Tuesday, July 17, 2012

There Used to Be a Crime Against Humanity, Right Here

Archer St., looking west, 2004
The Greenwood neighborhood of Tulsa has changed a great deal since we last visited it.

The new home of the Tulsa Drillers, corner of Archer and Elgin, looking east, 2012
Here's what the area looked like 1921, on the occasion of the worst episode of racial violence in American history.

This photo exists out on the web without a credit on it, but it seems very similar to photos that are © by the Oklahoma Historical Society
And now here's a picture of the thoughtful, respectful, and informative treatment of this event that's featured in the new park:

Yes, well. Move along. Nothing to see here—literally.

Greenwood is a tough case. Since the events of 1921—which are recounted here and elsewhere across the Internet—the neighborhood became culturally toxic for many Tulsans, and by 2004 it was languishing. The neighborhood had struggled on after the riot but was further violated in the early 1970s with the construction of I-240, which sliced it in half. A few businesses survived on one truncated block of Greenwood Avenue, while a "cultural center" and a memorial obelisk sat on the other side of the highway.

So the good news is that today thousands of people come to these few square blocks, and there is reason to believe that someone could open a business that would cater to that crowd and thereby thrive. Indeed, someone has. But the questions of economic and social justice inherent in this transformation are vivid—and Rob and I kept returning to them over the remainder of this trip.

It seems obvious to me that having something in Greenwood is better than having nothing. That something does not have to be a ballpark, but the empty field we saw in 2004 was doing no one any good. It was a remnant, not a memorial. The ballpark at least raises the possibility that renewed attention to Greenwood might be good for the neighborhood and for the city as a whole—which, as Rob noted, does not seem to have fully reckoned with the evil that transpired here.

However, the park as it stands is neither doing much economic good for the neighborhood—the extant businesses on Greenwood, with the possible exception of a minimart, don't appear to seeing many new visitors—nor is it set up to allow for social engagement with its history. We did not see any recognition of the site's importance in the stadium itself, though one entrance to the park labels it "ONEOK Field at Historic Greenwood" while another actually breaks through the remaining retail block to reach Greenwood Avenue itself. Considering that this site could well have been a mass grave, that seems a bit thin. At the least, it's hard to see how newcomers to the area would have much sense of what happened here and why it matters. Future development plans also seem to be focused on bringing Tulsa's "creative classes" (yes, I just wrote "Tulsa's 'creative classes'") into the area, with the focus being the area's proximity to downtown jobs, not its cultural pedigree.

(Just a side note here that "Historic Greenwood" seems a little problematic. It's a like saying "Historic Kristallnacht.")

The Tulsa Drillers and their corporate sponsors needn't obsess over the history of their site; but erasing it only compounds the crimes already committed in Greenwood.

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