UNTIL JANUARY, when he assumed his post as United States ambassador to Sweden, Lyndon Olson, Jr., called Waco home, despite being the president and CEO of New York City—based Travelers Insurance. On his final commute back to Texas, a couple of days before departing for Stockholm, he stepped out of a cab at New York’s La Guardia Airport and handed his bags to a skycap. The man glanced at Olson’s final destination, cocked his head, and exclaimed, “Waco! Man, you ain’t paying to go there, are you?”
Most Wacoans can tell you similar stories. Five years after the 51-day siege and final conflagration that took the lives of 86 people at the Mount Carmel compound—four agents of the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms and 82 members of the Branch Davidian sect, including 25 children—“Waco” still reverberates more strongly than the name of any other Texas city (and if the early March standoff by an armed UFO cultist is any indication, it will continue to). Only Dallas has suffered similar notoriety, and not even it has seen its name become a verb: “to be Wacoed,” meaning to be overwhelmed in massive numbers by officers of the federal government. This does not sit well with Waco natives like my uncle Morris’ wife, Madelyn, who is quick to remind motel clerks and anyone else who dares lift an eyebrow when they discover where she’s from: “Those people were fifteen miles out of town! They were closer to a little place called Elk than they were to Waco! Waco had nothing to do with it!” But since being “Elked” isn’t likely to enter the vernacular anytime soon, most Wacoans have learned to live with their infamy—or even to turn it into an asset. “There’s no publicity that’s bad publicity,” says Jerry MacLauchlin, a professor of theater and dance at Baylor University.
“It allows me to tell people what Waco is really about,” says Elizabeth Taylor, the director of the Waco Convention and Visitors Bureau. “I take it as a positive. It’s like having to live with being Elizabeth Taylor all my life. I can either allow it to be a burden, or I can use it to my advantage.”
Having grown up in Waco, the city that gave the world Steve Martin, Ann Richards, Dr Pepper, and the longest novel ever published in book form (Madison Cooper’s 1,731-page Sironia, Texas ), I was curious about the lingering effects of the Branch Davidian incident on its character and personality. Hanging out there for the first time since I was a kid, talking to people I hadn’t seen in years, I discovered that the tragedy had tested Waco and its new generation of civic leaders—and that they seemed to have passed the test. The city is thriving. Real, live people spend their days downtown, hustling in and out of refurbished buildings and patronizing vibrant businesses; parking is actually a problem. With redevelopment beginning at the Brazos River and spreading inexorably north, desolation is finally being colored in.
Of course, Wacoans have known hard times before. I remember another tragedy that affected the city even more profoundly than the siege. It happened on a spring afternoon 45 years ago: I watched sheets of rain blow across our front yard, followed by hail that bounced on the spring-green grass and then an eerie stillness beneath a bruise-colored purple-green sky. An hour or so later, our neighbor Mrs. Thompson came home from work downtown, which was a mile west. “Waco’s gone,” she shouted across the street to my dad. “It’s blown away.”
The 1953 tornado that ripped the heart out of downtown Waco not only killed 114 people but also marked the beginning of a decades-long decline. In the months and years after, downtown businesses decamped to suburban shopping centers, and in the name of urban renewal, the city bulldozed what was left of its historic heart: the city hall square. After Mother Nature and contemporary notions of progress had done their work, only the gray-stone thirties-era city hall remained, surrounded by empty lots.
In what seemed like no time, downtown Waco had become a shabby ghost town of abandoned brick buildings—buildings that once housed department stores, theaters, hotels, and small businesses. Every attempt to halt the decline seemed only to increase it. In the sixties the city listened to consultants who advised eliminating traffic and parking on three blocks of Waco’s main street, Austin Avenue, and adding benches, trees, and grass. But the pedestrian mall, a voguish trend in city planning, was a disaster. Customers blanched at shopping or eating downtown because they couldn’t park in front of their favorite shop or restaurant; after a while, they had no reason to. The city finally reopened Austin Avenue to traffic in 1987.
Not only downtown declined after the tornado. In 1966 James Connally Air Force Base closed, and overnight Waco lost some $27 million that 2,400 military and 800 civilian workers contributed to the local economy. Waco also lost the headquarters of the Twelfth Air Force and the city’s largest private employer at the time, General Tire and Rubber. While Dallas and Fort Worth, a hundred miles to the north, grew and prospered, and while Austin, a hundred miles to the south, boomed and busted and boomed again, Waco settled into stasis.
A popular theory about Waco’s history is that a few prominent families who ran the city over the years conspired to retard growth and progress because they feared competition: They wanted to keep out industry to keep wages low. “It was like a castle with a moat around it,” says insurance executive Bernard Rapoport, the former chair of the University of Texas Board of Regents, who has lived in Waco for most of the past fifty years. Whether or not that’s true, it’s certainly the case that by the time of the Branch Davidian incident, a new generation eager for growth and prosperity had assumed positions of civic leadership. “They covered the moat,” Rapoport says.