OKLAHOMA CITY (Free Press) — In OKC, it’s difficult to think of a more iconic or time-honored “main drag” than what has come to be known as the “Uptown” stretch of 23rd Street.
For generations, the district (which officially covers the area running from Broadway to Penn between 22nd and 24th streets) has been home to all the entertainment, food, drink, and cultural cohabitation that a city could hope for. But while the Asian District, Paseo, Plaza, and others across OKC all have festivals of their own to showcase what their little corners of the city have to offer, Uptown never truly has.
That all changes this Saturday, July 30th when the brand new Uptown Outside event kicks off, highlighting the district’s music, bars, and restaurants, but more than anything, focusing on its unique intersection of cultures and communities.
“The idea in general,” Uptown 23rd Association Board President Chelsea Banks said, “is really to be geared towards bringing humans uptown and experiencing all of our businesses and staying on the block for longer and just enjoying being outside.”
In past years, the district’s primary annual event was Uptown Uncorked, a ticketed food and drink showcase and fundraiser for the area’s bars and restaurants, but when the 2020 installment was postponed, it gave Banks and the board an opportunity to consider changing trends and how to better benefit the district’s businesses. With the staffing and supply issues we’ve all come to recognize in the pandemic era, the idea of asking Uptown businesses to donate time and resources just didn’t seem reasonable anymore.
“The biggest thing we were very adamant about was that we cannot ask that of our businesses right now,” Banks said. “In fact, we should be flipping the script and trying to bring as many humans to our businesses as we can, and not limiting it by a ticket count or some kind of headcount that is limited by the physical capacity of an inside space.”
Uptown Outside is the result of that effort to “flip the script.” By closing off the street for a day and setting the stage for some major indie entertainment acts, residents are encouraged to walk or bike to the area and to check out the many shops, bars, and eateries, old and new, where their dollars will actually be going to support their community.
“Uptown really is hyper local,” Banks explained. “It might not always seem that way, but most of our businesses are actually locally or regionally owned. Even the Dunkin’. So there are a lot of local people being impacted very directly by dollars spent in Uptown.”
Responsibility and Opportunity
“We have a responsibility and an opportunity to remind people about how much fun Uptown is,” said Chad Whitehead, Operating Partner for 23rd St. landmark Tower Theatre (and Banks’ husband.) “It’s not assumed that just because somebody came here a few years ago that they are looped in with everything that’s happened and that is happening in the neighborhood. Habits have changed a lot. So hopefully Uptown Outside reminds people.”
To help remind them, and to hopefully catch the attention of plenty of newcomers, many of the businesses will be hosting concurrent events or specials of their own throughout the day:
- Local favorite oyster bar The Drake will be extending their Gold Hour pricing specials.
- East side 23rd businesses will be showcased, with Kindred Spirits, Eastside Pizza, Spiked Coffee, Alori Chanel Gallery, and Belle’s Books Boutique all collaborating in the East End Lounge.
- Skate shop Money Ruins Everything will be building a mini skate park right on the street.
- HTeaO and newly-open Toast and Coffee will be hosting street pop-ups, as both of the 23rd Street businesses brick-and-mortar locations fall outside the street closure area for the event.
Loads of other restaurants and vendors from all over Uptown will be on hand with offerings and specials not yet announced.
Of course, the biggest selling point for many will be the day’s musical lineup, a radically diverse and stylistically adventurous collection of artists personally selected by Whitehead to show off the various intersecting cultures and tastes of the district, based on the legendary community-focused events of some other cities.
“I really like to use the term ‘block party’ instead of ‘festival,’” Whitehead told me. “My heart for this really goes back to the proper Chicago block parties, where it’s very localized to that community and that area.”
To that end, he’s stacked the lineup with both homegrown acts and a few out-of-towners that fit perfectly into the Uptown dynamics:
- Oklahoma’s own international buzz-makers Sports are headlining with their widely acclaimed brand of psychedelic dream-pop.
- Hailing from El Paso, Holy Wave come wielding a playful new-wave sound.
- Rising local R&B powerhouse Nia Moné and Tulsa’s Lex will be bringing the sultry neo-soul.
- The state’s indelible folk and country credentials will be held down OKC-based bluegrass duo Wood Willow.
- Denton-based Free Mode boasts a wildly creative combo of DJ and live drums, with a danceable, hip-hop style.
- Oklahoma’s King Cabbage Brass Band will even be on hand for a New Orleans-style second line.
After things wrap up outside at 10pm, Whitehead has promised a special show inside the Tower Theatre with a super secret lineup that won’t be announced until doors open.
With a community so firmly built on communal spaces like restaurants and music venues, Uptown has unsurprisingly been hit hard by the pandemic, with favorites like Unwind Café, Cuppies and Joe, and just recently Backdoor BBQ all sadly announcing their closures.
Now with some new, buzzed-about businesses like Formosa and Boomtown Creamery filling those gaps, and with the erstwhile Blue Note finally reopen on 23rd, the hope is to show that the district isn’t just a drinking-and-dancing destination, but a real, pan-cultural community built for the future of our changing city.
“This event is really about not only reminding people that Uptown is here, and our businesses are open, and we want you to spend your money with them,” Banks said, “but also that Uptown is a great place to live, and a great place to spend your time and your life in a lot of different ways.”
Uptown Outside runs Saturday, July 30th from 4pm to 10pm at 23rd St. and Walker Ave. For more information, or to sign up to volunteer, visit uptown23rd.com.
Last Updated July 29, 2022, 8:24 AM by Brett Fieldcamp
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