Julia R. Barton
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9.25.14

Port of Dallas Annex

I have been gathering history on the Trinity River since I was at graduate school in Iowa City in the late 1990s. I’d cross the Iowa River every day at the University of Iowa. Yes, the river sometimes flooded campus, causing our professors to make jokes about opening up riverboat gambling casinos in their offices. But that was the price to pay for living near the river. It was not surrounded by high earthen levees in some remote spot. You could stand on a bridge and space out watching the water flow beneath, something almost unimaginable n Dallas. So I went back to Dallas for a semester to figure out why that was. And that’s when I fell into this historical sinkhole, the story of what Dallas has done to its river in pursuit of navigation.

What follows are some documents/photos that didn’t make it into my Port of Dallas story for the podcast 99% Invisible.

The photo above shows the course of the old Trinity River, which now collects run-off or is buried completely as it passes by downtown Dallas. But note the one high span on the bridge above. This is the Houston Street Viaduct, opened in 1912 to withstand all kinds of flooding, such as the one that had inundated Dallas four years earlier. The high span is to allow boats underneath, but the boats never came, even after the river was moved. So ghost bridge over ghost river alongside…

The Fuel City corral. I don’t know why this fantastic truck stop/car wash/taco stand also features long-horn cattle and donkeys and zebras grazing along the levees. But it does, and Dallas is better for it.

So back to the beginning. This plaque on Dealey Plaza talks about the founding of Dallas at this spot (yeah…I know) on the banks of the Trinity River. It doesn’t explain why there’s no Trinity River in sight here now.


The river’s gone from downtown because of this project shown below. I copied this schematic from The Engineering News-Record, Nov. 21, 1929 (musty & bound on the University of Iowa library shelves!). Note the X-Y plan to bury the part of the river that went near downtown.


Dealey Plaza is a little north of Union Station noted on the map. Here’s a before/after of the Triple Underpass being built at the base of Dealey Plaza. (photo scanned from my crumbling copy of “35,000 Days in Texas” by Sam Acheson, 1938).

I am not completely sure, but the curving dirt road in the top photo seems to correspond with the bend in the Trinity that would’ve been buried at that spot.

Here below is the river-moving in progress, from an aerial photograph (held in Dallas Public Library archives) taken south of downtown Dallas, which is in the far upper right. The levees on the west side of the new channel have been built but not the eastern side. New concrete bridges are marching across the floodplain.

There, now you know a lot more about the Trinity than I did growing up in Dallas!

9.24.14

Port of Dallas

99% Invisible
Episode 133: Port of Dallas

There’s a photograph we have tacked to our studio at 99% Invisible HQ. The photo, taken 1899, shows three men, all looking very fashionable, suspended mid-air on the lifted arm of a giant dredging machine.

There are plenty of images like this from this era—scenes of people standing around proudly as they shaped the earth. And in these old photos there seems to be a real sense of awe and reverence for the marvels of civil engineering.

The above photo is a scene from the reversal of the Chicago River (see episode episode #86, true believers!). The reason that photo is famous—or at least famous enough for us to have seen it—is because the reversal of the Chicago River was an enormous engineering project that was successful.

But you have to figure that there were countless other photographs depicting similarly-awe-inspiring feats of engineering prowess that we have never seen—because those feats turned out to be failures.

This is a scene from of another feat of civil engineering: the creation—or the attempted creation—of the Port of Dallas.

In 1892, the good ship Snag Boat Dallas of Dallas was employed to clear debris (called “snags”) out of the Trinity River in order to make the river navigable to ships. Dallas, it was imagined, it could be a port city to the Gulf of Mexico.

Dallas, though, is about 300 miles to the Gulf as the crow files. With all the Trinity River’s twists and turns, it’s actually more like 700 miles of river.

Still, the Snagboat Dallas of Dallas was able to clear the river well enough to allow the passage of another well-named boat, the steamship H. A. Harvey, Jr.

When the H. A. Harvey, Jr. arrived in Dallas in 1893 from the Gulf of Mexico, the city went berserk. The front page of the newspaper was printed in red ink because they were ecstatic to be becoming a port city. But the Trinity River still was not easily navigable.


Dallas convinced Congress to survey the river and figure out where locks and dams could help make it navigable. The Army Corps of Engineers finished the first lock and dam in the early 1900s at a site 13 miles below Dallas. But eventually Congress shelved the project. The locks and dams that had already been built moldered.

Then, in 1908, the Trinity River flooded, and made a mess of Dallas. As a result, Dallas hired esteemed urban planner and landscape architect George Kessler. The so-called “Kessler Plan” would transform the Trinity River into a straight channel about a half-mile west of its existing course through Dallas. Levees would contain the new channel and open up miles of floodplain for development right next to downtown. Not all of the Kessler Plan came to pass, but the river was diverted and channeled into a 26 mile canal.

In a a series of fits and starts over the next 55 years, the Port of Dallas project kept moving forward. In anticipation of the imminent navigability of the Trinity River, new freeway bridges constructed over the river were built extra tall to allow sea-going vessels clearance underneath.But by the time the money and political clout was ready to finish the project once and for all, Dallas didn’t really need a seaport. The new DFW airport would do just fine.

So the city of Dallas moved their river from the center of town to a walled-off floodplain for a Port of Dallas which never came to pass, and for years the diverted river festered; it became a place to dump sewage, and trash, and even dead bodies. No one went there on purpose.

But now, things are finally starting to change. The Trinity is becoming a public green space. Making the diverted river easily accessible for public use is a huge urban-planning challenge for Dallas. But little by little people are starting to use the river. There are some trails for bikes and walking, and you can even take a kayak trip.

Reporter (and native Dallasite) Julia Barton has been obsessed with the Trinity River for way too long. She spoke with Dallas historian Darwin Payne; and filmmaker Rob Tranchin, who produced Living With The Trinity.

Dallas-born actor William Jackson Harper stepped in as the voice of Trinity River boosterism.

11.24.12
10.05.12
12.23.11
9.16.11

Third Coast

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THIRD COAST INTERNATIONAL AUDIO FESTIVAL

Title: Dallas, Pitiless Universe

Produced: Julia Barton

Presented: TCF/WBEZ 91.5, USA, 2011

Read More

6.02.11
3.14.11
3.14.11
3.14.11
3.11.11

Been There, Done That

For supporters of an improved and expensive Trinity River, everything old is new again

By Julia Barton

Let’s start with a round of Trivial Pursuit: What year is it? The voters of Dallas have recently approved a multimillion-dollar bond issue to tame the Trinity River, which threatens to flood large swaths of the city. The work has already begun, but some civic groups are grumbling that the whole project is nothing more than a boondoggle for powerful interests, including higher-ups at The Dallas Morning News, who own cheap land in the floodplain. The same men also want to turn the riverbed into a thoroughfare, though they promise, paradoxically, that it will soon hold a park filled with trees and bluebonnets and pretty lakes. An opposition paper takes up the protesters’ cause, and the ensuing feud starts to smell worse than the river on a hot night. 

OK, what year is it? 2000? 2002? Try 1930.

The history of Dallas and its river seems custom-built to uphold that old, cynical cliché: The more things change, the more they stay the same. Some people can make serious money from things staying the same. The trick is getting people to think they’re changing.

Thus, welcome to the AT&T TrinityFest this Fourth of July. The organizers, a three-month-old group called Trinity Commons, are spending close to a million dollars on the event, scheduled Thursday at the Houston Street viaduct and a couple of parking lots around Reunion Arena. Musicians Randy Travis, the Commodores and La Mafia are to entertain the crowd, followed by massive fireworks over the riverbed.

It sounds fun enough. But Trinity Commons board member County Judge Lee Jackson admits the underlying goal of the festival is essentially political: to keep up public support for $246 million worth of Trinity-tinkering that city voters approved in 1998. He knows many Dallasites are only faintly aware of the river, and he wants them to get a little closer.

"If we have a large crowd looking at fireworks, many of those people will be in the river basin on foot for the first time in their lives," Jackson says. "It looks different from that vantage point. They’ll see how wide it is."

And why is wide important? Because the fireworks gawkers will see, Jackson hopes, how the 1,800 to 2,000 feet between the levees could hold not only a lake, a series of trails and baseball fields and other amenities, but also an eight-lane, high-speed toll road.

Oh, yeah, and a river.

That would be the same river that, since it drains an area the size of Connecticut, fills its floodplain like a wall-to-wall bathtub when too much rain comes. That doesn’t seem to be happening this year, so people at the festival probably will be treated to the Trinity’s usual state, which is more like a big, muddy creek.

Judge Jackson, something of a history buff, is tapping into an old river-party tradition. Citizens of yore were invited down to the water to cheer on all kinds of things, from steamboats to dredging machines to—far less pleasantly—public hangings.

Now that the water is walled off behind 30-foot levees, it’s a little less convenient for such events. Still, check out TrinityFest. Just take a stroll down the city’s memory lane first. We’re talking Repressed Historical Memory Lane, a very important place when it comes to the Trinity, because if enough people went down there, things might change for real.

True or false: The seven miles Dallas calls its segment of the Trinity River is not, geologically speaking, a river at all.

True, if by river, you mean a conduit that water creates as it drains over the earth. What we have in Dallas is the “Trinity Floodway,” a 1920s-era, man-made civil engineering project built by sweaty guys and bulldozers. As for the actual Trinity River, the one made over centuries by nature? That’s now a wide runoff ditch that winds behind places like the Anatole Hotel and strip bars on Industrial Boulevard, or it’s buried beneath highways and railroads.

Certainly, a city messing up a river is not unique to Dallas. Chicago made its river run backward; Cleveland set its on fire. New Orleans gets the Army Corps of Engineers to spend millions of dollars controlling the Mississippi’s natural urge to leave Fat City low and wet. Meanwhile, Los Angeles paved its river into aconcrete sluice so it could terrorize Jack Nicholson in Chinatown.

But no other city has been so shaped by messing-up-its-river dreams that never actually happened. Yes, we have a floodway, and you will read how all that came about. But that was just a small part of a mightier dream: the great inland Port of Dallas. By now, we should have barges gliding under our soaring river bridges (many of which are, in fact, built to accommodate barges). Hell, we should have riverboat casinos down on Industrial.

The effort to make the Port of Dallas real has, over the years, enlisted seemingly everyone the city’s ever named a freeway, park, downtown street or log cabin after. Fewer than 30 years ago, these folks were still talking seriously about things like docks in South Dallas and a 98-mile pipeline that would pump 80 million gallons of Trinity water a day back upstream to keep the canal between Fort Worth and Dallas from getting too polluted.

And none of that sounded any more fantastic to residents back then than does the recent offer of a $6 million “anonymous donation” for a Spanish-designed river bridge the city wants real bad. All the city has to do in return, Mr. Anonymous has stipulated, is approve that multimillion-dollar toll road along the levees.

To appreciate that kind of move, you need what few Dallas residents, many of them newcomers, seem to have, and that’s a knowledge of local history.

With that, maybe you could have a freeway in your family name someday. Odds are Secret Donor Man already does.

First we need hop in the Way Way-Back Machine to 1841. That’s when Tennessee lawyer John Neely Bryan built a lean-to shack on a bluff above what was then a twisting Trinity River. Bryan didn’t just plunk down his stakes at random. The bluff was only a mile from another to the west across a muddy floodplain, and this was where Indians crossed the river some tribes called Arkikosa.

Bryan envisioned more coming through his settlement than Indians and Army troops on their way to slaughter them. He expected boats to arrive in Dallas from the Gulf Coast. French utopians who settled the other side of the river expected the same. But the Upper Trinity wasn’t exactly boat-friendly, especially after settlers began deforesting Texas. Besides running too low half the year, its many bends held huge rafts of deadwood and debris called snags. The story goes that Bryan tried clearing the river by setting a snag on fire, but all it did was smolder for a year.

Still, Dallas entered the world filled with nautical enthusiasm. The steamboat excitement peaked in 1893 when, after much snag-battling, the H.A. Harvey made it to Dallas from Galveston. One local bridge had to be raised with crowbars so the boat could shove its way under, but the town was ecstatic. The Dallas Morning News printed its entire front page in red to celebrate the steamboat’s arrival, and a mob of residents turned out for a parade and free barbecue.

Notably, these early boats didn’t come to Dallas because it was lucrative to do so. They were commissioned by various groups of local businessmen who wanted a way to compete with monopolistic railroads. More than that, the businessmen believed no inland city could become a commercial powerhouse without a river port. And at the turn of the last century, they were right.

All the boat-boostering finally paid off in 1902, when the businessmen, organized as the Trinity River Navigation Co., convinced Congress to appropriate funds for a series of locks and dams. But World War I put a halt to the project after only nine dams, and by 1921, the feds had decided the whole thing was a colossal waste of money.

"The locks and dams along the river stood deserted and moss covered. The boats on the river either rotted or fell to pieces in the water or were sent by their owners to happier rivers where navigation already existed," sulks a 1930 booklet, Trinity River Canalization, by one E.H. Brown. But Brown, writing on behalf of the newly formed Trinity River Canal Association, had only begun to rage.

"Only tombstones rewarded most of those courageous spirits who had fought so valiantly for a lost cause," he goes on. "And, just as it had done before the white man came to Texas and wrested an empire from the wilderness, the Trinity River—muddy, unclean and turtle-infested—wound sluggishly between its banks in sullen victory."

Sluggish a lot, maybe, but the Trinity is also a first-rate flooder. You’d think John Neely Bryan might have noticed that after floodwaters washed away his first lean-to. But that didn’t stop him from founding his port-town-to-be on what was essentially an island in a confluence of prairie storm-drainage channels. Big floods gushed over the area in 1844, 1866, 1871 and 1890, but the intervening years were long enough for settlements to crop up on the lowlands. Dallas had prospered its way across the floodplain by 1908, when heavy storms caused the Trinity to rise more than 20 feet out of its banks.

Classic urban flood devastation ensued. Water submerged thousands of homes, knocked out telephone lines and cut off power to the city. It also washed away bridges, some with people on them, to the horror of spectators who watched from afar.

The record flood scarred Dallas for good, and residents today still live in a city shaped by the event. The city was not going to move out of the river’s way, no matter how badly it was situated. The river would have to move instead.

After the flood, Dallas Morning News vice president and general manager, George Bannerman Dealey, began organizing business leaders to commission a city plan to control the river and bring order to Dallas’ messy, frontier sprawl. The Chamber of Commerce hired George Kessler, a Dallas native who’d become a city planner in Kansas City. Kessler came up with an ambitious plan for Dallas, one that included wide new boulevards, lots of fountains and parks, and orderly streets. Most of it seemed to bore city leaders. But he also proposed something they liked: digging a new channel for the Trinity west of the river’s natural winding course, then walling it off between giant levees.

The thing is, Dealey and many other Kessler Plan supporters also owned lots of cheap land in the river’s floodplain. They weren’t trying to hide it; the property, although right in front of downtown, was considered worthless swampland. The men called themselves “investors,” and it took two decades of promotion in The Dallas Morning News before the city was ready to invest in the plan that would make them rich.

In 1925, city leaders appointed a panel of businessmen to finally push the river-moving plan through. Although the committee was named for its chairman, Trinity Portland Cement President Charles Ulrickson, the driving force was Oak Cliff real estate developer Leslie Stemmons. Stemmons was buying up a whole slab of land around the winding Trinity northwest of downtown.

In December 15, 1927, the Ulrickson Committee asked city and county voters to authorize $30.8 million (that would be somewhere around $300 million today) of bonds to fund the plan. River-bottom property owners like Stemmons also pledged another $6.5 million.

The plan was huge, like a mini-Panama Canal: 17 miles of new river channels would be dug, with 26 miles of levees to contain them. The place where the Elm and West forks of the Trinity converged, long a historic marker for Dallas, would be moved 3.5 miles northwest. But there was more to the undertaking than just digging and moving tons of dirt. As local historian Darwin Payne points out in his book Big D, huge parts of the city would have to be rebuilt, from storm sewers to rail and utility lines to four new bridges over the river.

Voters approved the plan, partly because it seemed to offer something for everyone. Homeowners in flood-prone areas would get better storm sewers. Oak Cliff residents would have better bridges to get downtown. And at the 1928 groundbreaking for the new channel, George Dealey promised flowers and greenery for all.

"A blot on the landscape near the heart of Dallas will be removed, and a great industrial development will gradually follow. Not only this, but near the heart of our splendid city there will be developed a park containing hundreds of acres, with a clear channel in the middle of it," Dealey proclaimed.

The old newspaperman got part of that right. A great industrial development did eventually grow on Stemmons’ property, as soon as the old channel area got the right drainage. But the nice river park and clear water Dealey promised are just as elusive now as they were when water first gushed through the man-made floodway.

By 1930, some city residents, especially in Oak Cliff, began to complain that the bulk of money from the bond issue was being spent solely to benefit landowners like Dealey and Stemmons. Dallas Times Herald Publisher Edwin Kiest took up the cause, and the paper began regularly slamming the levee landowners on its editorial page.

"The home owners in the flooded districts voted for the Ulrickson bonds under the impression that they would obtain relief before any money was spent in newer districts where land is being developed for speculation," groused a May 30, 1930, Times Herald editorial.

The landowners, of course, saw things differently. Gigantic public-works projects simply wouldn’t happen, Dealey and the Morning News argued, without the “enlightened self-interest” of businessmen. Of course, taxpayers had to kick in their fair share, since they’d get flood control and other benefits, too. There was nothing wrong with profit for businessmen who “‘bet’ on the future of Dallas,” as one News editorial of the time put it.

Far below the radar of the newspaper wars, and indeed barely recorded at all, was the plight of hundreds of poor families, both black and white, who lived on urban subsistence farming down in the old river bottoms. As the land became valuable real estate, these “squatters” were duly evicted. A glimpse of them survives, oddly enough, in a 1988 promotional book published by Stemmons’ Industrial Properties Corp. on its 60th anniversary.

The company’s future president, Lee Halford, was in charge of bulldozing a shantytown around what is now the Decorative Center near Oak Lawn Avenue. Halford says he approached the job “as I did in the Pacific during the war, clearing out little villages that were a threat to our wartime operations.” But at one point, an inhabitant “with a great long knife” confronted the developer and said his family wouldn’t leave the area until their duck hatched its eggs. Halford magnanimously waited a few days for the eggs to hatch, then kicked the family out.

So where were all the canal guys while the real estate guys changed the map of Dallas forever? Well, they were basically the same guys: The same crowd of bankers, developers, builders and publishers that gathered for the 1928 groundbreaking gathered again in 1930 on the riverbed to promote the digging of a barge channel. A local minister blessed a dredging machine by smashing it with a bottle of water from the Gulf of Mexico. What happened to what may be the world’s only christened dredge, we don’t know. Canal promoters had much bigger plans anyway for the Trinity, ones that called for the federal government to smooth out and deepen the river all the way to the Gulf. In other words, they wanted 500 more miles of what Dallas had just done to the Trinity.

After World War II, it looked as though the canal boosters would have their day in Washington. Prose from that era, like the 1960 history The Lusty Texans of Dallas, is filled with bombastic optimism. The book quotes one canal lobbyist’s prediction for the Trinity: “We’re going to canalize it—or pave it, one or the other.”

Sorry. Is all this super-efficient, manifest destiny stuff starting to bore you? Let’s just linger a minute back in the Depression with the last of the flamboyant, burn-your-own-snag-type Trinity boosters, the 350-pound former Trans Siberian Railroad engineer, “Commodore” Basil Muse Hatfield, also dubbed the first admiral of the Trinity. Technically, the Commodore may not belong in this chronicle, since his big dream was the Port of Fort Worth. But anyone who makes a lengthy water journey from Cowtown to Chicago deserves a mention. Hatfield just wanted to prove it could be done. Also, maybe, he didn’t like to shave.

Hatfield appears out of nowhere on the pages of Floyd Durham’s obscure pro-canal treatise Trinity River Paradox. A picture shows a rotund, hairy man standing on the riverbank with his motorized scow, the Texas Steer. In another photo, Hatfield holds an urn of mingled waters from Louisiana rivers and the Trinity River, symbolic (though too late for the dredge christening) of all the ship-ballast waters yet to mingle. The Commodore was a big one for symbols: He also vowed, Durham writes, not to let scissors touch his hair or beard until he finished his pilgrimage. The Trinity’s great Samson suffered 21 months of bad hair days between 1933 and 1935 on behalf of the river, but he still died in obscurity a few years later.

Next stop: Dallas, 1963. No, it’s not what you think…yet. It’s January 20, date of a Dallas Morning News special section headlined “Canal ‘Dream’ Near to Reality.” There’s no room for ads in the 10-page pullout, just columns of solid support for Dallas’ watery future. Politicians from Mesquite to Corsicana pledge their troth to the Trinity. There’s even an address from Vice President Lyndon Johnson: “The Trinity is truly a sleeping giant,” he says. In another article, the Army Corps of Engineers outlines its plan for the 550-mile river basin: 23 locks and dams, several new reservoirs, 110 miles’ worth of natural river bends “straightened out.” There’s also a unique “large-scale recirculating system” to pipe water from a proposed reservoir south of Dallas to another above Fort Worth “to dilute pollutants.”

Congress passed and President John F. Kennedy signed the $911 million Trinity River Basin Bill in October 1963. Texas navigation projects were to get a big mention in a speech Kennedy planned to deliver to state democrats in Austin the night of November 22.

Then, of course, he got shot on a slope leading down to the old riverbed of the Trinity, right about the spot where John Neely Bryan built his first log cabin.

Local historians noticed the horrible irony even right after the assassination, and maybe someone has managed to work it into a conspiracy theory. But devastating as Kennedy’s death was for the image of Dallas, it had no immediate impact on the city’s plans for the Trinity. With pro-canal LBJ as president, barges were practically waiting at the mouth of the river to bring gravel up to Big D.

What happened instead was something that seemed to catch canal backers entirely by surprise: the environmental movement.

Yes, there were environmentalists in Texas in the 1960s, and they were horrified by the Army Corps’ plan for the Trinity. In Dallas, they had a leader in the obstreperous lawyer and naturalist Ned Fritz (who, now 86, still makes a fair amount of trouble for the Corps). Fritz and other environmentalists went on a double-pronged attack: They sued the Corps for not doing an environmental impact study of a reservoir already under construction along the Trinity near Houston. And in Dallas, they formed a strange alliance with newly elected Republican Congressman Alan Steelman.

Steelman opposed the canal because he figured it would bring Dallas more heavy industry, which he associated with crime and pollution. Only 29, Steelman ran for the Texas 5th Congressional District in 1972 against longtime incumbent Earle Cabell. Cabell was a canal proponent, but the issue wasn’t a big one with voters, Steelman says, until he decided to make it one in his campaign.

"In my opinion, it was a billion-dollar boondoggle," Steelman, now an investment consultant in McKinney, says. In 1972 construction had already started on DFW Airport, and Steelman argued that Dallas, with its growing high-tech economy, needed that kind of port, not a barge canal.

"I said the time for this has passed, and the only ones who would benefit would be land speculators who’d bought up property along the river," he says.

Steelman won, and that victory, along with the environmental lawsuits, alarmed the Dallas establishment. They knew at some point they were going to have to get local approval for the canal. Although Congress had authorized the plan, the feds now wanted the 17 counties along the Trinity to kick in about $150 million before construction would begin.

And so, according to a contemporary Texas Monthly account of the whole affair, the canal backers decided to set a bond election as soon as possible, before opponents could gather more strength. They called it for March 13, 1973, two weeks before the Corps was set to release its environmental impact statement on the canal project.

The environmentalists had already organized with a few Dallas businessmen who thought spending a billion-plus dollars on gravel barges was a big waste of money. Their slogans (“Your money, their canal”) seemed to resonate with voters, despite a half-million-dollar campaign by the Trinity Improvement Association. In the end, 56 percent of Dallas voters rejected the canal, and a majority of the other counties did, too.

The Trinity Canal dream was dead, although not officially until 1979, when the Carter administration dumped it, but echoes can be heard as late as 1988.

"The dream of a navigable Trinity was part of the plan of reclamation and while it has not come into fruition, the idea has not been abandoned and in the minds of many it still is not only possible but probable." That’s a caption from the 60th-anniversary commemorative book by Industrial Properties Corp. But guess what? Old Man Stemmons’ heirs were already peddling Plan B.

"That levee is about the only place you can do it."

So said Industrial Properties President Lee Halford (he of the duck-sparing bulldozer) to the Morning News in 1985. The article was about a Stemmons-proposed plan for a tollway on the inside of the Trinity floodplain levees to relieve traffic along Interstate 35. Pretty much the same plan Secret Donor and bevy of developers are demanding today, despite the fact that the Army Corps now admits the road could increase flooding and will certainly have “a negative aesthetic effect,” according to a 1999 report.

Look around and you’ll see more that should be familiar by now. Environmentalists are suing the Corps over its Trinity plans. Community types, including Mayor Laura Miller, are wondering whether a voter-supported park and lake will ever get into the riverbed. A group of boosters (Trinity Canal? Trinity Improvement? Trinity something…) has called us all down to the water for an infusion of river spirit.

It’s not a conspiracy, really. Maybe big money is playing a long game on us, but who can blame them when it’s so easy to keep using the same moves? This is, after all, a city that can’t even remember that it physically buried the body of water where it got started.

TrinityFest’s party on the Houston Street viaduct is laudable anyway, because of something underneath that bridge. It’s the strangest and, in its own way, most beautiful spot in this city’s graveyard of watery dreams.

You can find it off Industrial Boulevard behind a strip club that actually is called Dreams (though probably for different reasons). Down there, between the road and the levee, the Trinity’s original channel re-emerges as a wide runoff ditch.

The viaduct was built after the 1908 flood as a super-bridge that would never wash away. Its concrete arches repeat one after another across the floodplain, except right over the old riverbed, where there’s one high span. That was so the tops of barges could make it under there. You know, just in case any showed up: a real bridge that makes way for ghost barges on a ghost river.

But it’s not all ghosts. Down where the old riverbed’s greenish water enters a culvert under Industrial, I once saw a family of turtles lined up on a slab of concrete. Their four bodies sat motionless in the sun. Cars and trucks rushed by overhead. The smallest turtle dangled its legs in the low water.

It seemed for all the world they’d just wait for the rest of the river to return.

Dallas Observer, 7/4/2002

(Source: dallasobserver.com)

3.11.11

Rock This Town

Rock This Town

by Julia Barton

i can hear paleontologists in TV-land arguing about it already.


Scientist A: “Once, in the not-so-distant past, our world was populated by conniving oil men, big-haired floozies, blue-and-silver-clad football monsters and yappy billionaires. Then, as if overnight, those species disappeared. I’d say that gradual climatic changes caused this mass extinction.”

Scientist B: “But look at the huge crater and traces of iridium all over Middle America. Surely you must realize that only a foreign intruder could have ended Dallas’ domination of the tube.”

Damn right, professor. And after the much-promoted NBC flick “Asteroid” airs Sunday and Monday (9 p.m. EST), there will be plenty of evidence to bolster that theory.

"Asteroid" is one of those so-called Big Event Miniseries that whiz through our galaxy during the quarterly ratings-crazed "sweeps" months. It features Michael Biehn ("Terminator," "The Rock") and Annabella Sciorra ("Jungle Fever," "The Hand that Rocks the Cradle") in a "story about heroes racing against time to save the planet from the most catastrophic natural disaster in recorded history," as the promo material puts it with admirable understatement.

Let me say right now that “Asteroid” is going to be bad, very bad. Please don’t ask me to go into the plot. If you’ve seen the trailers in heavy rotation on NBC these past weeks, then you’ve seen the movie: Burning space chunks hurtle themselves earthward again and again. But most of those boogers are aimed right here at Dallas, my hometown. I can’t help it, I’m excited.

The last vaguely science-fictive film to be set in Dallas was the wackily dystopian Logan’s Run, which saw its 20th anniversary last year, though no one seemed to notice. (When it reaches its 30th anniversary, it will have to be killed. Them’s the rules.) Of course, Dallas was the site of a real-life disaster drama a little over a decade earlier when John F. Kennedy came here. But we’ve never been lavished with special-effects explosions and their walking, emoting props called actors. That kind of honor is usually reserved for New York or Los Angeles. Why Dallas now?

It’s all a part of TV logic, says Catheryn Boxberger of NBC Entertainment Press. “People recognize the skyline from the series ‘Dallas.’” Besides, she says, viewers in the heartland are tired of disaster movies set on the coasts. We want to see ourselves destroyed for a change.

Hollywood has finally realized that we here in the Bible Belt crave the wrath of God, and we’re not getting nearly enough of it these days. The Russians have pointed their missiles somewhere else, and we yawn at the day-to-day danger of floods and tornadoes. It really does take a galactic slab (or the end of air conditioning) to fill our hearts with fear.

Not that everyone in image-sensitive Dallas is psyched for doomsday. Take Karol Wilson, public relations director for the Hyatt Regency Dallas, whose sphere-topped Reunion Tower gets pinged nightly during the promos for the miniseries.

"I’ve already been interviewed about 10 times about that," she snapped before I could even get the syllables "-teroid" out of my mouth.

"No, we’re not concerned," she twanged on. "No, we’re not having a watching party. My best advice is to duck and pray."

Texas Commerce Tower senior property manager Ray Mackey was far more mellow. But then again, he hadn’t yet seen the vengeful meteor set to flatten his skyscraper (which looks, by the way, exactly like a 55-story male sex organ, only with a disconcerting hole in the head).

"I consider it good publicity, unless the story line implies that high-rise buildings are dangerous places in emergencies," he said. Of course, Texas Commerce Tower has state-of-the-art safety features, he added. And both Mackey and Wilson also assured me that their buildings are insured against all sorts of natural disasters, although asteroids aren’t specifically written into the policies.

Better expand that coverage. Getting destroyed by a ‘roid is about to become the height of millennial hipness. Zeitgeist-watcher Douglas Coupland pointed out in Sunday’s New York Times that our disaster frenzy is reaching another cyclical peak in Hollywood. This time, flaming space balls are king: At least three more asteroid movies are on the way. And the mega-doom scenario has already generated atrocious novels by everyone from Arthur C. Clarke to Pat Robertson.

Robertson’s 1995 novel “The End of the Age” tells a rollicking tale of what happens after a “giant meteor from deep space” plunges into the Pacific Ocean smack dab off the coast of Los Angeles. Naturally, it sends all of Hollywood to a watery grave, causing the seas to boil, cities to catch fire, and the president to commit suicide on live television. The trauma also makes born-again Christians out of the protagonists, Carl and Lori Throneberry. Several whores, horsemen and Marks of the Beast later, they win the “ultimate battle between good and evil” and ascend to heaven via a “shimmering space craft.” It’s the 700 Club mogul’s first novel, published right here in Dallas.

Certainly I couldn’t pick a more pleasing form of destruction than a meteor shower for myself and my people. Most disaster flicks have at their core some dreary moral prohibition: Don’t live on a fault line. Don’t go on that cruise. Don’t chase tornadoes. Don’t hang out too near the local volcano. But “don’t put your city in the path of an asteroid”? Get real. Yes, some astronomers are warning of our inevitable extinction unless we build us some shooting-star-shooters — and soon. But until that happens, who could ask for a more blameless exit than death by cosmic flotsam?


Deus ex machina is good for Dallas. I’m good and ready for my righteous doom, and I hope J.R. Ewing, Michael Irvin, Ross Perot and the rest of us are as well. Because I doubt many of y’all will be sorry to see us gone for good.

Salon, 2/12/97