A city transformed after bombing

This story on the Oklahoma City Bombing is from 2015


By Michael Kinney

OKLAHOMA CITY — On April 18, 1995, Oklahoma City resembled most mid-major cities in America. Sprawling in some areas, but old and run down in other parts as residents continued to move to the suburbs.

At 9:02 a.m. on April 19, 1995, a bomb blew up at the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building, killing 168 people. It was one of most devastating terrorist acts in the country’s history. It also set in motion the transformation of the city’s urban core into a thriving, residential, entertainment and business hub.

That renaissance is built around two major points in downtown Oklahoma City: The site of the bombing, which is now the Oklahoma City Memorial Museum, and the Chesapeake Energy Arena, home to the Oklahoma City Thunder.

“The memorial is the heart of the city,” said Kari Watkins, Executive Director of Oklahoma City National Memorial Museum. “On the day of the bombing, those grounds were the northern edge of downtown and today the city kind of healed from the heart out. There is a great connection between the memorial and the rest of the downtown business district and it is really remarkable to look at the two sides of the memorial: Harvey which runs into the new Devon Tower and Robinson which runs into the Chesapeake Arena. It is kind of symbolic; what was and what is now and how those two spines connect it together.”

Despite the bombing taking place more than a decade before the Thunder played its first game in Oklahoma City, there is a direct correlation between the two.

“The response to the events of April 19th was the beginning of the resolve shown by a city that was going rebuild and reshape based on the values of optimism, grace and resiliency,” Thunder General Manager Sam Presti said. “That civic pride and purpose were the bedrocks that made the Hornets arrival a possibility and the Thunder a long term reality. ‎Each day, we at the Thunder are driven to build an organization that possesses the values of the city that we represent and a community that has supported our vision for the team.”

Before April 19, the area east and south of the Murrow building wasn’t much to look at at the time. It was populated with vacant warehouses and dilapidated office buildings. There was no nightlife to mention.

The blast from the bombing destroyed or damaged 324 buildings within a 16-block radius and caused an estimated $652 million worth of damage. Much of the area was destroyed.

In its place, the Bricktown Entertainment District sprung up. Starting with the Bricktown Ballpark in 1998, home to a minor league ball team, the development set off a chain reaction that has brought restaurants, night clubs and hotels in what used to be abandonment. Some call it urban renewal, others say gentrification as upscale condos continue to spring up.

Regardless, Watkins sees the change that has occurred in the past 20 years as nothing short of miraculous.

“If you look at the ninth ward of New Orleans it is a great comparison,” Watkins said. “I mean they got the same economic development dollars that Oklahoma City got or actually five times the amount of money, but business-wise if you compare yourselves to another city that received some federal dollars, just as we did, for rebuilding the city. We built a memorial that is run privately, but the city of Oklahoma City received some money to reinvest in itself and build the city back in that part of downtown.”

South of the memorial, there has also been major work taking place. A series of low-water dams created what amounted to a navigable stretch of the Oklahoma River which locals joked had to be mowed twice a year. That new, artificial waterway fostered construction of the Oklahoma City Boathouse District. It is now the official U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Training Site for rowing and canoe/kayak.

“Those places didn’t come back without some help from the federal government, so I want to give credit to those folks who put their own private investment along with some federal dollars to bring back that part of downtown,” Watkins continued. “It is a different place. It’s an incredible part and in some ways it is better than it was prior to the bombing.”

In 2002, the Ford Center was built a few blocks south of the bombing site to be the city’s new sports and entertainment venue. Three years later it housed the NBA’s New Orleans Hornets for two seasons after the team was displaced due to Hurricane Katrina.(The arena later was renamed Chesapeake Energy Arena).

In 2008 it become the home of the Oklahoma City Thunder and quickly became the focal point of expansion and business growth in the city’s new downtown.

But Presti makes sure everyone associated with the organization never forgets where it all started.

“It is important that we never forget the events of April 19th, 1995 nor the compassion of the response that ultimately became known as the Oklahoma Standard,” Presti said. “We must honor and preserve the standard amidst the continued growth of the city in order to ensure that it continues to be a foundational aspect for future generations of Oklahomans. This is a leadership moment for all of us as Oklahomans to reinforce these values in a way that will raise awareness and encourage preservation.”

Watkins says the rebuilding continues. Despite everything the city has accomplished in since the fateful day, they have more to do.

“We can’t lose sight of how we got here and get cocky that we are all of a sudden some hip city that forgot how we got here,” Watkins said. “I think we have got to keep taking care of business and, as I said, everything we do honors those who were killed and those who survived and the rescue workers and the journalists and everyone else who worked tirelessly to tell us the story. It took a lot of people to get this story done.”

Michael Kinney Media

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