Dallas Now: Trying to Forget

Tourists still gawp at the grassy knoll, but today’s city is an entirely different place to the Dallas of 1963

Everyone who visits me in Dallas wants to check out the place I’ve come to take for granted. “Can we go see the Grassy Knoll?” I already see it several times a week and I’ll give you directions. But I’m not eager to rub shoulders with the shutter-snapping ghouls and conspiracy vendors down in Dealey Plaza.

It’s a strange feeling, knowing that your city’s primary tourist attraction is a site of historical shame. It’s been even stranger the past couple weeks as tourism and media attention have ramped up for the 50th anniversary of the Kennedy assassination.

"I've never seen it this busy," says Darwin Payne, who covered the assassination for the now-defunct Dallas Times Herald. Payne was the first reporter to learn of the Zapruder Film, which shows the moment JFK was shot; he even made an offer to purchase it on behalf of his employer. Now 76, he's professor emeritus of communication at Southern Methodist University. I moved to Dallas from San Francisco in 1996. I like the place – the weather, the people, the easy lifestyle, the nightlife, the infusion of youth that has made the city a more exciting place. As an arts and lifestyle writer for the Dallas Morning News I've had a front row seat for the media feeding frenzy which, by obligation, the Dallas Morning News has led. I'm pretty sick of it at this point. The craning masses are clogging up my commute, and the reminiscences are taking up precious copy space. But I'm also grateful for the chance to think about how much the city has changed since – and in some cases because of – the assassination.

Some take the view of Peter Landesman, director of the recent JFK assassination movie Parkland: "It could have happened in Chicago or Miami, where other people wanted to kill him. It happened in Dallas because that's where Lee Harvey Oswald was." But no sentient person can deny Dallas was overflowing with right- wing vitriol in 1963.

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We had Bruce Alger, a frothing Kennedy hater, as a congressman. And that was just the start. As my colleague Scott K Parks has written, "the John Birch Society designated Dallas a regional headquarters and opened a bookstore here. The society preached that Franklin D Roosevelt, Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower – among many others – were willing dupes of the Communist Party."

When United Nations ambassador Adlai Stevenson visited a little over a month before the assassination, a volatile crowd heckled him and a woman bonked him over the head with a picket sign. The city was largely controlled by an arch-conservative power structure that pounded out a thundering Cold War beat. "If you looked at what was going on, it felt like a city of hate," says Quin Mathews, Dallas native and maker of a new documentary, City of Hate.

When a nutcase killed the president, as Payne puts it, "We learned a lesson about extremists and their influence." The moderate Democrat Earle Cabell, who was mayor at the time of the assassination, claimed Alger's congressional seat. Other Democrats rode Johnson's presidential coat tails in the 1964 local elections. The city undertook a massive image rehabilitation campaign, with department store magnate Stanley Marcus creating an ad headlined "What's Right With Dallas?" that ran in national newspapers on New Year's Day, 1964.

Other changes have been less conscious, more gradual. Today many Texans look down on Dallas as just another big cosmopolitan city, with all the shifting demographics that implies. The Oak Lawn area is home to one of the largest gay communities in the country. The sheriff of Dallas County, Lupe Valdez, is a Democrat and lesbian raised by migrant farm worker parents in San Antonio. She's not a political anomaly: Barack Obama won Dallas County handily in the 2008 and 2012 presidential elections. That's the city now preparing to commemorate its moment of shame.

Payne has been here for every major anniversary since 1963, and he hopes this will be the last one of consequence – a purging of pity and fear. “I have the feeling the 50th anniversary will be the culmination of it,” he says. “I think the events of 1963 will start to fade into history.”


Chris Vognar is Movie Critic for The Dallas Morning News. Follow him on Twitter at @chrisvognar.