By RUSS ROACH | Posted: Wednesday, February 11, 2015 12:00 am
As a high school student I was on 11th Street daily. It was the place to get hamburgers, play pool, get gasoline or go the football game. I never thought of it as Route 66, the most famous highway in America.
Most Tulsans, me included, were somewhat dismissive of the street as tired and worn. Slowly, I came to appreciate why so many around the world hold it in high regard. On the streets of Paris, I passed a young man with a Route 66 shirt, and I found Route 66 artifacts/logo in the Paris flea market. A few months ago I met 23 Swiss residents near Bristow who had rented Harleys to take a trip from Chicago to L.A. on only two-lane roads.
To be sure, much of what made 11th Street interesting has been lost: the Golden Drumstick, Will Rogers Theater, McElroy’s and the Metro Diner. However, there are good buildings and uses and neon signs that remain, and there are signs of new life. The real issue is how we build on those.
The nonprofit Route 66 Development Group Inc. was formed to be a catalyst so Tulsa is not just a passageway to more interesting features but the focal point of this road.
The group has two themes: demonstration and leverage. Working with others, demonstration is trying to give visible examples that spark the imagination of other Tulsans. Leverage is the idea that it is not the sheer amount of money that counts, but the careful use of partnering.
Here are some examples:
OU-Tulsa design study: The Urban Design Studio at the University of Oklahoma-Tulsa, under Shawn Scheafer, has accepted a part of 11th Street as its class project (Southwest Boulevard was previously done). Thirty students from Norman are augmenting the Tulsa graduate students. Teams have been assigned to each of the major intersection areas from Peoria to Yale avenues. They are in a competitive design exercise with judges and prizes. Their imagination and enthusiasm will help demonstrate what our part of Route 66 can be.
Highway-historical wall art: Classic cars are a part of the image of Route 66. Seeking a cost-effective way to demonstrate that color and imagination can add some splash to the street, the nonprofit placed several large, color photos of classic vehicles on several buildings on 11th and is in talks to expand to the west side. We used the leverage of Tulsa patrons to underwrite the cost. The businesses paid a smaller part but displayed leadership, and each wanted to contribute something to the street.
Musical legacy: The Woody Guthrie Center should be the start of expressing our music legacy. I met a young British man at a French rest stop. When I told him I was from Tulsa he began talking about local bands. He gave me a short essay on why Leon Russell is held in such esteem in Britain and why Elton John thinks so highly of Leon. Tulsa has had an impact on and has more of an image in music than we know. The list of our musicians is long and formidable. We need to honor our own and give fan-visitors tangible ways to do likewise. Tying that goal into Route 66 could serve both.
Neon signs: One strong historical image of Route 66 is the whimsical and bright neon signs. City Councilor Blake Ewing and local author Michael Wallis are enthusiastic champions of a rebirth of neon. Nothing brings color and vitality to a street or business like neon. The nonprofit has been working with local companies to find a way to involve the larger community in a contest to select and be a part of new neon signs.
Revitalize buildings and uses: The OU-Tulsa study will help produce clear examples of what can be done at key points along 11th. The nonprofit is exploring ways to use a partnership between patrons and local small businesses to bring some new life and color to the buildings and uses of 11th.
One of the Norman students asked me what Tulsa is known for? It stopped me cold. After some time, I said we used to be known as the Oil Capitol of the World and as a beautiful city, but those are largely monikers of previous decades. We have great museums and an active Blue Dome and Brady District, but most cities of similar size have comparable features. I offered that the answer to the question was what I was expecting from them: to help demonstrate how Tulsa can and should be at the center of the most famous highway in America. It is an image and reality worth pursuing.
Russ Roach is chairman of the advisory committee for the OU-Tulsa Design Study of Route 66. He was a 16-year veteran of the Oklahoma Legislature from Tulsa and Sand Springs. He founded the Route 66 Development Group, Inc. a local nonprofit.