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How the Arts Are Transforming Dallas

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Photo: Martha Camarillo

Beyond the world of Dallas's high rollers—who are also raising millions for a controversial George W. Bush library and think tank at Southern Methodist University—there is another Dallas, the city that exists nowhere else in America, created by average citizens who've made their accommodations with the tricky semiotic scenery of their hometown. At the Belmont Hotel in Oak Cliff, a low-key crowd is framed by the 1940's genius of Charles Dilbeck's architecture, Spanish Mission–meets–Art Deco, with a fireplace in the lounge and a distant view of the skyline of Babylon. This is ground zero for Dallas cool, home to artists, musicians, and ordinary people who simply want to flee Dallas flash, such as the Belmont's owner, local developer Monte Anderson: "The Belmont was an old motor-court motel, perfect for a hangout that wasn't big and pretentious—Dallas already has plenty of those kinds of places."

In Deep Ellum, near Fair Park, funky little lounges play Tom Waits rather than the usual house music, and the club Double Wide toys with the trailer-trash dialectic, with rockabilly spinning inside and a cyclone-shaped sign installed on the roof—a blissful reprieve from America's homogenous hip. Brooklyn Jazz Café, in the Southside-on-Lamar area, is a popping bar and restaurant, much more ethnically mixed than the rest of Dallas, and a total delight. In the industrial goes loft-crazy environs of the Cedars area, Lee Harvey's—its name is the only reference to Lee Harvey Oswald—can be counted on for bourgeois bohemians and a jukebox that jumps from Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys to the Sex Pistols. Alycen Cuellar, a Dallas native, is the philosopher of the last-call gang: "The city has become so fake and fast, but this place and the Belmont are for down-to-earth, working people who remember the old Dallas."

The namesake of Lee Harvey's was critical to Dallas's most enduring historical event, and after a few days in town, it's easy to see why the city has inspired such dark literature from the likes of James Ellroy and Don DeLillo—Dallas feels wired up by the powerful, as if the fix were in and all bets were off. An average afternoon on the haunted grassy knoll at Dealey Plaza resembles what might have happened had the two novelists collaborated on a reality TV series: a motley trio of boys in Davy Crockett coonskin caps take in a conspiracy-theory nutcase, who is endlessly rewinding the Zapruder footage on a laptop screen ("See the entry points of the bullets?") and selling DVD versions of his own there-had-to-be-two-shooters documentary. Across the way, a street evangelist harangues tourists with "I was a sinner" as they gather around Big E, an Elvis impersonator thumping along with his band who takes the long view of life between numbers: "I'm just trying to make a living, hustling like everyone else in this town."

Next door, in the old Book Depository building, where Oswald was  deemed by the Warren Commission to have crouched in a window and murdered the president, is the city's best museum. Since it opened in 1989, four million visitors have filed through the Sixth Floor Museum to witness the national legacies of the permanent collection, including the Zapruder camera and the FBI model of Dealey Plaza used by the commission. The museum also mounts exhibitions like "Warhol and Jackie," and the gift store carries paper dolls of Mrs. Kennedy in her pillbox-hat prime. Almost 44 years after the national tragedy that exposed the American underbelly, the Sixth Floor Museum is also a backdrop for white wine and conversation with the likes of the American Association of Petroleum Geologists and ExxonMobil.

I left Dallas with the strong feeling that the city embodies the sheer appetite of America. That appetite is evident even in the spiritual realm. The Sunday morning service at the Potter's House, a 191,000-square-foot, 30,000-member-strong nondenominational church presided over by Bishop T. D. Jakes—who, though barely 50, has already made the cover of Time as one of "The 25 Most Influential Evangelicals in America"—is an experience that grants the benediction of hope. Dallas, like just about every big city in the United States, has had a rocky history with race relations, but the sermons of Bishop Jakes—which encompass tough love, self-help homilies, imitations of his friend Oprah Winfrey, and great oratorical riffs on God's infinite blessings played out on enormous video screens—attract a stupendously diverse crowd ranging from old African American church ladies in complicated hats to white working-class families to bewildered European students looking for the real America. A sense of the infinite, of the American faith in life's possibilities, infuses every moment at Potter's church. The congregation suggests yet another Dallas story, still unfolding. And, if you believe the bishop, "The bigger the story, the better the story."

Tom Austin is a T+L contributing editor.

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