Dallas recasting its image with cattle drive in bronze

January 17, 1994|By New York Times News Service

DALLAS -- People in Fort Worth, 30 miles west of here, have long had a pithy way of explaining the difference between the two cities. Fort Worth is where the West begins, they say. Dallas is where the East peters out.

But in one enormous artistic undertaking on a 4.2-acre plot downtown, Dallas is now officially on a mission to redraw forever the boundary of the American frontier.

The city is erecting a giant bronze rendering of a 19th-century cattle drive, with 70 6-foot-high steers and three trail riders herding them up a ridge and past a man-made limestone cliff a block from City Hall.

Promoters of the $9 million project say that when completed sometime next year, the trail drive will be the largest bronze sculpture in the world. That is debatable, though it will unarguably be the largest bronze cattle sculpture on the planet.

But more important, Dallas boosters say, it will become the city's signature tourist attraction, a new symbol of the gateway to the American West every bit as evocative as the great arch in St. Louis.

Still, there is a problem, at least in the minds of the project's detractors. These include local artists who have sued, so far in vain, to stop the whole thing -- known as Pioneer Plaza -- from going up. Fort Worth was definitely a cow town. Dallas never was.

"It's ludicrous," says one of the litigating artists, Greg Metz. "It doesn't have anything at all to do with the history of Dallas. It doesn't have anything to do with the pioneers of Dallas, none of whom were cowboys or drovers. It's totally disrespectful."

Indeed, while some cattle roamed along the Shawnee Trail through Dallas for a few years in the mid-1800s, the far more important Chisholm Trail passed through the heart of Fort Worth.

Dallas grew up as a mercantile city that, paradoxically enough, clearly used to look down its nose at the cow town to the west.

Indeed, Dallas' prosperity grew out of things that are much more difficult to romanticize than cowboys, like financial services.

"Perhaps the Parks Foundation would have done better to sponsor a sculpture with 70 bronze oil derricks or 70 microchips or 70 shopping bags from Neiman Marcus," Texas Monthly magazine opined recently. "At least they have something to do with Dallas."

The bovine bronzes were the idea of Trammell Crow, an 80-year-old real estate developer and man-about-town who assembled a group to donate the sculptures. He says that the critics have missed the point completely.

"Just because it isn't the thing that made Dallas great doesn't mean it's nothing," Mr. Crow said. He predicted the sculpture would someday be what the Eiffel Tower is to Paris and the Colosseum is to Rome.

"I have about eight or 10 pieces from Rodin in my buildings here," Mr. Crow said. "Under their sort of criticism, we shouldn't have any sculpture from Rodin in Dallas. Rodin never even came to Dallas."

The plan for the park originated about the same time that the city's visitors bureau completed a survey of tourists, which found recurring complaints that there was nothing of the Old West in Dallas.

"A symbol of Westernness," exulted Dan Petty, chairman of the board of the Dallas Convention and Visitors Bureau, at a ceremony last fall unveiling one steer, one horse and one rider. "That's been lacking, but this is it. This is magic."

The new park also comes against the perennial backdrop of civic angst that the chief tourist attractions in Dallas are the grassy knoll and Texas School Book Depository at the site of President John F. Kennedy's assassination in 1963.

Of course, Dallas does have the Cowboys, the Super Bowl champions. But when the team was christened in the early 1960s, some prominent residents and officials were horrified at the name, arguing that the city should not be promoting such a rough-hewn image.

The panel that is planning the park headed off one dispute when it agreed to make one cowboy white, one black and one Hispanic. But a women's group has complained that no female pioneers are included, and there has been continued wrangling over a City Council pledge to pay for maintenance of the display, projected to cost $200,000 annually.

In their suit, Mr. Metz and his fellow artists argued that the project was never formally submitted to the city's Public Art Committee. Indeed, committee members inveighed against the bronze pieces but they were largely ignored by the City Council.

Some people here say the whole debate reflects a long-standing civic identity crisis in Dallas.

"We're Big Tex wearing too much eye shadow," lamented a columnist in the Dallas Morning News last year. Some predict that Dallas will keep arguing about the sculpture until, well, until the cows come home.

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