There are countless stories of small communities across the country that have lost their spark. In Oklahoma, cities that were once vibrant and growing have seen tremendous decline over the past few decades. There are certainly many reasons for the decline.
We’ve all heard stories about industry moving across the globe and young people moving to more metropolitan areas. But are these causes or simply symptoms of the problem?
My hometown is a pretty good example of a once promising city that has seen an economic and population decline over the years. I once saw a newspaper headline from the early part of the 20th Century that declared Okmulgee was home to more millionaires per capita than any city in Oklahoma. Even in the 60’s and 70’s, Okmulgee was a vibrant community with many locally owned business and good industrial jobs.
Okmulgee still has a lot to offer. Oklahoma State University Institute of Technology is a world-class technical institute with enrollment of nearly 4,000 students. The Muscogee Creek Nation is a continuing source of support and growth for the area. The Okmulgee Main Street program has made tremendous progress in preserving and rehabilitating the once vibrant downtown area.
Even so, it’s hard to deny the hardships faced by these small towns. Jobs paying above the poverty line are hard to come by. Substance use and domestic violence are usually higher than average. Empty buildings, dilapidated houses and overgrown lots are external signs of the internal problems faced by Okmulgee and other communities.
Several weeks ago, some of us started talking on Facebook about the “old days” when Okmulgee was buzzing with activity. We decided to get together for a “reunion cruise” to relive the past. Finally, on Saturday night, August 16th, the city came alive. There were hot rods “dragging main” and people walking and talking up and down the sidewalks.
Suddenly, Okmulgee felt alive again. First of all, let’s give credit to the many local residents who have been working for years to keep the downtown area alive. Were it not for them, we wouldn’t have had much to see and talk about down there. Nevertheless, something felt better about that night than many of us had experienced in connection with our hometown for many years.
So I started thinking, what causes a community like this to decline and how do you rebuild one once it has? My first thought was to look up the word community. The first definition is pretty basic and says community is “a group of people living in the same place or having a particular characteristic in common”.
That’s a pretty basic definition and doesn’t give much insight to the questions of decline or rebirth. Then, further down the list of definitions I came across “a feeling of fellowship with others, as a result of sharing common attitudes, interests, and goals”.
Ah ha! That’s what we had that Saturday night. That’s why everything felt different…the fellowship, the coming together, the relationships and people sharing fond memories and discussing plans for the future. In short, the renewed spirit of community moving beyond the first definition more in tune with the latter.
In fact, I would argue that the second definition of community is what made places like Okmulgee special in the first place. And most importantly, that type of community is key if we hope to see these towns survive and thrive in the 21st century.
I am hopeful we can build from this experience and continue to strengthen and foster the relationships that are key if we hope to succeed. Social media and the ability to connect online has and will certainly continue to contribute to these efforts so for more information about Okmulgee, Oklahoma check out the following pages:
I can’t believe I forgot to add 1240 The Brew – please include any other links I may have neglected in the comments.