Murrah Building Bombing Prompted Oklahoma City's Downtown Revival

Apr 19, 2015
Originally published on April 19, 2015 6:33 pm

It's been 20 years since a bomb destroyed the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, killing 168 people and injuring hundreds more.

As Oklahoma City prepares to look back on the bombing, one thing is clear — downtown is a far different and much better place than it was in 1995. And it's hard to deny the role the bombing played in the area's resurgence.

Even on a weekday, visitors line up in downtown Oklahoma City to take a tour of the area.

Chad Huntington ferries tourists up and down a scenic canal as a water taxi driver. He winds through rehabbed, old brick buildings in an area called Bricktown that's now a cultural and gastronomical center of downtown. In 1995, Huntington worked at a car dealership five blocks from where the bomb went off.

"You'd rather it never have happened at all, but I think that it's good that so many positives came out of it," he says.

Today, cranes dot the horizon as private development fuels a boom in construction. Huntington has experienced downtown Oklahoma City at its worst and can see the silver lining in the tragedy — all this new construction has made the place a destination.

"We let downtown slip away to the point where it was — where it didn't matter, where downtown was inconsequential in the overall picture of the city," Huntington says. "I think that the bombing made a lot of people realize, you know, downtown is important."

And you can see it almost every night, as city-goers mill around the redeveloped area's restaurants and shops, as well as the Oklahoma City Thunder arena. But 20 years ago, before the bombing, downtown was a dead zone. There was no professional basketball team, and Bricktown was in decay.

"When I first moved to Oklahoma City, if people wanted to have lunch, they drove out of downtown to go and have lunch," says Russell Claus, who served as Oklahoma City's planning director from just after the bombing until he returned to Australia this year.

"At that point in time ... there was no expectation that anything was going to happen. There was no willingness to make things happen," Claus adds. "A lot of that area that was impacted was owned by speculative property owners. They had no intent to do anything in the short term. So once you had the bombing, it sort of kicked people into a different thought process."

Before the bombing, residents had already voted to approve several new downtown projects, and the bombing sharpened the desire to improve the area. More than $50 million in federal grants flowed in, and a federal loan program continues today.

Oklahoma City's downtown YMCA now has a new campus not far from where it once was — across the street from the Murrah building. The YMCA facility was already outdated when the bomb went off. President Mike Grady had been looking to sell just before the bombing damaged the structure, but the prospects weren't good.

"Certainly the bombing served as an unexpected impetus ... it forced us to have some conversations much more quickly than we were prepared to have them," Grady says. "It forced our hand, if you will."

The bombing forced a lot of change. Even today, the legacy of what happened is still very much a part of downtown Oklahoma City, 20 years later.

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Transcript

ARUN RATH, HOST:

As Oklahoma City prepares to look back on the bombing, one thing is clear. Downtown Oklahoma City is a far different and much better place than it was in 1995. As Logan Layden of State Impact Oklahoma reports, it's hard to deny the role the bombing played in the area's resurgence.

LOGAN LAYDEN: Even on a weekday, visitors line up in downtown Oklahoma City to take a tour of the area.

CHAD HUNTINGTON: You looking for a boat ride? Great. We're going to pull over here. In just a minute, we're going to be at that dock.

LAYDEN: Chad Huntington steers the water taxi to load a group of passengers. Today, he ferries tourists up and down this scenic canal. It winds through rehabbed old brick buildings in an area called Bricktown. It's now a cultural and gastronomical center of downtown Oklahoma City. In 1995, he worked at a car dealership five blocks from where the bomb went off.

HUNTINGTON: You'd rather it have never happened at all, but I think that it's good that so many positives came out of it.

LAYDEN: Today, cranes dot the horizon as private development fuels a boom in construction. Huntington has experienced downtown Oklahoma City at its worst. He can see the silver lining in the tragedy. All this new construction has made the place a destination.

HUNTINGTON: Not only had we let downtown slip away to the point where it was - where it didn't matter, where downtown was inconsequential in the overall picture of the city, I think that the bombing made a lot of people realize, you know, downtown is important.

LAYDEN: And you can see it almost every night.

(SOUNDBITE OF ELECTRONIC MUSIC)

LAYDEN: Inside a basketball arena, thousands of Oklahoma City Thunder fans cheer their team on.

(SOUNDBITE OF ANNOUNCEMENT)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Oklahoma City Thunder.

LAYDEN: Outside, people are milling around enjoying the scene. This is downtown Oklahoma City in 2015. Twenty years ago, before the bombing, downtown was a dead zone. There was no pro basketball team, and Bricktown was in decay.

RUSSEL CLAUS: When I first moved Oklahoma City, if people wanted to have lunch, they drove out of downtown to go and have lunch.

LAYDEN: Russell Claus has served as Oklahoma City's planning director from just after the bombing until he returned to Australia this year.

CLAUS: At that point in time, it was - there was no expectation that anything was going to happen. There was no willingness to make things happen. A lot of that area was impacted was covered - was owned by speculative property owners. They had no intent to do anything in the short term. So once you had the bombing, it sort of kicked people into a different thought process.

LAYDEN: Before the bombing, residents had already voted to approve several new downtown projects. After the bombing, it sharpened the desire to improve the area. Federal money flowed in, too - more than $50 million in grants and a loan program that continues now.

Today, Oklahoma City's downtown YMCA has a new campus not form far from where it once was, across the street from the Murrah building. The YMCA facility was already outdated when the bomb went off. President Mike Grady had been looking to sell just before the bombing damaged the structure, but the prospects weren't good.

MIKE GRADY: Certainly, the bombing served as an unexpected impetus to - it forced us to, you know, have some conversations much more quickly than we were prepared to have them. It forced our hand, if you will.

LAYDEN: The bombing forced a lot of change. Even today, the legacy of what happened is still very much a part of downtown Oklahoma City, 20 years later. For NPR news, I'm Logan Layden.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "OKLAHOMA")

DAN BERN: (Singing) On the 19th day of April in 1995, there was the worst car bombing. Near 200 people died. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.