Julia R. Barton
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5.05.14

Soviet Dining


Alexei Zimin in Moscow. Photo by Lily Idov

Dining in the Soviet Style

by Julia Barton

I am struggling to keep up with restaurateur Alexei Zimin as he shows us around a Tsarist mansion annexed in Soviet times to serve as the dining hall for the Central House of Writers. The beam of his flashlight skitters over dusty parquet floors where Tolstoy’s characters once danced and Bulgakov’s Devil dined; as we rush underneath, he points to the crystal chandelier Stalin gave to Maxim Gorkiy. We only stop once, on a staircase, so Zimin can explain a door. The US Secret Service, he says, required staff to cut the door into the wall as an emergency exit, just in case, for Ronald Reagan when he dined with here with Mikhail Gorbachev. But we are still a month or more from the grand reopening of this space (which finally happened earlier this April), so the door is closed, as is everything else, while Zimin recasts the mansion as a bright new welcoming restaurant.

It’s worth pointing out how little the word “welcoming” typically belongs in the same paragraph as “Central House of Writers.” Context: the waiters were all rumored to be on the payroll of the KGB. Context: in 1978, dissident writer Yury Dombrovsky was beaten so badly just for walking into the lobby here that he died six weeks later. Context: the restaurant only opened to the public in the 1990s as a blingy New Russian joint, and then managed by aristocratic Disneyland-builder Andrey Dellos, who filled it with white-gloved waiters and red damask tablecloths before he inexplicably walked away and left the building to its fate.

Yet we’re not rushing through ЦДЛ—the cyrillic acronym TzDL that the place is known by— I suspect, because Zimin is nervous about the daunting task before him, but because we’ve already ordered appetizers and he doesn’t want them to get cold.

Zimin edits Afisha-Eda, arguably the first decent food magazine in the former Soviet Union. Readers turn to him for everything from wisdom on making plain omelets to 58 ways to prepare borscht. After training briefly as a chef in London, he started a mini-empire of casual restaurants in Moscow. He has done something that almost no one else has managed to do: serve food that is fresh, unpretentious, and also Russian. Not faux-French, not faux-Japanese, not Georgian or Central Asian, but Russian—a cuisine battered for 70 years by a command economy, war, food shortages, communal kitchens, school and worker cafeterias, and unspeakable rivers of cheap mayonnaise.

Through all those challenges, Russians have managed to keep small corners of unadulterated, undiluted Russian food alive for themselves, at least on special occasions. Homemade dumplings—pelmeni—for a New Year’s Day party or a “Salad Vinagret” of fresh new beets and dill: Zimin is just elevating and reinforcing that folk knowledge with professional knowhow and cheerful determination. But he has his work cut out for him at ЦДЛ. The public restaurant in front may have gone Euro-snobby after Perestroika, but the private “Art Club” in back had remained a model of high Soviet style. He’s taken over both—they share a kitchen now—but when I visited the public restaurant side was still under its long renovation.

So we rush to the private club side via the underground kitchen filled with shiny refrigerators. The club’s dining room is a vast windowless box, set with Stalinesque gold columns, tall curtains and salmon-pink walls. Zimin fired all the previous staff here and cut the menu in half.

“I tossed all the things that I couldn’t figure out,” he tells me in his stuttery Russian. For example? “For example, salads with romantic names, according to notions of fine cuisine of the 1970s.” For example? “Shrimp with ketchup, some kind of fish, various salad greens, potatoes, carrots.” Mixed altogether with mayonnaise, no doubt, the salad was called Inspiration.

Zimin killed Inspiration, but he kept the stalwart standards of the Soviet menu: the Salad Olivier (peas, ham, potatoes, mayonnaise); Salad Mimoza (rice, tuna, carrots, green onions, eggs, mayonnaise); Forshmak, a Jewish/German/Swedish import (herring, bread, apples, eggs, butter).

My dining companions all grew up in the Soviet Union, and they get visibly excited at the sight of Zimin’s menu and the lightened, reinvigorated dishes that arrive at our table. “I see this menu and I want it all,” says my friend Misha Smetana, Afisha-Eda’s art director and incidentally, a Ukrainian. “I see this and I start to …unh.” He rolls his eyes, sighs loudly, orders vodka.

I had actually come to Zimin with a question that seemed far too small for this astounding setting, but it’s a question that’s bugged me for years traveling the former Soviet Union: why is eating out here so hard? For me, at least. The food is getting much better thanks to Russia’s wealth and expanding taste; most wait staff is perfectly pleasant now and can even be helpful to foreigners. But I can’t get past the menu: no matter what kind of restaurant, it’s usually 250 or more items, arranged beneath a bewildering array of chapter headings including appetizers, salads, hot-dishes, cold-dishes, side-dishes, and sauces (ketchup is always in there, no matter the cuisine, and it always costs $1). It is too much information, augmented by government regulations that require every major ingredient to be portioned out in grams. I usually give up and just order blini with butter, sour cream, and roe (100/50/50/10), Salad Vinagret, mineral water and a side helping of shame.

“I once encountered a menu in Saratov that was 40 pages,” Zimin shrugs. “Russian diners like to feel like they have a lot of choices.”

But even without many choices, the four former Young Pioneers at the table with me are in ecstasy as we sample Soviet restaurant food that actually tastes good. The forshmak is molded from the tiniest slivers of hard-boiled egg; the airy pelmeni couldn’t be any more different from the doughy lumps of grease that might hit your plate in a cafeteria. This is not restaurant food at all, this is the food that grandma worked all summer to grow at the dacha, canning and bringing back home to build a banquet on New Years’ Day.

It’s here I realize that Russian restaurant menus, even Zimin’s, are not a list of food at all. They present a set of coordinates for one to scan and match with the needs of the heart. Your heart might need Salad Olivier, because your aunt made it from scratch, and her home lay at the end of a 12-hour train ride and half-hour tram that smelled of exotic Central Asia, and you miss that trip. If you never traveled to such an aunt, never built your food life around the universal binding agent mayo, then you simply cannot order correctly from a Russian menu. No one is dining out on this cuisine just to eat—everyone is constructing a long-lost banquet in their heads.

Vodka does help, Zimin advises. “If you’re not drinking, it’s going to be hard for you,” he says. I am not drinking, but here, in this company, everything is still just perfect.

This would be a good place to end, with Zimin the hero of a revitalized, de-Stalinized, more accessible Russian cuisine complete with home-made mayonnaise. That is the trajectory he has set, and he seems sanguine about the long campaign ahead. But tonight, Art Club is nearly empty. Our check comes. Zimin has his staff put the bills in small, blank notebooks for feedback. We look at the notes left in ours, and are surprised to see that it is filled with aggressive notes left by other diners about the changes he’s wrought thus far at Art Club and ЦДЛ.

“Why don’t you spend some time learning how to make tasty food?” writes one woman—it has to be a woman, judging from the impeccable Cyrillic script. “We used to know how to make tasty food here.” She signs her name with a great flourish. She is a writer, after all, and this is what writers do. Zimin takes the notebook from us and reads her screed. Ever the professional, he smiles like he’s just tried the most divine dish of all.

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3.12.11

Baltic to the Sea of Japan

[a Transom manifesto by Julia Barton and Alex Kleimenov]

I tried to download a map of the former Soviet Union to show you the locations of the 15 radio stations I visited during five months on a Knight International Press Fellowship last summer and fall. But there’s a problem with such maps: they’re too big. You can’t print them out on one page and can’t fit them on a computer screen without making the place-names too small to read.

So I’ll have to draw you this picture instead. At the end of October, we were standing on the shore of the Baltic Sea near Kaliningrad, a detached piece of Russia that will soon be imbedded in the expanded European Union. A week later we were looking at the Sea of Japan, 6,500 miles away. We had just flown from the longitude of Stockholm across that of Central Europe and Turkey (with a stopover in Moscow), then across the length of the Middle East, the poppy fields of Afghanistan, the angry border of India and Pakistan, not to mention all of the Himalayas, Southeast Asia, China, and divided Korea. Yet we were still in the same country. Imagine nine time-zones worth of jet lag, but still waking up to the same language and the same ads on network TV. Even the “Chinese” restaurants, despite our new proximity to their namesake, served the same scary lumps of unidentifiable matter braised in diesel oil.

The radio station director in Vladivostok (Russia’s Pacific port) was pretty blasé about our epic journey. “We were just in Kaliningrad looking at the Baltic!” we exclaimed. “Oh yeah, how is it?” he asked. He’d grown up there.

We visited radio stations that seemed surprisingly connected to the world, despite being in places that most of the world would think of as nowhere. We also visited stations whose reporters seemed frozen in a modern-day gulag with a mini-disc recorder. We worked with a lot of kids who’d been thrown on the air barely a clue as to what to do, but we also met respected announcers whose listeners brought them flowers and thanked them for years of good advice. One thing is for sure: commercial radio in Russia is a lot more varied and interesting than in the United States. Sometimes we heard things that were discouraging, especially ads disguised (and not very well) as news stories, and silly DJ prattle that made us want to throw the radio out the window – except we were usually in the radio station at the time. Still, I have to give the stations credit. At least they HAVE news, and at least they HAVE DJs that are in the same town as the station, not pre-recorded into some computer in Florida. In fact, Russia’s under-staffed, inexperienced, overworked radio newsrooms reminded me of nothing so much as… your average local public radio station.

The connections between public radio and Russian commercial radio are stronger than just happenstance. The stations invited me through the Foundation for Independent Radio Broadcasting (known by the Russian acronym FNR), a Moscow-based non-profit that tries to keep some semblance of ethical reporting and social programming alive in that country. FNR works mostly with commercial stations in the regions, which in Russia means everywhere not Moscow. A couple of years ago, FNR’s director and editor-in-chief visited the Third Coast Audio Festival in Chicago. That inspired them to organize a series of regional audio festivals around Russia. They got funding from George Soros’s Open Society Institute with the help of none other than Bill Siemering.

I got to go to the first of these audio festivals in Khabarovsk, near the border with China (hence the rush from Kaliningrad to the opposite Russian shore). You could tell that the staffers of these isolated, Far Eastern towns were excited to have the chance to talk about their work and meet their colleagues. Although during Soviet times people moved around a lot – sometimes against their wills – it seems today that Russians in the regions are becoming more and more cut off, not only from the world, but from the rest of their vast country. It costs money to travel, and almost no one has that anymore.

As far as radio goes, more has been lost in the upheavals of the last 11 years. When we’d start talking about a technique like natural sound, which is almost never used on commercial radio in Russia, sometimes an old-timer would pipe up: “That’s how we used to do things in Soviet times.” Soviet radio, I got the sense, paid a lot more attention to the craft of audio, even if the content was in service of the state. Radio workers had training and standards they had to meet. Except for the efforts of training outfits like FNR, much of that knowledge has been lost to commercial radio today. But then again, there was no commercial radio in Communist times, so the transition was bound to be abrupt.

But almost everyone I met was eager to learn these new-again broadcasting tricks. No one likes to go on the air without a clue, and we witnessed many great discussions and revelations during our seminars. I have to give a lot of credit to the person who traveled with me, Alex Kleimenov. He acted as my interpreter, because my Russian is fine for ordering a beer but not for explaining how to write into an actuality. As a stringer for NPR and other public radio programs in Ukraine, Alex is also a great teacher of radio himself. And he had a credibility that I couldn’t have. Alex survived the Red Pioneer and Komsomol Youth camps, he knows all the references to old Soviet movies that I’ve never seen – he is, in short, one of “ours,” a word that has resonance in the former Soviet Union in a way that it never could in the United States.

There are other kinds of isolation than just geographical, and the kind the United States is suffering now may be the worst. Discussion with and knowledge of our colleagues abroad is one small way to counter that.

Transom.org, 6/1/03

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

Shanghaied in Moscow

It started with an invitation from the Foundation for Independent Radio (FNR), the partner organization with which I worked in Russia, for a chance to be in the audience during the screening of a film about the events of September 11th. Or so I thought.

I invited along a Ukrainian friend living in Moscow, and that evening, Veronica and I took the metro to the TV Center near the Ostankino television tower. It’s a vast gray spire bristling with lights and antennae, famous for once catching on fire. We got our tickets for the show, which were stamped “Svoboda Slova” (freedom of speech).

With some folks from FNR, we were to wait in the lobby for a woman dressed in white. She soon thrust herself into our circle. “Where is Julia Barton!” she demanded to know.

“Come on,” she said when my location was revealed, “we’re late. You’re going to be on our panel of experts.”

“No, I’m not,” I said. “I’m in the audience. I’m not an expert.”

“Yes, you are. It says on the list here,” she said as she thrust out a piece of paper, “Julia Barton, American journalist.”

“I can’t go. I can’t speak Russian well enough. I need a translator.” I practically clung to Veronica.

But the woman in white would hear nothing of it. Twitching with impatience, she suddenly switched to English. “I’ll be your translator. Now come on, we’re late.” And so I somehow found myself following the producer’s clicking heels across the lobby, down the rabbit hole.

Conversation with this woman consisted largely of my contradicting false or unfathomable statements about myself. She led me to an empty coat-rack area, where other experts-to-be also stood around with blank looks, as if waiting for a bus. “Now here,” she said, slapping her list down on the coat-counter, “it says you are an American journalist and that you speak very good Russian. So I hope you can speak in Russian.”

She continued to speak English, I guess to make sure I could understand. Then she ran away to pluck more experts from the crowd.

It was soon time for us to go into the studio. The set, I immediately recognized, was from “Who Wants to be a Millionaire?” with many pillars lit various shades of green, purple and white. It had a central podium, in front of which were two chairs on raised stages, facing one another across a chasm. We were told to sit on carpeted benches in a sort of chorus-area behind one of the chairs. It was only then that I understood the format of what was to come.

We were to take the side of the man who would sit in the chair in front of us, a “hero” who would take the pro-American side. The question at issue was no surprise: Should we Russians feel sorry for the Americans, or did they get what was coming to them on September 11th?

Everyone in our group seemed randomly pulled out of somewhere for their association with America. There was Alexei, a manager at the Russian offices of a large American corporation, the name of which he asked me not to disclose out of fear of getting fired, some German couple and me (probably the only American in Moscow naïve enough to get in this kind of situation).

The audience members filled in the raised rows of seats behind the host’s podium. As they took their seats, a disembodied woman’s voice yelled from somewhere, “Okay, where are our Americanists and Anti-Americanists?”

The producer appeared, a beautiful red-head in a tight white cotton blouse, jeans, and beige high-heels. She explained the show’s new technological system. Each audience member had a little console for registering his interest in the film by pressing the “plus sign” during more interesting parts and the “minus sign” during boring parts. But first, to divide the audience into appropriate sociological groups, she asked the audience to pick which side they were on.

“Okay, all those who agree with the policies of America, press one! Those who disagree with the policies of America, press two! You got that? One for America, two against!”
A white blob appeared on the giant LCD screens to our right. This blob, after some delay, turned out to be a pie-graph. Two colors appeared: yellow for Anti-Americanist and green for Americanist. As the votes came in, the yellow chunk threatened to swallow its green counterpart at 60.9 percent anti-American.

Strangely, I had never been in a place in the former Soviet Union that felt more American: bright lights, people running around and shouting, uptight about time, uptight about image. With the exception of the beige high-heels on that producer, we could have been in Los Angeles.

Finally our host, Savik Shuster, appeared.

I saw a short, handsome man striding in to audience applause. The cameras trained on him, and a soft face filled the LCD screens. Practice shot. He smiled at us. Soon they were rolling.

“Freedom of speech means freedom of technology,” Shuster told the cameras as we applauded. “Now for our new season we have not only new studios, but some of the most advanced sociological technology available….”

The film, a British documentary dubbed into Russian, began. It was long and filled with heavyweight interviews: Condoleeza Rice, Colin Powell, Richard Armitage, Tony Blair, Vladimir Putin, Pervez Musharraf. There was also footage of the Twin Towers exploding, of people falling, of planes smashing, of dust-pillars rising from the collapse. I haven’t seen that imagery in a while, and it made me want to cry. Actually, given my tension level at that point, I just wanted to scream.

The woman in white came up to me a couple of times during the film. “Julia,” she whispered in Russian, “Are you prepared to make your comment? You can say how you were there, you saw how people cried, you saw the ruins.”

“No,” I said, “I wasn’t there. I didn’t see it.”

“But someone told me that you took pictures of the ruins. You are a journalist, and you took pictures.”

“I’m a radio journalist. I don’t take pictures. And anyway, I wasn’t in New York. I lived in Philadelphia.”

After the film, our discussion began. The Americanist “hero” explained why the U.S. did what it had to after it was attacked. The members of the opposing team were given the chance to weigh in.

“I see from this film how Americans make their decisions,” one squat, mustachioed guy said. “They have breakfast, then take a nap, then meet with their advisors.”

The Anti-Americanist “hero,” dressed in camouflage, declared, “This film was a sophisticated piece of political propaganda. Just another attempt by pro-American forces to consolidate their hegemony over the world.”

Alexei was the first to be given the chance to weigh in on our side. “America says it acted in self-defense,” he said. “I mean, isn’t that what our government says about the war in Chechnya?”

So there it was, the elephant in the living room. The opposing hero tried to ignore the question by stating his opposition to all war. But Shuster prompted him: “Come on, we saw President Putin in this film, agreeing with the Americans’ claim of self-defense. Now he says the same principle applies in Chechnya.”

I don’t remember the guy’s exact response because the woman in white was hovering over me with the microphone. “Julia. Julia. Are you ready?” Suddenly, I saw my face elevated to vast proportions on the LCD screen, looking mottled and bizarre. Looking away, I managed to blurt out this much in Russian:

“Hello. My name is Julia Barton. I’m an American journalist. I don’t feel comfortable speaking about my political opinions, because that wouldn’t be professional. I can just say that I was living not far from New York that day, in Philadelphia. But my fiance’s family all live in New York. We didn’t know if they had died. And of course I had to go to work. It was terrible. It was terrible to live in America that day. And it’s still terrible—even the war in Afghanistan. This film makes me sad, because I don’t know when it’s going to end.”

The green-clad anti-hero looked at me sympathetically, asking something I could not comprehend.

“Excuse me?” I said.

I sensed an embarrassed wince from Shuster. “I think our colleague doesn’t understand,” he told the Anti-Americanist, in an attempt to foster actual communication. But my time allotment had long since expired, and his producer had already moved on to the next commentator.

Veronica and I left cursing the whole thing, two writers irritated with the broadcast circus we’d just endured.

Now that I look back on the experience, it makes me think more broadly of the strange dance that goes on between Americans and Russians, people of the great, paranoid northern empires. It’s a generalization, of course, but something seems to disturb us whenever we look at one another: We see only an unbearable, uncontrollable version of ourselves. Americans, when they bother to look at Russia, see a boorish, sulky nation, filled with backward notions and crumbling infrastructure. Russians see the U.S. as a land populated by lazy, arrogant children who threaten everyone else while claiming purity and innocence.

Maybe in the back of my mind, I had some vague urge to bridge the gap when I went to the NTV studios. But in the universe of television, Russia is already America, and America is just the topic of the day. With any luck, we in the audience will be able to bridge the gap enough to throw garbage at each other. After all, nothing looks better on TV than a food fight.


KnightLine International, Summer 2003

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