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Oklahoma welcomes mini-reversal of "Grapes of Wrath" migration

More than 75 years after hundreds of thousands of "Dust Bowl" refugees fled Oklahoma for the promise of the booming economy of the golden state of California, the tide has turned.
/ Source: Reuters

More than 75 years after hundreds of thousands of "Dust Bowl" refugees fled Oklahoma for the promise of the booming economy of the golden state of California, the tide has turned.

Since 2005, thousands of Californians have moved to Oklahoma, prompting Oklahoma Governor Mary Fallin to declare a reversal of the "Grapes of Wrath" migration immortalized in the John Steinbeck novel about "Okies" fleeing in the 1930s.

The flow back to Oklahoma does not yet approach the hundreds of thousands - some say a million - people who left Oklahoma in what is known as the "Dust Bowl" of the Great Depression.

But from 2005 to 2010 Oklahoma had a net gain of 33,209 people from California, according to U.S. Census Bureau figures.

One attraction is unemployment of 6 percent in Oklahoma compared with California's 10.9 percent and a national rate of 8.2 percent, according to government figures. The cost of living is lower in Oklahoma and the social and cultural scene is improving, said Fallin, a Republican.

The change began in the middle of the last decade when Oklahoma's energy and farm-based economy began to outgrow California's, government figures show. This was compounded by the recession and housing crisis, when California was hit harder.

"All those things have added up to people taking note of Oklahoma and I do believe it's caused a reverse ‘Grapes of Wrath,'" said Fallin, who mentioned it in her budget address to the legislature earlier this year.

The governor's own maternal grandmother came to Oklahoma in a covered wagon from Tennessee. By the 1930s, when drought and wind stripped the topsoil from the land, Fallin's family headed west except for her grandmother, who stayed behind in Tecumseh, where Fallin grew up.

While the Dust Bowl affected other Plains states, "The Grapes of Wrath" and the subsequent movie starring Henry Fonda ensured that it was more closely linked to Oklahoma.

Even though far more Californians last year moved to more populous states than Oklahoma, such as Texas, and to states nearer California like Arizona and Nevada, the net surplus of Californians relocating to Oklahoma is symbolic for the state.

Some Californians who have moved to Oklahoma say they like it.

"After 22 years in L.A., I needed a break from the traffic, the crowds, the rudeness," said Sarah Jane Rose, who arrived in Oklahoma City in 2005 with her husband, who grew up there, and their two daughters aged 12 and 16.

Rose, who directed television shows for 10 years, and her husband, Jay Shanker, an entertainment attorney, did not want to raise their kids in Los Angeles, where they believe children grow up too fast.


There were some adjustments to make for the couple, who are Jewish Democrats.

"We meet people all the time who've never met a Jewish person," said Rose, who grew up in Palo Alto, California.

The summer heat and predominant conservative political values do not comport with their personal preferences either, but that is offset by the warmth and openness of the people, regardless of optical and religious differences, they said.

Jay Shanker returned to Oklahoma City to find a different place than the one he left to attend Yale Law School and practice entertainment law in Southern California.

"Almost everything you can get in a major metro area you can find here now," he said. "It's not a New York, LA, Chicago or Atlanta, at this point, but as far as desirability or place to live and work, I think it rates in the top tier."

John Krasno, the executive director of the Oklahoma City Ballet, left Los Angeles in 2009 and said he was impressed that voters were willing to approve a temporary one-cent hike to the sales tax to revamp Oklahoma City's aging downtown.

More than $1 billion will be raised by 2017, when the sales tax rise is scheduled to end.

Among the completed projects so far is an indoor sports arena, an old warehouse district converted into an entertainment hub, a minor league baseball park, and turning a stretch of the North Canadian River into a series of river lakes.

Krasno said his rent is probably a half to a third less than what it would be in Los Angeles, and buying a home in Oklahoma is within reach for someone making a middle-class salary.

U.S. Census figures show the median value of an owner-occupied home is $124,600 in Oklahoma City and $117,000 in Tulsa, the state's second-largest city. It is $553,900 in Los Angeles, $503,700 in San Diego and $785,200 in San Francisco.

California transplants bring up two other welcome changes to life in Oklahoma -- clean air and less traffic.

"The air is clear. That was really striking to me," said Steve Goo, a vice president for Boeing who arrived in Oklahoma City just a few months ago.

Oklahoma does have its drawbacks. It ranks near the bottom of states in some national comparisons such as the quality of schools and health measures like the obesity rate.

Boeing began moving some of its workers in 2010 from Southern California to its facility near Tinker Air Force Base, in Oklahoma City, where it has a hub for military aircraft engineering and program management. More transfers are expected.

Goo said there is a "sense of shared destiny" between his company and local government and civic leaders, which he said was not the case in California, where he spent 12 years.

His Boeing colleagues in California have even taken to calling Oklahoma the "Silicon Prairie," he said.

When he met Fallin at a recent legislative reception, he mentioned the "Silicon Prairie" nickname to the governor, who liked it, he said.

"She asked, "'Can I use it?'"