The changing face of ‘the city of hate’

Dallas is determined to move beyond its stigmatisation as the city where President John F Kennedy met his death.

DALLAS- In a place once described as a ‘city of hate’ it’s hard to miss the messages of love popping up all over the place.

Across Dallas, in 65 locations, from empty shop windows and shopping centres, to hospitals and airports, the bright, colourful and creative bursts of rectangles are an attempt to escape the shadow of one of America’s darkest days and the killing of a President.

School children, amateur artists, even prisoners from the local jail – more than 20 thousand people in total – were asked to contribute their images and ideas of love.  For those who didn’t know about the events of fifty years ago and the assassination in Dallas of President John F Kennedy, they were told the story and the anger that swept towards Texas from people who somehow held the city responsible.

Karen Blessin, the Executive Director of the Dallas Love project and an artist herself, took me to the Parkland Hospital on the edge of the city.  It was to here where the fatally wounded President was rushed for treatment.  On the walls were striking images of hope and love quotes from Gandhi and John Lennon. 

She tells me: “While the connection between JFK’s assassination and Dallas will never be erased, we intend for the Love Project to change that narrative a little bit so that, in the scope of talking about that, the world knows that within Dallas there were thousands and thousands and thousands of people who believe that love and compassion thrive here.”

A city stigmatised

A short drive back into town takes me to Dealey Plaza, the location of the assassination.  It’s the first time I’ve ever been but the layout seems familiar, having seen it so often.  It looks smaller than I expected.  It’s easy to imagine the open top car as it cuts through the cheering crowds, down along South Houston Street, the tight hairpin turn into Elm Street and on down the hill under the bridges and away.

For a city that for so long tried to ignore the day JFK came to town and a dream, an ideal, a hope was ended it’s now trying to make the Plaza look more like November 1963.  Street lamps have been restored, even the famous grassy knoll has had a makeover.

At one point, the city discussed knocking down the brown brick Dallas School Book Depository, the building where Lee Harvey Oswald took position and fired.  On the sixth floor, on the north east corner, with its unrestricted view over Elm, the place where the assassin fired his three shots which changed the world is now protected behind glass.  The cases of books are arranged exactly as they were in 1963.

The rest of the floor is taken up with a museum where people can learn more about the events of that day, and the stain it left for months and years to come. The Curator is Stephen Fagin who has been interested in JFK’s final visit since he was a small boy. He knows the city has shied away from marking the event in years gone by, but believes now the time is right for Dallas “to share with the world its respect of President Kennedy and its need to memorialise this tragic event”. 

He believes the city suffered unnecessarily.  

“Other dreadful events were never tied to the place the way the assassination was to Dallas.  It took decades of the city to emerge from that stigma”.

A need to share

In 1963 Dallas was strongly conservative, deeply religious, and there were many angry at the young President.  It’s a different time, and Dallas now is a different place.  From his office high above the city, James Oberwetter remembers where he was the day Kennedy was killed. He was in a history class at University of Texas.  One of his classmates was missing but they figured Linda Bird Johnson had gone to Dallas to visit her father, the Vice-President, Lyndon B Johnson. 

As James emerged from class, he heard the dreadful news and then with his friends, he went to lower the union flag on campus to half-staff.  As the head of Dallas District Chamber of Commerce, he has seen the physical transformations in the city the new arts district, the opera house, the parks.  But he knows the fundamental structure has altered too.

“Growth just naturally changed things. There has been a huge influx in terms of immigration, a change in culture,  change in politics. It used to be totally republican, now it’s democratic.  People forget two years before the President came to the city and received a spectacular welcome. We are much more familiar with the world than we were at that time”. 

All around Dealey Plaza people gather and talk. The tour guides with their books discuss the second by second unfolding of events. There are those who advance their conspiracy theories, the unexplained people or movements, the man with the umbrella, the look from Jackie Kennedy, all fodder for discussion.

I asked Stephen Fagin who was responsible. He tells me the museum presents the evidence and allows people to make up their own minds. If he has a theory, he isn’t sharing.

And in the snatched pieces of overheard conversations, people remember where they were when Kennedy died, or where their parents were or how the people around them reacted. They feel the need to share, they want to share. 

For many the assassination of John F Kennedy defined a generation. Dallas is determined that no longer will it define a city.

Follow Alan Fisher on twitter @AlanFisher

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