You know the drill. Mid-sized city revives a long-dormant warehouse district with art galleries, a baseball park, hipster bars, food trucks, even a Spaghetti Warehouse. Locals love it, then brace for a tourism boom that doesn’t really come.
But Tulsa’s reviving Brady District is different. It has Woody Guthrie.
In truth, this city in the Oklahoma hills where I grew up hasn’t offered much outside appeal since the oil wells dried up or Route 66 became a toll road. And for decades, the Brady, across the tracks from downtown, was the quietest, darkest place in a town better known for its TV evangelist Oral Roberts. In fact, the Brady might have been left for good if not for a couple classic music venues, including Cain’s Ballroom, where Bob Wills put swing into country music in the ’30s.
Now the once-abandoned red-brick townhouses are home to glass-blowing schools, violin shops, falafel stands, cafes, outdoor films and yoga classes, and even the Hanson brothers’ studio 3CG. Nora Guthrie, the frizzy haired daughter of the legendary folk hero, calls this area the perfect place for the new Woody Guthrie Center. “It’s like SoHo in 1969 to 1971,” she says of her former New York neighborhood. “There’s this budding creativity, not caring about a specific idea, just a notion to do something.”
In other words, Woody would approve.And that’s nice considering his home state long didn’t approve of him. Born in 1912 in Okemah (a 70-minute drive southwest), Woody wrote roughly 3000 songs before succumbing to Huntington’s Disease at 55 in 1967. Soon afterwards, Okemah’s little library refused the family’s offers to house a donation of Woody’s items due to the singer’s perceived “commie” leanings. (Never mind that, at the time of Woody’s birth in 1912, one in five Okies voted socialist.)
Lucky for Tulsa, it turns out. Across from Guthrie Green, the center is part museum, part archives. Its exhibits tell the tale of some of the rambler’s homes, including the Texas panhandle, Los Angeles and his final home New York City.
In an hour or two, you can peek at Bob Dylan’s hand-written scrawl of his 1961 “Song to Woody” or Woody’s fiddle marked with his well-known WWII-era slogan (“this machine kills fascists”), then see videos on the Dust Bowl, which prompted the westward Okie migration that Woody sung about on his first album “The Dust Bowl Ballads” (1940).
The heart of the center, philosophically and spatially, is devoted to “This Land is Your Land,” written near Times Square in 1943 as a sort of rebuttal to a song Woody loathed, “God Bless America.” Videos show many of the renditions of the song, including a funny German version and a bouncy Glen Campbell singing along in the ’60s in the most fanciful of green kerchiefs.
Nearby are plenty of ways to expand a day. At Valkyrie, a roomy lounge that was once used as a location in the film Rumblefish, young Tulsa entrepreneurs sip cocktails and local microbrews and debate local questions like whether Hanson are good tippers. One offered me some Oklahoma-shaped dog biscuits she makes from beer. A couple doors down, the Tavern on Brady plays up its Prohibition-era incarnation in look, but goes all-out mod in cuisine. I went with a surprisingly good banh mi salad, a breadless take on the Vietnamese sandwich with a faithful dousing of fish sauce.
If you go, look to stay at The Mayo, a ’20s art deco hotel that reopened a few years ago, and pick up Benjamin Lytal’s excellent new novel, “A Map of Tulsa,” which plays out downtown and the Brady District in the ’90s. If you write, or like those who do, spend an early Friday evening at the classic Tulsa Press Club downtown, where Tulsa World beat reporters and the like assemble to drink and talk the written word.
Just like the old days.
Robert Reid (www.reidontravel.com) grew up in Tulsa. His first time to the Brady was in the summer of ’83, when Alfie Mizer needed company to see some band from Ireland called U2. Though just as moved as Alfie, Robert didn’t rip apart his matching Ozzy concert shirt during “Sunday Bloody Sunday.”