Tulsa needs a more optimistic community culture for multiple reasons. Don’t get me wrong, it is not as if we don’t have some positives because we do, many of them in fact. We have outstanding single family residential neighborhoods, a decent zoo and park system, flourishing cultural institutions like our award winning Symphony, Opera and Ballet Companies. We have two world class museums, a plethora of cultural centers, performing arts venues, ethnic festivals and public artwork. We have thriving boutique shopping and entertainment districts like the Brady, Blue Dome, Brookside, Cherry Street, and Utica Square.
Like many communities, our inner-city schools are struggling but we do have some outstanding private schools and more than ample higher educational opportunities. We also have abundant sports options at both the collegiate and professional levels. Most everyone agrees that Tulsa is a great place to live and raise a family.
The problem is that we are not systematically leveraging these assets to help us achieve our potential as a great American city. Our smug and conservative community mindset and our resistance to change and progressive ideas has led to decades of stagnant population growth and underachieving economic development strategies and prosperity.
For far too long, Tulsans have been willing to rest on our laurels while more competitive cities have embarked on bold and visionary new policy initiatives that lead to growth and prosperity.
Perhaps nothing is more emblematic of this resistance to change than our recent two and a half year community temper tantrum over the implementation of a more responsible and sustainable refuse collection system designed for the 21st Century. The hand wringing, teeth gnashing, screaming and foot stomping response to this profoundly simple, environmentally accountable change is quite frankly the most disgusting display of impetuous community behavior in memory.
Some observations can be drawn from the unparalleled resistance to the changeover in the trash service. Because of the bellicose rhetoric of their constituents, our leaders (elected officials) took a very timid posture, responding with caution and sympathy rather than taking leadership roles by illuminating the virtues of the new system, encouraging people to get over it and move on. Consequently the chorus of negativism grew into a crescendo of vitriolic rancor unmatched in modern times.
The trash system experience demonstrates a very troubling shift in what we use to characterize as a very strong sense of community pride. We have lost that collective frame of mind that focuses on collaboration, and a commitment to common goals that lead to proactive and strategic transformations.
In its place we observed an uninformed, short sighted, selfish, knee-jerk reaction unworthy of any self-respecting city let alone one with the rich tradition and heritage we have in Tulsa.
This transformation from a sense of pride to a sense of contempt begs to answer the question of why, what went wrong? To be sure, there are no simple answers. Certainly, a preoccupation with self plays an increasingly integral role in ones disinterest in civic matters. Let’s face it, fewer and fewer people read the daily newspaper and therefor don’t really understand what is going on in their community.
With that said, it is depressing to think what a formidable task we have ahead in embracing the kinds of policy changes needed to be seriously considered as a smart and well managed city, an enticing city that calls like a siren’s song to enterprising young people, full of ambition, energy, skill and talent.
Like it or not, we are in a global war to win the hearts and minds of these young people, a world where national borders are easier to traverse, where more countries are joining the prosperous global middle class and where the cost of a one-way plane ticket is more affordable. As such, young professionals have more cities to choose from than ever before and right now Tulsa in not a particularly attractive destination.
The reason we need these bright young people is simple. If we want to provide employment opportunities and expand our tax base, we must successfully recruit the businesses and industries that can provide them. Those businesses and industries depend on that young talent to survive and thrive. If you have these young people, in numbers, you have a chance with those businesses. If you don’t, you won’t.
So what is it exactly, that these young people are looking for? They seek smart, well managed communities with an undeniably hip vibe offering a prosperous blend of art, culture and scene. They search for bicycle friendly cities with good public transportation systems, free Wi-Fi coverage, and affordable rents in mixed use districts where they can interact with a myriad of other creative types, from media to design to technology.
These kinds of assets are not out of our reach here in Tulsa but it is unlikely we will earn much credibility with these young people when we demonstrate such angst over a change in our refuse collection.
Again, it is unclear on exactly how we misplaced our sense of community pride and spirit but we must collectively work to get it back. Obviously, citizens have a role to play in this turn-around but strong leadership will be crucial to our success.
The upcoming Mayoral election offers an opportunity to set a new course. We need someone who can help us respond to change in a positive, not a negative way, someone with a strong commitment to our sense of pride and place.
We need a leader who see’s opportunity in challenges and prepares proactively for needed and inevitable changes. We need someone with an entrepreneurial spirit, a collaborative commitment and a visionary mindset.
All three of the announced candidates profess support for high public safety standards, infrastructure maintenance and all-inclusive representation. Only one however, has the proven track record of actually getting things done, big things and many of them. I won’t insult your intelligence by naming that candidate because the answer is simple and obvious and you already know who she is.
Published in Urban Tulsa Weekly – April 11, 2013