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It is always Friday afternoon in Dealey Plaza
An urban setting seared into the national consciousness.
By Michael J. Crosbie, Ph.D., FAIA
November 22, 2013
When we think of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy 50 years ago this weekend, many of us are transported to Dealey Plaza in Dallas, the open, park-like space with its wide boulevards through that Kennedy's motorcade passed when shots rang out.
If you are of a certain age, mid-50s or older, you can probably recall Dealey Plaza as if you were there, even if you have never visited it. Even if you were born after this historic event, you might have a mental picture of Dealey Plaza that is fresh yet unchanging – the product of Abraham Zapruder's film of the assassination, or television reports, or photographs taken on that fateful day.
It is always Friday afternoon in Dealey Plaza. The sun is high and strong. The grass is brilliant green. The concrete sidewalks are white. The trees are leafy in late November. The wide ribbon of Elm Street curves sinuously one way, then another, as it slopes down toward the black void of a concrete underpass. We close our eyes and there are waving crowds, some observers already prone on the lush lawn, the shiny limousine accelerating along the three-lane stretch of road, past the freeway sign. We see the bland government buildings beyond, the Depression-era white Art Deco pergola on the hill, and the orangey brick Texas School Book Depository building on the corner with its sixth-floor open windows overlooking the plaza. Dealey Plaza is frozen in our mind's eye.
Try to think of another urban place you know just as well, identical in all its details to the one that lives in the minds of millions of other people. Dealey Plaza is one of the best-known urban spaces in our collective memory as Americans.
I had heard people recount that, when they finally visited Dealey Plaza years after the event, it was actually smaller than the space that they carried around in their heads. This was true for me. The one and only time I visited Dealey Plaza it was akin to entering a stage-set. It is an easy space to move around, even with the three-lane roads that run through it.
Although some of the landscaping was fuller, it was essentially the same space as the one in my decades-old memory. But it seemed more contained, like a theater. I walked to different places on the stage, stood where Zapruder stood with his 8mm movie camera, viewed the roadway from behind a fence at the top of the ``grassy knoll'' (what other landscape term is freighted with such memory?), found the spots where my recollections of the place became superimposed over the space before my eyes. And the most bizarre discovery? A big X painted in the center lane of Elm Street. “Stand here and be shot,” it seemed to say.
“The front door of Dallas” has been Dealey Plaza's moniker since it was constructed in the late 1930s. Near here the city's first settler, John Neeley Bryan, set up a trading post on the Trinity River in 1841. In the 1930s, railroad tracks were threaded across a three-portal underpass through which one emerges from the west directly into Dealey Plaza (named after Dallas Morning News publisher George B. Dealey). Today, Dealey Plaza is an ironic place. A neatly landscaped civic space that welcomes you to Dallas, it is also America's best-known crime scene – handshake and deathblow rolled into one.
The Dealey Plaza of our memories seems lopsided with its curved road running through it, but this is only half the plaza. It is actually a symmetrical, womb-shaped urban space, with three roads that meet at its western edge: Infamous Elm Street is the mirror image of Commerce Street farther south, while Main Street bisects the plaza as the major thoroughfare. Twenty years ago, Dealey Plaza, the buildings around it and the triple underpass were designated a National Historic Landmark District, which protects it from alterations.
Urban places give our lives meaning as landmarks of memory. They are the stage sets upon which we act out our own life stories. Most of the time the stories are personal, even if the events are public. We remember that first time we witnessed the lighting of the Christmas tree in Rockefeller Center, or that class trip to a game at Fenway Park.
It is different with Dealey Plaza. Our shared memory of this place is the same moment for everyone. It is an urban setting seared into the national consciousness – the only easily accessible physical evidence left of the tragedy that happened there, and that continues to live in our memories.
Michael J. Crosbie, Ph.D., FAIA,
(click on pictures to enlarge)
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