An occasional breeze came through the open windows, but even past midnight the air was too hot and too unbearably humid to bring much relief. The Tulsa skyline, with scattered lights left on overnight, was casting eerie shadows across the room, just bright enough to see a cobweb in the corner and wires dangling from the ceiling.
The room had a bed, the kind that folds down out of the wall. But the mattress was thin and stained and smelled like sweat and urine.
And there was a threadbare couch, too, but the cushions were infested with fleas. So I was sitting in a lawn chair that I brought from home with my feet propped up on a rickety old coffee table.
Sleep seemed impossible but probably inadvisable anyway — with the creaks and groans and scurrying little feet that haunted the old Towerview Apartments. Once, a rat the size of a small dog waddled across the dusty floor, emerging from the shadows and disappearing around the corner into the little kitchen. I swear I heard him open the fridge.
But this night, roughly halfway through my two-week stay at the Towerview as part of a Tulsa World investigation into substandard housing, had so far been uneventful. Then somebody knocked on the door.
I looked at several dilapidated apartments in the summer of 2004, most of them in east and north Tulsa, with the goal of finding the nastiest, most wretched and unlivable place available. If we wanted to write about substandard housing, what better research than actually living in it for a while?
There was a conspiracy theory, which some online know-it-alls peddled for several years afterward, that the World and the Mayor’s Office had contrived to write the series just to get the Towerview torn down and make way for a hotel development. A four-story, red-brick building from 1922, it stood in the 200 block of South Cheyenne Avenue, a short walk from the newsroom and in the shadow of what had then just recently been chosen as the site of the future BOK Center.
It’s true that when I moved in that July, city officials were already picturing a hotel there someday. And the residents were already talking about the inevitable wrecking ball, wondering when, not if, they would have to find other places to live. But for us, the Towerview was almost an afterthought, picked just a few days before our investigation began when an “apartment for rent” sign appeared in the manager’s window. It was actually our third or fourth choice.
Nonetheless, after my articles hit the page, county health inspectors converged on the Towerview and gave the property owner 10 days to fix the most serious safety violations.
But instead of meeting the bare minimum standards for human habitation, he gave residents 72 hours to get out, leaving some of them homeless when they couldn’t find anywhere else to go on such short notice.
The building came down in January 2007. And last week, developers completed the “conspiracy” by announcing that a $17.3 million Hampton Inn & Suites will go up on the corner of Third Street and Cheyenne Avenue.
Personally, I wanted to see the Towerview fixed up and kept open. And every miserable night I spent there made me root for the place a little harder.
Three loud taps on the door, well past midnight, didn’t surprise me anymore. It would have been unusual to get through the wee hours of the morning without an interruption. And I really came to look forward to these nocturnal visits because they broke up the monotony and creepiness of being stuck there alone in the dark.
One time a guy was dressed top to bottom in the powder blue of North Carolina — blue shoes, blue sweats, blue shirt, blue cap. I’m pretty sure he had blue socks and blue underwear. He was over 6 feet tall with biceps like a weightlifter’s and a gold front tooth; and he wanted to sell me a $30 air conditioner out of the trunk of his car, a 1980-something clunker with bullet holes in the passenger door.
Another time it was a young woman, early 20s at the most and almost alarmingly thin. She was barefoot and wearing enormous hoop earrings, and not much else.
“Who are you?” she said.
“Who am I? You’re the one knocking on my door.”
“You got anything to sell?”
“What? Are you kidding?”
“Never mind,” she said. And she went across the hall to knock again.
This time, the knock on the door came from a middle-aged woman, chubby to say the least and wrapped in a dingy bathrobe with a scarf or towel around her head. I recognized her through the peephole as one of the residents, possibly from the apartment directly below mine, who had smiled at me once or twice as we passed each other at the front entrance. I had been meaning to approach her about talking to me for the articles, and here was my chance.
“I hope I didn’t scare you,” she said as I opened the door.
Funny, I thought, that she wasn’t worried about waking me up. Or did nobody really sleep around here? She had heard a noise — “like somebody banging,” she said — and thought maybe it was coming from my room.
“You’re new around here,” she said, “and I wanted to make sure you were OK.”
Her smile was the brightest thing in the building.
“I’m glad you’re writing a story,” she told me when I explained what I was doing there, but she didn’t want her name in it.
“I mind my own business,” she said. “But people need to know what goes on around here.”
She was the side of the Towerview that outsiders didn’t notice, and the side I’m afraid I didn’t do enough to reveal. The people who lived there — with notable exceptions, of course — were kind and generous and honest, always ready to help. And after some initial skepticism, they welcomed me with open arms, despite the risk of what my stories might bring.
There was Brian, a soft-spoken waiter with a goatee and snake tattoos, living on the first floor with a girlfriend and three kids, who slept on a mattress on the living room floor. He always had a cold can of Coke to offer and kept a chess board set up just in case somebody dropped by for a game. Nobody could beat him.
And there was Rachel, a willowy blond who said she was 22 but looked 16, with tight-fitting Abercrombie & Fitch jeans and a “Grrl Power” T-shirt. She would dig through a tiny blue purse to find bus fare for her neighbors, even if it meant she would have to walk to her own job interview.
They paid a minimum of $125 a week, or $500 a month in rent — not much less than what I spent back then for a newly renovated apartment in a middle-class neighborhood south of downtown. But the Towerview was cash only, up front, with no credit check and no questions asked. The residents might have been able to afford a better place to live, but for whatever mistakes they had made in the past, they couldn’t get through the application process.
So they lived with the mice and the rats and the drug pushers and the prostitutes. And with swarms of cockroaches, thick enough to make a wood floor look like it had waves rippling across it. And with carpets so covered in fleas that they could turn white socks black. And with bath water that came out putrid orange. And with faulty wiring and broken heaters and a property owner who wouldn’t spare a dime to fix any of it.
Getting rid of the Towerview didn’t make their lives any better. It just pushed them out of downtown and cleared the ground for a new hotel.
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