Disappointment in Dealey Plaza

(This is a piece I wrote for Steve Huff Photo back in 2011. It created a bit of a firestorm in Dallas that resulted in (or at least contributed to) something very very special happening. I’m reposting it as part of a three-day tribute on this the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President Kennedy. Tomorrow I will post what transpired, completely without my knowledge, after this post appeared on Steve Huff’s site. And then on Friday, the 22nd, I’ll post some new and fresh thoughts about the assassination and the last 50 years.)

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The sniper’s window on the sixth floor of the Texas School Book Depository

I have to admit to being a somewhat self-assured photographer. What I mean by that is that if I’m pleased with the images I make, I’m not particularly vulnerable to the negative criticism of others and that includes other photographers. Of course, I don’t always make myself happy. And what I’ve learned about failing to make images that I’m happy with is that it most often happens because I was unwilling or unable to do the hard work of seeing and capturing the great images that were there to be had.

I think good photography is challenging and difficult. I’m not sure it’s as hard as writing something interesting or playing jazz, the latter of which has been compared to changing the fan belts on your car while the motor is running.

I don’t think photography is quite that hard. But at 53 years old, the truth is it’s sometimes more of challenge to take great pictures than I am physically or mentally up to. And I probably wouldn’t be admitting that if not for the shots I’m going to present here.

I don’t consider this to be a strong set of images. They are far from it. I’m disappointed in them and, of course, myself. My excuses are that it was very cold in Dallas, I’ve lived in Los Angeles for the last 22 years and I’m not used to that kind of cold. And honestly, after watching the Pittsburgh Steelers lose the Super Bowl the evening before, up close and in person, I was tee’d off, burnt out, hung over, and completely over the entire Texas experience.

I’d taken my M9 to Dallas thinking I would come back with tons of great images. That was not to be the case. Photography is hard and as I said you have to want to take good pictures, and then you have to be willing to do the work to get those pictures. I wasn’t and I came back from the trip with very few images that I ever want to look at again.

Nevertheless, Dealey Plaza, the location in Dallas where President John Fitzgerald Kennedy was assassinated on November 22, 1963, is something else entirely. As a lifelong political animal who greatly admired both JFK and RFK, it was always my intention to someday get down there to see the site of this historic American tragedy.

What I found there, for the most part, wasn’t what I expected, but my overall impressions of the place, the aura that exists there, well…

Dealey Plaza is, almost by some kind of natural or unnatural energy, one of the most eerily amazing places I’ve ever visited in my life. More on that later.

But the strangeness of the experience of visiting there is compounded due to the ghastly and unacceptable way in which this historical site has been allowed to deteriorate, and also because of how it is presented to those who come to this historic place to try to absorb something of the terrible events that happened there.

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Chipped paint and rust help mar the experience of visiting this historic site in Dallas.

The overall vibe of Dealey Plaza is electric, oppressive and somewhat disorienting. So much so that the first thing you may notice upon arriving there is exactly that; an atmosphere of mayhem and disorder that permeates the place. Remember the moment in Oliver Stone’s JFK when the pigeons bolt from the roof of the Texas School Book Depository? It feels like that moment.

The entire area feels like a vortex of negative energy and soon after we arrived and were standing near where Abraham Zapruder shot his incredible film of the assassination, up at the bend from South Houston onto Elm, the last corner the president would turn in his life, there was the wild screech of brakes and a violent collision. Minutes later there was the sound of an ambulance. Someone had been injured, apparently seriously, as it wasn’t long before the ambulance frantically sped by us, right up Elm Street and over the spot where the president was shot.

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An ambulance rushes an accident victim injured at Dealey Plaza.

It’s a singularly bizarre place, there’s just no other way of saying it. And a serious traffic accident was just one of many things, the very real sights and sounds of Dealey Plaza in 2011, which contribute to setting the eerie atmosphere that exists there even today.

The lion’s share of that negative vibe in Dealey Plaza, however, isn’t generated by the weight of history or happenstance or traffic accidents. It comes from the fact that the place is in such a miserable state of disrepair that it amounts to a disgrace for the city of Dallas, the state of Texas, and the United States of America.

I live in Los Angeles. In what’s called the slums of Beverly Hills. But what I’m about to say goes for virtually everywhere in Los Angeles. There is more attention paid to the groundskeeping and upkeep and beautification of every apartment building on my street, every street in my neighborhood, and just about every building, house, park, intersection, center divider or median strip, car wash, parking lot, and public restroom on the West Side of LA than there is at the site of the assassination of the 35th president of the United States.

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The infamous Grassy Knoll might better be thought of as the Muddy Knoll.

Paint is chipping badly. Rust stains are everywhere. The grass is trodden over, smashed down to dirt and mud under the feet of visitors. Graffiti covers key components of this historical site including the picket fence behind the Grassy Knoll where some say a second shooter may have fired shots at the president’s motorcade.

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Graffiti covers the fence that some think obscured a second shooter.

But there’s one thing even worse than the disrepair at Dealey Plaza and it is an insult to history and everyone who visits the place as well as to the memory of the slain president and of the events that happened there.

The entire principle roadways, including the spot where Kennedy died on Elm Street, is still open to automobile traffic. The result of that is there is a dangerous and almost macabre scene played out minute by minute as visitors who have come to this spot to try to reconcile, understand, or simply just absorb the events of over 40 years ago are forced to dodge honking automobiles driven by alternately patient and speeding locals as they drive by on the three lanes of Elm Street.

Without a police officer in sight, it’s both a hazardous and out of control situation.

In Los Angeles, we close off busy sections of key streets in Santa Monica multiple times a week for a farmer’s market. They’ve permanently shut down five blocks of 3rd street in Santa Monica and turned it into an outdoor shopping promenade.

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Visitors to Dealey Plaza brave traffic as they try to experience this historic site.

It is outrageous that the city of Dallas, the state of Texas, or the federal government of the United States, hasn’t as yet sealed off Dealey Plaza to car traffic and turned it into the historical mall that it should be. It is a TINY place in what is certainly a small section of the grand scheme of things in modern Dallas. Yes it would require permanent rerouting of traffic but nothing that doesn’t happen every day in every major city in America.

Texas, however, is a still yet a very strange place politically, and this situation is evidence of that fact.

So the bottom line is that, even though I’m very disappointed in my own photography from this trip, I’d hope that the images show some of the problems that I’m referring to. The graffiti. The people trying to stand on the spot where Kennedy died while traffic bears down on them. The general disrepair.

But I hope that my pictures also capture to some extent the weirdness and the aura of mayhem and negativity that hangs over the place. It’s a location where harsh shadows and mysterious figures are still juxtaposed with a fierce blue sky and glaring sun. Dealey Plaza and the Texas School Book Depository are haunted, maybe not by real spirits, but by real history. And it’s a cursed and, unfortunately, still dangerous intersection of clashing forces and cross purposes.

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Dealey Plaza remains a place of fierce blue skies and mysterious shadows.

Five decades ago it was a young president whose motorcade happened to pass in front of the building where a raging loner named Lee Harvey Oswald worked.

Now it’s people trampling and marking up and slowly destroying a place of incredible historical significance to the United States while they themselves are threatened by the danger of distracted drivers trying to negotiate through their midst.

And on top of all that there is the unforgivable neglect of the site by the City of Dallas.

In Washington D.C they manage to balance the needs of a functioning government with the influx and presence of millions upon millions of visitors every year and it is carried off with dignity and safety. Dealey Plaza is not much bigger than the cafeteria at the Smithsonian. Its importance in terms of traffic and logistics to the city of Dallas is or very easily could be next to nothing. But its historical importance to our country and to the world is off the charts and it should be preserved and presented with the respect and dignity it deserves.

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