Unafraid of Our Ghosts

Visitors to Dallas often make their way to Dealey Plaza, the site of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination. They spend hours inside the Sixth Floor Museum, carefully inspecting the vantage point from the “sniper’s lair,” before moving outside to stand atop the grassy knoll, peer over the picket fence, and contemplate the place on Elm Street where an X marks the spot of our national horror. They travel to Oak Cliff to see the rooming house on North Beckley Avenue, where Lee Harvey Oswald lived in 1963, and to West Jefferson Boulevard, site of the Texas Theater, where he was apprehended by Dallas Police for the killing of officer J.D. Tippit on 10th Street.

Inevitably, they visit the Kennedy Memorial, about 200 yards from Dealey Plaza, at Market and Commerce streets. The architect Philip Johnson designed the bone-white cenotaph in 1970, not as “a memorial to the pain and sorrow of death,” but as “a permanent tribute to the joy and excitement of one man’s life.”

The simple, concrete memorial is intended to be a place of contemplation. Its 30-foot-high walls, open in the center and along most of the base, create a space apart from the bustling city. At the center is a black granite slab, too square to be confused with a tomb, inscribed simply with the President’s name.

All these places and names, familiar to many Americans of a certain generation, create an impression of Dallas as a place of enormous sadness.

Today, the School Book Depository is framed by a gleaming skyline like a monument to madness. Parkland Hospital’s former Trauma Room 1, where President Kennedy was examined and declared dead, still exists, although it is now abandoned and unrecognizable. The Parkland name now adorns a massive new building that looks more like a tombstone than a modern medical center.

To live and work in Dallas is an almost constant encounter with its ghosts. Every day, motorists unknowingly pass the grave of Clyde Barrow, a poor hillbilly from West Dallas who met his own violent end in an ambush that also claimed the life of his lover, Bonnie Parker. Their bank-robbing shooting spree made them cult celebrities of the early 1930s. One can only imagine how they would have trended on today’s social media, given their fascination with collecting newspaper clippings of themselves and their exploits.

To live in Dallas, you have to make room for its ghosts.

Traveling its streets, passing its past, you may be able to avoid reality but you can’t escape it. Despite the popular appeal of J.R. Ewing and America’s Team, the Dallas Housewives and The Bachelor, Mark Cuban and Ross Perot, Dallas cannot erase its association with tension, trouble and terror. The city’s racist establishment, corrupt political system and north-south bipolar disorder have all been well documented.

So why live in a place so fragmented, so divided, so haunted by past iniquities and enduring inequities?

Because Dallas is America.

Although historically predominately white, Dallas has diversified as it has grown. Today, about a third of the city’s 1.3 million citizens are white, 25 percent are black or African-American, and nearly 25 percent are foreign born. The largest minority groups in the city are Hispanics and Latinos, making Dallas a microcosm of the U.S. population.

To live in Dallas, then, is to live in America.

Throughout this vast and conflicted city, you’ll find localized populations of Chinese, Korean, Persian, Indian, Bangladeshi, Pakistani, German, Arab, Polish, Russian, Romanian, and Jewish peoples. Our neighborhood, in south Oak Cliff, is almost equally divided between black and Hispanic residents. This multicultural mix is the direct result of what Dallas has come to represent: It is a place of new beginnings; of continuous change; of limitless possibilities; of big ambitions.

The opportunity to make a fresh start continues to bring many people to Dallas. We will not be defined by our bloody, racist past but by our multiracial future. Our commitment to healing our wounds and working toward greater understanding and appreciation of each other will be the way we build a more perfect union.