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The Music Ends at Urban Roots

Deep Deuce lost something very special this week. I could go with the cheap and easy headline and point out that Urban Roots, the only black-owned business in the once historically black neighborhood of Deep Deuce closed its doors Saturday. But that’s too simple. What Oklahoma City has lost is a venue that really provided a wonderful “place” – the sort of place communities are craving in this era of divisions and isolation.

Let’s delve a bit into the who, what, where and when first. Chaya Fletcher opened Urban Roots, 322 NE 2, in 2010 in a space previously used as a sales office for development of The Hill housing development a block east. The building prior to that was boarded up and empty for years – but always boasted a great history.

The two-story building was built by Dr. Wyatt H. Slaughter in 1929 and was home to an Elks club until 1936. Over the next two years, the building was home to an array of juke joints, dance halls and gambling establishments, highlighted by Ruby’s Grill, opened in 1940 by Ruby Lyons and for six years a destination for food, music and dancing.

I was unable to contact Chaya upon hearing this weekend was the end for Urban Roots. I knew the restaurant and live entertainment venue was in trouble when an online fundraising effort was launched a couple of weeks ago.

Chaya posted the following on the Urban Roots Facebook page:

“Tonight we celebrate 5 years of Urban Roots and when we sign off tonight it will be the end of our run in historic Deep Deuce. This has been an amazing journey, when we opened our doors in 2010 we hoped to honor and preserve the roots of our ancestors in a sacred place. We feel we were instrumental in initiating new opportunities for culturally significant ventures and hope for those to see continued success. We strived to provide a space for culture, comfort, and creativity by using food as a medium. We’ve watched relationships and marriages form, the birth of babies and artistic freedom for many. We appreciate you OKC. You showed up and out for us and we are eternally grateful. EEDO & love…….”

So what have we lost? Quite a bit. I loved Urban Roots, went there several times and loved every moment. It was an opportunity to enjoy good food, laugh and enjoy great performances from folks like Miss Cookie Turner. The nights spent at Urban Roots were among the richest, most satisfying experiences I’ve been blessed enough to have lived in Oklahoma City. Sitting in Urban Roots, surrounded by so much life … I had only to close my eyes to imagine the next act might be old Five by Five himself – Jimmy Rushing.

Maybe. Just maybe. Maybe Urban Roots was secretly a time machine ride, allowing me to get, maybe, just maybe, a glimpse of Deep Deuce’s glory days when it was home to jazz greats like Charlie Christian and Jimmy Rushing – an era written about so vividly by Ralph Ellison:

“We were still too young to attend night dances, but yet old enough to gather beneath the corner street lamp on summer evenings, anyone might halt the conversation to exclaim “Listen, they’re raising hell down at Slaughter’s Hall,” and we’d turn our heads westward to hear Jimmy’s voice soar up the hill and down, as pure and as miraculously unhindered by distance and earthbound things as is the body in youthful dreams of flying.” (- Ralph Ellison, from “Shadow and Act,” 1964.)

Chaya Fletcher dared to celebrate a history that Oklahoma City collectively has sought to quietly erase. She also was creating a place where in an era where racial tension seems to be on the rise, our community could meet and enjoy each others’ company sharing in the joys of life – good food, good music.

But this ambitious effort was not an easy journey for Chaya. A couple of years ago she invited Robert Irvine of “Restaurant Impossible” to critique her operation and assist in a makeover. The results were impressive, but as a customer, I witnessed with how Chaya continue to struggle with balancing a restaurant and music venue. Business was either feast or famine.

The building sold a couple of months ago, and I was told by friends of Chaya she was facing a steep increase in her rent. I briefly considered dropping in a couple of weeks ago, but time, always quick and elusive, cheated me of one last evening with the spirits of Deep Deuce.

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Steve Lackmeyer

Steve Lackmeyer is a reporter, columnist and author who started his career at The Oklahoman in 1990. Since then, he has won numerous awards for his coverage, which included the 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building, the city's... Read more ›