Tulsa is a vibrant, progressive city filled with history, culture, and warm-hearted locals. What’s more, it benefits from the generosity of native son George Kaiser, whose foundation has endowed Tulsa with unique offerings that far outstrip its modest size.
Route 66 OdditiesJosh New/GKFF
More than 400 miles of this legendary route cut through Oklahoma, with many curious stops near Tulsa, including vintage filling stations, the Cave House, the Blue Whale of Catoosa and, of course, The Golden Driller, an iconic 75-foot sculpture at the Oklahoma State Fairgrounds. Step into the circle at the “Center of the Universe” and make a noise—the sound will reverberate around you like a natural echo chamber.
Gathering PlaceJosh New/GKFF
There are public parks, and then there’s A Gathering Place For Tulsa: Opened in September 2018, its scale and diverse offerings make this sustainable, inclusive space something of a mini-amusement park— only without the admission charge. More than 66 acres of gardens, walking trails, restaurants, a boathouse, skateparks, basketball courts, concert space and more (including a mind-bending Cabinet of Wonder). You could spend an entire weekend at Gathering Place and still not see everything.Josh New/GKFF
Even as an adult, I was in heaven traversing rope bridges, scurrying up castle stars, sliding down slides and maneuvering through the water features in the five-acre adventure playground. But it’s not just for kids: One of the largest buildings in Gathering Place is the Williams Lodge, a breathtakingly gorgeous welcome center (though the word doesn’t do it justice) forged from three-ton sandstone boulders and six species of wood. Check your email cozying up on gorgeous minimalist furniture, warm up by the two-story walk-in fireplace, or get a double scoop at the downstairs ice cream parlor. And yes, there’s free wifi.
Black Wall StreetJosh New/GKFF
In the early 20th century, the affluent African-American homes and businesses in Greenwood earned the neighborhood the nickname “Black Wall Street.” But in May 1921 Greenwood was burned to the ground by white lynch mobs, after a black man was accused of sexually assaulting a white woman. More than 30 city blocks were utterly obliterated, with more than 200 people killed and thousands left homeless. To this day, no one was prosecuted for the attacks. Residents rebuilt but by the 1950s, desegregation, rising crime rates and changing shopping habits had robbed Black Wall Street of much of its caché. Now, nearly a century after the attacks, groups like the Tulsa Race Massacre Centennial Commission are working to remind us of what once was and what was lost, with marches, lectures, tours and a bold series of street murals.
For a sense of continuity, visit Vernon A.M.E. Church (311 N Greenwood Ave), whose basement residents hid away in during the attacks.
Art Deco TulsaGetty ImagesJosh New/GKFF
Tulsa was booming in the 1920s, just when Art Deco was coming into its own. As a result the city’s downtown Deco District is one of the best and biggest examples of the style. Examine the Philtower and Philcade buildings, the Atlas Life building and the Boston Avenue Methodist Church, plus Art Deco theaters, factories, schools, service stations, and homes designed by the likes of Frank Lloyd Wright and Bruce Goff. The Tulsa Historical Society is a great resource for planning a tour, either solo or guided, while inside the Art Deco lobby of the historic Philcade, the Tulsa Art Deco Museum offers period exhibits, a café and a Jazz Age-themed gift shop.
Tulsa’s Musical HistoryJosh New/GKFF
Tulsa celebrates folk music legend and native son Woody Guthrie at the Woody Guthrie Center (102 E M.B. Brady St), a public museum and archives in the Brady Arts District that’s full of personal effects; recordings, lyrics, journals and inventive interactive displays that recount his story, impact and legacy. The red-brick building is recognizable by the giant mural of Guthrie outside, the words “This machine kills fascists” printed on his guitar.
Of course there’s a lot more to Tulsa’s musical legacy: Opened in 1924, Cain’s Ballroom (423 N Main St) has welcomed everyone from Hank Williams to the Sex Pistols. (From 1935 to 1942, Cain’s was home base to western swing legends Bob Wills and The Texas Playboys.) And the Gilcrease Museum (1400 N Gilcrease Museum Rd) recently purchased Bob Dylan’s archives and is planning to similarly highlight the collection in a new exhibition space. Also hailing from Tulsa, Hanson (of “MMMMBop” fame) organize the beer and music festival HopJam every May.
A trip to Tulsa isn’t complete without a visit to one of the city’s many barbecue houses: Eat your fill at BurnCo (1738 S Boston Ave), but don’t get there too late—once they run out of ribs, pulled pork or brisket, they’re 86ed from the menu. Other tasty options include Trail’s End (8888 North Garnett Road) and Elmer’s Barbeque [https://burnbbq.com/site/ ] (4130 S Peoria Ave).
Oklahoma Joe’s (333 W Albany St) in nearby Broken Arrow was named one of Anthony Bourdain’s “13 places to eat before you die.” There’s also an Oklahoma Joe’s outpost in Tulsa’s Mother Road Market (1124 S. Lewis Ave) a combination food hall and restaurant incubator that’s perfect if someone in your posse isn’t fan of the ’cue.
Brookside DistrictJosh New/GKFF
This walkable stretch of South Peoria Street is Tulsa’s answer to Melrose or Fifth Avenue, with eclectic boutiques, farm-to-table restaurants, hip bars and nightclubs, galleries and more. In the early 1940’s, when Tulsa was a booming oil town, Brookside was the place to be—and many historic and Art Deco landmarks still survive, including the 600-seat Brook Theater. At night South Peoria glows with the light of neon signs.
“Larry Clark: Tulsa” at the Philbrook Downtown
Kids director Larry Clark was born and raised in Tulsa, and it’s where he shot his earliest photographs. Clark’s 1971 photo book, Tulsa, captured his circle of friends in candid moments of sex, drugs, violence, and contemplation—and went on to inspire directors from Scorsese to Van Sant. Now, nearly two generations later, the Philbrook Museum’s downtown branch (116 E. M.B. Brady St) has acquired the complete 50-image portfolio, which forms the cornerstone of this new exhibit running May 31–Nov 10, 2019.
“The gritty, honest, and ultimately compassionate look at drug abuse in Tulsa feels timely and vital,” reads the Philbrook website, “even now as the United States grapples with a wide-reaching opioid addiction and renewed debates about gun and domestic violence.”
Tulsa’s Queer Community
Sure, Tulsa doesn’t have a gayborhood like Hell’s Kitchen or WeHo—what it does have is a small but vibrant queer community: I had a blast at Club Majestic (124 N Boston Ave), a sprawling two-story gay club with pool tables, drag shows and an outdoor patio. Its unpretentious and welcoming to all orientations and identities—but you might want to practice your line-dancing before you go. (Those folk know their steps!)
In early June, Tulsa Pride draws thousands of participants and spectators downtown for a street festival and parade ending at the Dennis R. Neill Equality Center (621 E 4th Street). In 2018, the four block stretch outside the center were renamed “Pride Street,” with the expectation of attracting restaurants and retail to create a vibrant queer-friendly corridor. But city leaders recognize there’s still work to be done in welcoming and empowering the LGBTQ community: In March, the Red Ribbon Gala benefiting Tulsa CARES is the centerpiece of a weekend of events with community leaders and policy changemakers.