- Associated Press - Sunday, May 3, 2015

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) - I was sunburned and dehydrated when I finally saw Chester - the waving, neon cowboy that stands guard over the old Winchester Drive-In Theatre - appear on the horizon on S. Western Avenue.

I had come a little more than 19 miles on my walk down Western Avenue. I started four days earlier, about 270 blocks north, on a damp Monday morning, slogging down the muddy shoulder of a country road punctuated with brief respites of sidewalk, The Oklahoman (https://bit.ly/1dxsnkl ) reported.

For days, I had been calling Winchester owner Lindy Shanbour seeking an interview as I slouched slowly south toward his drive-in at SW 70 and Western.

“We’re still getting the place ready to open for the season,” Shanbour told me, seeming a bit more annoyed and puzzled with me each time I called. “Can’t you just come back in a few weeks when we’re open?”

I’m sure it was hard for Shanbour - who is well past 80 and opened the Winchester in 1968 - to understand me as I shouted into my cellphone over the wind and the traffic.

“But you don’t understand - I’m walking there. I’m walking there right now,” I said.

“Right now? But I’m not there right now - I’m at lunch,” he would say.

I called back again - and again - trying to explain.

For the five days of my 26.7-mile walk down Western, I marked progress in the major highways I would pass - the John Kilpatrick Turnpike; Interstates 44, 40 and 240.

At the end of most days, a photographer or another co-worker would pick me up and take me back to wherever I had left my car that morning. As we drove, I saw my walk in reverse - like an old VHS tape on rewind. It would only take about 10 or 15 minutes to cover the ground it took me all day to walk.

Everything seemed smaller - less important - from the passenger seat.

___

When I first moved to the Oklahoma City metro area about 12 years ago, it seemed to me an endless, bland tangle of highways, chain restaurants and parking lots. At 607 square miles, Oklahoma City is the third-largest city by land size in the United States. By walking across it, I hoped to learn more about the people who inhabited some of those 607 square miles between the major highways and how the neighborhoods where they live are changing.

I picked Western Avenue because it crosses some of Oklahoma City’s richest and poorest neighborhoods, from North Highlands to Nichols Hills in a matter of miles. It also traverses thriving immigrant communities, including Oklahoma City’s Asian District and southwest Oklahoma City’s growing Hispanic business community.

I saw firsthand the effects of urban sprawl and decades of poor planning - large patches of undeveloped land in the inner city surrounded by vacant, crumbling buildings, while construction of new housing subdivisions and strip malls steamed ahead on the outskirts of the city.

I saw people trying to breathe new life into the urban spaces their parents and grandparents abandoned for better schools and three-bedroom homes on quarter-acre lots in places like Edmond, Moore and Yukon. I saw a city trying to put its core back together even as it was flinging itself farther and farther from that center.

Everywhere I walked, I met great people, people who wanted to help me by giving me something to drink, a place to sit down for a few minutes - people who told me their stories just because I bothered to ask.

___

A few miles north of the Winchester, I called Shanbour again - told him I was in the neighborhood - and he grudgingly said I could stop by.

“But you can’t take my picture,” he said grouchily.

Shanbour, a slight, white-haired man wearing a polo shirt, greeted me with hands on hips standing behind his desk in his office at the Winchester - a wood-paneled room behind the snack bar covered in old movie posters and black-and-white photographs of John Wayne.

I’m sure I looked like no reporter he’d ever seen. Windblown, wearing cut-off jean shorts and sneakers caked in dried mud, I stuck out my hand.

“I walked all the way here to meet you,” I said.

I pulled out one of the now-crumpled black-and-white fliers I had made the week earlier to explain my walk to people I met along the way. The flier had a picture of Chester, the neon cowboy sign, on it. Making it to Shanbour’s drive-in was a milestone of sorts for me in my trek.

“You mean you really walked here?” Shanbour said, baffled, looking at the paper and then back at me.

A smile spread across his face and in that instant, Shanbour transformed from grouchy drive-in theater owner to nicest man in the world.

He told me about how he started in the theater business as a 15-year-old usher in 1945 at the long-ago demolished Criterion theater in downtown Oklahoma City - which still had dressing rooms for the old vaudeville acts that used to pass through.

He told me how he plans to keep running the Winchester for as long as he can.

“This place is a part of me,” he said. “There are so many memories here.”

In 2013, the Winchester saw heavy damage from a tornado that ripped the roof off the drive-in’s projector room and snack bar.

Shanbour vowed to rebuild.

“Everyone wanted me to close it and sell - but I wouldn’t,” Shanbour said.

Before Netflix and HBO GO, The Winchester was open seven days a week, almost year-round. But families with young children still fill the place on the weekends for a double-feature during the warmer months.

“We have to turn people away every weekend,” Shanbour said proudly.

I was four-fifths of the way to Indian Hills Road in Norman - where my walk and Western Avenue would end.

___

I started my trek just south of Covell Road at Chisholm Creek around the 20000 block of N. Western Avenue, where a muddy stream crosses mostly overgrown fields crossed by barbed-wire fences. Western is two-lane road in this rural area where Edmond and Oklahoma City meet.

In my backpack, I had water, a stack of empty notebooks, pens, a portable phone charger and sunscreen.

I passed rambling country estates behind wrought-iron gates and newer, smaller homes that mostly looked the same in subdivisions with names like Danforth Farms and Rushbrook.

It seems I passed by an endless number of fences. The nicer subdivisions were encircled by imposingly high brick fences, while the humbler neighborhoods had only six-foot wooden ones.

Construction crews are widening this part of Western Avenue to accommodate more traffic from the growing number of homes being built in the area, and there are no sidewalks for long stretches. My sneakers were caked with mud and my calves hurt by mid-morning from plodding through tall grass at the roadside.

A few shopping centers of the “when-did-they-build-that-there” variety - all landscaped with scrawny saplings - seemed to punctuate every 20 blocks or so.

It’s a quiet area - home to mostly young families with pretty good jobs, said Samantha Goddard, manager of the Cork & Bottle, a liquor store situated next to a 7-Eleven at NW 164 and Western.

“This is kind of the gray area between Edmond and Oklahoma City,” Goddard said.

___

It was the second day of my walk when I crossed Memorial Road and the John Kilpatrick Turnpike, where construction is underway on the 180-acre Chisholm Creek development. The development includes an 80,000-square-foot Cabela’s sporting goods store that is being built with the help of about $3.5 million in incentives from Oklahoma City.

The multitude of newer housing developments halts abruptly on the south side of Memorial Road, where there are large stretches of weedy, undeveloped vacant lots. The void begins south of NW 122 - about where the boundary of the Oklahoma City Public Schools district begins.

Before I started my walk, probably half a dozen people told me I did not want to walk alone near the intersection of Hefner and Western, even in broad daylight. It’s been the scene of a few high-profile shootings over the past few years. I ignored them.

There was a little more garbage in the gutter - candy bar wrappers and liquor bottles. But I didn’t feel unsafe.

I met convenience store clerk Sean Kandel - a college student from Nepal - who works a register behind bulletproof glass at Hefner and Western. He did not want me to use the name of the store where he works.

A flat-screen television, mounted to the ceiling, plays the feeds for a half-dozen security cameras in and around the shop. Kandel told me about all of the television news helicopters that hovered over the area during an officer-involved shooting that happened in the neighborhood in January.

“Eighty percent of the people you meet here are good people,” he said. “There are families here.”

Terrance Johnson, a young guy with a tattoo on his right hand, wearing an Oklahoma City Thunder T-shirt, looked at me like I was little nuts when I approached him on the street corner near the 7-Eleven at Hefner and Western, but he still stopped to talk and said I could take his picture.

“It’s not that dangerous here,” he said. “It’s all what you make of it - if you run with that crowd, you’ll get trouble, but if not, it’s not that bad.”

I continued south toward the old town of Britton, once its own municipality, which was annexed by Oklahoma City long ago. There are mature trees and rows of early 20th-century clapboard houses, pretty, despite their peeling paint and weedy lawns. The intersection of Western and Britton Road is now part of the North Highland neighborhood, one of the city’s poorest areas.

Dan Short, founder of Mustard Seed Development Corp., manages the nonprofit out of a restored airplane bungalow on Britton Road, with beautiful hand-hewn wooden floors a block and a half east of Western.

With his long white beard, Short looks a little like Moses with tortoise shell glasses - and he has been known to moonlight as Santa Claus.

Short moved to North Highland in 2001 to minister to the people in the 73114 ZIP code, which includes North Highland. More than 29 percent of households in the 73114 ZIP code had received food stamp benefits in the last 12 months, according to 2013 data from the U.S. Census Bureau. About 31 percent of families in the 73114 ZIP code live below the federal poverty line.

In the 1960s and 1970s, North Highland was a neighborhood where blue-collar families could afford to buy their own white-trimmed bungalows, but after the oil bust of the 1980s, many of those homes fell into foreclosure and became rental properties that accepted Section 8 housing vouchers, Short said.

Many of those families from the area that receive housing assistance now are choosing to move to newer apartment complexes in places like Yukon and Moore, which have better schools, Short said. There are a lot of vacant homes in North Highlands now, he said.

“The poor aren’t stupid. They see that they can rent a new apartment in Yukon and have their kids go to better schools,” he said.

“A lot of what we do is just teaching people to be good neighbors - people have forgotten how,” Short said. “The things that keep us from building a better life together are fear and isolation.”

Just a few miles south of North Highland lies Nichols Hills, one of the state’s wealthiest areas, with a median income of $148,000 in 2013, according to U.S. Census Bureau data - that’s more than triple the Oklahoma City metro area median income of $49,752.

South of Interstate 44, the core of Western Avenue’s bustling shopping district is filled with boutiques and restaurants. The area is now trying to compete with newer, up-and-coming shopping districts like the trendy nearby Plaza District and Uptown 23rd, with their many newer bars and restaurants. VZD’s, a legendary music venue and a neighborhood anchor for this stretch of Western, was shut down by the Oklahoma Tax Commission late last year, although plans are in the works to reopen.

Oklahoma City recently dropped the speed limit on this stretch of Western from 30 mph to 25 mph, and the neighborhood is in the process of getting new sidewalks to make it more pedestrian friendly, said Rachael Taylor, who works with the Western Avenue Association to promote the area.

West Fest is a new music festival coming to Western in September.

“We want to bring fun back to the district,” Taylor said.

Savory Spice Shop owner Able Blakley said he was drawn to open his shop at 4400 N Western by the area’s small-town feel. All of the business owners know each other and help each other out, he said.

“I wanted somewhere that I wanted to come every day that wasn’t just a strip mall,” Blakley said. “This place feels like it has a soul.”

___

Past the well-kept Tudor revival-style homes of the Crown Heights and Edgemere Heights neighborhoods, the houses get a little smaller, a little shabbier, the lawns a little more overgrown.

NW 33 looks like a small forest set down in the middle of the city, with wildflowers and weeds completely swallowing the sidewalks in some places. NW 33 resident Allen Parleir runs the nonprofit Closer to Earth, which teaches teenagers about community gardening. The front yard of his brick home is devoted to raised beds of lettuce and other leafy greens. The neighborhood was a rough, high-crime area when Parleir moved there in 1984. He invited his Vietnamese and Laotian immigrant neighbors to plow up his yard for a vegetable garden.

“We didn’t speak the same language, but we all spoke the language of food,” he said. “Gardening brought the neighborhood together.”

The success of Oklahoma City’s Vietnamese community has played an important role in revitalizing this part of Western Avenue after many of them arrived in Oklahoma City in the late 1970s as refugees.

“The area has been totally transformed by the economic development here,” said Ba Luong, whose parents founded Super Cao Nguyen Market in the Asian District.

Super Cao Nguyen, at 2668 N Military, has expanded over the past three decades to a 50,000-square-foot supermarket from its beginnings as a small shop with produce taken from people’s backyard gardens. Today, it remains one of the Asian District’s most successful businesses.

Around NW 12 and Western, I met Keith Edwards, who is turning the former Michael’s Pub, an old dive bar, into an Alice-in-Wonderland-themed restaurant and pub called The Rabbit Hole.

He hopes that the area around The Rabbit Hole, which is across the street from a long-vacant cafe, will be the next piece of Western to come back to life as part of downtown Oklahoma City’s revitalization.

“It’s a great area,” Edwards said. “This could be the next little district to develop.”

Near NW 10 and Western, I stumbled across Vik-Timz bar, a dark, smoky outpost on the edge of the Classen-Ten Penn Neighborhood.

It was early afternoon, but the bar was full of middle-aged men who looked like they had already had a few beers. The bouncer was a dog that appeared to be a pit bull-Great Dane mix named Dumpster that sat at bar owner Tim Foster’s table.

“We get all kinds in here - fancy people and not-so fancy people,” Foster said.

As my eyes adjusted to the dark and the smoke, I could see the ceiling was adorned with discarded bras of every fathomable color and size - and some quite unfathomable.

I asked Foster where they all came from.

“You mean you aren’t going to leave yours?” he said, without missing a beat.

I said I had to keep walking and was on my way.

___

South of Interstate 40, I saw an old Coit’s Drive-In that has been turned into a Mexican bakery selling pan dulce and red, white and green Mexican flag cookies the size of bricks.

I also saw a former Del Rancho restaurant that is now a taco stand on S Western. The new owner didn’t even bother to change all of the signage.

SW 29 Street is lined with palaterias that sell Mexican-style ice cream and supermercados that sell fresh tortillas and have lunch counters where you can eat your fill of tacos for less than $4.

Oklahoma City’s Hispanic community settled in the area because of its close proximity to Little Flower Church at 1125 S Walker Ave., which has an active Spanish-language parish, said David Castillo, executive director of the Greater Oklahoma City Hispanic Chamber.

“This is pretty much where the community is centered,” Castillo said.

The Hispanic Chamber is helping businesses in the area start a business improvement district for the SW 29 Street Corridor that will fund street improvements like sidewalks and streetlights between Shields Boulevard and May Avenue.

Better sidewalks and lighting are vital to making the area more inviting to the public, Castillo said.

“Many people have the perception that this area is unsafe, which is just not true,” he said.

___

I ate breakfast at a Braum’s where orders for biscuits and gravy were given and received in Spanish.

South of Interstate 240 was a no-man’s land of chain restaurants and class-C office space.

There was nothing on this stretch of Western but open land when Dan Smelser’s family built Super Clean Full Service Car Wash near SW 89 and Western in 1979.

“We used to jump up and be surprised when anyone would stop,” he said, in the car wash’s busy waiting room. “Now they’re just about out of land here.”

I passed Resthaven Memory Gardens cemetery near SW 104. It was once a tranquil rural cemetery but is now surrounded by fast food restaurants and shops. A stone statue of Jesus in the cemetery has his back turned to a Taco Bell. He clutches the hand of a small boy, as if leading the child away from the Dollar Menu burritos.

A man in a nice car pulled over around SW 119 to ask if I need a ride.

“I’m good, thanks,” I said.

I passed new housing subdivisions and shopping centers that looked much like those I had walked past some 20 miles to the north. Only the ZIP code had changed. The houses and strip malls got newer and newer as I walked south.

By SW 134 Street, there were more open fields and even wildflowers. There was farmland and country estates. The whirring and chirping of insects seemed to crescendo the farther into the country I walked.

Around SW 164, the same man in the nice car who had tried to give me a ride about 45 blocks earlier pulled over again. It was hours later and he was headed back from wherever he had been going.

The man looked at me as if I were a sunburned ghost.

“Are you sure you don’t need a ride?” he said, his jaw resting on the steering wheel.

“No, thanks - I’m just walking,” I said.

I reached Indian Hills Road on Friday afternoon, five days after I started my walk Monday morning just south of Covell Road.

Western Avenue ends at Indian Hills Road, but the street continues south into Norman as 60th Avenue NW.

There’s not much there but red dirt and weeds - but give it time.

___

Information from: The Oklahoman, https://www.newsok.com

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