Seen on the run: Downtown at night

Downtown Tulsa at night.

Downtown Tulsa at night.

The city is transformed by night. It’s quieter. Mysterious. Secretive. Some might even think a bit more sinister, which is all the more reason why, in most circles, it takes on a more subdued character once darkness sets in.

Aside from a few people out on a date or hitting the bars and clubs, the normal bustle of people is gone. At night, the environs of the city take over – still, silent, and indifferent. Wandering around those streets might seem a little dodgy – you never know the motives of the few people who are still out there – but it’s also interesting. It’s interesting because it’s so different from what we normally see.

I’ve run my streets at night. I’ve run trails at night. In either case, a new kind of life, a new vibe springs up when the sun goes down.

It’s been busy in my world as of late, well beyond my regular job, training schedules or hammering away on this keyboard. Juggling my schedule hasn’t been easy. I’ve tried my hardest to make do where I can, and one day last week, it meant pushing back my daily run later in the day. Much later.

Getting off work sometime after 10:30, I’d long since made up my mind that the run was happening, late hour or not. I knew where I’d go, how far, and all of that. Living in an urban area makes it a little more interesting, mostly because you never know what’s going on out there, or who might be out. But I’m good with that. I figure I can handle myself, and most folks aren’t looking for trouble anyway. Besides, I had some miles to get.

So sometime after 11 or so, I walked out the door and hit the pavement. Streetlamps lit the way, and the glow of office lights from towering skyscrapers loomed overhead. In between those buildings, alleys and streets were dark. So off I went.

***

Downtown Tulsa isn’t huge, not by any stretch. The city is right at 400,000 people, with another 600,000 or so living in the suburbs. My entire metro area could fit nicely in a corner of Queens or along the Chicago Lakeshore.

But more people are living here, in the city’s center. There’s more to do. Suburbanization of the past made it to where the city’s core emptied itself every day after 5 p.m. – a familiar refrain to cities all over the country – and remained desolate during weekends. But that’s changing. Apartment buildings can’t go up fast enough, entertainment districts have long since sprouted and matured, and places that were once empty warehouses and sketchy streets are now respectable haunts for things like restaurants, pubs and art galleries. Within the past several years, a once bleak corner of downtown suddenly became home to a baseball stadium, two parks and three art museums. The transformation has been abrupt and, by most accounts, very welcome.

But every now and then, the old nature of this once forlorn section of town peeks out. Mostly at night.

***

When I run my urban trails, I do a lot of people watching. There’s a great mix during the day. At night, it’s a different crowd. You still get the hipsters, the partiers and the bums, but the buttoned-up business crowd is gone, or at least transformed – they abandon their work attire in exchange for more casual wear to populate the various venues where folks eat, dance, drink and try out their best pick-up lines.

You see a lot of these during the weekends, or maybe when there is a ball game or concert. But on a weeknight, their numbers are far smaller.

By the time I started plodding through Blue Dome, most of the restaurants were closing, their workers sitting out on the curb and taking longs drags from a cigarette after a long shift. Only the bars were still open, and some were surprisingly busy. Packs of women would often leave together, or perhaps a couple or two, some staggering around a little if they’d had too much from the bar. Wide-eyed teens, fresh out of school and enjoying their first free days of summer break, wandered aimlessly.

And then there was the poor dude stopping at the street corner to blow chunks. His friends didn’t laugh, but nor did they seem overly concerned. They just waited until he’d emptied his guts enough to where they could be on their way. Better out here than in the Audi in which they arrived.

Lastly, there are what I call the permanent transients. They have no home except for what they find on the streets. This species once dominated downtown at night, but now they have to share the space with many others. There’s friction between those who have homes here, and those who make their homes here. I choose to go along and get along, which is why I didn’t get freaked out when someone popped out of a dark alley in my path. It was clear he was wandering to pass time, much like I was running to burn off some energy. We both had our own agendas, and as is normal, stuck to them without bugging the other guy.

***

The city at night is quieter, but never really sleeps. The lights are still on. Hospitals don’t close. Police pull night shifts, slowly patrolling the streets, looking for anything out-of-place or ready to respond if called when something goes awry.

Most people don’t give it much thought because they work during the day before heading home for the evening. But there is a whole other world still hammering away at life long after the sun sets.

I’ve heard it said that nothing good happens after midnight, and many times this is true. But look a little deeper. It’s not that it’s a more dangerous time of day. Sure, often it is. But not every nighttime denizen is up to no good, or trying to catch them in the act, or clean up their aftermath.

Have you ever noticed the lights of a downtown skyline? Those lights are on because people are working in those buildings, most likely cleaning up after you.

When you wake up in the morning, you’ll notice that your phone is fully charged, your alarm clock went off on time and, if you still take the morning paper, there it is on your driveway or in your mailbox. When you head to the grocery store, fresh bread is on the shelves. Your favorite morning news program features people sharply dressed, giving you the details of any overnight news, the weather, and traffic. The barista at your favorite coffee shop has been at it for hours by the time you showed up.

People were out there, doing their thing, keeping the power on, keeping you informed, and serving you your morning goodies because they were toiling away during the darkest hours.

It’s amazing how productive America is when most of it is asleep.

***

With the absence of activity, little things that might go unnoticed stick out. I’ve run past certain alleyways hundreds of times, taking no notice of the broken glass pounded into the concrete and mud. It’s just litter during the day, but at night the dim light from streetlamps shines off these tiny shards, which in turn sparkle a little like how the moonlight reflects off the shimmering surface of a pond or lake. It’s surprising how a bit of urban ruin can still be so beautiful.

I notice sounds more, too. The lonely call from a train’s horn in the distance, for instance. And I can’t help but to notice that the same sounds emanating from a downtown milk plant during the day don’t quit at night. The machines still run, the stink still rises, and the workers, clad in their blue jumpsuits, keep filling the trucks with cold, liquid dairy nourishment.

The plant in question is right across the street from the county jail, and neighbors a good number of bail-bond offices. You can pretty-up this section of town all you want, but you can’t wash away its more industrial past, at least not completely.

I might add that there are no bars, clubs or art galleries on this section of my run. People on this street are here because they have to be, either to draw a check or do a little time.

Getting past all that, I turn back east for the final leg of the run where I come across one of my favorite corners in all of downtown. It sits on a street that is sort of the dividing line of the flashy part of the Brady Arts District and the more industrial, down-and-out part closer to the jail. The establishments at this intersection seem to reflect that convergence, a sort of urban DMZ between the places where people want to go and would just as soon avoid.

The Downtown Lounge is classic dive bar material. It’s a little dark, and doesn’t seem to be the type of place where you’d order a Manhattan of an Appletini. I’m thinking domestic beer, whiskey or tequila are more of this place’s strong suits, and I’m good with that.

Next door is a tattoo shop. It’s sign: “Idol Time,” with all the hedonistic motif that you’d expect from a place with that sort of name. Both the bar and the tattoo shop are rich in black, blue and red exterior paint.

There are a couple of overhead garage doors next to the tattoo shop. During the day, they’re usually closed. They’re also painted black, but with a little extra flair added in: small, gold-painted skulls centered on each panel of the door. A perfect blend of décor for this little block.

But on this night, one of those doors is open. Inside is a 1960s-model Ford Galaxy, a chopper with ape-hanger handlebars and a decent looking weight set. Hard rock tunes drone from a sound system I cannot see as a big bearded dude mills around inside, presumable between sets of bench presses.

This mini-monster garage fascinates me, mostly because it, like everything else on the corner, goes together so well. I’m tempted to stop running, pop my head in and say hello, just for the chance to get this guy’s story. But I know better. Between the drunks from the bars, the wandering homeless and who knows who else, my guess is bearded dude wouldn’t welcome a stranger rolling up on his workout.

What little I see here, however, typifies downtown at night. It’s quieter, more subtle. Darker. But work is being done. At first glance you might miss it, but there is a lot of life going on down here.

Another example of what I see on the run.

Bob Doucette

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2 thoughts on “Seen on the run: Downtown at night

  1. Awesome post. I have never wandered around downtown at night, especially as late as what you are talking, but during my lunch hours I wander all over downtown and the surrounding neighborhood. I’ve been doing it for over 20 years and every day I see something I’ve never seen before.

    • Thanks much! That was a fun run, and there was a lot to see. Much more going on, even on a quiet night, than initially meets the eye. I geeked out on this one enough that I cleaned myself up, dropped into a neighborhood bar (near closing!) and scribbled down notes. Running can be very cool.

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