A Daily Conversation
About Dallas



SMU Aiming for State Approval to House Local Archaeological Artifacts

| 4 days ago

Archaeology is an exciting topic. There’s the digging, the unearthing of evidence, and the exercise of imagination in reconstructing life on Earth hundreds and thousands of years ago, often based on fragmentary information. Currently there’s a sort of synchronicity occurring around the topic among the Dallas’ academic, cultural, and scientific institutions.

At the beginning of the year, the Nasher Sculpture Center mounted an exhibition titled “First Sculpture: Handaxe to Figure Stone.” The show was comprised of stone artifacts, some dating back more than 2 million years. Director Jeremy Strick said public response to the show was marked by “high visitation, significant repeat visitation, as well as an unusually high number of visitors who had traveled to Dallas expressly to see the exhibition.” One feature of the show that proved especially important, he said, was the ability of visitors to handle several of the objects. “Comments from visitors reflected both a fascination with the objects presented and ideas broached by the show, and an appreciation for the installation.”

Earlier this month, the Perot Museum of Nature and Science reopened the Being Human Hall. It had been one of the original halls that debuted when the museum opened in late 2012. In an effort to keep content “fresh and relevant,” the hall has undergone a complete transformation, said spokesperson Becky Mayad. “The content developed in the exhibit tells a broad human origins story from millions of years ago through present day.” When asked if the Being Human Hall might have room for local archaeology, Mayad responded: “While the focus is on paleoanthropology, we do see the Human Journey more broadly and may address more archaeological and anthropological topics as our programming develops.” For now, museum-goers can view casts of fossil skulls, hands, and feet of some of the earliest human ancestors. In addition, there are a dozen authentic stone tool artifacts on display, some more than 1 million years old.

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Remembering The Knox Street Pub, Dallas’ Home For Counterculture

| 1 week ago

When Sam Wilson acquired the leasehold rights to the old lounge at the corner of Knox and Travis streets on the outskirts of Highland Park in 1967, he took on the project as a lark. He knew nothing about the bar business, but he and his wife, Vi, loved food and drink and entertaining people. They decided to give it a whirl, and what a madcap adventure it turned out to be.

Wilson died at age 83 on April 18. A few weeks prior, he reflected on the decade in the early seventies that he owned the Knox Street Pub (not to be confused with another bar operating under the same name today in a different location). This was the period it became a magnet for artists, writers, actors, musicians, politicians, hippies, college students, and everyday philosophers—folks for which the city of Dallas offered few respites.

In those days, Dallas looked little like it does today in either physical appearance or social structure. Liberal thought tended to be drowned out by conservative ideology, and white culture overshadowed those of blacks, Hispanics, and Asians. Far fewer people lived here, and it grew mostly by transplants arriving from smaller areas of Texas and surrounding states. Most natives thought of Dallas as a big hometown, not a sprawling urban center.

Few settings in Dallas provided a comfortable atmosphere for the expression of new ideas and opposing views. Those few people who came from the Northeast and other regions found a home at the Pub. Wilson’s open-minded philosophy set the stage for his bar to become a rare venue for local residents who embraced progressive political and philosophical thought. There seemed to be a place for everyone at the Pub.

Reporters approached Wilson over the years about sharing his thoughts on the iconic bar, but he demurred for decades. “I just didn’t want to look back,” Wilson said, weeks before his passing. “I enjoyed having been there and doing it, but I don’t talk about it much.” He finally agreed in his last years to sit down and talk about how it all started as a favor to a friend.

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Another Brief Update on One of Dallas’ Oldest Houses, Its New Home in the Cedars

| 2 weeks ago

You’ll recall that last month a historic house in the Cedars was moved to a new lot in the neighborhood, saved from the wrecking ball and set on a path toward a brighter, better preserved future. The two-story home was moved in four pieces, and is gradually being reassembled at the corner of Browder and Beaumont streets. It will be spruced up over the next year, good as old.

In the meantime, its new neighbors have been gathering on the street corner every now and then to watch as the blue house starts to take its old shape in a new place. Preservation brings people together. On Wednesday evening, workers craned most of the second story and plopped it on top. Here’s where we’re at as of Thursday morning:

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Lawsuit Alleges That City Council Violated Free Speech with Confederate Street Vote

| 1 month ago

As Alex wrote earlier, any substantive decision about the future of Dallas’ Confederate monuments will have to wait for another day–likely allowing for a few more parades of historical and racial ignorance like the one the council was subjected to this morning during the open mic session of their meeting.

Not that the council didn’t take any action on Dallas’ links to its Confederate history today. Council members approved section 2 of the agenda item, which provided, “that streets with names linked to the Confederacy shall not be renamed.”

That’s it. So simple. If I’m reading that language correctly, it simply means that from here on out, if there is a street with a Confederate’s name on it, it can’t be changed. Which seems odd, and quite a reversal from last October, when the mayor’s Confederate Monument Task Force recommended the city change the names of a whole bunch of streets that honored less-than-honorable figures of the city’s Confederate past.

The new policy may not hold any weight, as council member Philip Kingston was quick to point out.

“Not only is this a bad idea, it is legally meaningless,” Kingston said. “We can’t bind future councils.”

Nonetheless, the provision passed. And a new citizens group called the Commemoration Committee to Honor Roy Williams and Marvin E. Crenshaw filed a suit yesterday in Federal Court in anticipation of today’s vote, alleging that the ban on renaming streets amounts to a restriction of freedom of speech.

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A Brief Update on One of Dallas’ Oldest Houses

| 2 months ago

Earlier this week in the Cedars, crews started moving a historic blue house, one of the city’s oldest. It’s not going far to its new home at the corner of Browder and Beaumont streets, but when you’re moving a two-story Victorian-style home built in the 1880s, every trip is a long trip. It’s also one that will occur in four parts, as the house had to be quadrisected for its journey.

Part One must have arrived Thursday, because where there was once an empty lot near Lee Harvey’s, there is now a home. Most of the first floor of a home, anyways.

Photo by Alex Macon.

It’s looking pretty good, if you ask me.

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History Demands That Dallas Tears Down Its Confederate War Memorial

| 2 months ago

Tomorrow, the Dallas City Council will revisit the question of its Confederate monuments, months after a task force that deliberated the monuments’ history and significance recommended the removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee from Oak Lawn Park in Uptown and the removal of the Confederate War Memorial adjacent to the Dallas Convention Center. City staff has suggested revising those recommendations, and so the council now has an opening – based mostly on pragmatic questions of cost – to backtrack on the task force’s recommendations, keep the Confederate monument, and turn the entire public process into a sham.

The process was already rushed and insufficient. Mayor Mike Rawlings called the task force in response to growing fear that the many Confederate monuments and statues scattered throughout the American South were becoming totems of a new white nationalist movement. In Charlottesville last year, lest we ever forget, one of these white supremacist/white nationalists drove his car into a crowd of protesters who supported the removal of that city’s Lee statue, murdering a young woman.

In Dallas, the Lee statue was hastily removed, but the larger Confederate memorial still stands. Now city staff suggests it should remain standing because it would be too expensive to move or dismantle. It suggests adding “historical context” to help sort out all the icky-ness of its associations with white nationalism.

If the city staff thinks historical context is sufficient to nullify the monument’s lingering import as a conveyer of another generation’s ideas about the South, Anglo-culture, the Civil War, and the interpretation of its legacy, well, here’s some historical context.

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The 1897 Battle of the Trinity Bridge Jumpers

| 3 months ago

Editor’s Note: This is an accompanying piece to our Lost Dallas package, which you can find here. A shorter version appeared in the print product. 

In 1897, Steve Brodie was so famous that his last name was a slang term. You “did a Brodie.” Your pal “took a Brodie.” “Steve Brodie took a chance, why not you?” Brodie, who lived from 1861 until 1901, was a full-fledged international celebrity who had grown up poor in New York’s rough Bowery area, always hustling for cash, always working an angle.

He became instantly famous in 1886 for jumping off the Brooklyn Bridge (as a stunt) and surviving the 150-foot drop into the East River. It had never been done before, and news of his daring feat was breathlessly reported in newspapers around the world. Fame, adulation, and prodigious amounts of cash followed immediately.

Doubts about whether Brodie had actually made the jump or faked it were raised early on (it is now believed he faked it), but Brodie was practically born a self-promoter. He was canny enough to capitalize on his new-found celebrity that he remained in the public consciousness for the rest of his life.

In the fringe 19th-century daredevil-world of people doing dangerous things like leaping from bridges, Brodie was the only person who had managed to parlay a stunt into a highly lucrative career. When Brodie died in 1901 at the very young age of 39—from consumption, in San Antonio—he left an estate valued at what would, today, be worth about $8 million, all of which could be traced directly back to that famed jump off the Brooklyn Bridge.

Even though Brodie was the only person who had made a lot of money indulging in these early “extreme sports,” that didn’t mean others weren’t keen to try to make their own fortunes following in his footsteps. It is here we fast-forward a decade or so from Brodie’s Splash-Heard-‘Round-the-World to Texas, in 1897. Bridge-jumping was a fading fad, but “Steve Brodie” was still a household name. Devotees of the “sport” continued to dive and jump all around the country.

Out here in the Texas hinterlands, a man by the name of J. B. Wilson (“of New York”) was one of those devotees, traveling from town to town, demonstrating his skill as a high-diver, diving from public bridges. In February of 1897 he was in Waco, diving from the suspension bridge into the Brazos River. A crowd estimated at 5,000 showed up to watch the successful high-dive into what Wilson later claimed was only 18 inches of water. Wilson’s next stop? Dallas.

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Lost Dallas

| 3 months ago

Dallas has always been a transient city, and that lack of rootedness has often led to the misconception that it is a city without much history. Perhaps that is because not many people stick around long enough to learn the history, or those who do tend not to show much interest in it. Ever since John Neely Bryan planted his cabin on the banks of the Trinity River, Dallas has been a city focused singularly on the unspoiled promise of the future, not the inheritance of the past. Ironically, that obsession with the new is one of its oldest and most enduring characteristics.

Dallas’ transience describes not only the inhabitants of the city, but also its physical form. One of the most remarkable aspects of this city’s history is how, in its relatively short 178-odd years of existence, so many neighborhoods were born, evolved, destroyed, replaced, erased again, and remade anew once more—all in the name of striving toward some realization of Dallas’ ideal form. The result of this impetuous preoccupation with building and rebuilding is a city left with few physical markers of a past that, though invisible, continues to shape the present.

In the following guide, we attempt to unearth that lost city. In doing so, what we discover is that Dallas has long been defined by a desire for transformation. The raw prairie was developed into rich cotton fields; a tiny trading post grew into a burgeoning commercial center; a small frontier town became a major center of the cotton, railroad, merchant, oil, and financial industries.

And Dallas’ residents have also long sought to remake themselves against the backdrop of the mythic promise and wide-open possibilities of the American frontier. Cattle ranchers became bankers. Widowed pioneer women became industrialists. Vaudeville theater operators became civic-minded philanthropists, cotton salesmen became tech industry giants.

Dallas is where dentist Doc Holliday became a professional gambler; where Ray Charles made the leap from road-weary musician to superstar; and where poor-as-dirt Depression-era teenagers Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow fashioned themselves into fairy-tale bandits and cult heroes.

A look at the downtown skyline, circa 1945

For Dallas’ transient inhabitants, the land and the city were tools best used at the service of one’s personal ambition, and so it is not surprising that Dallas’ urban form has also endured its own continual overhaul. The prized achievements of the past were plowed under in the name of business, progress, and a new vision of the future.

This was an illuminating, if difficult, project to put together. The discovery of Dallas’ rich cultural, social, and architectural heritage was accompanied by the dejected realization that so much of that history has been lost. It was impossible not to feel alternatively nostalgic, sad, and even angry when coming upon images of lost and forgotten buildings, streets, neighborhoods, shops, clubs, and eateries. It was impossible, too, not to imagine what Dallas could look like today if more respect had been shown to the achievements of previous generations. One could speculate that, had such due been paid, Dallas may have emerged a more confident and self-assured city. It would certainly be a more beautiful city.

But then, had this “lost city” survived, Dallas wouldn’t really be Dallas. In that sense, this is not a story of a lost place. Rather, it is an effort to find in the vanished places of the past a new way of encountering the city Dallas has become.

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New Film Footage of Jack Ruby Surfaces

| 5 months ago

In the huge cache off WFAA archive footage that was recently donated to Southern Methodist University’s G. William Jones Film and Video Collection, a few incredible seconds from a holiday parade in 1960 capture Jack Ruby combing his hair and fixing his hat, while a friend ogles over what is, presumably, a fancy new “spy” camera.

It is an innocuous, forgettable little moment, but one that feels extraordinary given the rarity of film footage from the time that features figures who loomed large in the story of the JFK Assassination.

The clip was posted online Jeremy Spracklen, the collection’s curator, who continues to release segments taken from the WFAA archive of footage shot in Dallas between 1960 and 1978. When commenter Burt Harris watched the 1:22 minute clip, he spotted Ruby at the tail end.

Flashback Dallas’s Paula Bosse takes it from there, posting some slowed-down footage that focuses-in on Ruby and adding context:

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Did Dallas Really ‘Come From Nothing’?

| 6 months ago

This is a thank-you to Edward McPherson, an assistant professor of English at Washington University, in St. Louis. Earlier this year, he published a collection of essays titled The History of the Future: American Essays. McPherson is a gifted writer. I recommend the book. The editors at the Dallas Morning News share my enthusiasm, evident by their decision to reprint a few of the essays that deal with Dallas. In May, one such reprint contained the following paragraph:

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