This is a sad corner of Dallas, a small part of America that belongs to everyone. We all left a part of our lives here. To the memory of JFK, a man of hope.”
Those words were scrawled by a woman from England in the guest book at the Dallas County Administration Building, nee the Texas School Book Depository. She, like thousands of tourists before her, had made the pilgrimage to the place where President Kennedy was struck down in the prime of his life. Their comments, and hundreds of others in the guest register, are poignant and revealing. Many offer emotional testimony to the remarkable grip Kennedy had on the world’s minds and hearts. Some chide Dallas for not commemorating the tragedy with greater ceremony.
Now, twenty-five years after that day, we are in the process of developing a place that memorializes the assassination. The Sixth Floor Museum will open around President’s Day this coming February. It has not been a smooth process, and not just because of the ductwork that had to be ripped out and reworked. The very concept of a museum built around a bloody killing is offensive to some. A brief flap erupted last spring, when an official with the Kennedy Library in Massachusetts came, saw, and left expressing his revulsion at the whole idea.
I admit that I winced when I read newspaper accounts of the official’s reaction, and I wondered whether the city of Dallas would be branded yet again as boorish and insensitive. I would guess that almost everyone who grew up in Dallas, or who lived here in 1963, shares my difficulty in peeling away the layer of self-consciousness that developed in the aftermath of the Kennedy assassination. Insecurity colors my reaction to such criticism even now, a quarter-century later.
But despite the discomfort inherent in institutionalizing a violent act, the effect of the assassination on people is real. In many ways, the new museum belongs to the world, and to history, more than it belongs to Dallas. But I suspect that many Dallasites may also be ambivalent about traipsing through an exhibit that recalls in vivid detail the horror that so touched the world. And (he Kennedy tragedy did not just touch Dallas-it manhandled it, battered it, shook it to the very core.
We have not chosen to engage in much public dialogue on the blame that followed. The world’s furor fell upon Dallas so surely and swiftly that it knocked us flat. Face down, where it hurts.
Sure, we developed strategies to rebuild Dallas in a positive image. We set out to show the world that we could grow intelligently, desegregate peacefully, manage efficiently. The pain of the assassination was arguably the driving force at City Hall for the next twenty years. Much good has come of it.
But even a two-bit psychotherapist like Lucy can tell you what happens when you work too quickly and too quietly to turn something painful into something positive. Eventually you must acknowledge the pain, accept it, wrestle with it, and move on.
That happened to author Lawrence Wright sometime around the 20th anniversary of Kennedy’s death. Wright’s personal history of the era, the assassination, and its bruising hold on Dallas begins on page 62. Five years ago, Wright began to feel that “a lot of that history had been either buried, repressed, or forgotten.” Though he was in high school at the time of the assassination, Wright had vivid memories, not only of that day in November, but of the preceding years when ugly politics aired regularly on the 6 o’clock news.
The task, Wright reports, was a difficult one. “The thing was so hard to write about. And the most painful part to deal with was the feeling of shame I felt being from Dallas. I wanted to look at why that had happened. I guess I was ready to look at who I am.”
Some people will be sorry that we chose a public airing of what has lain dormant for many years. But I think Dallas is ready to look at who it is-and possibly even who it is not.
FOR SURE, DALLAS GOT ADVICE FROM SOME UNLIKELY PLACES back then. And one of the oddest was a prescription from Esquire magazine in June 1968. Titled “Dallas is in Exile,” the magazine’s writers blamed Dallas’s psychological isolation on its “horrible distinction” of being known by most of the world as the place where Kennedy was shot. Grudgingly, Esquire acknowledged the fact that the assassination site would continue to attract conspiracy buffs and gawking tourists for years to come. So the writers stopped short of calling for the razing of the School Book Depository. But they did offer Dallas some friendly advice: do everything in your power to divert attention away from the assassination and toward other, more promising assets. One of those assets was our downtown, which was described as “one of the world’s cleanest, most productive downtowns.”
At that time, a plan for modernizing the Central Business District had been drafted by urban planner Vincent Ponte, whose chief complaints were that the city had too many parking lots and too few trees. We’re here to tell you that, twenty years later, we still have too much concrete and not enough green.
But since that time, the wish list for downtown has grown in the face of uncertainty over whether downtown will serve as the city’s heart into eternity. A quiet debate over the fete and future of downtown is brewing in light of new statistics projecting that ever-increasing numbers will live and work in the suburbs.
At the same time, planners and visionaries are busily dreaming up a fantastic future for downtown that will, it is hoped, stem that distressing flow to the north and south. By the year 2020, downtown could be sporting new parks and boulevards, a waterway through the West End, a cultural district on a par with New York’s Lincoln Center, apartment buildings and low-rise condos, a baseball stadium, a festival marketplace near the Farmer’s Market, and much, much more. We have outlined this enticing vision, spelled out our support for it, and offered an action plan for getting it done (see page 73).
That’s the enduring spirit in Dallas-dogged determination to make progress happen. If we add to that resolve a willingness to face up to the costs along the way. we greatly reduce the risk of the world’s misunderstanding us again.