Living in Norman, Okla.: A Review

About a year ago, I had a random Mormon guy I’d never met before ask me via email about what it was like living in Norman, as he was considering a job at OU. With a few edits, this was my response. Let it serve as a warning to you all.

OU

OU is what I’d call a “good place” — students, staff, faculty, administration all genuinely care about the university and the community. In that sense, OU feels more like BYU, by a lot, than the other schools with which I’ve been affiliated (MBA from UC-Irvine in ’02, PhD from Pitt in ’14). The students have been fantastic — they’re not all necessarily brilliant (some are), but they’re easy-going, reasonably responsible, and generally nice people (using Pitt students as my reference point).

WRT Norman, it’s probably worthwhile to understand my perspective: I’m 44 and single, grew up in the Seattle area, went to BYU, lived for about 12 years in Orange County and San Diego, and (as implied) lived for four years recently in Pittsburgh.

PEOPLE

That in mind, my experience living here has been kind of awful. People in Norman are friendly, but they’re not friends. This has been true both in the neighborhood where I live as well as the ward. People seem uninterested in making connections; when I’m working in the yard and someone comes by walking their dog, I rarely can get them to say more than “hi”. Despite OU, Norman doesn’t feel much like a college town to me; most locals seem to be Norman lifers rather than part of a vibrant, semi-transient intellectual community. Even on campus, people often seem socially shut-down. No one mistakes Norman for Ann Arbor.

Also, as an admittedly gross over-generalization, Oklahomans aren’t really thinkers. If you’ve ever read Grapes of Wrath, it’s not hard to see the unseeing simplicity of those characters in the behaviors and attitudes of modern-day Oklahomans.

CHURCH

Church here has been hard for me. The general flavor tends to be dogmatic and a little fear-mongerish, whereas I’d prefer more critical insight and service-mindedness. This is a place where members feel the most important thing about the church isn’t so much being Christ-like as it is knowing that the Book of Mormon is true and that everyone who doesn’t believe in it is bad.

Further, there aren’t a lot of people at church interested in new relationships. Leadership is well-meaning, but not necessarily effective: it took 11 months and three introductions for the bishop to learn who I was. The ward has a lot of needs, yet it took 13 months for me to get a calling. It’s hard to fully express the disappointment I’ve had in getting to know and build relationships with ward members. I’m not a gregarious person, but I’ve never had this much trouble getting to know people in a new ward in other parts of the country.

So, as regards church, if you want an east coast Mormon experience, you won’t find it here. If you want a west coast Mormon experience, you might be a little disappointed by the dogmatism and difficulty of making friends.

WEATHER

It’s actually pretty sunny here, but it tends to also be very humid in summer and stormy/windy in spring. Fall can be nice and winter is usually not very cold once the sun gets above the top of the stadium (it snowed maybe twice a couple inches two winters ago, never really got below freezing last winter, this winter was also mild). That said, between the wind, storms, and humidity, it’s not a great place for being outside or undertaking outdoor recreational activities generally.

The tornadoes aren’t as bad as one might think. You know when you wake up in the morning if it’s going to be a day when there might be a tornado. There are weather apps for smartphones that give good, predictive information. The TV weather people are good at giving the important information in plenty of time to do something about it (although they tend to over-dramatize things as I’m sure they find it validating to do so). You can buy a weather radio that broadcasts weather alerts from the NWS whenever they’re issued. If the house you’re buying doesn’t have a storm shelter, you can get one added for (I think) $2-4K. Generally speaking, late-April/early-May is the tornado season. The biggest tornado-related issues are (a) hail damage and (b) the cost of homeowner’s insurance. Homeowner’s is going to be at least 2x what you’re used to elsewhere in the country.

ENTERTAINMENT

The shopping here isn’t great if that matters — no Costco, no Trader Joe’s, no REI, no IKEA, only one Apple Store (in OKC). OTOH, Norman has three Super Walmarts, three Walmart grocery stores, and a Sam’s Club. OU sports are huge, obviously, and even many of the “other” OU sports are pretty well attended. Beyond that, there are some decent and some odd local museums (the National Pigeon Museum, for example), a triple-A baseball team, and, of course, the ill-gotten NBA team.

It’s not a particularly outdoor-friendly community. The weather is very often uncomfortable. There isn’t much in the way of bike trails, walking trails, or hiking destinations. I think the youth recreation options are good and I know faculty have kids who are deep into the local soccer scene. You don’t see a lot of adults recreating, though (very few co-ed softball leagues for instance); dog walking appears to be the most common adult outdoor activity. OKC has some nice, paved bike trails along the river, but they’re scarce anywhere else, despite Norman wanting to brand itself as a bike-friendly community.

Also, there aren’t a lot of great day-long driving trips from here. The Ozarks can be interesting, but it takes 5-6 hours to get to the good parts. It’s at least six hours to drive up to the church history sites in Independence, so that’s also probably better as an overnighter.

The lakes here aren’t all that nice. Lake Thunderbird, in Norman, tends to have a reputation for brackishness and appears to be full of snags. For all the reservoir lakes there are around here, you really don’t see all that many people with boats (and I’m thinking there’s a reason for that). The drinking water, I hear, comes from these lakes and, during certain times of the year, often tastes muddy.

HOUSING

I imagine the median lot in Norman is actually less than a quarter acre, but obviously you can find plenty of larger ones. A potential issue there is that houses that are much over $200K tend to take a while to sell if you ever want to sell (the market’s sweet spot is probably around $175K). I bought my place for $297K and am dreading what happens if/when I put it on the market.

Also, if you buy a $500K house here, work at OU, have a family, and wear a white shirt to church every week, you’ll run a very high risk of being in a bishopric within six months of move-in (based on two years of observations).

TRAFFIC

It takes forever to get to the freeway from where I live (south of Highway 9 off 12th Ave. SE), which means I end up feeling trapped in this neighborhood. By “forever”, I mean 10-15 minutes, depending on the (non-synchronized) lights.

And even though the population isn’t all that dense here, traffic is worse than it seems like it should be, often due to poor road maintenance and/or bad planning (e.g., the state is re-doing two of the four main freeway onramps as part of a two-year project, during which the city has decided to do major construction on the *other* two roads with freeway onramps). Further, drivers here are inattentive, which can be frustrating, particularly if you have somewhere to be. Some specific anecdotes:

  • One time, on a single trip up to OKC (about a 30-minute drive), I saw three different car accidents where a car had tumbled off the freeway and caught fire. Two of these were single-car accidents.
  • When you’re second in line waiting for a light to turn green, you can pretty well expect that, when it does turn green, nothing will happen. Meaning that the person at the front of the line won’t go. Often this is due to them texting someone, but often also it’s due to them just … not … going.
  • People here will not cross a white or yellow line to save their lives. No one will form an ad hoc lane at any cost. They won’t get over on the shoulder to get into that right turn lane three cars sooner, even if that means not having to wait another three minutes at the light.
  • Also, for an uncontrolled left turn at a stop light (i.e., a stop light without a specific green left turn light), the car at the front of the line never gets into the intersection. It’s common for the entire light cycle to pass without any of the cars waiting having made a left turn.

OTHER

This is a cheap place to live, but often you can see the problems caused by the low taxes (schools outside Norman and Edmond are apparently very bad, the aforementioned road maintenance issues).

Salespeople here are the most arch of anywhere I’ve lived — furniture stores and car dealerships are hilariously bad. I had a lawn services company that insisted that I couldn’t have called them to cancel their services, because they didn’t have anyone answering the phone that day. I have a colleague who, after buying a new phone at the AT&T store, was surprised to look at her receipt and find that they’d charged her several hundred additional dollars for service plans they’d never asked her about. The car dealership I visited the one time told me point-blank that they did not honor the prices that they advertised for specific vehicles online. There’s a lot of petty corruption here, and everyone seems okay with letting everyone else get away with it.

CONCLUSION

As you can probably infer, I’m a little too high strung for this place. I just really want get somewhere closer to some mountains and some people whom I know I like and back into a culture that doesn’t seem stacked against me. Whenever I get off the plane in OKC after having visited anywhere else, it’s always only ever with a sense of dread.

 

So that was it. Also, in case my future self is reading this, ^^^ is why it was so important for you to get out of this place. Never, ever come back here.

bkd

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