The white beams appeared from nowhere. I suspect they had stood somewhere in the distance beyond the boundaries of downtown for quite some time, as two plastic moldings the size of a skyscraper that meet to form an arch can’t be constructed overnight, but I had never noticed them before.
I was driving with my sister, Rachel, and her friend, Sara, in my white Mustang convertible. Sara had just moved to Dallas. Rachel was visiting. I was giving them a tour. We drove through all the prominent neighborhoods: Uptown, Deep Ellum, Lower Greenville, Highland Park. Near home, the white beams raised from the flat horizon. Dallas must be trying to build a replica of the St. Louis Arch, I joked.
That was the summer of 2010. That giant arch was center of the Margaret Hunt Hill Bridge, a span designed by Santiago Calatrava. A month ago, I stood underneath it, staring beyond the spindly support cables into a clear sky.
The author Eric Weiner, whose book The Geography of Bliss tells the stories of the most contented places on earth and the people who inhabit them, recently wrote an essay for The New York Times about “thin places.” They are not physical. Chile’s lack of latitude does not qualify it as thin, nor, as he writes, does Los Angeles’ plethora of thin people. A thin place is where one can loosen his or her “death grip on life and can breathe again.”
He writes about several of these, mentioning monuments of grandeur like Saint Peter’s Basilica. He also discusses a tiny bar in Tokyo. It is the size of a bathroom, seats four patrons at the counter, and features a bartender who artfully chisels ice cubes from a block of ice. Weiner carefully warns that a thin place for one person could be quite thick for another. Thin places are a product of self-discovery. They reinvigorate you.
“The question, of course, is which places? And how do we get there? You don’t plan a trip to a thin place; you stumble upon one. But there are steps you can take to increase the odds of an encounter with thinness. For starters, have no expectations. Nothing gets in the way of a genuine experience more than expectations, which explains why so many “spiritual journeys” disappoint. And don’t count on guidebooks — or even friends — to pinpoint your thin places. To some extent, thinness, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. Or, to put it another way: One person’s thin place is another’s thick one.
Getting to a thin place usually requires a bit of sweat.”
I sweat on my way to the Margaret Hunt Hill bridge. I ran there from my apartment, which was about a mile away. It was a Sunday, and the bridge had “opened” two days earlier, on March 2, to a celebration of fireworks and live music and expensive tables. Sunday, as a rule, would be more relaxed, laid back, open to anyone who wanted to venture there regardless of wallet size.
Dallas sleeps on Sundays, a tradition that hearkens back to traditions of the Christians, a demographic readily visible in the city. Most restaurants are closed downtown. On my bike on Sunday afternoons, I can cruise through downtown of one of the biggest cities in the country, skipping through red lights, generally seeing few others besides the homeless wandering on the sidewalks.
Try as it might, downtown Dallas is not a destination. The tall buildings sparkle at night, but they are vacant by sundown, business men and women having fled after work, essentially reducing Dallas to a ghost town not only on Sundays but every evening after six. Few clubs bustle with music and patrons. Bars offer beverages, but few customers come to drink them.
Empty of people, eerily free of sound, remiss of culture, basically consisting of a couple square miles of concrete from which tall buildings spring, the center of Dallas lacks an identity. In the optimistic, election-centered minds of Dallas’ leaders, the Margaret Hunt Hill Bridge might not entirely fill that void but can catalyze the development of a true urban center. It will be the new face of Dallas. A landmark. A symbol. Residents will want to spend more time and money in the downtown area. Developers will want to build plush apartment complexes and restaurants around it. The Trinity River’s trickle can be transformed into a river with direction and a few lakes will be added, along with new hiking and biking trails.
On March 29, the bridge officially opened to all traffic. Yes, they hope, the bridge will be an identity. For practical purposes, the bridge is a bridge. It crosses the Trinity River’s narrow stream. It will reduce congestion where two major highways meet on a series of curving ramps.
I ran to the bridge on Sunday March 4, two days after the fireworks. For the first leg of my run, I passed through the touristy West End, a series of red-brick stores and restaurants – bad steaks, Western wear, cow-affiliated memorabilia – that perpetuate an outsider’s view of Texas. It has been forgotten by the populace and that’s if anyone ever bothered to visit in the first place.
Where it ends and beyond that river, West Dallas begins. Tourists and even a few residents don’t realize it exists. I passed a Popeye’s, a liquor store, a pawn shop and a Western Union, always staring ahead at the white yarn holding up the bridge in the near distance.
Then I ran back home. I wanted to take pictures with my camera.
Not long ago, I had lunch with a friend in the Bishop Arts District. It’s an oasis of refurbished homes, restaurants and shops in an otherwise crumbling neighborhood. For reasons I can’t remember, we started discussing Kansas City’s Country Club Plaza. Like all Kansas City natives, I deify the Plaza. It is a tradition, it is what my family and everyone else’s family watches light up in Christmas colors every Thanksgiving. When I hear someone deny its infallibility, I flip out.
Mainly, he argued the Plaza was manufactured. The Spanish architecture and the European atmosphere the buildings cultivate was packaged for the purpose of making money. A group of Spaniards, fresh off the boat or whatever type of transportation they would have taken to immigrate in the 1920s did not build their own restaurants and dwellings that represented their culture. No, J.C. Nichols built the Plaza, and he did so with a Spanish feel.
More than anything, what drives these complaints and concerns in Dallas, is the feeling that the bridge is forced. Culture is not cut from whole cloth. Manufacturing a landmark for $182-million and then praying that it transforms a neglected area seems exactly like something Dallas would do and has done for years.
But what city hasn’t? Aside from illegal graffiti,aren’t all art and all city landscaping and monuments forced, commissioned by a government, lacking in spontaneity? The Eiffel Tower was built, practically, as a radio tower. They could have made it look like any radio tower, any stupid thing that no one would want to photograph and place on a postcard, or cross an a channel or even an ocean to climb hundreds of steps and watch the world from atop it.
They chose to make it beautiful, perhaps taller than necessary and the radio tower that eclipses all radio towers. Around the world, the majority of the greatest landmarks are forcibly made to look ornate. The Tower Bridge could look as dull and boring as its neighbor the London Bridge. The Sistine Chapel could be enclosed with a plain white ceiling. Maybe this is overstatement or oversimplification, but, for me, any attempt to defeat the mundane is a worthy endeavor.
When I think about the Margaret Hunt Hill Bridge, I think about the song “Heartbeat” by Annie and a review of the song I long ago read on Pitchfork. On the track, she sings about a party where she has a few drinks and starts dancing with her friends. Among them is someone new. A guy. She can’t even remember his name.
She’s singing about the minutiae of a regular Saturday night, cherishing a dance that many people would forget the next day. Annie won’t. She presents it, as Pitchfork’s Scott Plagenhoef writes, as an embodiment “of human excitement – guilt, nerves, excitement, hope.” Life can be forgetful if you let it, or it can brim with suspense, if you’re willing to enjoy it through that perspective. In a matter of one song, one dance, Annie has escaped the staid doldrums anyone can succumb to.
So who cares if the Margaret Hunt Hill Bridge crosses a glorified creek? Who cares if it might not attain city leaders’ impossible goal of reinvigorating a depressed area? It looks really cool from a distance and even better from the center, staring up at the spider webs, forgetting where you’re standing.
The bridge was actually packed. I didn’t expect this. Vendors with food carts sold ice cream and sodas. Hundreds of people were biking and walking in sunny, 68-degree weather. They were ambling, observing. I overheard someone who passed by me tell his companion he felt like a tourist. He felt like a tourist in his own city.
It took at least twenty minutes for me to reach the other side of the bridge, the west side. I stopped to take pictures of runners and bikers on the grass below. I watched an Amtrak train pass on a nearby rusted, brown bridge. I snapped a picture for a family posing in the center beneath all the tangled wire. From the end, I looked at the city I’ve always seen, from a place I’d never been.
Randomly, a friend called me as soon as I was getting ready to leave the bridge and walk back on to the street below. The day was so beautiful, and it was only about 1 p.m. He said he was trying to decide the best way to approach an afternoon like this. I had plans.
I ran back, and later that afternoon and evening I appeared on a sports TV show for work, drove around with the top down in my car, did some writing at a coffee shop and ate dinner with some friends. You know, stuff that I do all the time, the awesome, entertaining, exciting rhythms of an average day.