Up the Crazy River: D Magazine Nails Dallas' Odd Attitude About the Trinity

The Dallas City Hall approach to Mother Nature: drain it, turn it into a golf course. And hurry!
The Dallas City Hall approach to Mother Nature: drain it, turn it into a golf course. And hurry!
Ben Sandifer

I don't really recommend that you read anything by anyone else but me on a regular basis, and I can't be responsible, of course, for what might happen to you if you insist on making a habit of it, but every once in a blue moon somebody out there writes something so smart that even I have to .. you know … read it. The other day Peter Simek at D Magazine put up a piece on Frontburner that qualifies.

Simek was writing a little bit about my three favorite words. White. Water. Feature. I think you know what I mean. But really he was writing about something way bigger and deeper in the soul of our city — our relationship with nature, the complete lack thereof sometimes, and how that lack can shape the city itself.

The white water feature, if you just dropped in from the 'net, is a fake kayaking rapids that the city of Dallas built near downtown in the Trinity River, which, as rivers go, is kind of a brown, muscled-up water moccasin of a river that reacts very negatively when disturbed.

Thumb nail on the controversy: The fake rapids, really just several massive gobs of concrete, is a fiasco. It has bollixed up navigation on the river so badly that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers probably is on the verge of demanding that it be blasted out of there.

Simek writes to a question that underlies the entire white water feature fiasco: How did the damned thing get there? How could a major American city go out into the river that runs through it and build something so utterly off the mark?

We're not total Martians here. We've seen rivers before, surely. The thing the city tried to build, called “the Dallas Wave” at some point so it could sound even more like a video game, is a hamfisted, bad version of something quite different that somebody from Dallas saw once in a stream in Colorado.

Stream. River. Colorado. Texas. Sparkly fast water spilling over rocks. Big, brown, stubborn water bulldozing through silt. Different. Right? How did we miss that?

Here's what Simek said:

If City Hall had its way, the entire length of the Trinity River through downtown would probably wind up looking something like this.
If City Hall had its way, the entire length of the Trinity River through downtown would probably wind up looking something like this.
Bibliothèque et Archives nationales du Québec

“I believe this whole Dallas Wave fiasco helps shed lights on the real reason why the Trinity River Project has remained such an impossible dream. Sure, it touches on all the major conflicts at play in the Trinity. The city and the Corps are both charged with managing the flood plain and they have different priorities and goals. The city’s bureaucracy is impossible, operating like a rogue organization that answers more readily to outside influencers than elected representatives…

“But beneath all of this, what the Dallas Wave — and all the intrigue around it — reveals is a deep and profound lack of respect for the Trinity River itself. And as long as this disrespect exists at the heart of the effort behind the Trinity River Project, it will continue to exist as Dallas’ elusive — or bungled — dream.”


Simek says we look at the river and the land along it and we want everything but the river: “… we want lakes, we want an urban park, we want rapids, we want bridges, we want golf courses, and we want a new parkway and parking lots and all the rest. But what we don’t seem to want is the Trinity River itself.”

In our strange and insistent refusal to see the river itself, we miss a grandeur far beyond any kind of gimcrack “attraction” we could build, he says. We don't want what the river offers us in its innocent simplicity: 

“We don’t want its subtle, temperamental beauty. We don’t want the dark canopied forests, hot grasslands and small ponds that shelter hundreds of bird species and comprise one of the most dynamic migratory corridors in North America.”

“Rather than letting the river be what it is,” Simek writes, “... the vast majority of the effort behind the Trinity River Project has been directed towards turning the green corridor that flows through the heart of Dallas into something it is not.”

Simek's piece reminded me of a story told to me years ago, maybe decades ago, maybe a century ago, by a person who was engaged in raising money for the Calatrava bridges. I said something to this person about why can't we just leave the river alone and not do anything to it — a suggestion this person took to be one of my wildest and wackiest jokes ever.

When the knee-slapping laughter had subsided, I said I was serious and wondered where the idea for a bunch of fake suspension bridges had come from anyway. The person said that he (or she, I'm not saying) initially had gone to philanthropists with projects that were more modest in scale and less intrusive in concept, but the people with the money had said, “Oh, no one wants to do anything with that stinky old river. Let's do something faaaabulous.”

And, you know about fabulous. Things that are fabulous always wind up looking sort of like hair-dos. In this case, gigantic hair-dos for the river. But hair-dos, all the same.

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A certain set of very specialized eyes in Dallas has always penetrated to the real river — the late naturalist and environmental activist Ned Fritz, river guide Charles Allen, members of the naturalist community today like Becky Rader, Tim Dalbey, Jim Flood, Ben Sandifer, the Barker brothers and others of their ilk.

What is exciting to me about Simek — and I hate to get all generational on you but here goes — is this: I think he speaks for an entire wave of people who have come into the city in the last 10 to 15 years who are not necessarily all tree-hugger, bark-eater, squirrel-soup-maker, but who are just regular, smart people of their age and ilk who happen to love two things.

Cities.

And nature.

And they get both. They understand what a city needs to be in order to be a truly amiable place to live and work. But they also can see nature when they see it. And their first impulse is not to put nature in a cab and send her somewhere for a really faaaabulous hair-do.

I am enormously optimistic about both cities and nature lately, and there can be one of only two reasons for that. The Simek generation. Or dementia. And from my point of view, who cares? Either way I'm happy. From their point of view, they better hope it's them, and they better get busy.


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