Charlotte Burns: Texas, part three: High hopes and heels, and JFK’s Hotel Texas

We hit the tarmac running in Dallas, where the temperature feels hot like Hell’s breath. Fresh from the flight, we jump in our third car of the week (Japanese again, so all is well), blast the air-conditioning, hurrah at the blue skies and head out on one of the city’s endless freeways.

Dallas in the distance

The first thing you see on the exit ramp from the airport—which is, I suppose, this city’s way of introducing itself to visitors—are banners hanging from lampposts in commemoration of JFK. This year marks the 50th anniversary of his assassination here in Dallas and, for a young city without much history, the trauma is deep.

The Dallas Museum of Art has staged a fantastic exhibition that brings home the arbitrary nature of life and death. Ahead of President Kennedy’s visit to Texas, his security staff expected a hostile reception in this Republican state. Video footage shows otherwise: rapturous crowds coo at President Kennedy and Jackie Onassis as they arrive, both looking as timeless and chic as ever. JFK seems relaxed and happy at this warm welcome. He walks fearlessly into the throng and shakes as many outstretched hands as possible.

Everything was going so well. History can seem inevitable once it’s written down but the sad video montage at the DMA shows that time’s arrow doesn’t always shoot straight. All the what-ifs resurface: what if Lee Harvey Oswald had been held up in traffic, or what if the bullet somehow flew an inch or so in another direction. History might have been so different.

The DMA show reunites works that had been hastily borrowed from various people for display in Suite 850 of the Hotel Texas in Fort Worth as a surprise for the Presidential couple, who stayed there the night before the shooting and who were known to be art supporters. (Click here to see a slideshow of the works.) The exhibition is an eye-opener—who would have thought there would have been a Van Gogh or a Picasso in that Texan room 50 years ago? But then, that’s Texas: not quite what you expect.

The other revelation from the show is how much this city has grown in 50 years—the video footage shows a small town that suggests nothing of the sprawling mass it is today.

Dallas is now an impossibly large city and, like Houston, is covered with ugly freeways. But, unlike Houston which has no zoning laws (making it feels like there’s no rhyme or reason to the placement of buildings) the urban footprint of Dallas follows some kind of logic, and feels more like a living city.

Dallas has a reputation as Houston’s flashier sibling. Judging by the hair and heels, which are higher than Houston, it’s partly true. The city is making money, mainly as a financial hub, and it isn’t afraid to show it. The more recent buildings in the Arts District are designed to impress. It's a roll-call of starchitects such as Renzo Piano, Rem Koolhaas and Norman Foster. And our hotel is so big it takes ten minutes to leave every morning. It belongs in Vegas. My room is larger than my entire studio apartment in Manhattan and has a 15ft window looking out onto the city. And there are two pools in the hotel. So, I’m happy.

A morning dip in the pool

This city is positioning itself as a cultural hub, and I’d like to come back and see all the things we missed. But, as in Houston, the power of property developers is greater than it might be in cities like London. This becomes clear during a visit to the Nasher Sculpture Museum, which has been in the press recently because of a fallout with the development company behind the Museum Tower, a glass-covered apartment complex that looms large over the Nasher’s garden. During our visit as the temperature rose to 111° F, the museum’s gardens were getting fried from the glare coming off the glass-wrapped tower. The damage being done is clear and is entirely avoidable—the skyscraper needs to be skinned. It all seems a bit unnecessary and the property developers like cruel young kids that would use a magnifying glass to frazzle an ant, for no particular reason.

Our brief Dallas trip whizzes past in a kaleidoscopic blur. We meet a range of people, all interesting and open, and we see all kinds of art from postwar Japanese and Italian at the Warehouse—a real highlight—to the Indonesian holdings at the encyclopaedic Dallas Museum of Art. We explore the grounds of a beautiful Philip Johnson house and the art within. We learn about Texan artists (there are some here, not loads) and meet one who tells us of the problems with producing, rather than consuming, in Dallas. We discuss politics with varying degrees of frankness. We even meet a large tortoise called Henry during one of our visits. He moves much quicker than you’d think and, though I’m told he’s vegetarian, I’m convinced he wants to bite my toes. His smaller and shyer friend, Jenny, cowers in her shell.

The level of cultural activity here is ambitious, like everywhere else we’ve been in Texas. There must be something in the air, the oil or the water. Or perhaps it’s all that land and the ability to create something anew.

Next stop, New York.

Days in Texas: six
Flights: four
Cars: three
U-turns: 21
Miles driven: around 600
Cowboy boots acquired: two pairs
Tortoises: two

Published Sat, 31 Aug 2013 03:40:00 GMT

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