A 'livable' oil town in the pin-striped part of Oklahoma

The good news here is that unemployment, about 6 percent, is more than 4 percent below the national average.

The bad news is that unemployment has just about doubled within the last year.

The major oil companies have moved their headquarters elsewhere, but Tulsa is still an oil town, make no mistake.

''When the oil industry suffers, I've got to believe Tulsa's got some tough sledding,'' says Gerard J. Rothlein, executive vice-president of the First National Bank of Tulsa; ''1983 will be quite difficult.''

A year ago Tulsa's 3.2 percent unemployment was the lowest of any metropolitan area in the country. Last December, the chamber of commerce was recruiting workers from places like Buffalo, N.Y. - who found by the time they arrived that there were no jobs for them.

As recently as Feb. 11 the New York Times exulted, in its own restrained style, ''In Thriving Tulsa, Few Workers' Hands Are Idle.''

Shortly thereafter unemployment started pushing up, up, up. Now the chamber of commerce is putting out the word that Tulsa has jobs available only for certain kinds of workers: some engineers, secretaries, retail salespeople, pharmacists, and health-care workers. Job-seekers in other parts of the country without these skills are cordially invited not to come to Tulsa.

But there is still a reasonable case for including Tulsa in this Monitor series on ''Cities on the Rise.''

The six-county metropolitan area has seen annual population growth of nearly 2 percent in recent years, and has been projected to grow from about 650,000 today to between 850,000 and 900,000 by the turn of the century. Between 1972 and '79 the gross local product rose, in constant 1972 dollars, from $3.16 billion to $4.70 billion; a recent (preslump) projection for 1982 was well above

Tulsa, the No. 38 city in the United States by population, was found by Dun & Bradstreet to be No. 10 in value of building permits last year. Over the years, the city has done well in surveys of ''most livable'' cities; a few years back, Harper's magazine rated it No. 2 among the 50 largest US cities. (And, local officials point out, when the University of Nebraska did a second version of the same study, revising the criteria somewhat, Tulsa came out No. 1.)

If Tulsa is no longer the oil production center it was - the state pumps less than half a million barrels a day nowadays - it remains an oil know-how center. Besides the major oil companies with facilities here, there are many small independent companies, plus contracting firms, such as drilling companies and oil field equipment makers. Oil technology research goes on in Tulsa, and the prestigious Oil and Gas Journal is based here. The University of Tulsa has a first-rate petroleum engineering program. Financing oil exploration has been a strength of local banks.

Aviation and aerospace are also important: American Airlines, McDonnell Douglas, and Rockwell International have major plants here. Data processing and telecommunications are a third pillar of Tulsa's economy. Evangelism has etched Tulsa's name on the public mind, too: Oral Roberts is only the best known of several famous evangelists here.

Tulsa is also - surprise! - a port city, or rather has a port in Catoosa, a few miles to the east, on the Verdigris River. This river, dredged by the Army Corps of Engineers, winds 48 miles to the south before it joins the Arkansas at Muskogee.

Opened in 1971, the port has been handling some 2 million tons annually in recent years; activity is currently down, however, because of depressed grain prices.

Present-day Tulsa began 100 years ago when the crews extending the Frisco Railroad across what was then Indian Territory paused along their route to build a bridge across the Arkansas River. The first bridge, finished in 1883, washed out. The following year a bridge that was to prove permanent was completed. By then a little settlement had taken hold, like an uprooted weed tossed onto a plowed field. J.M. Hall, a merchant who had supplied the crews working on the railroad, founded the town, sensibly enough, right at the corner of First and Main.

Tulsa's career as an oil capital goes back to 1901, the year the Red Fork oil field was discovered. ''Tulsa was not a logical place for an oil town,'' observes Nina Dunn, a local historian. Other places were closer to the field. But Tulsans set out to sell their town as ''oil capital of the world.''

In March 1905, when Tulsa had only some 2,500 people, members of the Commercial Club, an early chamber of commerce, put up $100 each for a special ''booster train'' that traveled to Chicago, New York, and other cities to attract oil people to their little town. It was a performance that makes today's industrial recruiters look like shrinking violets. They traveled with a brass band and a printing press - and a young man named Will Rogers doing rope tricks.

That November, the discovery of the Glennpool field, in its heyday one of the largest oil fields in the world, made factual many of the Commercial Club's claims. Its determination had given Tulsa a head start in developing what we now call ''infrastructure'' - streets, buildings, railroad facilities - and so it actually became, for a while, ''the oil capital of the world.''

Over the years, the big names have generally moved headquarters elsewhere. But many Tulsans would argue that what their city has lost in oil leadership it has gained in livability. Many sigh with relief that their city has not become another Houston or Dallas.

An urban planner working for a development firm here notes that one of the goals planners strive for is a quick transition time from center city to countryside; Tulsa, he says, has just that. Tulsans may wear pin stripes to the office to deal with New York bankers, but in 15 minutes they can be out of town, playing weekend cowboy with boots and pickup trucks.

Or sailors. This is the green part of Oklahoma; the water table is so low that to ensure water supply, the Army Corps of Engineers has redesigned the landscape, creating countless artificial lakes.

The sailing motif pops up quite often; Dennis Conner, America's Cup winner for 1980, does ads for a local bank, for example.

Tulsans are proud of their opera, ballet, and museums. They claim a cosmopolitan heritage and identify perhaps less with other Oklahomans (who regard them as dandified tea-sippers) than with Dallas, Denver, Houston. But Tulsa looks east as well as west and south. Many of its oil people came originally from New York, Chicago, or western Pennsylvania. The Philadelphia-based Sun Company is a major presence here, having merged with Tulsa-based Sunray-DX a few years ago.

Concern here with ''quality of life'' began early; a city ordinance was passed prohibiting oil drilling within city limits, thereby keeping the industry across the river. (By contrast, Oklahoma City has wells on the Capitol grounds.)

Earl J. Reeves, a political scientist at the University of Tulsa, outlines the interesting flirtation the city has had with a ''balanced growth'' philosophy.

''During most of the 1970s, up until the 1978 election, Tulsa did quite a lot to avoid following the Houston path,'' even formulating a comprehensive city plan, Dr. Reeves says.

After serious floods in 1974 and '76 the city drew up guidelines discouraging development on flood plains. These rattled the building industry and led to the election, in 1978, of the current mayor, Republican James M. Inhofe, who had campaigned against the ''balanced growth'' guidelines.

''Today,'' says Dr. Reeves, '' 'balanced growth' has disappeared from people's vocabulary.''

And yet, he adds, ''Inhofe has been more responsible about not opening things hog wild than I might have expected. . . . He may well have been able to retain growth guidelines because he campaigned against them.''

The ''limited government'' philosophy often goes together with a rugged individualism that works in favor of unfocused sprawl and against the maintenance of a vital city center. But that seems not to be the case in Tulsa. In many places, movers and shakers sing, ''Don't fence me in,'' and look for the nearest expressway to the suburbs. Their Tulsa counterparts, however, seem committed to serious development in the city center.

There seems to be nearly universal agreement that the decline of the 1950s and '60s has been turned around. New buildings are going up; old ones, such as the Mayo Hotel, where J.Paul Getty used to strike deals, are being renovated. For the first time in years, Tulsa has two new top-flight hotels.

The clangor of construction rings out over downtown, and sparks fly from welders' torches far above the heads of scurrying office workers. The daytime crowds in the central pedestrian mall are less a rushing river of humanity than a gentle stream, not unlike the stream through the fountain at Fifth and Main.

But there is amid the huge office buildings a mixture of hole-in-the-wall eateries, convenient shopping places, and other, miscellaneous establishments that makes for what big-city dwellers recognize as a real downtown.

There are still very few people living ''downtown.'' But like many Eastern cities, Tulsa has its complement of ''young professionals'' who live close in, often in renovated buildings, and say they wouldn't move to the suburbs if someone paid them. Battalions of joggers chug along the Arkansas River, past new in-town apartment complexes with rustic-sounding names.

Organizations such as the chamber of commerce and the Tulsa Urban League are promoting north Tulsa, a largely black area close to downtown but literally ''on the other side of the tracks,'' as a stable residential neighborhood of working families.

High interest rates have made it hard to tell how successful redevelopment there will be. And, Dr. Reeves observes, ''Overcoming race is very difficult in American cities, including Tulsa.''

Tulsa takes pride in its racial harmony, but it should be noted that its black population is only some 12 percent, with another 6 percent Indians. Schools were voluntarily desegregated a few years ago through a magnet school program.

Tulsa also takes great pride in what it calls ''America's most beautiful partnership'' - a tradition of private- and public-sector cooperation that gets public things done with little or no tax money.

A prime example is the much-vaunted low-water dam, which is to turn the trickling Arkansas into an urban recreational lake. It is being developed with private donations, plus funds from the sale of urban-renewal land.

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