The Best Thing To Do with Fair Not-Really-A-Park Is Tear That Mother Down
Some readers, not a whole herd of them but a few, objected recently to my suggestion on our Unfair Park news blog that the city should bulldoze Fair Park — a 277-acre expanse of city-owned land in old South Dallas — because no one knows what it is.
I thought maybe we could turn 277 acres of disused land in the center of the city into something that had a purpose. My suggestion offended some readers who felt that Fair Park already boasts two important purposes: 1) world's largest collection of art deco buildings and 2) park.
So, to be fair, I thought I should check out both of these. It has been so hot out lately that I decided to look into the art deco thing first, since I could do that one indoors.
The world's largest art deco claim is about the large number of buildings at Fair Park that were put up as temporary exhibition halls for the 1936 Texas Centennial, all in the style called art deco. They were never torn down afterward as intended by the people who put them up.
The people who don't like my bulldozer idea say the art deco buildings must be preserved because they are now the world's largest or best or most significant collection of art deco. I got to wondering where that came from.
Who first made the determination that Fair Park is either the world's or the nation's largest or best collection of art deco buildings? Was there a contest?
I started digging my way backward through public references over time to see if I could find the tap root. I found the same phrases, almost word for word, repeated like a mantra in newspapers and wire-service stories here and around the country going back for years and years:
"Nation's largest collection of art deco buildings," news story, The Dallas Morning News, October 9, 2011. "World's largest collection of art deco exhibit buildings, art and sculpture," column by Robert Miller, The Dallas Morning News, May 27, 2011. "A National Historic Landmark that boasts the world's largest collection of art deco buildings, art and sculpture," news story, The Dallas Morning News, May 26, 2011.
But where did it all start? Who first suggested there was something globally special about a bunch of run-down state fair exhibit halls in Dallas? I think I found it.
On April 13, 2003, the following line appeared in The Dallas Morning News: "Fair Park really is a treasure — one of the most important collections of art deco buildings in the world." Author, Steve Blow.
I was very proud of myself for digging my way back to that, but the next part of my research was not so happy. For this chapter, I employed that favorite investigative tool of 12-year-olds worldwide, Google.
Five minutes on Google told me that Fair Park in Dallas definitely is not the world's largest collection of art deco. That distinction belongs to the city of Mumbai, India. Nor has Fair Park ever been considered even the nation's largest collection of art deco architecture. That honor seems to be disputed between Miami Beach and Jersey City, depending on whether we are talking about old original art deco or recent reproduction art deco.
So what do we have? Look, I hate to say it, but I think what we may actually have is the world's worst collection of art deco buildings — not the kind of thing you want to put on a billboard on the way into town.
So what about the park thing? I looked that up too and ... wow! Fair Park ought to be the fanciest, best park in Dallas.
The city park department spends $8 million a year operating and maintaining Fair Park as a park, and that doesn't even include the month-long run of the State Fair, when the State Fair of Texas, a private nonprofit, runs it and keeps it up. Plus, the city spent $60 million from its capital budget last year fixing it up. Fantastic! How could I not know this? Fair Park has got to be the city park of all parks!
It was about 2 p.m. on a Wednesday when I made this discovery. I immediately packed up a little wicker basket of picnic things wrapped in a crisp red and white checked tablecloth with a long skinny loaf of French bread sticking out of one end and a frosty bottle of O'Doul's in a cunning little picnic cooler sleeve thing. I headed straight for Fair Park for a bit of dejeuner sur l'herbe.
The first few times I tried to enter the park through its main entrances off Robert B Cullum Avenue, I was dissuaded by the presence of armed guards at checkpoints. I drove around to the back of Fair Park at Pennsylvania and Gaisford streets, and there I found several unguarded open gates.
From there I drove my pickup truck down narrow winding dust-blown lanes through a post-apocalyptic landscape of dirty bleachers stacked in disheveled mountains, padlocked service entrances and buckled asphalt.
I was looking for that nice fountain by the Music Hall. I thought I could have some dejeuner on the grass there without disturbing anyone. But, sadly, when I got there the fountain was surrounded by some kind of 8-foot-tall steel riot fence, and there was nowhere to park anyway. Then to my great relief I drove up on the Old Mill Inn.
One of the angriest commenters had denounced me for daring to suggest that violence be done to The Old Mill Inn, which he said had long been a favorite hangout and watering hole of his. It was so hot out that I had pretty well given up on the dejeuner thing anyway, and I was looking forward to a nice sit-down in a cool place.
A cheery sign in front declared that Old Mill Inn was "open year round." Another temporary sign nearby, tattered, said "Air conditioned seating inside." Haven't seen one of those in a while. Maybe only in the movies.
A nice couple sat out front sipping drinks at a table. Permanent lettering on the door said, "Restaurant Hours, Tuesday-Saturday," but the actual hours were hidden by a piece of paper taped over them.
I pushed open the door, stepped in and found a cheerful group having a drink and chatting at a table near the front. The rest of the place was a howling void.
The table fell silent when I entered. They all turned and gazed at me. A lady dressed in black with a white apron across her front, standing next to the table, looked up at me as if I had antennae coming out of my head.
"Oh," she said. "We are closed."
Everyone seemed to await my reply.
I said, "Oh." Then I said, "What are your hours?"
She said quickly, "11:30 a.m." Then she paused, turned halfway around, stared at a clock on the wall, and said, "to 2:30 p.m."
I looked at the clock. Darn! It was 2:32 p.m.!
I backed out the door apologizing for my intrusion. Once outside, I looked at the piece of paper taped to the door more closely. It said, "The Old Mill Inn is closed. Please use the Imax Café in the Museum of Nature and Science." I looked around. There was no sign of the nice couple having drinks outside.
For just a flashing splinter of a moment, I got the nervous willies at the top of my throat. Had this moment actually happened? Or had I had stepped through the fabric of reality into that other dimension, The Fair Park Dimension, where happy families with wicker baskets frolic in their $68-million-a-year park, sipping sodas at air-conditioned seating inside the Old Mill Inn, which is always open ... and where time ... stands still.
Just as we hear the "world's-greatest-deco" mantra over and again, we are also told that the institutions at Fair Park, like the African-American Museum, are assets that bring value to the place. But it's value that must be balanced against cost.
I did visit the African-American Museum and really enjoyed my brief time there. The city provides the museum with a direct subsidy of $100,000 a year from the general fund. The museum was not able to provide the city with a completed audit of its finances this year, because the auditor said the museum did not provide adequate records.
We are also told all the time that Fair Park has generous friends in the private sector who support it. Indeed, I found in IRS records that The Friends of Fair Park raised $450,000 for the park in 2009, the most recent year for which I could find records. That seemed pretty good, until I found out that the Friends of Buffalo Bayou, a swamp in Houston, raised $3.2 million in 2010. Farther afield, the Friends of the Ronald McDonald House in Palo Alto, California, raised $7.3 million in 2009. And Ronald McDonald already has a good job at McDonald's.
So this would be my point: No, Fair Park is not the world's largest or world's best collection of art deco anything. And no, it is not even remotely a park. And, yes, it does cost us at least $8 million a year to run, not to mention the $60 million in fix-up fees, also not to mention the amount of money we're sluicing into all those dying-on-the-vine institutions out there in direct subsidies.
So I would still say, "Call out the 'dozers" in a New York minute, only now, I confess, I do have one small reservation. You don't think those people I thought I saw at the Old Mill Inn were ... I mean, they were real, right? Fair Park isn't like one of those scary Stephen King stories about an ancient Indian burial ground, is it? Would you mind going out there and trying to buy a Coke? Let me know how it goes.
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