Settled in 1841 by Tennessee-born trader John Neely Bryan, who opened a general store, post office, and ferry on the banks of the Trinity River, Dallas is now a major destination within Texas and the country at large. Yet like many cities, traces of a violent past remain underacknowledged in its terrain.
In July 1860, a fire destroyed the city’s business district. At the time Dallas was a town of fewer than 700 people, including 97 African Americans. The fire, occurring not long before the outbreak of the Civil War, sparked accusations of arson against abolitionist and Black leaders, culminating in the lynching of three Black men.
A widely circulated 1910 postcard picturing a massive crowd of whites lynching a Black man at the center of Dallas offers another window into its hidden history of racial terror. In 1963, the city dedicated Martyrs Park to the victims, but the site remains isolated from pedestrian access beneath the Missouri–Kansas–Texas Railroad yards—the so-called Triple Underpass—with an uncomfortably narrow and dark walkway before Elm Street emerges and descends to the river.
This history is overshadowed by another incident of violence: Dealey Plaza is just on the other side of the Triple Underpass. Many Americans know it as the site of one of the country’s most shocking and calamitous events: the assassination of President John F. Kennedy—a figure of enormous hope and aspiration for a generation of young people—as his motorcade drove through Dallas on November 22, 1963, the streets lined by throngs of supporters. The event, captured on film by an amateur photographer, was followed by an uncanny series of improbable incidents, among them the killing of the oddball assassin by an equally oddball nightclub owner—also photographed in the act. The graphic and incongruous official account of events spawned innumerable government investigations, conspiracy theories, Hollywood movies, and deathbed confessions.
Dealey Plaza became a place of shame and embarrassment for Dallas’s elected officials, who tried to ignore it, placing only an informational plaque at the site until, in 1970, the city commissioned Philip Johnson to design a memorial several blocks away. The unfortunate result is a grim, Brutalist artifact. Work proceeded slowly to fully and properly tell the story of the event. In 1989, the Dallas County Historical Foundation dedicated a museum to commemorate the assassination, the Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza, located inside the Texas School Book Depository building from which the assassin fired the fatal shots.
In the meantime, Dealey Plaza attracted hucksters and conspiracy theorists, who regularly marked the locations where bullets were found with spray-painted x’s on the pavement. Rather than taking the situation as an excuse for grandstanding and the reprimand of city leaders, Mark Lamster, architecture critic of the Dallas Morning News, decried the sad state of this part of downtown. “It is a deplorable state of affairs,” he wrote last October, “but also a great opportunity; a chance to transform this site into a space of civic memory and understanding that embraces the past and points to the future.”
Lamster has done just that. Through his leadership, Dallas Morning News has commissioned an extraordinary vision for Dealey Plaza. Led by Chris Reed of Stoss Landscape Urbanism and Monica Ponce de Leon of MPdL Studio, the effort is an inspiring example of what architecture criticism and public memorials can and should be. The Reinventing Dealey Plaza project layers transportation infrastructure, historic preservation, ecological design, and two memorials to shocking incidents of political violence within a generous transformation of one of Dallas’s most significant and neglected public spaces.
The mandate for the site’s proposed rehabilitation originated in a 2020 column by Lamster in which he argued for the closing of Dealey Plaza to vehicles, along with the Triple Underpass, a piece of 1930s railway infrastructure that cuts through downtown Dallas.
As Lamster wrote in his article last year presenting the concept, Dealey Plaza has become “perilous to navigate, marked by tawdry vandalism and utterly inadequate to both its historical gravity and to the functional demands of the city.” Its pedestrianization would be a fitting way to honor the place, an imperative for the safety of visitors, and an opportunity for Dallas, he argued.
“I think our first and most significant move was to shut down Elm Street, one of the three roads that are moving through [Dealey Plaza],” Lamster told AN. “That’s the road that Kennedy was shot on. And just to say, we will no longer have traffic on this road, that having moving vehicles going quite fast over the site was not appropriate. Shutting that down, making it a pedestrian space—making it a safe space—was really important.”
In response, the design by Reed and Ponce de Leon weaves an elegant series of streetscape, landscape, architectural, and memorial gestures into the existing transportation infrastructure. Elements of the conceptual plan include the pedestrianized street, dedicated bike lanes, an outdoor amphitheater, poetically slanted trees that symbolize the destabilizing events, and a memorial to the Kennedy assassination composed of pooling wells honoring the places currently disgraced by ad hoc disaster tourism.
“These spaces are supposed to be honorific; they’re supposed to be celebrating the lives of people who were lost,” Reed said in an interview with AN. “This was really about a city-making project. It was about a district. It was about a series of public spaces and connections that all of a sudden reframe the question of commemoration and remembrance. It’s not about a monument or a singular thing or gesture but about a series of stories that could be told by the way people reengaged the urban fabric and made their way through the city.”
The infamous grassy knoll, a designated national historic site marked by a plaque since 1993, is left intact, but nearby, a waterfall-like installation washes the Triple Underpass with undulating blue and white light, referencing a missing ecological feature: the diverted and channelized Trinity River. After a flooding incident in 1908 destroyed downtown Dallas, the Army Corp of Engineers built the Triple Underpass in 1936 to route automobiles where there once had been a ford in the river. Dallas is separately working on a gargantuan $459 million floodway project to shore up its levees and add pump stations.
The Reimagining Dealey Plaza scheme intersects with 2015 plans by Stoss with SHoP and James Lima Planning + Development and calls for planting trees down to the Trinity River, a move that anticipates the redesign of upland areas of the river’s levees for recreation. As a part of the larger riverfront remediation project, the conceptual plan for Trinity River Park—iterated by landscape architect Michael Van Valkenburgh but still awaiting funding—landscapes the 285-acre site with playgrounds, picnic areas, gardens, and winding paths, adding wetlands for invertebrate species, fish, and birds; access points for kayak and canoe entry; and increased space for walking, running, and biking. It also anticipates the relocation of a problematic piece of governance: a decommissioned jail that the City of Dallas has long hoped to purchase from the state and redevelop as a commercial area reconnecting downtown to the riverfront.
But where Reed and Ponce de Leon’s concept transcends an ordinary streetscape improvement project is its engagement of the earlier killings, committed about a century prior to Kennedy’s assassination. (Earlier this year, a large physical model of the design was on display at Princeton University’s School of Architecture, where Ponce de Leon is the dean.) The site is currently marked only by a sign that communicates the park’s name, but it will soon host a monument by artists Shane Allbritton and Norman Lee of RE:site Studio, known for their abstract, patterned public art and memorial projects, including a finalist proposal for the World Trade Center memorial competition. Their memorial would be largely inaccessible to pedestrians without a reshaping of the streetscape, so Reimagining Dealey Plaza proposes a tiered amphitheater facing the grassy knoll. It would ramp up to a soaring promontory and overlook that gradually descend in a winding, planted pathway delivering visitors across the train tracks to Martyrs Park.
The gesture “does a great deal to connect spaces that cut across histories,” Ponce de Leon offered during a conversation with AN. “It actually engages the public in multiple scales so that you can go there by yourself and contemplate on your own, but also you can go with your family, you can go with a school group, or you can actually have a larger gathering…. For me what is important is the emphasis on looking for ways to open a new way of thinking about commemoration. And in a way that allows multiple histories instead of a single history to be told.”
Jerry Hawkins, executive director of Dallas Truth, Racial Healing & Transformation, is among the supporters of and participants in the project’s development. His organization is dedicated to transformational and sustainable community-based change while addressing racism in the city.
“Dallas is a very unique city when it comes to American history,” Hawkins told AN. “Texas is one of the leaders of oppressive legislation right now. We lead the country in banned books, and much of the white nationalist propaganda comes out of North Texas. We just had a shooting in Allen, Texas. The El Paso shooter came from North Texas. So it’s a very unique place. But it’s also a place that needs some support. And we need to welcome people who are trying to engage in that historical remembrance. So this is a welcome project.”
Stephen Zacks is an advocacy journalist, architecture critic, urbanist, and project organizer based in New York City.