© 2024 KOSU
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Metro Library to capture Oklahoma City's future history with film cameras

The Downtown Metro Library archives, located on the second floor.
Judie Matthews
The Downtown Metro Library archives, located on the second floor.

Postcards, magazines, scrapbooks and more fill the archive shelves, depicting the story of OKC’s past. Soon, there will be additions to the past glimpses of the city, told through the lenses of six vintage cameras.

Judie Matthews
Judie Matthews
Judie Matthews

Recapturing OKC, a new special collection at the Metropolitan Library System, will feature snapshots of a current Oklahoma City for future Oklahomans.

The idea of the new collection came after a donation, this one not just of books, but of the cameras. Judie Matthews, special collections librarian, said the department wasn’t quite sure what to do with the cameras. Then, she had an idea.

“Why don’t we take a little end of the year money, why don’t we ask some photographers to take these older cameras,” Matthews said she asked one of her colleagues.

So the archivists decided to hire photographers to use the old cameras to take photos of Oklahoma City to add to the archive. Matthews gave full creative control to photographers, who could recreate a picture from the archive or capture something new.

“They can try to get the idea of a new building, or something that looks old, or a juxtaposition between something old and new,” Matthews said.

One of the photographers on the project, Tony Edwards, noted the importance of preserving Oklahoma City as it changes quickly. Edwards remembers coming to the city as a child and recalls buildings he once gazed at that are now gone.

“There are buildings being torn down on every street corner, it seems like,” Edwards said. “I think it’s important to have a document of that.”

Documenting a changing city

Jim Meeks, photo archivist at the Oklahoma Historical Society, grew up in Oklahoma City and moved back home in the 1980s. During that decade, Meeks remembers roaming the allies and streets of what would eventually become Bricktown.

Snapping an original photo, Meeks would follow up a few weeks later. The alleys and buildings were slowly disappearing.

“The rust and the crust and the bricks and everything were gone, and they’d been plastered over and modified,” Meeks said. “I was like, ‘oh darn, it’s gone.’ So I started trying to make sure that I photographed everything as quickly as I could before it went away.”

Meeks recalls watching “incredible” architecture disappear before his eyes during a time of national push for the destruction of inner city properties to make way for new architecture, commonly referred to as urban renewal.

Urban renewal began with the Housing Act of 1949, though Oklahoma City’s Redevelopment Authority wasn’t approved until 1961. It's program was the most extensive in the state, according to the Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture.

In the 1970s, residents had stopped supporting urban renewal due to the demolition of historic properties like the Criterion Theater, Hales Building and John A. Brown’s department store. By the early 1980s, hundreds of structures had been cleared in three primary areas: downtown, the Oklahoma Health center and the John F. Kennedy neighborhood.

State Historian Larry O’Dell noted urban renewal followed key moments in the civil rights movement and desegregation in Oklahoma. O’Dell said both Oklahoma City and Tulsa essentially removed Black neighborhoods, even building highways through people’s homes in the name of Urban Renewal.

“That's why you have a lot of African American leaders that called urban renewal a racist program in some terms, because of the parts of town that it was focused in,” O’Dell said.

O’Dell pointed to the importance of photos in understanding history, saying Oklahoma City was unique in the way it was documented through photos. The founding of the state’s future capital city in 1889 was captured through photography.

“(Photographs are) always important to save for future generations to see how your city has evolved,” O’Dell said.

Saving history as it’s made

The documentation for future Oklahomans drove the photographers participating in the Recapturing OKC project. Devin Ta, another photographer on the project, wrote in an email he believes historical preservation is important to understand the past.

Ta hopes the next generation will be able to look back on his work, appreciate the architecture of Oklahoma City today.

“Along with doing my part in preserving the history of Oklahoma City, I wanted to create art in which hopefully present and future residents will appreciate, as well as giving back to my community that raised me,” Ta wrote.

Edwards shares similar hopes to Ta, adding he wishes future generations to see a complete image of the city through his work.

“I would hope that future Oklahomans see a sensitivity to all areas … that there is so much beauty in all of the places, in all these separate districts,” Edwards said.

The Recapturing OKC special collection will be available online later this summer. The work of Edwards and Ta will be on display at an area library later in the fall.

* indicates required

Peggy Dodd was an intern at KOSU during the summer of 2023.
KOSU is nonprofit and independent. We rely on readers like you to support the local, national, and international coverage on this website. Your support makes this news available to everyone.

Give today. A monthly donation of $5 makes a real difference.
Related Content