At the DART stations, I travel through time

I’ve now spent six months car-free in Dallas, and riding the DART light rail almost every day has taught me more about the city than blindly following directions on Google Maps ever could. As I gradually memorized the names of the stations and watched the scenery and street signs whizz by, a map of the city’s neighborhoods came to life in my mind.

Using public transportation helped me understand the geographic contours of this city, but it also helped me understand the history of Dallas.

One summer day, a few weeks into my stay here, my train pulled out of the Cityplace tunnel into the light of downtown Dallas. I looked idly out the window and did a double take when I saw huge copper sunflowers blooming from the sidewalk between the tracks at the Pearl/Arts District station. I had taken countless trips through this station, but I missed this piece of art that was hiding in plain sight, distracted by the Plaza of the Americas and the old Dallas High School buildings. The sculpture lets riders know what time it is—its petals crown seven analog clock faces, and the faces of the clocks light up as night falls.

This whimsical clock and other works of art at the train stations are like Salvador Dali’s melting clocks—they are the permanent memories of Dallas. At DART light rail stations, the city’s own open-air museums, poetry, bronze sculptures and murals preserve the history of Dallas’ railroads, changing neighborhoods and their lovers.

Opinion

Get intelligent opinions on the topics that concern North Texas residents.

A changing center

In the 1990s, when DART was first building the light rail system, Brad Goldberg was brought on board as the designer of the four downtown stations. Goldberg told me that the design team used materials seen in the architecture of the neighborhoods near the stations for the columns and pavements of the stations. That’s why West End Station has impressive red brick columns and Victorian streetlights that match the rest of the historic district. In addition to the major finishing touches, DART set aside money to commission artists such as Michael Brown, the California sculptor who made the sundial, and two others for various stations.

Alan Zreit shows a detail of a 3D map of the Kay Shelton Station (left) during a public art tour in downtown Dallas on Saturday, Sept. 23, 2023. (Anna Schlein)

In addition to the interesting clocks, my favorite thing about the four downtown stations are the bronze map sculptures that Goldberg made. The sculptures show buildings that are a 10-minute walk from the station in three dimensions, while the rest of the map is flat.

“I wanted it to be a conversation starter, but also a practical wayfinding tool,” Goldberg said. These maps are tangible snapshots of what downtown looked like in the 1990s, and whenever I look at them and see what buildings are missing, I’m fascinated by how much Dallas has changed even in the last 30 years.

Continuing the legacy of rail transport

DART gave a nod to Dallas’ railroad history at its downtown station. A granite plaque between the West End and Accard Station proclaims, “The architecture of a city becomes both its language and its memory,” and commemorates the Texas & Pacific Railroad passenger depot that was originally located here in the late 1800s. Less 100 years later, DART resurrected the tracks on Pacific Avenue.

Just one train stop away is the Eddie Bernice Johnson Union Station, where in 1921 all rail traffic was consolidated. The station now serves a similar role, receiving Amtrak, Trinity Railway Express and DART trains. Freight trains also pass through the station. EBJ/Union includes “drums,” round plates with colorful logos on old passenger trains from when “Frisco” referred to the St. Louis-San Francisco Railroad rather than the Collin County boom. Without these displays, I would never have thought of Dallas as a thriving rail and streetcar hub, given its tangle of highways and car-centric design today.

A city for poets and romantics

As a newcomer, it’s easy to write Dallas off as a city of Fortune 500 companies and no artistic soul. But at Lovers Lane Station, along the orange and red DART lines that hug US 75, I discovered one man’s affair with poetry. The front windows of the station are decorated with colorful typography of poems by the late Robert Trammell, a freelance poet who cultivated a literary community in the city. Trammell’s words conjure up images of Dallas from years past, when Lovers Lane was just outside the city limits, an area lined with bois d’arc trees where couples would meet.

His poem “YOU ARE HERE” is a clever nod to the waiting riders and an acknowledgment that they are part of how the neighborhood around the station has changed. Trammell writes,

“YOU ARE HERE

On the bank of the expressway

YOU ARE HERE

and smell the memory of a freshly plowed field.

THERE

Blocked from view, you can now see the Flying Red Horse as the lovers did.

The words make you think back to when the freeway was new, before the DART tracks were put in and buildings popped up everywhere, when you could see the red pegasus on top of the Magnolia Hotel, even though it was right downtown.

Even a manhole cover at the station is engraved with the phrase “Loves me, loves me not”, as if the design of the entire station is winking at you, inviting you to decipher veiled meanings and playful puns.

The problem of perception

If all you’ve ever heard about rapid transit in the Dallas area are headlines about the agency’s inefficient service and homelessness on its trains, this entire article might seem a little surprising and perhaps short-sighted.

In 1996, when the light rail system opened, David Dillon, The Dallas Morning News” a former architecture critic, wrote: “Design is only one aspect of light rail transport … but indispensable in courting a public that believes transport is dirty and dangerous. … In this context, good design serves an evangelical purpose; it can raise hopes and make converts.”

Even 27 years later, negative perceptions of public transportation in the United States, especially in Dallas, have not changed. We can’t ignore the fact that DART trains are sometimes a refuge for those with nowhere else to go. But in my own experience as a regular driver over the past six months, the agency’s new transit security officers are effective, and the police chief’s plan to reach out to vulnerable passengers shows promise. Serious safety problems on trains are rare.

Increasing ridership is the only way to make public transport more attractive – busy trains police themselves. So I hope that good design does make converters. If you live in Dallas and haven’t ridden the streetcar in a while, go check out some of the stations I wrote about. This is the best time machine I have found.

We welcome your thoughts in a letter to the editor. See the directions and send your letter here. If you have problems with the form, you can send an email to [email protected]

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *