Dallas: The Big D Offers Museums Galore and Even Places to, um, Walk!
By Sony Stark
Visiting Dallas Texas is like taking a crash course in cultural anthropology. No longer do you need to travel to Beijing to see great works of Chinese art or Venice, Italy, to ride a gondola or Napa Valley for great wine tasting. I found activities like these and much more in the Bluebonnet State.
Foot Friendly Frontier
Betty has a Lone Star twang that’s as authentic as they come. She’s one of my guides through Texas this weekend and she’s a little upset with her car right now.
“Dang it, Lucy, stop that incessant beeping!” she gripes. Betty nicknames all her cars because she spends so much time in them and she doesn’t exactly cuss but does admit that traffic in Dallas brings out the worst in her.
I like pedestrian-friendly cities like San Francisco, New York and Boston. These are cities I can ditch the car, walk the streets, roam in and out of galleries and museums and not worry about traffic congestion and tolls.
Everyone knows that foot travel affords the cheapest and quickest way to see a city while also getting to know the locals that live there. Dallas is a city with endless urban sprawl and a high car-dependency rate so how foot-friendly can it be? I find out with my first stop in the West End.
West End, Dallas
Oliver Stone’s “JFK” and the recent 40 year anniversary of the President’s assassination has driven attendance at the 6th Floor Museum well into the millions. West End, Dallas is home to the infamous Book Depository where Lee Harvey Oswald is said to have shot President Kennedy as he rode in motorcade through the streets of Dealey Plaza on Nov. 22, 1963. Today the 6th floor is a permanent historical exhibit that examines the life, times, death and legacy of John F. Kennedy.
This museum is not to be dismissed as a tourist trap and should be carefully considered before taking kids to it. The raw descriptions and powerful imagery hit me squarely in the face and I left feeling emotionally exhausted. Down the street is also the John Fitzgerald Kennedy Memorial – a 50-foot box designed by Philip Johnson.
After the museum, I enjoy roaming The West End because it contains some of the city’s most beautiful architecture. The Romanesque Revival style Old Red Courthouse and the Criminal Courts Building are both on the National Register of Historic Places. Both are also undergoing phases of serious restoration right now. The streets here are easy to navigate and similar to a grid system.
I’m happy to report that Dallas Uptown, also called the West Village, is a fairly new urban metropolis that uses many “smart growth features” to enhance it’s pedestrian lifestyle. It has upscale art-houses, gyms, cafes, museums, restaurants, and small pocket-sized parks that are all within walking distance from residential living.
It uses a mass transportation system dubbed the DART (Dallas Area Rapid Transit) that includes commuter rail lines, buses, and vans. Even though most residents of this chic neighborhood dress their terriers in Oakley’s and carry Coach bags, I enjoy the safety, cleanliness, and convenience of doing things here sans vehicle.
I’ve been to Deep Elm before and it’s undeniably, my favorite walking mecca. This renovated warehouse district is funky and flamboyant with hip new bands that play in venues like “Club Clearview” and “Trees”. There’s a feeling of healthy activism and progressive idealism here and much like visiting Montreal, there’s this invisible anti-establishment and independent zone that coexists here.
Avant-guard boutiques line the streets as young urban dwellers with multiple piercings and cyber-goth apparel cram tattoo parlors and fetish shops. Once a nefarious hangout for pawnshop owners and red-light ladies, the city’s reputation has improved greatly and yesterday’s juke joints and flophouses are today’s vintage furniture stores, farmers markets, spa salons, and cafes with puppet shows.
Having taken in miles of walking in my new foot-friendly frontier we break for chow. Dallas has more restaurants per capita than New York City – 7,000 and counting, but because my showbiz friend, Ms. Rachael Ray, (Food Network) ended her $40/day show at a Tex-Mex style restaurant called “Monica Aca y Alla”, so do we!
Owner and political heavyweight Monica Green wasn’t there, but the cooking at her place didn’t miss an ingredient without her. A little past noon and the place has few tables available for my fish taco ala snapper and an award-winning peach margarita.
Nacho chips with cheese and guacamole dip are reason enough to go light on dessert – but I don’t! My guide loosens her silver-studded Texan buckle and the both of us go wild on a Mexican flan and key-lime cheese cake.
Old City Park
Old City Park is a living history museum that re-creates Dallas days from 1861 and 1901. I don’t expect to find cars here but instead busloads of kids pounding the dusty pebble trail alongside us. 1861 and 1901 were valuable years of growth and transformation for Dallas and it shows in three dozen restored buildings: a church, school, depot, tipi, bank, hotel, and Victorian-era homes. There are four interpreters that stay steadfast in character, even when I ask the farmer’s wife for a tour of her dogtrot farmhouse.
She’s reluctant to oblige, not because she’s afraid of my camera but her attention is needed for household chores. It’s really a bizarre time warp – tall, glass skyscrapers lurch in the background while a young apprentice demonstrates the art of “kicking” ceramic using a kick wheel and groundhog kiln in the foreground. It’s a trip invaluable for appreciating the modern conveniences of today.
Dallas Arts District
The Dallas Arts District, a 60-acre development (better have good shoes on!) is the largest urban arts district in the country, anchored by the Dallas Museum of Art, the Morton H. Meyerson Symphony Center and the Nasher Sculpture Garden. My guide introduces me to Mr. Nasher himself and I ask him what inspires him to keep adding to his collection.
A favorite exhibit, he tells me, continues until Memorial Day called the “Splendors of China’s Forbidden City.” It contains 400 art objects that have never been outside of Imperial China. The exhibit chronicles the life of the country’s longest reigning Emperor – Emperor Qianlong; 1736 to 1795, 60 years. A five foot high Tibetan Stupa, a gold-lacquered Dragon Throne, a selection of 10,000 snuff bottles and 40,000 poems written by the Emperor are part of this vast landmark show. It’s truly one of the most intricate and intellectual art exhibits I’ve ever seen.
Proof of my fascination with flying materialized when I was six years old – re-enacting a “Mary Poppins” move from the top of my favorite willow tree. Luckily the branches broke my fall and I wound up with just a twisted ankle. Today, museums and air shows give me that same sense of invincibility and awe about flying – minus risking broken bones and upsetting parents.
If you follow air science technology, you know that Texas is known as the Aviation Capital of the World. It boasts some of the most impressive mothballed warbirds in the union. It also has the likes of eccentric mavericks likes Howard Hughes (born in Houston) continuing to invent flying machines on the fringes. I visited the Frontiers of Flight Museum at Love Field and the C.W. Smith American Airline’s exhibit for an educational, motivation and inspiring trip into aviation’s pioneering days.
Housed in a glass hangar, a restored 1940’s DC 3 welcomes visitors to the C.R. Smith Museum in Fort Worth. This museum follows the progress of commercial aircraft since the 1920’s, beginning with Charles Lindbergh. He flew a bag of mail in a DH-4 biplane from Chicago to St. Louis which became the first regularly scheduled flight of American Airlines.
Trivia alert: John Travolta frequents this museum for continual refresher courses in flying his own Boeing 707. Travolta is practicing to re-enact Charles Lindbergh’s nonstop solo voyage crossing the Atlantic during this summer’s 75th anniversary. The venture will be called the 13-city Spirit of Friendship Tour.
The Frontiers of Flight Museum has priceless artifacts any history buff would appreciate. It houses early items from the Hindenburg and Rosendahl Balloon and Airship days – all the way up to the re-useable Space Shuttle orbiter. Actual pilots retell their days of heroic missions with enthusiasm and delight.
Boy Scouts of America Museum
Other than the recent gay controversy swirling around this organization, I know virtually nothing about the Boy Scouts history, mission, or vision going in. In a rather brazen moment, I ask my curator to explain how the organization is dealing with all the recent bad press. The proud and self-respecting English curator quietly deflects my question to management and continued with the tour.
As she leads me through an interactive display of 1,911 merit badge requirements and exhibits featuring council shoulder strips, religious and honor medals, I come to appreciate the organization’s enormous sense of pride, conviction and patriotic formality. Leadership, respect, and responsibility are goals for growing boys and I learn that most of America’s most revered and influential men in life started out as Boy Scouts.
Animatronic activities, like the Fort Fun Laser Shooting Gallery and spelunking in the Venturing Cave, evolve into learning how to dissemble and repair a car engine, fix leaky plumbing and rewire a house – invaluable skills that too few men (and women) know how to do for themselves today.
Mesquite Championship Rodeo
“But Sony, these calves are treated better than caged animals” insists General Manager, Mark Miller, of the Mesquite Rodeo at Resistol Arena. I’m reluctant to believe that a cowboy chasing a 250-pound calf, roping it, laying it on its side, and tying three of its legs together with a ‘pig-gin’ string doesn’t cause some internal injuries but I’m not there to judge.
After all, rodeo is the most popular sport in Texas and probably for good reason. Setting aside my reservations, I try to watch with an unbiased viewpoint.
Rodeo was born in the Old West but it’s growing in popularity in Australia, Canada and Brazil. The action continues from seats in a luxury box with a full smorgasbord. I admit, even though my appetite for barbeque pork ribs wanes from the stench of horse droppings, the romance of the brave and daring bronc rider gets the best of me.
I’m on the edge of my seat for the rest of the show. This is the arena’s 48th season and every weekend the two-hour show is broken down into ten events: bull riding, bareback riding, tie-down roping, chuck wagon races, the kids calf scramble, steer wresting, cowboy poker, barrel racing and more. There’s lingo to learn and rules to understand and the riders are judged and scored on more than just timing.
I learn that cowboys are not fatalistic as they might first appear. They ride out their dangerous profession mainly because of tradition and passion. Money is not an incentive since most cowboys have families and can’t afford to quit their day jobs. Religion is also an important practice for riders, and while taking photos from behind the chutes, cowboys kneel and pray in resolute silence.
The rodeo is obviously more a lifestyle than a sport and despite how I feel about the animals, Wrangler jeans and Christianity, I can appreciate the entertainment value it has for families and children. Undeniably, it’s far less controversial than taking your daughter to a Britney Spears concert!
Before flying back to New York, there’s time for one final southern encore. Seven minutes outside DFW Airport is an place called GrapeVine. It’s a name resulting from the many wild mustang grapes that grow here that are harvested by world-class sommeliers. In 1844, one year before statehood, the Lone Star Flag flew here, making it one of the oldest settlements in Texas.
Today, up and down Main Street are helpful tasting rooms serving up vintage samples and stories from the area’s seven vineyards. I happily discover a tasty gem at D’Vine Wine at 409 Main Street. It’s syrupy texture lingers just long enough to convince me to buy a bottle. Heed caution though before over-sampling by refueling an empty stomach at the Main Street Blues Room.
It’s another marvelous establishment, again with a female owner that goes by the name of Monika. Behind the velvet drapes and the bartender’s fedora hat is a Baptist Choir that entertains Monika’s patrons. Wife of former Texas Rangers Pitcher Jose Guzman is batting a homerun at this lively and lavish location.
After finishing a banana foster Belgian waffle for brunch, it’s off to, where else, the British Emporium Grocery Store and Tea Room located at 140 North Main. English Ambassadors Alexander Evans and Sheela Kadam stock their store with imported Welsh Honey, Yorkshire pudding, Nescafe’s tunnock’s snowballs and much more. Wine, Waffles, and Walter’s English Shortbread, all in Historic GrapeVine.
The Omni Mandalay
Still wondering about that gondola ride experience? It’s not exactly the Bridge of Sighs or St. Mark’s Square but still the romance and idyllic charm of the man-made canals and overpasses in Los Colinas are the perfect complement to the amorous atmosphere of the Omni Mandalay in Los Colinas. Guiseppe, my smiling Gondilier sings a sweet lullaby in Italian, as I kick myself for bringing a digital camera rather than a male companion for this leg of the trip.
Marketing Director John Branciforte explains how the Mandalay was patterned after a Burmese City with Asian influences like feng shui influenced architecture in every guest room. Rounded walls, marble bathrooms, step-out balconies, and even free WiFi is in every room – now that’s definitely feng shui!
A crass course in Cultural Anthropology and long-distance walking — right here in Dallas, Texas.
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