Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

In the Limelight Again, Waco Struggles with an Identity Crisis as Birthplace of Dr. Pepper and Steve Martin, Waco Touts Much More Than Memories of the Branch Davidian Standoff

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

In the Limelight Again, Waco Struggles with an Identity Crisis as Birthplace of Dr. Pepper and Steve Martin, Waco Touts Much More Than Memories of the Branch Davidian Standoff

Article excerpt

As mayor of Waco, Texas, Michael Morrison knows he could talk all day about all the wonderful aspects of his hometown. It's a town with a rich frontier history, where Dr. Pepper was invented, and where Baylor University calls home.

Actor Steve Martin came from Waco. So did folk singer John Denver.

But Mr. Morrison also knows that the world has heard of Waco for one reason alone: the tragic 1993 confrontation between the federal government and the Branch Davidians, which lasted 51 days and claimed the lives of more than 80 people.

"It's almost as if someone took $6 billion to run a negative ad campaign against Waco," says Morrison, a law professor at Baylor who notes mordantly that the standoff actually occurred 10 miles down the road - in Elk, Texas. "I think we all feel a little snakebit by something that happened near us."

Waco is certainly not the only city in history to bear the stigma of one tragic event. The ancient Mediterranean town of Troy may have been home to some exquisite baklava, but it will always be known for a bloody war over a gal named Helen.

Today, as instant television images replace Homeric odes, towns like Waco, Ruby Ridge, Idaho; Littleton, Colo.; and Jasper, Texas, struggle to redefine themselves to the world, long after the media are gone.

Clearly, Waco's founders didn't see this coming. Texas Rangers arrived on the banks of the Brazos River here in 1837 to establish control over the nearby Waco Indians, who proved quite easy to "control."

Soon, white settlers streamed in to farm cotton here. Others arrived to sell supplies to cowboys who drove cattle across the Brazos River, heading north to Fort Worth. By 1886, Waco was known as the "Athens of Texas," because of its four colleges.

Today, the Bible Belt town of 100,000 or so residents holds block parties and church socials and boasts 3.4 percent unemployment, well below the state average. The town has 16 different museums, zoos, and historical sites, from the Texas Ranger Museum and the Dr. Pepper Museum to the Texas Sports Hall of Fame.

For any ordinary town, this would be the stuff of a decent tourist economy. But Waco has what political consultants call "negative name recognition," and it's a fact that makes Larry Holze's job, as Waco's public information officer, difficult. …

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