School a Connecticutian on OK life.
June 9, 2011 7:25 AM   Subscribe

Tell a Northeasterner about living in Norman, Oklahoma.

My partner has been offered a job at the University of Oklahoma in Norman. I have never been to OK so we are driving up to see the town this weekend (or, so I can see the town -- he's already seen it, obviously.)

I am very nervous about the prospect of living in Oklahoma. I have never lived anywhere that is culturally similar to OK and my expectations right now are based, I think, in large part on what people who live in places like New York City and Austin say about places like Oklahoma.

(Though I've lived for the last year in Austin, Texas, I was raised in rural Connecticut and since then have spent six years in New York City and three years in rural upstate New York. I come from very die-hard New Englander stock and definitely think of myself as a New Englander.)

I'd like to hear from people with experience what it's like to live in Norman and/or Oklahoma. (I know that Norman is probably different from the rest of Oklahoma, being a college town, but I'm not sure how different it is, and the impression I have is that it's not as different from the rest of the state as, say, Austin is from Texas.) Also, thoughts on jobs/what to do for work would be great. I have degrees in the liberal arts and have experience working for state guvmint.

I am: late 20s, into books, and am an individual-sport type rather than a team-sport type. I mean that a) literally (I love long-distance running, biking, hiking, swimming, but hate playing baseball, ultimate frisbee, etc. and b) figuratively (for instance, I am religious (Christian) but not a member of any particular denomination). My boyfriend and I are both gay dudes, by the way.

Thanks in advance for your thoughts.
posted by fugitivefromchaingang to Society & Culture (16 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
I lived in Norman as a college student, and I loved it. Granted, it's likely to be different for someone who's not living the college lifestyle, and it seems to have changed a lot since I spent any significant time there, which was 1995.

I grew up in Oklahoma, and have a soft spot for the state, because it's home, I guess. That being said, it can be pretty conservative and red-neck-y. There are enclaves of more tolerance, though, and Norman is a pretty good bet for that. I have some friends who stayed in Norman after graduation, and some who moved there later in life, and they seem to like it pretty well. They're really liberal, and while they rail about Oklahoma's conservative politics pretty often, they seem to feel like they belong there.

I wouldn't say that Norman is to Oklahoma as Austin is to Texas, necessarily. It's not quite as weird, and doesn't have quite the same countercultural vibe. It may be pretty close, though. When people talk about how Austin doesn't belong in Texas, I think the same thing about Tulsa in Oklahoma.

You'll encounter a lot of good ole boys, but OU has a pretty diverse population, and a lot of that seeps out into the community. I personally think it's a fantastic institution, and David Boren has done a lot of good work in creating a great university atmosphere. And if you like college football at all, then you've come to the right place.

I think you could probably do just fine there. Norman is very close to the capital, so if you end up working in state government you'd be nearby. You might need a little bit thicker skin than you would in Austin or New England, but I don't think you'd be a pariah in the community.
posted by Shohn at 7:40 AM on June 9, 2011 [1 favorite]

I've never been to Norman, but a friend just came back from a business trip there (in Norman specifically, not just OK), and was very culture shocked. The example I remember is that he was invited to a barbecue, and was told, with no humor/irony, "don't worry, if you're a vegetarian, we'll have chicken."
posted by brainmouse at 8:33 AM on June 9, 2011 [2 favorites]

I did undgergrad at OU, so I wound up spending 4 years in Norman. My experiences are likely to be skewed more toward a student perspective than anything, but I suspect that we may share a similar life outlook in they ways that you're asking here (liberal arts, state employee, books, individual sport, etc.). I hope that means that my thoughts here may be of some use.

Shohn is definitely correct that there's a mile-wide conservative and redneck streak in Oklahoma. The political tone at all levels just sucks if you have any sympathies for anything other than big-C Conservative politics.

That said, there's a community for you in Norman and in Oklahoma. You may have to go a bit further out of your way to find it, and you will be exposed to opinions you don't necessarily share along the way, but Norman is a college town, and OKC has more than a million people in the metro area. You'll find your niche, I'm sure.

It will be different than what you're used to, but go into it with an open mind and you'll find the people friendly and welcoming.

P.S. - brainmouse's vegetarian/chicken story was (probably) a joke
posted by owls at 8:38 AM on June 9, 2011

I have friends that moved to the Boston area after being in Norman as students and graduates for several years. When they go back to visit friends, they always return to Boston talking about the reasons they left Oklahoma. On campus and off, it is apparently common for strangers or people you've just met to ask if you've accepted Jesus as your savior. Social "welcome to the community" type events are likely to be recruiting events for evangelical churches. Fox News style politics seem to be commonplace (much moreso than in the Northeast).

I assume Norman and the campus surroundings have one or more downtown areas with some decent restaurants and such, though I've gotten the sense that driving to everything—where "everything" is mostly chain stores and restaurants—is the norm.

So, yeah, I think it's reasonable for you to have some trepidation!
posted by maxim0512 at 8:48 AM on June 9, 2011

I grew up in Norman and still have family there. The only reason I don't still live there is that I live where my wife's from. I'm fond of saying it's a great place to be from, but I have to say that it's also a great place to live. The population of Norman does a huge fluctuation during the year. In the summer, it's a sleepy (and HOT) town of somewhere around 85,000. During the school year, it's a bustling town of over 100,000. Being from the Northeast, you will be amazed (shocked, really) at the cheapness of the housing, and some of it is really cool, too: there are neat examples of Victorian and Craftsman homes to buy or rent in addition to much more modern stuff on the western side of town. It's small enough (and flat enough, and warm enough usually) to be bikeable through the whole year.

Norman and the university community have a big population from the subcontinent, so there are some cool Indian restaurants, especially near campus. Misal has been there near 30 years, I think. Victoria's is a really awesome pasta restaurant. Bison Witches and The Diner, on Main, are superb comfort food places. The Mont is a relaxed bar and restaurant east of campus. There are dozens of great places to try out without going to a single chain restaurant-- and you may not want to sneer at those, either, once you've been to a Taco Cabana or a Braum's or a Whataburger.

People's prejudices against Oklahoma are deep-seated and frustrating to me. My mom grew up in a small town about an hour south of Norman, and she told me about a pen pal exchange they had with an elementary school in Pennsylvania. The letters from back east would literally ask if they had refrigerators there, and if they rode horses to school, and if they had ever been shot at by an Indian, and the like. I've lived in four states in three time zones, and I can tell you that most places in America are more alike than not. Politically, yes, Oklahoma is a backwards hole. But it's not that far off from Wisconsin, or other places with uniparty government right now: Republicans are bigoted, sick jerks everywhere. Norman is a relatively liberal enclave. The county went for Clinton in the 90s, and while McCain carried it in the last election I don't think it was by much.

Oh, yes, there is a decent gay community in Norman, and a surprisingly good one in Oklahoma City, too, which is about 20 miles north. There are campus organizations and churches that will be very welcoming of you. If you have specific questions about anything else, please don't hesitate to memail me. Oh, and I hope you like football.
posted by norm at 9:09 AM on June 9, 2011 [2 favorites]

You will be in a 'cultural' part of OK, and Tulsa is cultured also.

Travels to the the SW, SE, or NW will take you through a time portal to the 70's... this is good in some ways; bizzarro wacked in others... yeah... bizzarro land metafilter would be OKfilter... invert 80% of your beliefs and you can picture the landscape of the state.

Housing is low; and the university scene is a mecca of sorts... OU and OSU know that they have to be good at what they do or else few would be here otherwise.

I'm here for family reasons that date to the late 1800's... there are some incredibly durable men and women folk here; to survive those periods that define the midwest; it does explain some of the 'no work no pay no welfare no eat' aspects of the OK politic.

The air is free of the Austin (2003-2008) smogfest of CO2 and ozone, noise, crowding, 24/7 N-S MoPac / I-35 traffic jam, crime, horrible schools, sky high property taxes and prices, trash blowing everywhere, ... how . Weird .

OU and OSU have active gay cultures... you'll be fine.
posted by buzzman at 9:26 AM on June 9, 2011

I've lived here on and off since the mid 1990s, and have also lived in Austin, Dallas, the west coast, and overseas, so I do have an interesting basis for comparison. Side note: not gay... married, 1 kid, but maybe this will all be of some help anyway.

Back in 2008 we were in Texas at a crossroads and had the option of basically living anywhere, and interestingly we chose to move back to Norman. Interestingly I've found the basic undercurrent of intolerance and hate thing to be noticeably more pronounced in Texas than here. Even around Austin. Also my wife went to college in upstate New York (Bard College, her friends were all a huge mix of alternative lifestyle people) and she says that some parts of that area in New York are really not all that different at the core from what we have here. Some of the Oklahoma image is rooted in stereotypes and expectations. I'd agree with that.

While I don't think racism is the measure you're looking for, I do think it provides a bit of insight into the "backwardness" of a region. There's been a bit of discussion about this on the thread on the OKC City Data boards, and the consensus is while OKC is no shining jewel as far as diversity and acceptance, it's probably not worse than a lot of other places. I think the comment There is racism everywhere, in every state. You will not notice here as much as you would in the deep South sums it up best.

I'll make no bones about it... Oklahoma and the OKC area is shitty and kind of corrupt at the political level. However from a progressive standpoint Norman OK is probably THE place to be in the region, though I believe there is probably a small but upscale LGBT community in downtown OKC. We have an awesome food co-op which you should definitely join and might be a good springboard to meet others. Housing is incredibly affordable... we live on 10 acres with a huge barn and 2-story house, just 10 minutes from OU campus, and our mortgage is only $1000/mo. Try that in Connecticut or California. Traffic is not that bad, either... I recall living in Austin and remember dreading anything that involved running errands at 5 pm. No worries here.

Bad things... storms are serious business in central Oklahoma, and with some of the tornadoes we get around here, hiding in the bathtub or closet is not going to cut it. Unless you like living dangerously, you'd be well-advised to have a storm shelter, reinforced room, or some other plan for getting to shelter.

Overall, people in and around Norman OK are friendly in a genuine sort of way, something I couldn't really say in most places I lived in Texas. I don't know how well any of that extends to the LGBT community, but I'd imagine the place will truly be what you make of it. In any case, welcome!
posted by crapmatic at 9:41 AM on June 9, 2011 [1 favorite]

Visiting Norman in the summer time will be a little different, the town may even seem dead... (no students.) There are so many little shops and restaurants in as well as a really tight knit community of Normanites. Look up places like, Forward Foods, the Opolis, Victoria's, Wild Hare Beadery and know that there's culture here too. Every year the city has a music festival which shuts down Norman and is like a giant block party with cheap beer and some decent bands.

There are like, a million antique stores and thrift stores that haven't been ransacked. You can still find some amazing furniture and collectables in the old oil mansion estate sales...

There's quite a lot to do around the area, you just have to find it. There's a GIANT rock climbing gym, lots of bike trails and yoga studios, a boathouse district for rowing the Oklahoma River...

Norman is great and all but many people do commute to OU from Oklahoma City. I spent some of the best years of my life in Norman at OU, and I currently reside in OKC. Believe it or not, housing even is cheaper in OKC and there are more restaurants and a thriving gay community. There are positives to both cities, but you should swing north to OKC and consider it, too. Traffic really isn't that bad here...

As far as employment, there are lots of options as the recession hasn't really been that bad on this part of the country. There are big corporations like Chesapeake/Devon/Sandridge who are always hiring, there are military bases, a few smaller public and private universities (UCO, OCU, OC) that might have a place for you.

Don't be too apprehensive, I think you'll like it here if you give it a chance. Send me a message if you have more questions...

Oh and yes, crapmatic is right-- make sure you have an underground storm shelter.
posted by dearest at 9:44 AM on June 9, 2011 [2 favorites]

Also I wanted to add one other observation -- in my experience rural culture and urban culture (including Norman) are entirely different things. I'd wager your experience in Norman will probably bear much more of a resemblance to east coast culture than to a lifestyle in smalltown, backwoods Oklahoma. If you moved out to someplace like Idabel, Oklahoma, I'd certainly be wary too.
posted by crapmatic at 9:45 AM on June 9, 2011

I lived in Norman for years. Coming from the Bay Area it was a real shock - it took me a while to notice that, relative to Oklahoma-at-large, Norman is a cultural mecca; it's small, but relatively diverse, progressive, and has a lot of very positive things going on. I'm not trying to misrepresent - Norman absolutely is Oklahoma and if you're not from OK (or Kansas, Colorado, Missouri, or Northern Texas) there *will* be some culture shock - but there's a lot positive to say about it.

I wouldn't qualify it as "urban" or mark it as similar to anywhere on the East Coast, but if you have to live in Oklahoma, Norman is where I'd pick. There's a quite active local music scene with relatively frequent festivals (I used to see Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey play there years before they started touring nationally), there's an assortment of excellent local farmers' co-ops, local grocery stores offer a good selection of vegan and organic foods, there's even local amateur circus groups. People who live in Norman are much more invested in it as a quality place to live than you'll find in other places - the student population is somewhat transitory but the locals tend to stay and really put work into improving life for everyone in the area.

It's also incredibly cheap relative to most of the US. Norman is a great deal for the dollar in terms of quality of life. I still think back to lazy weekends spent out on the patio at the Library, or buying records downtown and then grabbing a bite at Bison Witches. I kind of want to go back for a visit.
posted by doteatop at 10:13 AM on June 9, 2011 [2 favorites]

Everyone else covered what I was going to write, so I'd like to list some great places to eat/drink, because that's important too, right? :) The Library and Bison Witches have been mentioned; The Mont; Hideaway Pizza; Victoria's Pasta Shop; Thai Raja; BJ's. Also, it's a pain to cross Norman east-to-west by car. Definitely explore OKC; there are some interesting places there, as described in this post.
posted by neushoorn at 10:55 AM on June 9, 2011

I have been in Norman 5 years and I never lived in Oklahoma before that. I was nervous too, but now I really like Norman. I would second what doteatop and dearest said, and mention that what brainmounse and maxim0512 say do not correspond to my experience.

I think most of the culture shock you will have already overcome by moving to Texas.

Yes, Oklahoma has a reputation and some of it is deserved, but Norman is not at all representative of Oklahoma. Norman is effectively a suburb of Oklahoma City and even Oklahoma City, which has long been pretty staid and frugal (Tulsa has long been regarded as the interesting cultural place in OK), has been investing and expanding its cultural scene. I think you will find Norman large enough and diverse enough to find support communities for all of the interests you mention above.

At the state level Oklahoma is undoubtedly conservative. Over the last year the biggest political fights have not been between Democrats and Republicans but between the more moderate (more or less corporate conservatives) and the more extreme ends of the conservative movement (mostly focused on social issues, tea-party types). So far (surprisingly to me) the moderate Republicans have been winning just about every battle which makes this state different from neighbors such as Arizona.
posted by Tallguy at 11:22 AM on June 9, 2011

Something that has been hinted at but not really stated is that on home football game days the city (well, the east side, but that is the part of Norman I like) is inundated with cars. It is almost impossible to get in, out, or around town. Most people get used to it, but you really should make sure it won't drive you crazy.
posted by Quonab at 12:54 PM on June 9, 2011

Ten-year Norman resident, still live not far from downtown. It is undoubtedly the best place to live in the state, and fills the Austin role if you squint, but it's not quite there. Norman's traditionally had a problem with keeping OU students in state post-graduation, so you don't get quite as much of the accreted collegiality as you do in some of your more celebrated midwest university towns. That said, it's a modern, reasonably-progressive small city. Don't worry about the stereotypical hur-hur what's-a-veggy-tarian stuff; no be-Stetsoned guy in reflective sunglasses is going to cuff you on the shoulder in Barnes & Noble and call you "boy".

Good stuff: There's a great local festival culture here - there are free festivals of various sizes through the year, which combine really well with the famous midwestern friendliness. The community spirit of listening to jazz under the stars with nine thousand of your fellow Normanites or watching a guy dressed as the Eleventh Doctor troop through the Medieval Fair is one the things I wouldn't give up about the city. dearest linked to the Norman Music Festival, which has been trying for four years to decide whether it wants to be a free SXSW or a family-friendly place for the whole community, and has so far gone with "both". I heart the Norman Music Festival.

There's some shopping and eating, as suggested above (although Misal's been resting on its Indian-food laurels for decades - head up the road to Himalayas). There are little friendly vegetarian-friendly places like Pink Elephant or The Earth scattered around here and there if you look. I can think of two locally-owned organic groceries, a third opening soon, and a lovely farmers market. (And I am legally obligated to mention that Oklahoma City is opening its first Whole Foods later this year, we're on the map now buddy, whoo-hoo.) For book-lovers, there are three big-box bookstores (Barnes & Noble, Borders, Hastings) and three non-crap used-book places in Norman, plus the indie Full Circle bookstore and two Half-Price branches in OKC (and get someone to show you the Great Reading Room hidden away in the campus library). Land is spread out and cheap, so the city has tons of parks.

Bad stuff: There is essentially no Democratic party in state-level politics anymore - as Tallguy says, political battles are between Tea Party Republicans and Chamber of Commerce Republicans. (There was a fun incident in the last OKC city council election when a business candidate won by painting the Tea Party candidate as a wishy-washy liberal.) There's a lot of more-conservative-than-thou posturing that makes following state politics bad for the blood pressure. Norman itself has a strong local progressive faction and a Democratic mayor that ran on a restricted-business-development platorm, but the county still tends to go red in national elections.

You will be driving, constantly. Norman is... not bike-hostile, but if you go anywhere else in the metro, you'll be facing an enormously sprawled-out city with one of the country's most non-existent public transportation systems. There's very little traffic though, and parking is cheap and plentiful. If you're looking for a weekend getaway, there are no other big cities anywhere nearby - Dallas is 3 hours away, Austin 6, Kansas City, Memphis, and Denver even further (although there are some great hiking and camping spots).

Oh, and if you're curious about Oklahoma's cultural community in all its laid-back glory, this weekend is the Oklahoma City film festival, Deadcenter. There are a couple of free shows, and it's as good a place as any to get a preview peek at the culturati.

Feel free to memail if you have any questions!
posted by ormondsacker at 1:29 PM on June 9, 2011 [1 favorite]

First: the state is indisputably Republican overall. I wrote for the Daily Oklahoman for a bit while living in OKC and our headline for the 2000 election day read "Today, vote for George Bush." That was the headline above the fold, above the articles.

Having said that, I never once had someone ask me "Have you accepted Jesus as your lord?" I was also never "tricked" into attending a social event, only to discover it had been organized by a church. Those are embellishments at best.

I'm a conservative guy and I moved to Portland, OR to live. You're basically doing the opposite. As long as you aren't judgmental toward Oklahomans, most of them are normal, nice people. You might not share the same belief systems, but they wouldn't hold yours against you. :-)

For food: I suggest finding the nearest Rib Crib. That's good eating. And I'll always miss Chick-Fil-A...
posted by tacodave at 2:33 PM on June 9, 2011

By the way, it's been atypically hot for June in the state, in the 90s. And it gets hotter later on in the summer, so be prepared to enjoy lots of cool beverages!

There are at least 3 Democrats in my small town and we used to have a Democratic governor. So it's not completely Republican. There are people who are very fundamentally religious and aren't afraid to tell you about it, but it's possible to head them off.

I hope you have an enjoyable time.
posted by dragonplayer at 2:39 PM on June 9, 2011

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