Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Is "rural Tulsa" an oxymoron?

I've noted that recent New York Times coverage of the tragic racially-motivated killings in Tulsa, Oklahoma has repeatedly referred to "rural Tulsa." Given that Tulsa is a major metropolitan area, I found this phrase incongruous and thought it worthy of further attention. Tulsa County has a population of 603,403, and a population density of 1058/square mile. It is part of the Tulsa, OK Metropolitan area, which includes nearly 950,000 people in a seven-county area.

The first recent NYT reference to "rural Tulsa" was in this story, reporting on the arrest of two men in random shootings that left three African Americans dead in north Tulsa. The story features a photo of the home the suspects shared, with a caption that reads: "Jacob C. England's home in rural Tulsa, where Alvin Watts lived with him." The photo is of a small house with a fence behind it, and no other homes in sight. Several large trees are visible, one in what would be considered the "front yard." The presence of the fence actually makes the property look less rural to me, because it suggests that space alone does not do the work of separating the house from its neighbors.

The second NYT story to use "rural" to refer Tulsa uses it in a way very similar to the first. Here's the quote, from the last paragraph of the story reporting on the suspects' arraignment.
Mr. England and Mr. Watts were friends and roommates, and they lived at Mr. England's house in a rural part of Tulsa.
Finally, this third story explains a bit more about the north Tulsa milieu in which the shootings took place--and in which racial tensions have run high since the Tulsa race riots of 1921, in which a mob of white Tulsans burned and destroyed a black neighborhood, killing several African American residents. Here's an excerpt from the story by Manny Fernandez that refers to the patois of rural and urban:
In the neighborhoods where the shootings occurred, about six miles from downtown Tulsa, the streets twist and turn with both a rural and urban feel. It is not unusual to see a man working under a car or a man riding a horse.
I suppose that the "man riding a horse" is supposed to represent the rural, but what about the "man working under a car"? Is that meant to suggest rural or urban? I'm guessing the former, but I'm not sure.

Fernandez goes on to describe a bleak socioeconomic milieu--an area "hard hit by crime, drugs, poverty, unemployment and commercial abandonment" where the median income is about $25 to $30K and nearly 1000 homes and businesses sit abandoned in the "two City Council districts that make up north Tulsa."

All of this leads me to ponder, at what scale do/should we define or assess rurality? the block or census tract level--which would seem to be what the NYT is doing in this story? the county? Or, as the New York Times often uses the term, to refer to an entire state? I guess it depends on the context. But I wonder what the use of the modifier suggests in this context? Is that we can expect such racially motivated criminals to live in or hail from "rural" settings?


Anonymous said...

Great points here Lisa about a national scale to the definition. It seems to scale down to the state level too - the relativity is amazing. When I was with the Center for Small Towns I did a study of where metro-based newspapers conducted "rural" stories in Minnesota. Somewhat surprisingly a large number were in metropolitan counties - as if there's a "rural" part of Hennepin county (where Minneapolis is located)...
See page 18 of the report for reference http://goo.gl/eqXd5
Ben Winchester

Anonymous said...

Exactly! When I read that it really bothered me. I live in downtown Tulsa, but it's labeled by Google as West Tulsa. That area gets a stigma of being rural, but really that's very subjective to the perspective of the writer and his/her readers. My boyfriend is from NYC. He doesn't consider our exact area rural at all, because this is downtown & in proximity to two medical campuses. Ridiculous. Let NYTimes come visit. We'll take them on a tour, and then show them our definition of 'rural.'

I do wish we could improve the general standard of living in our state. We keep voting to cap property taxes whereas New York increased there's by another 26% last election, hence their ignorance to what 'rural' means anymore. Property taxes go to improvements like libraries, public services, maintaining parks (so that they don't become drug centers and vagrant homes), and a lot of little things that really improve an area. Instead the Tulsa area relies on great people like George Kaiser and his family who put a lot of effort into improving this town. Without those little improvements through property taxes their family's improvements will only prove aesthetic and superficial (excepting the resources given to educational institutions). I really wish citizens would feel driven to help them out and take pride in paying what are the lowest property taxes in the nation.