The West End. That master-planned pit of money-generating quicksand was originally Dallas city planners' answer to a mid-'80s, shadowy Deep Ellum. Build a nightlife-shopping resort, pave it with snappy red brick, erect a mall as its central attraction, and stock the area with mounted police. Not the most culturally enlightened area of Dallas, unless you count chain restaurants and a pavilion of "nightclubs" (a.k.a. bars at which tourists blow their weekend wad) as culture. That may be misguided judgment on my part, since last time I hit the West End I was about 15 and a Lubbock band called the Nelsons were playing a free show on an outdoor stage. No, not Ricky's platinum-tressed progeny. The other Nelsons, the new-wave band with ultra-pop, ultra-obscure single "I Don't Mind." The lead singer tossed me his harmonica after he blew a "solo" through it, spit and all. I still have the damn thing.

But let's back up: Dallas' definition of "culture" is a generous, indiscriminate one, and one of its favorite cultural faces is its cowboy history. Now, a few years back when Trammell Crow commissioned a massive outdoor bronze replica of a cattle drive to grace downtown, Fort Worthians freaked out and insisted northbound herds never trotted through Dallas proper, but rather were routed 30 miles out -- through Fort Worth. Dallasites sneered and sifted through history books and hawed on about "well, close enough," and up went the sculpture. Leave it to Dallas to be proud of a heritage it may or may not actually own.

Continuing this string of illusion, the West End will host its Sixth Annual Cattle Drive this weekend. And from what I hear, seeing 40 head of real-deal longhorn cattle tramp their way through city streets is both impressive and amusing. We sheltered city kids might spot the odd cow through a barbed-wire fence off a highway on occasion, but it's not often that we get to see the dust kicked up by what was once not only commonplace, but also a primary spark for this region's development. The Sheriff's Posse drives them through, so there's a trace of Wild West legacy tossed in. Festivities last all day, but at both 5 p.m. and 7 p.m., the longhorns are herded up Market Street.

No doubt the uninitiated crowds will be spared more gruesome tangents such as brandings and castration -- this is the West End, after all -- but there's something romantic about such time travel. Whether or not Big D can go down in history as a bona fide cowtown, the city's development and character at least partly hinged on the economic wellspring of bovine agriculture. Just look at any musty, sepia-toned photos of Dallas' nascent downtown, circa 1910: mudcaked boots, Stetsons, and trusty steeds abound. Besides, we can't let Fort Worth have all the stockyard fun, can we? That wouldn't jibe with our naturally competitive, nose-thumbing spirit.

Surrounding attractions include a General Store Craft Fair (hand-made stuff -- you can imagine) and a Hot Salsa Taste Off, which awards a $1,000 cash prize to the winner, from 2 p.m. to 9 p.m. Before each cattle drive, gunslingers re-enact a spaghetti-Western shoot-out. Pony rides, line-dancing lessons, face painters, and the like add some kid-happy texture to the mix, and bands play on the outdoor stage, including Ghostown and Kip Hines. If you're in a generous or sentimental mood, you can look at all this as a newfangled take on an old-fashioned, barn-raising hoedown.

Still not convinced? Still not sure you wanna celebrate Dallas' dubious role in ranch mythology, not sure you wanna catch a whiff of cow manure and watch cops herd bulls? You know, it may be time to lighten up on Dallas' definition of culture, because here's the no-fail clincher: the whole thing is free.

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Christina Rees

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