Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Hiding History,0,570232,full.story#axzz218HL,phgb

Dealey Plaza
Hello Everyone:

We are on our way to 5,000 page views.  Let's keep it going.  I'm optimistic that we can do this.  You all are so supportive of this blog, something I truly appreciate. Yesterday evening I attended a meeting of the West Hollywood City Council in support of designating Tower Records a historic-cultural landmark.  It was exciting.  I was the first public speaker up and my knees were knocking and I was shaking hard but I made through my prepared remarks.  I rocked it. Unfortunately, the motion was denied but nonetheless, I loved it.  It aint over until the wrecking ball shows up, so stay tuned.  On to a more serious topic,  in time for the fiftieth anniversary of the assassination of John F. Kennedy, the thirty-fifth President of the United States of America on November 22, 1963, Los Angeles Times architecture critic Christopher Hawthorne takes a trip to Dallas, Texas to the site of the event to give us his observations.  The title of his article is "Dealey Plaza: A place Dallas has tried long to avoid and forget."  The key point in this article is the association of memory and place.

Historic image of Dealey Plaza (date unknown)
Dealey Plaza was not always place associated with a tragic event with epic ramifications.  The plaza is named for George Bannerman Dealey, the longtime publisher of the Dallas Morning News.  It was built when the Trinity River, which used to flow near this part of Dallas, was re-routed behind a series of levees.  This move was part of a broader planning project begun after a particularly severe flood in 1908 opened the western edge of the downtown for new development.  The plaza is a strange combination of high-traffic intersection, part gateway to the city, part flood-control project, and part accidental historical monument.  Dallas' official JFK Memorial was designed by architect Philip Johnson and completed in 1970.  The memorial curiously sits 200 feet to the east of the actual place where the assassination took place, behind a red-brick county courthouse.  The reason I say curious will become apparent in a short while.  The modest two-part project to restore the plaza's New Deal-era landscape and pergolas is almost finished.  However the restorations don't give the space any real sense of coherence.  When the crowds gather on Friday, they'll be standing in space that's more automobile than pedestrian orientated-one that many Dallas residents try their very best to forget.

Ghosts of Dealey Plaza
Dealey Plaza was designed in the 1930s by the firm of Hare & Hare as part of the Works Project Administration program and dedicated in 1935.  The actual site is the confluence of Elm, Main, and Commerce Streets which meet at the a bottom of the hill, where they run underneath a railroad bridge to form what has come to be known as the "triple underpass."  The open space between the streets, partially landscapes, stands white concrete pergolas and two small fountains.  In the wake of the assassination of the thirty-fifth president,  Elm Street, located on the northernmost edge of the wedge-shaped plaza became its focal point.  This focal point occurs rather awkwardly in the middle of a busy three-lane road that traffic officials have very little, if any, interest in closing off to cars.  Their reason is part practical, it's a main traffic artery.  More important in understanding why Dallas wants to forget this moment in time, it's connection to the killing of a president and it's implications for the city's reputation.

Aerial photograph of Dealey Plaza
When President Kennedy toured the Lonestar State in 1963, anger over his agenda and federal government overreach was growing throughout Texas.  Sounds familiar.  The shooting confirmed the fact that there was a deep reserve of hostility just below the seemingly calm and prosperous Dallas society.  Residents were tired of their city being known as a "city of hate."  In the succeeding years, Dealey Plaza languished. The cars kept moving along the infamous interaction as a statement to the world that the city keeps moving on.  The Book Depository, where Lee Harvey Oswald lay in wait with rifle poised, was nearly torn down before a group of Dallas residents rallied to save it.  The Sixth Floor Museum, an institution dedicated to the president and the assassination, opened in the building in 1989.  Other than that, very little has been done at street level.  The pergolas chipped and cracked over time.  According to Niccola Longford, the executive director of the Sixth Floor Museum, "As the city grew, Dealey Plaza became the site of neglect...[I think] it was reinforced by the fact that the site told the story of a very sad time that Dallas has found it difficult sometimes to remember and confront."

Dealey Plaza with grassy knoll
Dealey Plaza has become a tourist attraction, attracting a million visitors every years, two-thirds of them are from outside Texas.  Morbid curiosity I guess.  As a sign of things, in March 2013, an appellate court ruled that the First Amendments gives vendors the right to set up souvenir stands in the plaza and sell assassination-related memorabilia.  You can draw your own conclusions.  Despairing over the state of benign neglect, "It's a site that's well know throughout the world.  Our visitors don't understand why it looks the way it does."  The landscape areas on both sides of Elm Street, which includes the equally infamous "grassy knoll," is frequently populated by conspiracy theorists.  One of the theorists is Robert Groden, who reportedly was the first person to draw the white X to the street, to indicate the place where President's limousine was driving when the shots rang out.

John F. Kennedy Memorial
The Philip Johnson designed memorial symbolizes the city's reluctance to commemorate the assassination.  The memorial consists of a spare cenotaph (open tomb), originally intended to be built in marble was, instead, built in cheaper concrete.  The location of the memorial is curious because its 200 feet east of the actual site inferring that city is hiding the history of that sad day.  "Everyone in town wanted to get away from Dealey Plaza," said Judith Segura, a local historian who helped lead the fund raising campaign to repair the site.  "They didn't want the memorial to be right there.  They thought that would be ghoulish."  Dallas-based architects Good Fulton & Farrell created a master plan to restore the plaza in 2001.  Recent work has been carried out and partially paid for by the city, putting the total amount spent at about $25 million.  "We really had to shame the city into it," added Ms. Segura.  "We went to the city and said, 'Look, we're going to be the focus of worldwide attention in 2013."  Eventually, civic officials decided to restore the pergolas and fountains to their original appearance and the landscape: the oak trees and the grassy knoll to resemble their look on that day in November.  By Dallas standards, it's progress, sort of.

Dealey Plaza National Historic Landmark plaque
Christopher Hawthorne speculates that had President John F. Kennedy been shot inside a building, that building would've been razed by now-like the Book Depository nearly was.  In a like manner, the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles, California, where Robert F. Kennedy was shot and killed by Sirhan Sirhan was demolished by the Los Angeles Unified School District.  Perhaps for the sake of the collective national conscience and historic preservation that, by a stroke of luck, that the assassination happened in a seemingly banal place.  On a more personal note, your truly was born on November 22, not the same year.  I've always been self-conscious about that date because of its connection to a national tragedy.  Over the years I've learned to own that date and make it a day of celebration of the past year and to look forward to the future.  I hope that, one day, the city of Dallas will be able to embrace this moment in history and look forward to the future.

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