Michael Duggan

JFK’s assassination and the landscape of loss

Dealey Plaza was once America’s future

  • From Spectator Life
(Alamy)

It has become a commonplace to observe that, 60 years ago, when President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dealey Plaza, Dallas, America lost its innocence – or at least the myth of its innocence. Certainly, the event has left a stubborn impression on history and culture; something to do with the power, grandeur and grubbiness of US politics, with Vietnam, civil rights and the sixties. But I have always sensed that there was something else; something that also formed part of the loss-of-innocence narrative somehow. I have finally realised what it is. It is Dealey Plaza itself.

On the fateful day 60 years ago, everything had been washed doubly clean by the rain that had fallen overnight

On the day of the assassination, those 15 acres, originally completed in 1940, presented a near-perfect tableau of pristine urban space in the modern era. The wide roads through the Plaza arc forward in their pleasing modernist geometries. Kennedy’s car is watched by railwaymen leaning over a bridge as it heads for the Stemmons Freeway, which would have taken it slicing through loops of spaghetti junctions towards the Dallas Trade Market and the President’s next engagement. Traffic on the plaza is light, of course: no snarling gridlock or senseless rush, just the isolated motorcade making its stately way towards the underpass.

In the space between three converging streets are two areas of green to which the curvature of the roadways gives the appearance, from above, of a pair of lungs. (The arrangement is more or less mirrored on the other side of the underpass, creating something more like a butterfly pattern.) The far sides of Elm and Commerce Street are also edged with green space. which, in the case of the former, comes in the shape of the infamous grassy knoll.  

On the fateful day 60 years ago, everything had been washed doubly clean by the rain that had fallen overnight.

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