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Dallas, Texas: At a Glance - 2002-04-28

Dallas, Texas. What images do these words bring to your mind? A lone rancher, grazing his cattle in the vast prairie? The red neon flying horse of the Dallas skyline? Or President Kennedy's assassination? Zlatica Hoke is back from a recent visit to Dallas and tells us how these images fit into the real city.

A herd of longhorn cattle descends a rocky bluff to reach a bubbling brook. The scene, typical of the Old West, takes place in the middle of urban Dallas, Texas amid concrete and glass office towers. But the cattle, the horses and the mounted cowboys are made of bronze. Pioneer Plaza in Downtown Dallas, with some 40 larger-than-life sculptures, is a dramatic homage to the area's past. During the 1950's, Texas ranchers drove hundreds of thousands of real cattle along the "Shawnee Trail" which passed through here on the way to the railway stations in Missouri.

Phyllis Hammond of the Dallas Convention and Visitors Bureau points out that this route was also used by early pioneers. Today, one can see some of their simple white-stone graves here. "It's a very unique landmark for downtown in that it's one of the few that really contains and makes evident the heritage that we have, the western heritage," she says.

Indeed, the cattle drive monument is the only major landmark showing the city's western heritage. Dallas is a sprawling metropolitan area with clusters of office towers surrounded by residential and commercial strips and highways. Most of the people in Dallas don't seem to mind the overpasses crisscrossing the city.

"Since Texans love highways and love their cars, it's difficult, I think, to ever get them out of their cars. That's one of the things you have to understand when you live in the Dallas/Fort Worth area. Texans like cars and they will accept the roads no matter what," says resident Tom Cox.

Highways and wide multi-lane boulevards divide Dallas into distinct areas, each with its own style and flavor.

Central Expressway, for example, separates Deep Ellum from downtown Dallas in the east. Deep Ellum derives its name from the way jazz singers and the original residents of the area used to pronounce "Elm" the name of its main street. The area was first settled by freed slaves during the 1860-s, who worked and lived along the railroad tracks. Today, it is an arts and entertainment district for every pocket and taste, and really comes alive after ten o'clock at night. The music from some thirty clubs ranges from original country blues to heavy metal. Shops sell anything from trendy furniture to imported curios. Smells of incense and barbecue permeate the night air.

The atmosphere is entirely different at the downtown Magnolia Hotel, formerly the Magnolia Petroleum Building. Small groups of people sit quietly and enjoy their drinks or newspapers in designer sofas in the second-floor lounge bar. Phyllis Hammond of the Convention and Visitors Bureau says it is a new and trendy hotel in the so-called boutique-hotel line. "Above it is a red rotating Pegasus, the Greek mythology flying horse," she says. "And that is kind of the unofficial symbol of our city."

When it was placed on top of the building in 1934, the glowing shape of the horse, lighted by red neon, was visible for miles. Phyllis Hammond says it came to symbolize the imaginative spirit of the Dallas people. Today, the winged horse is mostly obscured by the new office towers around it. But both Pegasus and the Magnolia Petroleum Building have become protected historical landmarks.

Of all the interesting landmarks, visitors seem to be most attracted to the one that Dallas would rather not have. It is the old Texas School Book Depository on the edge of downtown. From the sixth floor of that building, on November 22, 1963, Lee Harvey Oswald fired the shots "that shook the world" when he killed President John F. Kennedy. For many years, the city tried to ignore or forget those dark moments of its history and the building almost was demolished.

But in the end, the local leaders realized that public curiosity and historical significance demanded an accounting. "If you come to Dallas, you are going to do a few things and one of those is to see the site where President Kennedy was assassinated. That site is Dealey Plaza where the motorcade route took place on Elm Street," says Ms. Hammond. "The building is right adjacent to that, right beside it and so you would point at the building, look up at that window, wonder what's going on up there, but of course it was locked to public access."

Jeff West is the Executive Director of the Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza, devoted to President Kennedy. It opened in 1989, a quarter century after the President's death.

Mr. West says this tribute to the man whose life ended so tragically in their city has helped the people of Dallas restore their feeling of pride.