Fair Park esplanade. (Photo: Michael Cagle/Preservation Dallas)

Fair Park

Are Fair Park’s Struggles a Symptom of Nostalgia Run Amok?

Robert Wilonsky argues that a misguided love of the past is one of the big reasons we can't figure out what to do with Fair Park

Earlier this week, D Magazine hosted a panel discussion about the future of the Trinity River. One of the topics that arose during that discussion was the fact that this city has spent decades planning for a park that has never been built. In fact, when you dig back through the city’s history, it starts to feel like Dallas has been having the same conversation with itself about the Trinity for more than a 100 years: let’s make it better? How do we make it better?

And it is not just the Trinity.

Robert Wilonsky has been doing his own historical digging. Peeling through the Dallas Morning News archives, Wilonsky discovers that Dallas has been having the same conversation about how to fix Fair Park for decades. The headline “Get Dallas Moving: Fair Park presents a major opportunity for city” sounds like the title of an op-ed that could have been published by the paper any time this past year as the city looks into privatizing the management of the campus that hosts the State Fair of Texas each year. That article, however, dates to 1987.

Wilonsky links Dallas’ particular brand of civic déjà vu to the city’s own uncomfortable relationship with its past. On the one hand, Dallas is a place that values the ever-new above all else, and it has been bulldozing its history in the name of progress almost since its founding. On the other hand, the trauma of this historical erasure has left many in Dallas irrationally protective of the few remnants of the past that remain.

Fair Park, and its historic collection of art deco architecture, is the crown jewel of Dallas nostalgia. Wilonsky argues that this attitude is perhaps just as much of an obstacle to Fair Park’s success as are other oft-cited ailments, like the State Fair’s control over the so much of the park’s footprint:

But to move forward, I often wonder if we shouldn’t disabuse ourselves of this idea that Fair Park — 277 acres, most covered in concrete, most empty save for those three weeks in the fall — is sacrosanct, holy ground. Fair Park in 2017 doesn’t look like the Fair Park of 1936 doesn’t look like the Fair Park of 1885 …

But too often it feels as though Fair Park is meant to be frozen in time, a hallowed yesterday we need to schlep undisturbed into tomorrow. That does Fair Park a disservice. And it dooms the surrounding neighborhoods whose fate is tethered to crumbling, seldom-used buildings surrounded by wrought-iron fences.

This is not to say that ensuring the protection of the historic structures of Fair Park shouldn’t be a major priority for the park’s future. In fact, Wilonsky goes a step further than mere preservation, arguing that perhaps the best way to move forward with Fair Park is to rebuild some of the architectural treasures that have been lost from the park and re-imagine their uses. He throws some other worthwhile ideas in there, too – such as turning the Women’s Museum into a culinary school.

It’s an interesting idea, and I would only add one thing to the argument. Sometimes the crippling nostalgia-brain surrounding Fair Park extends beyond the physical space and architecture. There is also a sense among many that the State Fair is likewise sacrosanct, and that changing it in any way – such as limiting the amount of real estate it takes up in the park – would somehow represent an attack on something very close and dear to the very heart of Texas’ kitsch-and-corn-dog identity. I believe it would be anything but. In fact, in my experience of the fair (albeit as an admitted Yankee-born and -bred outsider who still thinks the Texas State Fair Kool-Aid tastes kind of funny) is it is too big, too disorganized, and too disorienting. The entire experience of the fair feels under-considered, as if organizers are so used to simply rolling out the same horse and pony show every year they can’t quite see how the show works anymore.

Big doesn’t mean better. Limitations inspire innovation. We can honor the past without being afraid of the future. As Wilonsky reminds us, these are important things to keep in mind as the city moves closer to a new plan for Fair Park.




  • topham

    I agree that the same old hog and pony show can stand revision. But “… too big, too disorganized, and too disorienting”? You say that like it’s a bad thing. A big part of the fair’s appeal is its weirdness. Being caught in amber is deadly, so the fair does need to evolve. But it would be very bad for the fair to be the victim of its own Dream Team. Let it be shaggy.

  • bmslaw

    Like Fair Park itself, the State Fair has always evolved–it is never the same old dog and pony show (except to those who hate it anyway). The real question for its future is not whether, but how it evolves. That is the discussion that we ought to be having, as a city, not just as the State Fair insiders who put on the show every year. Start with the State Fair’s contract with the City. When do we get to see that? Then move forward from there to reconcile all of the competing interests that want to dictate what the Fair should be for the future. Once we have figured that out, we can get to how the State Fair relates to Fair Park, the historical Fair Park as well as the present Fair Park. Until we figure out what to do with the State Fair, we cannot realistically figure out the future of the Park within which it resides.

  • Bizarro BigTex

    Peter, your background colors your view of this great tradition, as you allude to in your piece. But that is really okay, son. Folks from outside the Lone Star State have difficulty understanding our deep affection for this piece of Texana Tradition, while we overlook its many faults. Does it need to frozen in time? No. Does it need to remain true to its roots? Yes. It is BIG, rough, gaudy, trashy, amazing, showy, ant-egalitarian, disorganized, and a lot of other conflicted descriptors. One thing that underlies analytical pieces done in the past by wise scribes such as yourself is trying to view our beautiful mess through the
    prism of a Disney experience, even if that was not your intent. It is not Disneyland. It is the
    anti-Disneyland. It is helter-skelter, even though an advance schedule is published and promoted. It is a pile of cow poop sitting on a cattle barn aisle until the exhibitor walks back through an hour later, spots it, and shovels it up. It’s questionable midway food and even more questionable games of skill or chance. It’s our State Fair. It’s a great State Fair. Don’t Miss it, don’t even be late. It’s dollars to doughnuts at our state fair. It’s the best state fair in
    the state. And thanks to Rodgers & Hammerstein, along with Pat Boone & Ann Margaret. A movie as wonderfully bad as our Fair, and as enjoyable, in a guilty way. Acres and acres of delightful displays which appear to be laid out by a drunken sailor, with the beautiful old Dowager Queen herself smack in the middle – the Cotton Bowl.

    It’s an anachronism, wrapped in a riddle, under a cloud of mystery. No one knows how it continues to work in this modern age or who is really in charge. But, it is so much fun! And a Fletcher’s Corny Dog never tastes as good as when eaten at the Fair.

    • bmslaw


      And don’t forget that the reason we have a “Fair Park” in 2017, the reason that we had a Centennial in 1936, is the State Fair of Texas.

      • T Balis

        I agree.

  • DubiousBrother

    Just build a new fair park straddling the trinity river just west of downtown. It would be serviced by all the DART lines instead of just one as well as the trains into Union Station. It would bridge downtown with Oak Cliff. It could be designed to have parts of it active year round instead of 3 weeks a year. Attractions like the ferris wheel would be visible to everyone downtown year round. The Cotton Bowl is worthless now. The current Fair Park could be developed to actually benefit the area it is in. Who then would want to build a toll road right through the middle of the State Fair?

  • Happy Bennett

    I miss the bird show. Those parrots and wild birds were very talented.

  • KrazyHorse

    I’m not sure scaling back the size of Fair Park is the answer. During those 3 weeks in the fall the park is packed. I agree the layout of the park is not the best, maybe have an engineer look at it and come up with a better layout. The Music Hall isn’t going anywhere. Preserve the facades of the historic buildings around the Esplanade but update/build new buildings attached to them. With all of the recent renovations and the contract that Texas-OU have, I don’t see the Cotton Bowl going away. The old Coliseum needs to be torn down and a more modern one built. Something along the lines of the Allen Event Center. Someplace that can hold concerts, etc. Maybe put it next to Smirnoff/Starplex and have a mini-entertainment district. Or move Smirnoff/Starplex closer to the Cotton Bowl.
    There is a need to drive foot traffic to the park year round. Put retail on the outskirts, almost like mini outdoor malls. Invest in the area around Fair Park. Make it an area where people want to live without having to have burglar bars on their windows.