Been There, Done That

For supporters of an improved and expensive Trinity River, everything old is new again

Let's start with a round of Trivial Pursuit: What year is it? The voters of Dallas have recently approved a multimillion-dollar bond issue to tame the Trinity River, which threatens to flood large swaths of the city. The work has already begun, but some civic groups are grumbling that the whole project is nothing more than a boondoggle for powerful interests, including higher-ups at The Dallas Morning News, who own cheap land in the floodplain. The same men also want to turn the riverbed into a thoroughfare, though they promise, paradoxically, that it will soon hold a park filled with trees and bluebonnets and pretty lakes. An opposition paper takes up the protesters' cause, and the ensuing feud starts to smell worse than the river on a hot night.

OK, what year is it? 2000? 2002? Try 1930.

The history of Dallas and its river seems custom-built to uphold that old, cynical cliché: The more things change, the more they stay the same. Some people can make serious money from things staying the same. The trick is getting people to think they're changing.

TrinityFest organizers hope their July 4th party will let city residents see that there's plenty of room for parks and roads in the Trinity River floodway, seen here from Oak Cliff.
Peter Calvin
TrinityFest organizers hope their July 4th party will let city residents see that there's plenty of room for parks and roads in the Trinity River floodway, seen here from Oak Cliff.
Bridges over the Trinity such as the Houston Street Viaduct, top, were built with spans to allow barges to pass underneath, if there were ever barges. There weren't. Most of the time, the Trinity in Dallas doesn't look much like a river, unless it floods, as shown in this 1996 photo below.
Peter Calvin
Bridges over the Trinity such as the Houston Street Viaduct, top, were built with spans to allow barges to pass underneath, if there were ever barges. There weren't. Most of the time, the Trinity in Dallas doesn't look much like a river, unless it floods, as shown in this 1996 photo below.

Thus, welcome to the AT&T TrinityFest this Fourth of July. The organizers, a 3-month-old group called Trinity Commons, are spending close to a million dollars on the event, scheduled Thursday at the Houston Street viaduct and a couple of parking lots around Reunion Arena. Musicians Randy Travis, the Commodores and La Mafia are to entertain the crowd, followed by massive fireworks over the riverbed.

It sounds fun enough. But Trinity Commons board member County Judge Lee Jackson admits the underlying goal of the festival is essentially political: to keep up public support for $246 million worth of Trinity-tinkering that city voters approved in 1998. He knows many Dallasites are only faintly aware of the river, and he wants them to get a little closer.

"If we have a large crowd looking at fireworks, many of those people will be in the river basin on foot for the first time in their lives," Jackson says. "It looks different from that vantage point. They'll see how wide it is."

And why is wide important? Because the fireworks gawkers will see, Jackson hopes, how the 1,800 to 2,000 feet between the levees could hold not only a lake, a series of trails and baseball fields and other amenities, but also an eight-lane, high-speed toll road.

Oh, yeah, and a river.

That would be the same river that, since it drains an area the size of Connecticut, fills its floodplain like a wall-to-wall bathtub when too much rain comes. That doesn't seem to be happening this year, so people at the festival probably will be treated to the Trinity's usual state, which is more like a big, muddy creek.

Judge Jackson, something of a history buff, is tapping into an old river-party tradition. Citizens of yore were invited down to the water to cheer on all kinds of things, from steamboats to dredging machines to--far less pleasantly--public hangings.

Now that the water is walled off behind 30-foot levees, it's a little less convenient for such events. Still, check out TrinityFest. Just take a stroll down the city's memory lane first. We're talking Repressed Historical Memory Lane, a very important place when it comes to the Trinity, because if enough people went down there, things might change for real.


True or false: The seven miles Dallas calls its segment of the Trinity River is not, geologically speaking, a river at all.

True, if by river, you mean a conduit that water creates as it drains over the earth. What we have in Dallas is the "Trinity Floodway," a 1920s-era, man-made civil engineering project built by sweaty guys and bulldozers. As for the actual Trinity River, the one made over centuries by nature? That's now a wide runoff ditch that winds behind places like the Anatole Hotel and strip bars on Industrial Boulevard, or it's buried beneath highways and railroads.

Certainly, a city messing up a river is not unique to Dallas. Chicago made its river run backward; Cleveland set its on fire. New Orleans gets the Army Corps of Engineers to spend millions of dollars controlling the Mississippi's natural urge to leave Fat City low and wet. Meanwhile, Los Angeles paved its river into a concrete sluice so it could terrorize Jack Nicholson in Chinatown.

But no other city has been so shaped by messing-up-its-river dreams that never actually happened. Yes, we have a floodway, and you will read how all that came about. But that was just a small part of a mightier dream: the great inland Port of Dallas. By now, we should have barges gliding under our soaring river bridges (many of which are, in fact, built to accommodate barges). Hell, we should have riverboat casinos down on Industrial.

The effort to make the Port of Dallas real has, over the years, enlisted seemingly everyone the city's ever named a freeway, park, downtown street or log cabin after. Fewer than 30 years ago, these folks were still talking seriously about things like docks in South Dallas and a 98-mile pipeline that would pump 80 million gallons of Trinity water a day back upstream to keep the canal between Fort Worth and Dallas from getting too polluted.

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