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A Daily Conversation About Dallas

Books

Why Didn’t La Réunion Survive?

| 2 weeks ago

In 1855, Victor Considérant, a renowned disciple of the French socialist philosopher Charles Fourier, led French, Swiss, and Belgian settlers into North Texas to establish a socialist utopian colony on the banks of the Trinity River. Before coming to Texas, Considérant had been driven into exile in Belgium after a failed insurrection against Napoleon III in 1849. While in exile, he wrote a book called Au Texas, which laid out a vision for an egalitarian society in an untouched corner of the state that Considérant depicted as a new Eden. He raised about $16 million (accounting for inflation) and arranged for the Atlantic passage of hundreds of followers. We know how the story ends. Considérant’s utopian experiment, called La Réunion, failed after 18 months.

La Réunion’s crash is often attributed to the intellectual French settlers’ inability to farm, their ill-preparedness for North Texas’ harsh climate, and financial insolvency. But James Pratt’s new book, Sabotaged: Dreams of Utopia in Texas, challenges these assumptions. Pratt describes a settlement that, despite internal divisions and difficult conditions, managed to establish a beachhead on the west bank of the Trinity that supported about 150 settlers. He also paints a portrait of Considérant as impetuous and underhanded, determined to undermine the success of La Réunion before he even arrived. Pratt’s book raises an intriguing historical “What if?” But for poor leadership, La Réunion could have survived.

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Architecture & Design

Remembering Dallas’ Pioneering Preservationist Virginia Savage McAlester

| 2 months ago

This past weekend Dallas lost a giant. Virginia Savage McAlester passed away from myelofibrosis on April 9. She was 76.

There are many ways to describe McAlester. She was an author, a preservationist, an architectural historian, an activist, the founder and leader of multiple non-profits, and a loyal and dedicated daughter, sister, and mother. McAlester is perhaps best known for her monumental A Field Guide to American Houses, which, after it first appeared in 1984, did nothing less than anoint McAlester as the “Queen of Historic Preservation.” The book has topped architectural best seller lists for so long that, in 2019, Curbed called her the “most popular architecture writer in America.”

But the impact of McAlester’s life extends far beyond her very influential book. In Dallas, she roused the city’s understanding and appreciation of its own architectural history, transforming the city’s conception of itself in the process.

McAlester’s book appeared at a time when, as architectural historian William Seale told the New York Times, developers charged like “wild bulls” over the city’s old neighborhoods.

“When she started broadening her preservation efforts,” Seale said, “few, if any, in Dallas had the slightest interest in historic preservation, thinking their history too new to be worthwhile.”

McAlester’s appreciation of that overlooked history stemmed from the fact that her own life and family were so deeply rooted in it.

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Music

From Lockdown, Bob Dylan Drops 17-Minute Song About the JFK Assassination

| 2 months ago

At midnight, Bob Dylan dropped the longest song he has ever recorded — a 17-minute, stream-of-conscious ballad about the JFK Assassination called Murder Most Foul. As Variety reports, it is the first new release of original material from Dylan since 2012, and why it comes now, we can only guess. Dylan released a cryptic statement with the midnight release that thanks his fans, says he hopes they find the song “interesting,” and tells them to “stay safe, stay observant.”

He leaves it to us to make what we can from the timing of the release. We are all living through a historic pandemic, nearly the entire country is in the midst of a lockdown, and many artists are releasing material or staging online concerts to help boost spirits. Listening to the new song, however, it feels like Dylan is doing more than gifting us with some new entertainment to get us through the lockdown.

The new track is a meandering, “Desolation Row”-style waterfall of free association; cryptic imagery; historical observations; and pop cultural, folkloric, and musical references. Drenched with Dylan’s characteristically wry mix of barbed critique and whimsical irony, the song is an elegy on the JFK Assassination and a meditation on the decline of the American empire. Murder Most Foul is also one of the best songs about Dallas ever written.

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Dallas History

How We Should Think About the Stories We Tell About Dallas

| 3 months ago

At the end of his 900-plus page Texas epic, author Stephen Harrigan comes to grips with the Lone Star State’s immensity. Writing a single-volume history of more than five centuries of Texas “was too much.” “Texas,” Harrigan relents, “was too large, too old.” Perhaps more charitable were the words of Georgia O’Keeffe—the inspiration for Harrigan’s title, Big Wonderful Thing: A History of Texas. Before becoming the exemplar of American modernist painting in the mid-twentieth century, O’Keeffe was the entirety of the art faculty at West Texas State Normal College (now West Texas A&M) in Canyon. Her time in the Panhandle left her convinced that Texas was “the same big wonderful thing that oceans and the highest mountains are.”

For Harrigan—novelist, long-time Texas Monthly contributor, and all-around Texas man of letters—that bigness is a theme. It’s not just the miles upon miles of space and centuries upon centuries of time that prove daunting to cover. It’s the people, too. From the well-known—Sam Houston, Barbara Jordan, and Selena—to the fascinatingly obscure—Isabelle Talon, Satanta, and Fred Carrasco—Harrigan eschews Anglo triumphalism for a more realistic rendering of the white, African American, Hispanic, and Native American communities that populate the state’s history.

But before all that, he starts with the biggest Texan of all.

Harrigan’s entree into 500 years of Texas history is an ordinary autumn morning in Dallas. As the sun rose on October 19, 2012, Big Tex presided over Fair Park just as he had for the previous six decades. By sundown, however, the plus-sized patriarch of Texas’s yearly celebration lay in smoldering ruins.

For Harrigan, when Big Tex met his end in that conflagration, so too did an era in Texas history. The 52-foot tall cowboy was “a symbol of a simpler time” belonging “to a different Texas.” When the new Big Tex took his commanding spot in Fair Park he was “sort of a joke” put up “simply for nostalgia’s sake.” From the beginning the new Big Tex could be little more than an ironic place holder since “it was no longer possible for a single image…to truly evoke the heaving twenty-first-century mix of cultural allegiances and colliding identities that Texas had become.”

It was in that very spot, Harrigan tells us, that some seven decades earlier a group of elite Texans—headed by future Dallas Citizens Council founder R. L. Thornton—attempted to fashion such an image of cohesion amid diversity. Thornton and his coterie of rich and powerful Dallasites brought the 1936 Texas Centennial Exposition to Fair Park—never mind the fact that Dallas hadn’t even existed a century hence when Anglo invaders and their Tejano allies wrested the state from Mexico.

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culture

This Month Marks 25 Years Since Selena Died

| 3 months ago

I was a freshman in high school, sitting in 5th period government class. It was right after lunch. As soon as class began, I overheard a classmate say that while she was driving back to school from eating off campus, a local radio station said Selena died. Soon, the entire class was talking about it.

Back then, the internet wasn’t as ubiquitous as today. There was no place to get instant verified information. Luckily, our classroom had a radio which we quickly turned on and listened as a radio DJ confirmed the news. She was 23 years old. Beyond that, we knew little else. At least, not during the middle of a school day. As that class ended, and we walked the crowded halls to our next period, you could hear the halls buzzing with what had just happened. The entire thing felt surreal. I doubt I’ll ever forget where I was on the day Selena died.

I wasn’t a fan of Selena. I didn’t dislike her, but neither did I listen to her music. And yet, where I grew up in El Paso, it felt impossible not to know who she was. To know her songs, even if one didn’t seek out her music. To know how she smiled and how she danced. To know see she had charisma and see how others wanted to emulate her. Selena and her music were just there.

This year, March 31 will mark 25 years since the day Selena died. She has now been dead longer than she lived. In the last quarter-century, who Selena was has evolved into what she is now. She has become a symbol of identity, inspired murals and festivals. She remains an inspiration to those alive when she sang and danced and to those who only know her from music, videos, memories, and more. And because her popularity is seemingly just increasing decades past her death, Selena is also a commodity.

In this month’s issue of D Magazine, I wrote about Selena. Who she was, how she died, how Latinos in Dallas processed her death, and how—today—people here continue to honor all she represents.

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Dallas History

Tales from the Dallas History Archives: Looking Back at Dallas’ Presidential Visits

| 4 months ago

With the 2020 U.S. Presidential Election only months away, candidates are on the campaign trail once again. Dallas has long been a campaign stop for numerous presidents, whether they were in office at the time, long out of office, or had the presidency in their future. The collections of Dallas Public Library’s Dallas History and Archives Division contain a plethora of presidential pictures spanning party lines and reaching back into the early twentieth century—many of which are available to view in the library’s online catalog.

The photos depicted in the following gallery are indicative of the unique materials found in the archival collections of Dallas Public Library. (Learn more by searching online in the catalog. Go to “Advanced” and use the “Limit By” option to select “Digital Archive” then type in your topic.)

Contact Dallas History & Archives Division at Dallas Public Library at (214) 670-1435 or email [email protected] with questions about the many fascinating photographic resources available.

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Dallas History

Times Uncovers Political Battlefields Hidden in Texas History Textbooks

| 5 months ago

Students in Texas learning about the Harlem Renaissance will read in their high school history textbooks that there were some critics who disparaged the output of the cultural movement. High school students in California will read in their history textbooks that there has been legislation passed over the years that restricts the right to bear arms laid out the second amendment to the Constitution, but that detail is omitted in the Texas version of the exact same textbook.

These are two of the discrepancies between high school textbooks that the New York Times found in an analysis of the books used in Texas and California schools. Their report shows how the highly political process that goes into approving textbooks for American schools can alter the way history is conveyed and interpreted. This isn’t news to anyone who has seen the great documentary The Revisionaries, which takes viewers behind the scenes in the ongoing ideological battles waged over how Texas textbooks are written. Still, the report details how children growing up in different parts of the country will emerge from high school with subtle, if significant differences in how they understand this country.

Here’s how it happens:

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Dallas History

A West Dallas Cemetery Tells the Stories of the Mexican Families Who Built Our City

| 6 months ago

I was working on another story for D Magazineon boxing gyms in Oak Cliff—when I heard of Campo Santo de Cemento Grande. Inside Casa Guanajuato’s boxing gym, among the murals of the Virgen de Guadalupe and idyllic landscapes serving as reminders of home, among the musty heavy bags hanging from the ceiling and faded photographs of old boxers inside cheap frames, there was a picture of Eladio R. Martinez. The Martinezes were one of the original Mexican families in Dallas, Tereso Ortiz, founder of Casa Guanajuato, told me. Around a year later, when I set out to write about them, Eladio’s youngest brother and last surviving sibling, Henry, had recently passed.

I first met Henry Jr. in the Jaycee Zaragoza Recreational Center. He invited me there to have breakfast. Homemade tortillas, refried beans, huevos con chorizo, pan dulce, coffee. Several times a week, anyone can eat a free breakfast there. It is, as Henry Jr. explained, part of the legacy his father left.

While we ate, I explained what I wanted to write. About his family and Campo Santo de Cemento Grande, the cemetery where Eladio lies beside his mother, sister, and uncle. I told him how through his family and that small graveyard, I wanted to tell part of the history of Dallas. About the laborers—Mexicans, in this case—who made cement, the literal substance that helped make Dallas into a modern city. It was dangerous, and at times deadly work. In some cases, the negative health effects did not appear until years later, after living around and breathing in those chemicals.

He agreed. He thanked me for keeping alive the memory of his community. And as he drove me around West Dallas and what once was Cement City, he spoke of what certain landmarks—some historical, others sentimental—meant to him and his family’s history. Campo Santo de Cemento Grande remains especially important. “Before my dad passed away, he said, ‘son, I just want to tell you one thing, take care of my family’s cemetery. That’s very, very important to me.”

It’s where Henry Sr. spent hours at a time. It’s where he wanted to get buried. It’s where his son, Henry Jr., still hopes to bury him. It’s where an unknown, or ignored, part of the area’s history is buried. It’s why I wrote about the Martinez family and the people like them who had—and continue to have—an important, difficult, and under-appreciated role in making Dallas what it is today.

Read it today. It is online now.

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Dallas History

SMU Saves North Texas’ Archaeological History

| 7 months ago

Remember Sunday Eiselt from our 2017 profile of her? She’s a former Marine, archaeologist, professor, and director of SMU’s Archaeological Research Collections (ARC). She’s also our best chance of saving some of North Texas’ oldest, most important history.

Last week I met up with her to tour the ARC facilities, located in Heroy Hall. It’s been a little over two years since our initial interview, and in that amount of time she’s managed an amazing transformation of the three rooms that comprise ARC. What follows is an update, including before-and-after photos. But prior to getting there, give the photo above a look. That’s Eiselt in one of the rooms surrounded by musty brown boxes, each packed to capacity with artifacts, stacked like sardines on shelving on the verge of collapse. In the span of two years a great deal has changed, and she says there are more developments on the way.

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Fashion

How Dallas Saved Fashion History

| 7 months ago

One of the most valuable fashion collections in the nation is housed inside a dusty orange building in Denton, next to the counseling office at the University of North Texas. The structure is little more than 4,500 square feet of concrete and cold air, but its cultural cachet is irreplaceable. The Texas Fashion Collection contains everything from 18th-century coats to modern-day Alexander McQueen dresses, maternity gear to streetwear, couture treasures to home-ec experiments. There are bridal gowns, lingerie, and ceremonial ensembles from indigenous cultures. Accessories include nearly 1,400 pairs of shoes, 2,500 hats, and 750 handbags. Altogether, there are almost 20,000 pieces.

The trove of designer labels includes 387 designs by Hubert Givenchy, 301 by Oscar de la Renta, 151 from the House of Dior, and an impressive 340 by Cristobal Balenciaga. It is believed to be the largest holding of the designer’s work in the world aside from Balenciaga’s own archive.

The seeds of the collection were planted by the Marcus brothers—Stanley, Edward, Lawrence, and Herbert Jr.—who began gathering 20th-century styles, some say, in the late 1930s. They named it in honor of their aunt, Carrie Marcus Neiman, upon her death in 1953. She co-founded Neiman Marcus with their father and had donated pieces from her wardrobe. The brothers made a point of keeping the collection in Dallas, though offers came to take it east. It eventually was put in the care of the Dallas Fashion Group, which bestowed what was then a few thousand garments to UNT’s fashion design program in 1972 to serve as a resource for its students. It has since become a resource for artists, authors, and curators near and far.

Vogue’s Hamish Bowles has visited. So has Akiko Fukai, curator of Japan’s famed Kyoto Costume Institute. André Leon Talley borrowed pieces when he was putting together the posthumous Oscar de la Renta exhibition, as did the Kimbell Art Museum for last year’s blockbuster “Balenciaga in Black.” The Dallas Embroidery Guild recently took a tour, and designers from Dickies stopped by to study denim styles over the decades. Last year, about 3,500 people accessed the collection for one reason or another.

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Dallas History

Tales From the Dallas History Archives: How Latino Communities Shaped the City

| 7 months ago

Historical images of politics, social activism, and community organizing help illuminate the ways in which the Latino community strives to make Dallas a better city with each passing decade. Dallas Public Library’s Dallas History and Archives Division has photos depicting numerous aspects of Latino life in Dallas spanning generations, many of which are available to view in the library’s online catalog.

See how Latino Dallasites played roles in larger historical events. Learn more about Dallas neighborhoods such as Little Mexico, Los Altos, Eagle Ford, and others. View images of local businesses and everyday life such as weddings, students at area schools, churches and religious services, and more.  You might discover a photo of someone you know from the past, whether it’s a friend, relative, or even yourself at a younger age.

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