle — parallel only in a few spots — and it's easy to see because those oddly-shaped parking lots are almost completely empty.

This is the face of Atkinson Plaza, which once upon a time was the primary shopping district for Midwest City, Oklahoma, a mostly-flat patch of suburbia to the east of Oklahoma City. It's named for the late W. P. "Bill" Atkinson, who founded the town sixty-three years ago after picking up on a story that the Army was going to build a depot for the Air Corps out in what then were the sticks.

There was no mistaking Midwest City for anything but a military town: in the heart of the original 200 acres, later expanded to a full square mile, the streets were named for aircraft manufacturers (Boeing, Lockheed), for pilots (Rickenbacker), for friendly Congressmen (Steed, Monroney). State Highway 3, an extension of Southeast 29th Street from Oklahoma City, defined the southern limit, and across the highway was the Tinker Air Depot. And Atkinson Plaza was built just north of 3, angling back far enough to make room for good-sized stores and the parking spaces they would require, crossing four city blocks. When I first saw the Plaza in 1959, I was duly impressed, to the extent that a six-year-old can be impressed with such things; it seemed remarkable to me that all this wonderment was so far from the Big City.

Tinker remains, now Tinker Air Force Base, arguably as important today as it was when it was hurriedly constructed in 1941 as a repair station for B-17 and B-24 bombers. And you can still drive down 29th Street, a fairly-busy five-lane thoroughfare, though it's no longer signed as Highway 3; the present-day 3 is co-signed with Interstate 240, three miles south, the other side of the base. But Midwest City is nothing like it used to be. The original square mile has grown to over twenty, the population to 55,000 or so, and while there's still a distinct military presence, you'd be hard-pressed to tell which suburb you were in unless you happened to know that Midwest City's street signs, after years of prosaic black on white, are now white on blue and no easier to read. And Bill Atkinson's influence is felt only slightly today. His daily paper, The Oklahoma Journal, founded in the Sixties as an antidote to The Daily Oklahoman, which had editorially opposed his run for Governor, foundered in the Seventies and died in 1980; his real-estate company survived him but has no major projects around the area; and most obviously, Atkinson Plaza, his once-dazzling shopping center, is now virtually a ghost town.

I should not be surprised at any of this. The American city generally is in a constant state of flux; if something looks the way it did thirty years ago, it was probably deliberately rebuilt that way. Suburbia is by no means exempt. And Atkinson Plaza, once decorated, now declassé, is probably doomed, unless someone decides that World War II-era architecture is worth saving and can be sold to someone else. In the meantime, there's a lot of retail space available.

The Vent

#334
24 March 2003

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