It’s a common occurrence within urban sprawl: Historically thriving neighborhoods succumb to Father Time as new developments arise, businesses relocate and the activity of city-dwellers inevitably shifts from one area to another. Until recently, Oklahoma City’s Plaza District — the mile-long strip along 16th Street between Classen Boulevard and Pennsylvania Avenue — was merely another casualty of urban development.
In the 1920s, neighborhoods around the district swelled as commercial activity livened the area and a nearby trolley line made commuting a breeze. When the Plaza Theatre — Oklahoma’s first air-conditioned movie theater — opened in the mid-’30s, the strip became OKC’s entertainment and economic hub. There was a hustle and bustle that subsisted until the theater shut its doors in 1979, the first domino in the Plaza District’s plight.
Over the next 20 years or so, crime rates rose and the area’s commercial and residential landscape was drastically altered. The once-lively district had become a ghost town. It wasn’t until 1997 that efforts to resurrect the area were implemented and the Plaza District Association was formed, kick-starting a revitalization process that has seen tremendous growth, mostly in just the last few years.
Kristen Vails, executive director of the Plaza District Association, witnessed its progress firsthand.
“The diversity and the culture of the neighborhood lent itself to an arts-focused revitalization,” Vails said. “I’ve been with the district for five years, and it’s way better than I ever imagined it would be. It’s been a very organic process of artists and creatives and local business coming here.”
Bailey Gordon, co-chair of the 2013 Plaza District Festival — which commences noon Saturday — believes a strong arts culture is imperative not only for a thriving urban environment but for a city’s reputation as well.
“The arts help every aspect of life here in Oklahoma. They help attract people here, keep our young, bright minds here,” Gordon said. “The arts are really what makes our city who we are and gives us a personality to project to the country and the rest of the world.”
Spirit of the community
The Plaza’s embrace of arts culture has played a pivotal role in its ascension. The area’s signature draw, Live on the Plaza — a monthly art walk featuring live music and an array of food trucks — has seen a dramatic rise in attendance, along with a heightened awareness of the area’s rejuvenation.
The annual Plaza District Festival offers similar attractions, but on a much larger scale. This year’s event features over 40 local artists and vendors, children’s art activities and a lineup of more than 20 Oklahoma musical acts — headlined by Stillwater psychedelic rock stalwarts Colourmusic.
light of the area’s growth, it is tempting to lure in attractions from
out of state. But Plaza Festival Co-Chair Shelley Rowan believes there
is plenty of local talent to go around; it’s just a matter of exposing
gets a bad name as a boring Midwest state, but it’s really not,” Rowan
said. “The district here is celebratory of Oklahoma’s creative spirit.
It’s great to showcase the artists and all their different types of art
and the creativity here.”
Nicholas Ley, Colourmusic’s drummer and a
music business lecturer at ACM@ UCO, commends the Plaza’s endorsement of
the local arts community.
see what some of these areas have been in the past — having been
neglected — to see what people are doing with them now is really nice,”
Ley said. “Whether you’re a musician, a planner of some sort, a local
business owner — that sort of synergy and people working together, it
doesn’t seem like there’s any end to it in sight.”
degree of character and unique ness of its offerings are driving forces
behind the Plaza District’s success. The strip is completely devoid of
cookie-cutter restaurants and shops, providing OKC residents a change of
pace from run-ofthe-mill chains and mundane entertainment options.
atypical approach to revitalization has spawned an area ripe for
creativity — something which, according to Ley, is beneficial for
artists and patrons alike.
can really be free creatively here. These outdoor festivals allow bands
to do really neat things. It seems like there’s a comfortable place for
everybody,” he said. “The music scene itself will flourish because of
these opportunities for musicians.”
Adding some Colour
no coincidence that the burgeoning Oklahoma music scene coincides with
the area’s resurgence. Like the Plaza, an influx of talent and
creativity has pervaded local music in recent years, conjuring questions
of just how high its ceiling could reach.
as is the case with any form of progress, it required influence from
outside familiar confines to provide something unique to the area.
you set your sights on something local, that’s what you’ll be,” Ley
said. “A lot of our local business owners have traveled the country or
the world and brought what they found to make Oklahoma cooler. The
reinvestment we’re seeing in our community with festivals can really
happen with musicians as well.”
would know a thing or two about the matter; the band’s cofounder, Nick
Turner, is a former British exchange student who makes his home in
London. One listen to their music and it’s easy to hear the influence
that ’60s and ’70s European psychedelia had on the band, which has also
scored soundtracks and released an album inspired by Isaac Newton’s
theory on the relationship of color and sound.
any incarnation of the band you might hear is subject to change, as
they’ve made a concerted effort to reinvent and reinvigorate their sound
with each passing record. For further evidence, look to their next
release: an 8-song Christmas album titled A Very Special Colourmusic Christmas, Vol. 1. It will be available on limited-edition colored vinyl on Black Friday at Guestroom Records, 3701 N. Western Ave.
The band continues to confound audiences through constant transformation, and Ley wouldn’t have it any other way.
don’t think people will really have an idea of what Colourmusic is
until we’re five, six or seven records in,” he said. “We’ve built it
over time through failing, learning things, trying it again, but always
trying to maintain the integrity of our records. I don’t really care if
it’s cool right now. I’m going to look at it again in 10 or 20 years and
go, ‘Yeah, absolutely proud of that.’”
In the short-term, Colourmusic
will stick to headlining this weekend’s Plaza District Festival in a
place where — given their affinity for reinvention — they fit right in.