Sunday, May 17, 2015

Update on Area Restaurants in Northeast Texas and Southeast Oklahoma


Inside Liefie li Vine Restaurant in Winnsboro, Texas


Over the last seven years, I have written of “things to do” in Paris, Mt. Pleasant, Sulphur Springs, Greenville and other close-by communities.  A few eating suggestions were included but now I have discovered some new eateries of note – all within driving distance for lunch or dinner. 

Exterior of Thai Lanna's
Inside Thai Lanna's in Mt. Pleasant
On the exterior,  Thai Lanna’s is as indistinctive a restaurant as one would ever frequent.  Located on the access road to I-30 in Mt. Pleasant and next to a Super 8 Motel, it’s easy to miss.  But inside is a beautiful, clean space with freshly made Thai food to order.  Owner Kanyasiri  “Jeed” Castle closely supervises the kitchen and often delivers dishes directly to a customer’s table.  Her mango and sticky rice dessert charmed even my chocolate loving husband.  If you’ve never experienced Thai cuisine or if you’ve been missing it, try this nearby locale.  Just don’t expect fiery.

Downtown Sulphur Springs continues to improve with a completed square renovation and updated, landscaped side streets.  As so often happens, restaurants follow improvements.  In addition to previously recommended Lou Viney’s Restaurant and Pub and the Pioneer Café, Cajun food is now available at Bayou Jack’s Cajun Grill on the square.  Their gumbo was authentic and shrimp salad satisfying.  The lunch crowd of working men seemed to appreciate the portions.  Save dessert for the Idzi Bitsy Bakery around the corner. 

Lobby of Texan Theater in Greenville, Tx
Inside Texan Theater in Greenville, Tx.
A very recent addition to downtown Greenville is the stunning Texas Theater, a former Opera House that had been shuttered since 1975.  Native Barbara Horan took on the challenging project of renovating an old theater and the results are spectacular.  In the lobby is a sleek coffee shop where a very decent cappuccino can be had as well as breakfast and lunch offerings.  Inside, tables seating 120 face the stage and are placed on several levels.  Recent performers have included Rick Springfield, Jimmie Vaughan, David Alan Coe, The Mills Brothers and Jeremiah Johnson.  Prices for tickets are high but include a four course meal, all drinks, tax, tip and the show.  It’s amazing to have this offering within driving distance.

Dipping south a bit to Winnsboro is Liefie li Vine, a South African themed restaurant owned by the Styrdom family.  Few know what to expect on first visit but waiters and owners are ready with explanations of anything on the menu.  Many American favorites such as prime rib are offered but it’s the ethnic offerings that are most intriguing.  Flat iron steak comes with a splash of traditional  monkey sauce .  I leave that to you to get an explanation.  A covered patio in the back makes for a relaxed evening.  My favorite part was the opportunity to sign up for a safari as you entered as well as the African gift shop.  This place is very popular.  Try going early and visiting downtown Winnsboro before dinner.

Shannon Mitchell's Grateful Head T-Shirt
Back north of the Red River are some relatively new restaurants in Broken Bow.  One stands out – Grateful Head Pizza Oven and Taproom - named after the owners’ favorite band.  This popular pizza place has had to expand 5 times and now includes its own gift shop.  I realized it had been discovered locally when I saw a Grateful Head t-shirt on a Lamar County Clerk’s employee.  Shannon Mitchell declared the restaurant her family’s favorite and we compared pizza choices.   By internet standards, the Funky Chicken pizza appears to be most popular but Shannon and I preferred the Tree Hugger.   Best time to go is in the evening when live music is available.  You may even catch Lamar County Deputy Reggie Daus playing in the Krissy Green Band.

I don’t want to forget recent additions to the Paris scene, especially downtown.  Perry’s Off the Square describes its offerings as “elevated comfort food”  - translated as favorites with a twist.   The decor is lovely and hopefully, we can dine outside soon if the weather would stay cleared.  107 wishes the same thing.  On nice evenings, this open air bar is wonderful for a cold beer and light dinner.  According to friends, nearby Phat Phil’s serves up good BBQ, coleslaw and potato salad from a trailer near Market Square.  And, Paris finally has its own Louisiana fare with Cajun Moon Grill and Bar on the west side of town – a welcome addition to an area with few food offerings.  Families, couples, and singles like this lively restaurant.  It works for lunch or a Friday night celebration.

The good news is the independent restaurant explosion in the U.S. has moved into our territory.  Chains are no longer our only option.  We just have to drive a bit to sample them all and this summer would be a good time to start. Bon appétit.






Tuesday, May 5, 2015

A Peace Corps Family

In front of church in Antigua, ,Guatemala


School event in Chimazat, Guatemala

 I’ve never been in the Peace Corps.  It was tempting but my oldest brother beat me to it, getting posted to Ecuador in 1973.   A niece joined in 2004, our son in 2006, another niece in 2008, and the first niece again in 2015.   It became almost a rite of passage for our family and provided interesting places to visit.

The program has beckoned to altruistically inclined college graduates since its beginning in 1961.  At the time, a commitment of two years to a distant country guaranteed a degree of hardship.  When my brother left for Ecuador, we hoped to see him once in the next 27 months.  He trained for three months in Puerto Rico, theoretically learning the language, and was dispatched to Agato, Ecuador, an indigenous village outside of Otavalo, a town two hours north of Quito, the capital. 
We had only the Peace Corps post office address for him and he had no phone.  As the town’s first volunteer, Mack had to find accommodations.  A second story floor was put in a barn which kept him dry but all had to duck under the large wooden beams to move about.  No electricity or running water was available.  He  built his own outhouse.  Fortunately, the community well was close and water could be hauled in large buckets.  Propane fueled his lanterns and stove.  Evenings ended and mornings began early.

My family visited Mack in 1974.  We stayed “in town” in Otavalo and quickly came down with amoebic dysentery.  Yet, I fell in love with the country and when a teaching job in Quito became available, I stayed for 15 months.  With the Peace Corps office near my home, I often stopped by as a kind of volunteer wannabe.   The volunteers were an independent lot, seemingly capable of putting up with anything.  Those posted to Quito had an easier time of it but the ones in the countryside had better stories. Mack liked it so much, he stayed an extra year.

At Lindsay Clark's home in Honduras
Lindsay's kitchen in Honduras
Fast forward 30 years to Honduras where our niece, Lindsay, was sent.  After she picked us up at the Tegucigalpa airport, we stopped by the Peace Corps office.  Times had changed but the laid back, open door, notices on the bulletin board environment had not.  As we drove to her small town, Lindsay calmly recounted stories of persons killed by machetes in her community but then with the usual Peace Corps odd juxtaposition of experiences, we joined her friends that night for a family birthday party with music and dancing.  This trip was cut short because of my sudden appendicitis.  Fortunately, the Peace Corps emergency number guided us to an appropriate hospital for surgery.





At Walker Clark's home in Chimazat, Guatemala
Two years later, our son joined.  He could have gone to an Eastern European country a year earlier but waited to get posted to Spanish speaking Guatemala.  Walker was also sent to a small town where strawberry farmers hoped he could instruct on how to grow those big strawberries sold in the U.S.  He knew nothing about strawberries, an initial disappointment to all.  In the end, he helped organize a co-op with marketing techniques for their product.  He also stayed a third year.

One year later, a second niece joined and was sent to western Ukraine, a country already split between two cultures.  None of the clothes Elizabeth brought were warm enough for the winters and a fur coat was her first purchase.  She lived in a city and taught English while learning the very difficult Ukrainian language.  Elizabeth has been our go-to person for context in the current Ukraine/Russia face-off.

This year, niece Lindsay joined the Peace Corps a second time with her husband.  They had just been posted to Vanuatu, a tiny country of islands in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, when Cyclone Pam slammed it.  Peace Corps chartered a plane to evacuate their volunteers before the storm arrived.  Lindsay and Sean waited in Australia until word came they were returning to Vanuatu to serve as emergency care workers. 

The Peace Corps has adjusted with the times.  Countries have come and gone according to political situations.  No driving is allowed but cell phones are - a godsend for those left at home.   Rules for drinking have been tightened.  Safety is the number one concern.  And it now offers a college program for returning volunteers, a benefit all our recent family members have used. 


Town home in Xela, Guateamala
A common topic in our family is whether the Peace Corps is that helpful for the locals.   All agree the greatest benefit is to the Volunteer who returns more confident and realistic about the world.  After my brother helped build a water line into his village, he became a water expert for the state of California.  As a nurse, Lindsay has often used her Spanish proficiency.  From Elizabeth’s experiences, she recognized the need for smart fund raising and now does that for Habitat for Humanity in Chicago.  And our son continues to use his fluent Spanish with his beautiful Guatemalan wife and son – the best argument of all to continue the program. 

Monday, April 20, 2015

Easter in New Orleans

Trinity Episcopal Church
Garden District of New Orleans
Millions of revelers flow through New Orleans for Mardi Gras at Lent’s beginning but far fewer join festivities when the penitential season ends at Easter.  Yet at the Pasqual celebration, weather is better, gardens fuller and a different kind of hat rules – the Easter bonnet.  It was the perfect time to revisit New Orleans after a 35 year absence.

Preparations for the trip first centered around restaurant reservations.  Two months in advance were not enough to secure a table for some NOLA traditional establishments.  Arnaud’s website warned they were booked until May.  Commodore’s Palace wouldn’t allow online reservations and a call confirmed they were completely full for brunch on Easter Sunday.  Amelie’s, a small venue in the French Quarter, apologized for its capacity crowd and could only offer to put us on a waiting list.  Fortunately, finding a good restaurant in the Crescent City is easy and I could relax a bit with a confirmed brunch reservation at Coquette’s in the Garden District.  It seemed prudent to firm up eating arrangements for other nights of our trip and those came more easily – Bayona on Saturday night and August, a Josh Besh restaurant, on Monday evening.

For accommodations, we used Airbnb for the first time.  Our go to favorite home/apartment rental company had been VRBO – Vacation Rental by Owner.  But younger friends promoted Airbnb as it advertised not only full apartments and houses but also single rooms or even a shared room.  Prices can be as low as $30 a night in the Seventh Ward or $155 a night for a two bedroom spot in the French Quarters or $355 for a four bedroom house in the suburbs. 

We booked half of a shotgun house on Magazine Street in the Garden District, complete with front porch for easy street scene viewing.  Donuts and coffee were one block to the east and a neighborhood bar one block west.   Our landlord lived next door and had coffee, water and cold beer awaiting our arrival.   He knew the local scene and could suggest many music venues and local food choices. 

Diners at Commodore's Palace
With Catholic and Episcopal churches within walking distance, we enjoyed our stroll on Easter morning.  Men in white and cream colored linen suits and women with large brimmed hats carried on an old Southern tradition.  Boys in jackets and girls in pastel dresses skipped into church.  A cross covered in wire greeted families who brought flowers from their gardens to fill its spaces – a tradition I remember from my childhood.  It felt a step back in time.

Strawberry shortcake with mint ice
cream at Coquette's in Garden District
Easter Brunches are serious business with most restaurants overflowing.    At Coquettes, a three course, fixed priced menu offered unusual Easter choices such as lamb stew with potato salad or crawfish salad but included a traditional strawberry short cake.  Well dressed families filled the two stories throughout the day.  A stroll through the Garden District took us past Commodore’s Palace, a New Orleans classic with its odd blue and white striped exterior.   We watched guests arriving in sleek black cars, exiting in high heels and flowered patterned attire.  Inside a jazz trio played. 

Lafayette Cemetery #1
Across the street,  Lafayette Cemetery#1 was open and beckoned to those passing by.  New Orleans cemeteries are unique with family crypts holding generations of the departed.  Names of the departed dated back into the early 1800s.  At one monument, a feral cat relaxed and two strands of black and white beads were draped over an urn.  As a walking tour passed by we overheard the guide explain the need to live in a “good cemetery” neighborhood – a concept new to us.

If Mardi Gras parades seem excessive, an alternative is the Easter parade.  Three were available in the French Quarter with several neighborhood ones nearby.  Bourbon Street Club owner, Chris Owens, was the Grand Duchess of her 32nd annual “patriotic” Easter Parade.  Stuffed bunnies are tossed as well as the ever present beads.  Another favorite family activity appeared to be picnics in the beautiful Audubon Park and then just cruising St. Charles Avenue with windows open. 


New Orleans for the traveler has the feel of a foreign country as well as living in a time capsule.  Much of the city has completely recovered from Hurricane Katrina and it has almost recouped its population loss from the storm.  Despite recent crime surges due in part to a 30% vacancy rate in the police department, the city feels safe, friendly, and walkable.  It certainly was on a beautiful Easter Sunday.

Thursday, April 9, 2015

9/11 Memorial and Museum Gets It Right




New One World Trade Center and plaza


Original slurry wall holding back Hudson River

No memorial has ever tried to accommodate so many opinions and needs as the 9/11 Memorial and Museum. Its slow progress and occasional retreats were well chronicled in the news. Survivors, victims’ families, rescue workers, neighbors, local, state and federal government - all had input, many with strong opinions.  Designs came and went.  Size and depth were debated.  Since memorials and museums have inherently different goals, the decision to separate them allows the emotional and historical objectives to be met.  Planners used guidelines developed for the Oklahoma City Memorial where those lost in the 1995 bombing are remembered with empty named chairs and the adjacent museum records the events and significance in history.


Debate in New York included which victim names should be engraved – only those lost from the Twin Towers or all from 9/11 or add those who died in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing.  Gratefully, all are listed and grouped with those who died together. What to display in the museum generated the strongest feelings.  Many of the artifacts were too personal such as recordings of last conversations.  Yet, emotional intensity was desired and even factored in.  In the museum, early exit doors are available for those overcome by memories.
Footprint Pool at 9/11 Memorial

Names of Victims carved on parapet surrounding pool
Thirteen years after the event, the 9/11 Memorial and Museum finally opened on May 15, 2014.  It is already the number six item of top 20 things to do in New York City on Trip Advisor.  A million visitors have come to pay homage.  We approached the scene by foot, passing through the white oaks and sweet gum tree filled plaza until reaching two enormous pools outlining the footprints of the lost towers. The depth of the pools gave a true sense of the size of the lost Towers.  Leaning over the four foot parapet walls, I watched water fall 30 feet (three stories) into a square shaped fountain.  Titled “Reflecting Absence”, the black granite walls encouraged somber thoughts for this appropriately named architectural piece.  Names of all who died were carved on the parapets, some with flowers laid across or a single rose inserted.  I felt sad.

Original Steel Beams in Museum Lobby
Elevator Motor from Twin Tower


Nearby is the 9/11 museum.  Everything about its open areas is large.  The lobby’s long escalator descends past two giant, 70 foot steel beams, with forked tops pointing skyward. Further down, in Foundation Hall, the last standing 36 foot tall column anchors this enormous Hall that is supported by the original slurry wall holding back the Hudson River.  A circular elevator motor stretches 6 feet in diameter and a river water valve reaches 5 feet.   I was awed by the dimensions.




Blue Tile Wall with colors of the sky on 9/11
Symbolism surrounds you.  A blue tile wall reflects all the colors of the sky on that brilliant day.  The ramp leading down 7 floors (the depth of the debris) follows that used by construction workers. A mangled TV antenna tower represents the end of communication from those at the top.  The aluminum wall surrounding the underground pool symbolized the silver of the original towers.   I was moved by the attention to detail.

Fire Engine that was crushed on 9/11
We were reminded of what went right that day.  Fifteen thousand people got out of the buildings before the collapse.  Injuries were minimal.  I watched a map of the United States go dark as every lit location of airplanes in the air disappeared within hours of the tragedy.  Firefighters worked regardless of whether it was their shift and first responders dug heroically that day and later to be sure all survivors were out.  I felt pride.

In the memorial section, it got harder.  Many of the mementos recovered from the scene are displayed - police helmet, Fireman memorial patch, briefcase used to protect from falling glass, passenger window from the plane, a sign in the Pentagon for Deputy Undersecretary of the Army International Affairs, children’s clothing, telephone, rolodex, clock stopped at 9:37, woman’s black stilettos, dusty tennis shoes, and bicycles.  A photo of abandoned baby carriers in Battery Park captured the panic of the moment.  Newscasts from around the world were available, reminding us of the 90 countries represented in the 3000 that died.   I felt surrounded by sympathy.


This is truly a national memorial as most Americans vividly remember that day.  Patricia Cohen in the New York Times wrote that “reconciling the clashing obligations to recount the history with pinpoint accuracy, to memorialize heroism and to promote healing inevitably required compromise.”  The ability of the Memorial and Museum planners and designers to make those needed decisions really reflect what is good about America – the coming together of different backgrounds, economic levels, nationalities, and skills to create a place to remember and to learn.  Our guide noted that when asked what they remembered that day, many New Yorkers mention the color of the sky, the dust and the kindness on the street.  Incredibly, I was nostalgic – not for the tragedy but for the solidarity.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

"Visit Hasidim" - A Personal Story of Life in Williamsburg‘s Hasidic Community

Freida Vizel, tour guide of Visit Hasidim
 I had seen members of the easily identified Hasidic community strolling in Central Park in Manhattan.  A flight on El Al to Israel was filled with the faithful.  Thousands live in Jerusalem where we tried to engage their children in play but were shooed aside.  And in “The Chosen” and “The Promise”,  well regarded author, Chaim Potok, revealed the inner life of this most private sect of Judiasm.  I knew of them but had never met a member – until our “Visit Hasidim” tour of the Hasidic Community in Williamsburg, a part of Brooklyn. 
Synagogue with Separate Entries for men and women

This branch of Orthodox Judaism was founded in the 18th Century by Baal Shem Tov in Poland and spread throughout Eastern Europe.  Rebbe Tov was a sincere and simple man who believed that an ordinary person who prayed from his heart could be acceptable to God even without being versed in all the Jewish laws.  His mystical approach appealed to the poor and was immediately embraced.  Most of the followers were killed in the Holocaust of WWII but survivors immigrated to Israel and New York and have established a strong presence in various parts of Brooklyn and the New York environs.

Our guide, Freida Vizel, was the 5th of 15 children in her family.  She grew up speaking Yiddish in Kiryas Joel, a thriving Hasidic community north of NYC.  They would often visit her grandmother in Williamsburg .   The family had no radio or TV and only a Yiddish newspaper to bring word of the outside world.  She never saw the  planes slamming into the Twin Towers on 9/11. 

Toy store in Williamsburg
Today, Freida provides a walking tour through the Hasidic community of Williamsburg  which appears rooted in the 1800s.  As this branch of Judaism aged, rules set in again.   Men must wear long black coats, white shirts, fur hats, large beards with side curls, and black shoes.  The women have some more flexibility in dress but married women must shave their heads (so that not a strand of hair can be shown to the public) and wear a scarf, hat or wig.  Since the rabbi must consent to the use of birth control, large families with eight children are common. 

Internet Cafe in Williamsburg
As we walked, Freida revealed the nuances of this life.  She pointed out the synagogue with separate entrances for men and women who sit apart,  a linen store selling single bed covers as husband and wife must sleep separately,  a men’s tailor shop with a selection of only white shirts,  and a school bus with Hebrew lettering for transporting children to yeshivas or schools.  Boys must study the Torah and only receive one-half day per week of secular studies that include science and math.  Girls, surprisingly, get one-half every day in those studies.   Behind one storefront door was an Internet Café with cubicles where the Orthodox could use properly filtered internet.   Surprisingly, Email is allowed.
School bus to transport children to yeshivas

Freida’s story was most compelling.  At 18, her parents paid a matchmaker $2,000 to find a husband.  Matchmakers consider family compatibility, looks, economics, and personality.  Both families will be given a name and they have an opportunity to “view” the prospective bride and groom.  To accomplish this, Freida was taken to Wal-Mart by her mother who told her to look straight ahead.  Suddenly, it was over when a person quickly walked past.    With both parties liking what they saw, the couple met alone in a family living room for 20 minutes.   When they exited the room, they had to say “yes” or “no”.  Freida knew it wasn’t right but all she could say was “I can’t say no”.  She couldn’t go against her father. 

Freida always knew she was different.  She had a typewriter and had written since a child.  Thirst for knowledge and experiences eventually caused her to leave the community.  Being an obedient wife and mother were no longer enough.   When Freida withdrew four years ago, her husband did not join her and they divorced.

Gottlieb's Restaurant in Williamsburg
During the tour, we stopped at two delicatessens.  In the first, a low wall separated men from women and children.  We had one man on the tour and no one seemed bothered by his presence on the women’s side.  Freida chatted with the owner and brought us hot chocolate.  At tour’s end, we visited Gottlieb’s restaurant where only men were eating.   Working hard to maintain good relationships, Freida again visited with the owner who brought us an array of traditional Jewish dishes. 


This was Freida’s opportunity to ask us questions.  She wanted to know how we would have approached living in her community.  Had we ever self-isolated ourselves?  The women present were sure we wouldn’t have lasted long in such a restrictive environment.   Yet, Freida clearly appreciated her family and respected her former community.   It just wasn’t right for her.  We were lucky to have such an articulate and knowledgeable guide and as my sister-in-law said, “Can’t wait for Freida’s book.”

Monday, March 9, 2015

A Tale of Two Manhattan Museums - The Frick and The Tenement



The Henry Clay Frick Home that now houses the Frick Collection                      

Henry Clay Frick was a very wealthy man.  As one of the “robber barons” of the Guilded Age in the 1880s,  Mr. Frick’s close circle of friends included Andrew Carnegie and Thomas Mellon.    He accumulated his large estate through the mining of coal and production of coke used in steel manufacturing.  His company, in partnership with Carnegie Steel, was the predecessor of United States Steel.  With his earnings, Mr. Frick indulged in his favorite pastime of collecting art – especially Old Masters such as Titian, Rembrandt, Goya, Whistler, Vermeer and El Greco.  This premier collection is housed in the 1912 New York City Upper East Side home he had designed to display his art with the intent that it be the showcase for the Frick Collection.   

Since 1935, the public has been able to view the beautiful art and stunning home setting that Mr. Frick bequeathed to the people of New York City.  Sculptures of marble, bronze and terracotta fill hallways,   natural light from 5th Avenue streams in and benches beckon all to rest and gaze.  If you’re lucky, an organ master will be practicing for a concert on the hidden Aeolian-Skinner Organ, the same fine company that built the organ at Holy Cross Episcopal Church in Paris.  Our two hours hardly seemed enough. 

A very different museum building was constructed as Mr. Frick accumulated his wealth.  Located seventy blocks south on the Lower East Side, the contrast between the Tenement Museum and The Frick was stark.  In 1863,  a five story apartment building was built at 97 Orchard Street, originally populated with German  immigrants.  Over seven hundred beer halls filled the streets.  As  Germans moved out, Eastern European Jews and poor Irish took turns filling the apartments.  



By 1935, as the Frick Collection was opening, seven thousand tenants had occupied this building compared to only two at the Frick mansion.  It is believed the landlord boarded up the building that same year rather than upgrade according to newly developed code.  When reopened and inventoried in 1988,  the Orchard street property was a treasure trove of every day tenant life.   Developers of the museum researched specific families who had occupied the rooms and created tours with their stories.  Of the tours offered, we selected “Sweat Shop Workers”. 

As we entered the dingy building,  light from a single overhead lightbulb gave us the first glimpse of an immigrant’s life.  In the 1880s, the Henry Levine family lived in three rooms where a full scale garment sweat shop employed the family and 3 to 4 more.  Heat, poor ventilation, and work for 14 hour days/7 days a week contributed to high death rates.  Population density in the area equaled 2,791 persons per square block, the highest in the world at the time.  Today, it is only 400. 

Most touching were the mementos found in the apartment.  As our guide noted, “Rats’ nests are great archives.”  A set of girls jacks, large garment scissors, admission ticket to the synagogue,  box of Kasha, a Russian cereal, card for an overdue library book and a Kosher cooking jar all made the Levine family more real.

A second apartment revealed much of the lives of Abraham and Fanny Rogarshevaky in 1911.  Sweat shops had shut down after new regulations limited their viability and large factories opened.  Because women were paid less and Jewish men often were required to study their faith, the daughters of this family worked at a garment/shirtwaist factory. With high ceilings, bright light and ventilation, the factory was an improvement for workers.  But they could also now meet and compare stories of working conditions.

And, this is where the stories of our two museums meet - in the often violent atmosphere of the birthing of the American Labor Movement.  Henry Frick hated labor unions.  He fought them tooth and nail, including hiring hit men to attack strikers at his Homestead Plant and erecting a solid wood wall around the premises.  He thought nothing of hiring scab workers and making offers below the workers' existing salaries.

Across town, female workers at the Triangle Waist Company were submitted to one humiliation after another - clocks purposefully slowed to require more work, being searched as they left to be sure they carried nothing home, 14 hour work days and working above the regulated 7th floor limit in case of fire.  On March 25, 1911, a fire at the company trapped many workers as the door were locked from the outside.  Until 9/11, it was the deadliest workplace disaster in NYC with scenes of women jumping out windows to their deaths.  The disaster galvanized women to join union and socialites  to join the fight leading to improved work conditions.

A good museum teaches, engages, and makes the past personal.  Mr. Frick’s home exemplified the Gilded Age, life of the elite, and the power of money to surround oneself with beauty at the expense of the other 99%.   At the Tenement Museum, it was made clear we owe a great debt to that 99% - immigrants who lived under painful circumstances but persevered so that their descendants could do better.   Thanks to them, we have.

 Frick Collection website                                                                                                                                                   





Sunday, February 8, 2015

What a penny of sales tax with a plan can produce for a community – Oklahoma City’s staged redevelopment through MAPS


Conservatory across the pond at Myriad Gardens downtown

I realize this is a travel column and not a political forum.  And I know raising the sales tax can be very touchy.  But I have been impressed with a program promoted by Oklahoma City to revitalize their downtown area that has produced spectacular results – both in increased tourism and urban living.

In 1993, voters of Oklahoma City approved a dedicated sales tax increase of one penny for MAPS – Metropolitan Area Projects.  To convince the community of this need, the City , Chamber of Commerce and others had spent much time narrowing the use of the new tax revenue.  It was to fund nine projects only.  And the tax would expire in five years.  The taxpayers knew exactly what was to be done with the money and also knew the end date of the tax increase.  It passed with 54% of the vote.

In the next 10 years, the city delivered on its promise.  The Music Hall, Civic Center, and Fairgrounds were renovated. An area of town with old warehouses became Bricktown where a new ballpark and mile long canal were constructed.  A sports arena was built downtown and the riverfront developed along the adjacent Oklahoma River.  City readers cheered at the new four story public library while riding a trolley to get there.   And, all were constructed debt free.

Voters were so impressed they approved a second five year round of the sales tax in 2009.  This money will do much to encourage healthy lifestyles – a 70 acre downtown public park, senior health and wellness centers, and expansion of the city’s trail system to connect urban parks.  Also included is construction of a new Convention Center and Fairground buildings. 
River Walk in Bricktown

The tourist fallout from these projects have been phenomenal.  Families, college students, military personnel on leave, and locals make extensive use of the new offerings.  In Bricktown, many visitors ride the boats, stroll the brick streets, eat at unusual restaurants, shop Bass Pro, and in a lovely stadium watch the Red Hawks play, a AAA team aligned with the Houston Astros.  Next door, Downtown sports new streets, a renovated Cox Convention Center, and the new Chesapeake Energy Sports Arena that was instrumental in snagging the very popular NBA Oklahoma Thunder team. 
Sculpture at Myriad Gardens Downtown OK City

My favorite project was  the beautifully renovated 17 acre Myriad Botanical Gardens.  It’s easy to pass a morning or afternoon in the Gardens exploring its Conservatory, fanciful playground, a genuine hidden garden, and water sprays that cool and delight in the summer.   Ice skating is available in the winter. 

In 2009, only one large hotel with 400 rooms hung out downtown.  According to the OKC Chamber of Commerce,  $200 million of capital investment has now gone into hotels because of the MAPS success.  There are currently thirteen hotels with most large hotel chains represented either in Bricktown or Downtown and two refurbished historic hotels.

 Nearby areas have also prospered.  Next door to Bricktown is Deep Deuce, the historic African American commercial and jazz center most recently filled with empty lots.  New low-rise apartment buildings are filling that void.   Young adults and empty nesters have jumped at the opportunity to live in an urban area. 

Just north of downtown is Mid-Town with its brick paved Broadway, once filled with automobile dealerships but now hosting a coffee roaster, bike shops, gift stores, and much more.  Across Mid-town, old apartment buildings are being transformed and new ones built.  Fassler Hall and Dust Bowl, a  bowling alley/beer hall just opened along with a nearby food truck park.  New restaurants seem to appear weekly.  None of these projects are publicly funded but they progressed naturally from the redevelopment of nearby Bricktown and Downtown.   The OKC Chamber of Commerce estimates a tenfold return on the original MAPS investment.

And I haven’t even mentioned the third MAPS election that supported education.  MAPS for Kids passed in 2001 and by completion, 70 schools had been renovated or newly constructed, including one elementary school downtown.  $52 million went for technology projects and $9 million to replacement of the bus fleet.  Oklahoma City residents have recognized the need to invest in their community and schools without saddling the next generation with debt.


View of downtown from Myriad Gardens
National Geographic Travel magazine named Oklahoma City as one of the best trips in 2015.  That probably surprised a few folks out there but not me.  This recognition can be traced directly back to the penny sales tax with a plan.  In every election, promoters were able to demonstrate the effective use of the previous penny sales tax while including a vision of the next project.  It’s a model we should all consider if ever we want our own hometown to be a premier tourist destination.  Oh, and, you should go visit.  How many premier travel destinations are just three and a half hours away?

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