Tulsa is a city with a complicated past.
Tarnished by one of the most heinous incidents of racial violence in U.S. history in the early 20th century, wracked by mid-20th century urban redevelopment and punished by an economic downtown in the late 20th century that reverberated throughout the erstwhile "Oil Capital of the World," Oklahoma's second most populous city has spent much of its modern history divided.
The 21st century, however, has found Tulsa on the mend as a years-long renaissance unfurls across this Arkansas River-straddling port town. Once-blighted residential enclaves like Kendall-Whittier have been revitalized thanks to multimillion dollar neighborhood investment schemes. A world-class museum dedicated to Oklahoma's contributions to American pop culture is in the works. And although still plagued by surface parking lots, downtown Tulsa — including the buzzy Tulsa Arts District — is not the ghost town that it was just five years ago as new transplants and native Tulsans alike have repopulated the city's urban core.
Then there's Gathering Place, the latest quality of life-improving asset for a city that's enthusiastically bettering itself while leveling economic and social barriers as time marches forward.
Sprawling across 66.5 acres (of a planned 100 acres) along a riverside parcel just south of downtown, Gathering Place is a $465 million showstopper of a public park that opened in September of last year. An amenity-stuffed urban green space created in part with the largest public park gift in U.S. history, Gathering Place is so ambitious in size and scope that it challenges other park projects to top it.
And maybe some day another park will. But as a park positioning itself as a bridge to help bring together a tight-knit yet divided city, Gathering Place — dubbed a "park for everyone" — is, for now, unparalleled.
A city with do-goodery in its DNA
Like much of Tulsa's recent resurgence, Gathering Place was made possible by charitable giving, a defining attribute of the city.
While various organizations and individuals are fueling the city's current philanthropic frenzy (Bloomberg Philanthropies is a notable recent benefactor), banking and energy billionaire George B. Kaiser is the most omnipresent source of community-mending largesse; a quiet but potent force in transforming a city where one in five people live below the poverty line. (A native Tulsan, the famously low-key Kaiser was an early signatory of the Giving Pledge, a charitable campaign established in 2010 by Warren Buffet and Bill Gates.)
Kaiser's philanthropic arm, the George Kaiser Family Foundation (GKFF), focuses on four key areas: early childhood education, community health, criminal justice and fostering what the foundation calls a "vibrant and inclusive Tulsa" through economic and community development projects as well as arts-based initiatives including the Tulsa Artist Fellowship, the Woody Guthrie Center and neighboring Guthrie Green.
One headline-grabbing GKFF initiative is Tulsa Remote, a program that awards $10,000 cash grants (other perks include housing stipends and coworking space with unlimited snacks) to eligible applicants who relocate to — and work remotely in — Tulsa for one year with the hopes that they'll dig the city and stick around.
It's not surprising Tulsa's shiny new public park — the first place winner, by the way, in USA Today's 10Best Reader's Choice Awards in the Best New Attraction category — features front and center in luring prospective Tulsa Remote applicants.
After all, Tulsa now has many of the same millennial-enticing conveniences found in other on-the-rebound mid-sized cities: chic cocktail lounges, boutique ice creameries and even coffee shops-cum-yoga studios. Tulsa also recently debuted its first food hall, a trend that, per the Washington Post, is "having a moment." (Described as a "food innovation district," Mother Road Market places an emphasis on local food entrepreneurialism.) But none of these cities has anything like Gathering Place.
The park itself was made possible by a $200 million gift from GKFF, which also spearheaded the effort to secure an additional $200 million from outside private foundations and trusts. The city contributed an additional $65 million in funds earmarked for infrastructural improvements.
Independently operated by a nonprofit park conservancy in conjunction with Tulsa's public-private River Parks Authority, Gathering Place, like Tulsa Remote, broadly falls under the economic development umbrella of GKFF. Yet the project is nebulous, bleeding into nearly all corners of the foundation's mission.
As blinged-out as Gathering Place is — and more on that in a bit — the park is ultimately meant to reunify the city while bolstering the foundation's other community-revitalizing projects. It also, as GKFF program officer Josh Miller explains, provides morale-boosting PR to an often overlooked city that's on the up-and-up.
"There's a kind of halo effect due to all the national and international press and media that the park is getting. It overall bolsters confidence in the city," Miller says. "This is a sort of intangible but very important piece of the park."
He adds that Gathering Place is "a great complement to everything else going on in Tulsa" but "certainly not the only thing that we should hang our hat on. We still need to continue to improve economically and focus on education. But it's certainly something for people to point to and be proud of."
A playground for (all) the ages
Tulsans ought to be proud of Gathering Place, a public venue that challenges the notion of how truly grand we think a park located in a mid-sized city in the middle of the country can be.
As Gathering Place VP of Loyalty Amanda Murphy explains, the park is centered around the key tenets of "sustainability, accessibility and inclusion" in so that all Tulsans can "find their place."
This place for everyone has been realized as a painstakingly thoughtful recreational and cultural space that's one part fantasyland for rollicking children, one part urbanism wonk fever dream and one part masterwork of park design courtesy of Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates. The New York City-based landscape design firm's other recent high-profile projects include Brooklyn Bridge Park, the newly revamped Gateway Arch National Park in St. Louis and Chicago's Maggie Daley Park.
Atlanta-based MSME designed Gathering Place's two major structures, the Williams Lodge and the ONEOK Boathouse, while Danish firm Monstrum and Germany's Richter Spielgeräte are behind the park's delightfully bonkers playground elements. A dizzying and distinctly European jumble of slides, swings, climbing structures, suspension bridges, sand pits and some very large waterfowl, the park's 5-acre Chapman Adventure Playground, rife with multigenerational appeal, is arguably the largest and most unique playground in the country.
"The [American] play element is different," explains Gathering Place Director Tony Moore. "It's a more sanitized, extra-padded and very safe environment that lacks a sense of adventure. European-style play is one of adventure and discovery. These attractions are purposely designed for kids to touch, to feel, to climb, to explore."
Beyond the Chapman Adventure Playground and the handsomely outfitted Williams Lodge, which Moore describes as resembling a "ski lodge on steroids," there's a superlative splash pad dubbed Mist Mountain, a large manmade pond complete with paddle boat rentals, multiple gardens, expansive lawns, walking trails and a thrilling hillside slide zone funded by a petroleum company. (The benefactors of different park elements are announced throughout the landscape via tasteful signage.)
Park guests who traverse two land bridges spanning Riverside Drive, one of which is topped by a garden that serves as an "homage to the dramatic Oklahoma sky," will find a riverfront nature walk, a skate park and an assortment of sports court neatly tucked into the southernmost section of the property. The remaining undeveloped 40-some acres will be new future home of the Tulsa Children's Museum Discovery Lab. A $24.4 million pedestrian bridge, also designed by Michael Van Valkenburgh and Associates, will eventually span the Arkansas River to more seamlessly connect the park with West Tulsa's neighborhoods and riverfront trails.
Simply put, there's a lot going on. And while Gathering Place may appear daunting from a disabilities perspective, Murphy emphasizes that accessibility to all is a key feature within the fully ADA-compliant park.
"Many people do not know that we have desensitization spaces for guests with sensory anxieties," she explains of the park's accommodations for guests on the autism spectrum. "People also see the large towers within our Chapman Adventure Playground area, but often do not realize that mobility impaired guests can access those towers via a ramp."
Cozy and beautifully appointed, the Williams Lodge serves as both an anchor for Gathering Place and a community living room for Tulsans from all walks of life. (Photo: Josh New/George Kaiser Family Foundation)
In car-centric Tulsa, public transit remains a hurdle
The spirit of accessibility extends to how Tulsans get to and from Gathering Place. While the park abuts the affluent Maple Ridge neighborhood, Gathering Place is not a park for that neighborhood — or any specific neighborhood, really.
Park access is, however, an ongoing challenge in a sprawling and car-dependent town with sparse public transportation service, although the park continues to work with the city and other partners to improve rapid transit options. (The park currently offers a free but limited shuttle service from satellite parking lots.)
"It is a legitimate issue that we have," says Moore, noting that in the coming year there will be direct efforts to launch a busing program that would bring guests to the park from certain Tulsa neighborhoods. "If we're going to truly be true to our mantra in that this is a park for everyone, we certainly have to recognize that there's a fair amount of communities that just don't have the means of getting to the park."
He adds: "I don't want to be too aspirational in thinking that we can bus everyone — we'd just never have the funds and resources to do so. But we hope as soon as this spring that we'll be able to strategically address busing issues. It's a need — and it's a need that we're working on."
Across the river in West Tulsa is Eugene Field, a neighborhood in the midst of a massive revitalization scheme funded in part by a grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development via the Choice Neighborhoods program and a $27 million loan from GKFF earmarked for affordable housing development. Students from Eugene Field Elementary were invited to test-drive the park months before it opened to the general public.
"From the minute the buses turned into the property, the kids were cheering," recounts Moore. "The pure innocence of their engagement, the excitement — we were just blown away."
But for some students the sneak-peek was bittersweet. Moore recalls one young girl who was sobbing at the end of the day, and not because she was hurt or didn't enjoy herself. She was distraught because of her family's upcoming plans to move out of state — the idea that she would be missing out on the park while her classmates continued to enjoy it had brought her to tears.
In addition to Eugene Field Elementary, Gathering Place has working relationships with two other schools located in underserved Tulsa neighborhoods to ensure that students have easy and frequent access to the park. In 2019, the conservancy will kick off educational programs for these schools that, as Moore explains, "will offer the park as a classroom" with a focus on literacy and STEM education.
Diverse programming that packs 'em in
Beyond initiatives with local schools, the park's overall programming scheme, which emphasizes environmental education, the arts and active lifestyles, caters to what Murphy calls "the wonderful, diverse world in which we live."
As Moore elaborates, it's vital that a self-described "park for all" remain authentic in attracting four key cultural demographic groups: Hispanics and Latinos, African-Americans, Native Americans and the "fastest-growing but smallest" Asian American demographic. "We will have concerts and festivals specifically geared to draw those four cultural demographics," says Moore. He notes that special events involving "food, music, entertainment and dance" are all on the horizon, kicking off in spring.
In its first 100 days, the park hosted a veritable smorgasbord of special events, kicked off by a performance by the Roots held on the Great Lawn. In its opening weekend alone, 55,000 guests visited the park with an estimated 500,000 visitors flocking to the park during its action-packed first three months. Overall, the conservancy expects the park to attract 1 million guests annually.
"I think we know we have a good product," says Moore. "And more importantly, you can have a good product and they still won't come but they're coming, and we definitely have a repeatable experience."
And that repeatability benefits from the sheer breadth of experiences to be had within Gathering Place as well as the quality of the programming. "I think the diversity of our content aligns us more with a theme park," says Moore, who himself held leadership roles at Orlando-area theme parks including SeaWorld and Universal Studios before taking the helm at Gathering Place. "But it's not a theme park. It's a public park with theming."
That said, while the conservancy's initial outreach focused largely on getting the word out to locals, Moore explains that marketing to attract visitors on a more regional — and eventually national — scale will pick up in earnest this year. "Our hope is that this will beget other attractions," he says of the park's economy-boosting potential. "While the park is a free attraction there's certainly an opportunity for us to attract other brands from a hospitality point of view to be part of Tulsa's [tourism] footprint."
And even though Gathering Place has only been up and running for a few short months, Moore notes that "we honestly believe that the park will increase housing value and be a major economic driver for the city."
Long-term economic boons aside, at the heart of Gathering Place remains an overarching mission to promote unity in a city where income inequality and racial disparity remain issues despite the philanthropy-aided progress that's been made. "A lot of public parks share a similar mission but we're not shy about it," says Moore.
Gathering Place may not be capable of healing the wounds of Tulsa's painful past. But it does provide the city with a new energy that's confident and clear-eyed. The future, it would seem, is as wide-open as the great Oklahoma plains.
Inset images of downtown Tulsa skyline, Woody Guthrie Center, blue heron slide: Josh New/George Kaiser Family Foundation