It’s not just about us

Somehow, two big projects I’ve been working on for eons landed at City Hall for big votes on the same day. In truth, I found this highly annoying. Seriously, what are the odds? And who wants to spend all morning at City Hall?

Spoiler alert: both projects passed unanimously. And though on the surface, the two projects are very different, their origins are rooted in the exact same question: are there needs in the neighborhood that we can meet through our existing assets?

The story begins in late 2014, several months after I became ED. Some conflicting ideas came up about how to use certain museum spaces, so I gathered key staff together for a series of meetings. We sat down and discussed each and every one of our buildings. The public spaces. The office spaces. The storage spaces. We asked ourselves a series of questions: what is the highest and best use for this building? What needs to happen to get this space to reach its highest and best use use? We saved the most challenging building for last–the Park Avenue House.

Back in 2004, my first office was located in this house. It’s one of two homes on their original locations, facing the historic City Park land. Past master plans had called for that building’s demolition. But the 2006 master plan was sitting on a shelf, and meanwhile, the building was starting to really fall apart. With the rapid gentrification of the Cedars, we knew that original Cedars homes are rare and becoming more rare every day. These two homes tell an important story of what the neighborhood used to be, and there’s no one better to tell that story.

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So, we made the decision that we needed to figure out a way to save that house. But it was going to cost a lot of money. It was currently being used for storage of items that didn’t need super-great environmental conditions–so exhibit cases, stanchions, signs, things like that. Even with my non-expert eyes, I knew renovation would be six figures–and who is going to give us money for storage? With our current staff size, we didn’t need additional office space. So, what is a purpose for that building that might attract funding? Was there an opportunity for us to provide some stability in a neighborhood where all rents were skyrocketing? And could that opportunity also result in some revenue for us?

 

Looking back in the file, my first email about this idea was sent to the Office of Cultural Affairs at the City of Dallas (they own all DHV buildings) in spring 2015.

Around the same time, we started looking at updating our master plan. The neighborhood was changing–and our former plan, with a visitor’s center facing east, no longer made sense. With major properties being purchased to our west and south, we realized that we couldn’t have a back side. The master plan had to reflect the new reality of the Cedars.

We formed a committee and started exploring options. We have about 26 acres under our control. The core of the museum experience is on about 13 acres. The parcels that were undeveloped currently serve as overflow parking. But with the changing neighborhood, what was the highest and best use of that land? We don’t need more historic buildings to maintain. We only need that land for parking a few times a year. Our biggest need is a Visitors Center–and we just didn’t need all of that land to make that happen. But there was something the neighborhood desperately needed–a public park. The Cedars has no public park. They once had the only park in the city, but now it’s a ticketed museum. So, what if we turned some of our land back to the neighborhood and created a public park?

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We first shared the new master plan with the public at our annual meeting in September 2017. Though there were some questions–what about Candlelight parking? Will we ever be able to take down fences?–the general feeling was (and still is!) excitement. This is something different.

Around the same time, I became aware there was about $800,000 available for a district wide project. Could some of that money be directed to DHV?

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So, I began to put together a proposal for the Park Avenue House. The city wasn’t used to a non-developer asking for TIF funds. They had to create a new application for us. Lots of back and forth. Lots of meetings. We developed a heck of a plan–and a different way of thinking about possibilities for these funds.

Last Thursday, my architect, Craig Melde, and I presented the master plan to the Park Board for approval. It passed unanimously. And then, I headed to the Cedars TIF Board to request $650,000 to renovate the Park Avenue House and turn it into leased office space for other nonprofits. It also passed unanimously.

These projects are far from over. The Master Plan represents the beginning of a capital campaign that will probably be in the $25 million range. To receive the $650,000, we have to raise another $550,000. This money will be used to fix the house next door, take care of pretty things like landscaping and furniture, and establish a maintenance endowment for both buildings.

Though both projects will certainly benefit DHV, the ideas that are being applauded came from us looking not at what we need, but what our community needs. How many museums do you think are asking those kinds of questions? How much more sustainable would museums be if they looked at both internal and external needs before coming up with big ideas?

So, yes, it was annoying that both votes landed on the same day. But I wouldn’t have it any other way. We are inextricably linked to our neighborhood, and it’s making us a better museum. How many other museums can say the same thing?

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Of Beer and Neighbors: Welcoming Four Corners Brewing to the Cedars

On Friday, I had the most meaningful beer I’ve ever had.

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Most of you know what’s happening in the Cedars. Back in 2014, a lot of major buildings on Ervay (one of DHV’s borders) changed hands–with significant redevelopment plans. Promises were made with projected opening dates of 2016. All of those buildings remain quiet for a variety of complicated reasons.

Months after that initial flurry, Four Corners Brewing announced they were moving from their original location in Trinity Groves (West Dallas) to the Cedars. This was a different kind of development plan–an established business expanding–and though the last announced, they’re the first to open.

I don’t remember exactly when I first met Greg, one of the co-owners, but I remember how I approached that first meeting. Meeting new potential partners can be a little like dating–the main purpose is to get to know each other. You don’t want to reveal everything on that first date. What if your special brand of crazy shows too early? My goals for that first meeting were pretty simple–I really just wanted them to know who we are, that we like beer, and determine their timeline. Of course, I had lots and lots of other ideas. After all, I love craft beer almost as much as I love museums. But it seemed a little too forward to put all that out there on the first meeting.

But then Greg and I got to talking. I learned that he had volunteered at DHV as a kid back in the 1980s. I learned that he was already thinking about ways we could partner. So, I pretty much shared all of my ideas at the first meeting. And I don’t think I scared him too much, since we’ve kept talking.

Of course, with any construction project, there are delays. Their original opening date was supposed to be in March. But when the tap room opened for the first time on Friday, I was there. And I had a beer. And it was delicious.

But it’s not just about the beer. The completion of this project is such a clear articulation of the vision so many of us have for the future of the Cedars. They took an overlooked, historic building (it was originally the stables for the Ambassador Hotel across the street), beautifully updated it, and created a new community gathering space.

Last night, we hosted a DHV members happy hour. Many familiar faces were there, but by far, the most important person there was Ruth Ann. She’s one of our founders and has been involved with us for over 50 years. Ruth Ann graciously declined a beer, but she just had to see what our new neighbors had done with the building. She ended up chatting at length with Greg, both about the business and the neighborhood.

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Greg, one of the co-owners, chatting with Ruth Ann. Past chair Don is also listening in.

As we were chatting, she said to me “I’m so amazed at what you’re doing. You’re just one of the most clever people I’ve ever met.” And I turned to her and said “I don’t know, Ruth Ann. You’re pretty smart too. You saw what the museum and this neighborhood could be all those years ago, when there was absolutely nothing.” I guess our mutual admiration society continues.

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Trying to ride the wave of all this neighborhood redevelopment is exhausting. Sometimes it is frustrating. It certainly requires a lot of patience! But the last few days have reminded me why we keep going. If the presence of Ruth Ann at a brewery on a Tuesday night doesn’t speak volumes to the faith and loyalty our supporters have in both the museum and the neighborhood, then I don’t know what will.

And it continues. Tonight, I had drinks with another neighborhood partner, also giving new life to a fabulous historical building. It will be an unprecedented partnership, one I can’t talk about quite yet. But it’s yet another reminder of how naturally collaboration comes to our organization. The difference now is geography. Finally having neighbors–and our mutual desire to work together–will transform the museum in ways that were beyond my wildest dreams when I took the Executive Director title 3.5 years ago. I think we can all drink to that.

Step by Step: Neighborhood Redevelopment

In the last few months, my work has taken a surprising turn. I’m having meetings about things that I don’t think most history museum directors ever dream about. People are approaching us with some pretty incredible ideas–ideas that have made my jaw drop and my mind whirl. After about the third time, I started thinking about what caused all of this. And though I could be wrong, the motivations seem to boil down to three main things: our location, our reputation, and the fact that I spend an awful lot of time out in the community talking to people.

And then I flashed back to a board meeting a few years ago. We were looking at the budget, and it wasn’t pretty. We were running a deficit again. Heck, we’re still running a deficit. Out of frustration, a board member said “How will we ever stop this slide?”

“Well, we’re hiring development consultants so we can all learn how to better fund raise. And we can’t discount the impact that the coming development will have. A rising tide lifts all boats.”

“So, you’re saying you’re pinning the entire future of this organization on neighborhood redevelopment?”

“No. But I’m saying this pending development makes me a lot more optimistic about our future, though we’re going to have to work hard to fully take advantage of it.”

Some board members nodded. Some avoided looking me in the eye. Some gave me the side eye.

And though it’s too early to say “I told you so,” I do believe these conversations are a sign of what’s to come–and a sign that a vital neighborhood will make a real difference for our museum. Of course, it’s all taken far longer than I anticipated. Of all the buildings on Ervay that changed hands in 2014, only one is under construction. Back then, we were told that things would be done and open in 2016. Now I just laugh at developer timelines. But yesterday, I had a big meeting with one of our neighbors and that project is finally starting to move forward (and it will be amazing!)

And last weekend, we celebrated another big project and big win for the neighborhood–the grand opening of the Lorenzo Hotel. This building, super visible from DHV, has been empty for years. It was an eyesore, overrun by homeless.  Initially, the redevelopment proposal was for affordable housing, and the neighborhood fought that. Today, we have a gorgeous, funky boutique hotel with a pretty fabulous bar.

There was no question about whether or not I would go to the party–I wanted to celebrate that one of the big ideas for the Cedars was complete. And when it was mentioned that a few folks were renting hotel rooms that night, I decided to splurge and get one too.

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It was a party unlike anything I’ve ever been too. Of course, there was lots of food and drink. But there were also aerialists spinning by the pool, mermaids swimming in the pool, body paint artists and fairies roaming around.

And most shocking, there was a line around the block of people trying to get in. At that party, a lot of people learned that there is life south of I-30.

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Me, with neighborhood artist Jim and friend Stephanie. We didn’t have to wait in a line to get in!

We’ve got a long way to go, both as a neighborhood and as an organization. Balancing the budget continues to be a real challenge. Quality of life issues are enormous. But I can’t help but think big and continue to be incredibly optimistic. In a few weeks, we’ll present to the Master Plan Committee and staff some initial ideas for DHV’s future, and we’ll be doing it at the Lorenzo Hotel. It just feels exactly right to think about the future in a place that is a few steps ahead of us.

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The view from my hotel room. That green stuff just to the left of the big white building is DHV. And you can barely see the Dallas flag!

P. S. I wish I could be less vague about some of these big ideas and partnerships. I want to shout it from the rooftops! (and if I see you in person, I’ll probably share). But nothing is official yet. Trust me–I’ll share when I can.

Dramatic Inspiration: Innovative theater and museums

A few days ago, I saw a play that made me think a lot about museums. And though the story was incredibly powerful, I kept thinking about how they told it–and the implications for museums that are still wrestling with curatorial authority.

I’ve had season tickets to the Dallas Theater Center since 2014–it was one of my treats to myself when I became Executive Director. Over the years, my mom and I have seen some incredible shows. Several months ago, I got a letter in the mail about their upcoming performance of Electra. Since they were performing the entire show, would we mind switching our usual matinee time to an evening performance? From that moment forward, I was very intrigued.

Electra, that ancient Greek tragedy, is currently being performed outside in the Dallas Arts District. The audience is given headphones, and follows the actors from scene to scene–4 locations in all. Sometimes we were standing, sometimes we were sitting. The city noises of sirens and the highway added to the overall effect. At times, the actors were right in front of us. At other times, they were yards away. There were no assigned spots or seats, we were just there, together, experiencing something magical.

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When we moved from Scene 1 to Scene 2, I got really emotional as we stepped through the curtain. What was next? I have never felt that sense of anticipation during a play before. Each time we moved, there was this sense of urgency. Somehow, we had become a part of the action. We, the audience, had become deeply involved with the play, the actors, and the story.

In the playbook, director Kevin Moriarty writes about the decision to take it outside:

This not only connects back to the Ancient Greek tradition of performing under the sky, but it also allows for a more expansive acting style. . . It also locates the performance as a public event–you are hyper-aware of your surroundings, the other people experiencing the play alongside you, and your own relationship to the actors. This combination of a simultaneously public/private event and the interplay of intimate/grand emotions is central to the experience of these ancient plays.

But I can’t turn off my ED brain. What were the logistics of moving the audience multiple times? How many times have audience members gotten left behind? What was the board meeting like when this idea was first mentioned? What kind of sound technology made all this possible? How are more traditional theater goers responding?

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Amidst all the questions, there are some answers. From the moment we picked up our headset, I knew that the DTC trusted us, the audience, to come along with them for the ride. How often do we place such radical trust in our audiences? The DTC took one of the oldest plays in existence and made it feel completely fresh and current and new. All of the “radical” ideas in this production served and amplified the story. Nothing felt like a gimmick. They didn’t make these choices “because we can” but because it made for a better theatrical experience.

The last scene was at a reflecting pool. We had each been handed LED candles and stood around the pool, the lights of downtown and our candles mingling. And then, each actor went up to an audience member and gently took off their headphones, signaling the rest of the audience to do the same. The lapping of water, voices singing, and the end to an incredible night of theater. I left feeling inspired and grateful and amazed. Theaters are the king of “sit there and I’ll tell you a story” entertainment. Museums often do the same. But if a theater can involve their audience, make them feel a part of the story, while still maintaining control of the story, what can we as museums do? Perhaps the issue isn’t always curatorial authority, but rather figuring out how to take your visitors along for the ride.

Afterglow: Reflections on Candlelight

Any time you welcome thousands of people to your museum over the course of 2 days, there will be stories. Candlelight is our biggest event of the year–and our longest running. This year, we celebrated its 45th anniversary–and it was my 13th as a staff member. At the end of each night, staff gather and share some of the stories, usually with some sort of alcoholic beverage. We call it Afterglow.

I will admit that we spend a lot of time complaining and venting. Crazy things happen at Candlelight, often involving parking. One of my favorite stories of all time was when someone tried to get in the VIP lot and was denied. Man in fancy car shouted “My father is the curator! He’ll hear about this!” Max responded “Actually, my mother is the curator and she’ll be just fine.” This year, we had a volunteer refuse to serve because he had to park in a field. We also once had a truck get stuck in cistern that magically opened up. Somewhere, there’s a wonderful picture of several men staring at the hole, trying to engineer their way out of that situation.

But as I was driving home on Sunday night, I wasn’t thinking about all the annoyances and stresses of Candlelight–but how this event bring so many people together. It’s a touchstone in so many lives.

So, here’s to:

  • Ruth Ann, one of our founders, who came this year. It’s difficult for her to get around now, but she remains one of our most constant and faithful supporters.  Pretty sure she was at the first one all those years ago. (At the first Candlelight, there was an ice storm. It’s amazing they decided to try again!)

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    On the front porch of the Blum House
  • Wrene, one of our mighty Guild volunteers (the Guild does a bake sale that raises thousands. Also, there are delicious cookies!). She and her husband moved to Corpus Christi a few years ago, but she comes back every year for a week to help bake and then volunteer both days at Candlelight. And her husband plays piano in the Saloon. Now, that’s dedication.
  • Banner, almost 5, who checked with his mom last week to make sure they would still see the Green Santa.

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    Banner’s sister isn’t quite as thrilled with the “Green Santa”
  • Drew, who has been “Green Santa” for many, many years. I actually had a bit of time to watch him interact with some little ones, and he’s just absolutely amazing with them.
  • Margaret, who came to Candlelight on a first date. And then she brought that same boy back as her husband. And then this year, she brought their month old daughter. Margaret is also a fellow Hendrix alum, which makes it all even neater.
  • Gary, my predecessor, who was finally able to enjoy Candlelight as a visitor–and brought almost his entire family with him!
  • Gail, who started out cooking in the Blum House kitchen with her Junior Historian daughter. But Grace couldn’t make it home from college in time this year–and Gail still came. This year, younger daughter Sophie spent Candlelight assisting with Nip and Tuck. Love seeing entire families get involved at DHV! (Dad Steve is also Chair-Elect.)
  • Ron, who started setting up his childhood trains in the Depot several years ago–and was featured on tv last week. It’s a lovely story.
  • Drew, one of our volunteer photographers, who came both days of Candlelight, plus on Friday afternoon to capture this amazing shot. All of our volunteer photographers do amazing work, but Drew gets a gold star this year.(He took most of the photos in this post. He also gets a gold star because he texts me the good ones while I’m laying on my couch, unwinding.)

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    We moved this carriage for a special photo op–and had to get a few funny photos! 
  • Cedars neighbors, who showed up in force. I’m sure it’s just a coincidence that I ran into so many of them in the Member’s Lounge, which also happened to be the only place at DHV where you could get an alcoholic beverage. . .

I could go on and on. This is an event that takes many hands, but is so important to so many. Shortly after I took over, we worked on a new vision statement and eventually landed on “a place to make history.” We wanted this vision to be both about being active participants in the past, but also acknowledge how this museum fits into many people’s lives. Though Candlelight may not be one of those events where people learn a lot of history, a lot of history is certainly made each year. And that’s an awfully important role that a museum can play.

Lessons from Fair Park

It seems everyone in Dallas is talking about Fair Park right now. And it’s not just the usual fried food anticipation that comes with every State Fair season. A few weeks ago, an old friend asked me on Facebook “Will you explain the Fair Park issue to me like I’m five years old? I don’t really understand what’s going on.” My response: “The Powers That Be want to fix something and are surprised that other people also have thoughts.”

I’ve written about Fair Park here before.  In the 9 months or so since that post, I continue to be deeply concerned about the future of Fair Park. I also continue to be deeply concerned about the lack of understanding in the community about how non-profits work.  But lately, I’ve mostly been fascinated.  This whole mess has more than a few lessons for non-profit leaders.

(For those that aren’t local and want to catch up, I highly recommend checking out the stories by Robert Wilonsky or Jim Schutze.  There are so many nuances to this whole situation, and they have already explained it as well as possible.)

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Lesson #1: If you know that there’s a contentious issue coming up at a board meeting, don’t try to limit the discussion.  Back in July, the Park Board was all set to discuss the management agreement with the foundation. When they arrived that morning, the agenda had been changed at the last minute and limited to just six items. Five Park Board members walked out.  There was no longer a quorum, and the meeting ended.  It was a powerful reminder that boards do in fact have power–and there should be a power balance between the ED/Chair and the rest of the board.

Earlier this summer, I presented something to my board that I was expecting to pass with little discussion. Instead, there was a lengthy discussion, a second discussion a month later, and an email discussion. Ultimately the proposal passed, but certainly not on the timeline I had envisioned.  But you know what?  That’s okay, because it means my board is doing their job. No non-profit leader should ever expect everything to sail through, especially on really big decisions.

Lesson #2: Stop underestimating the power of social media. If this transfer had been attempted even 5 years ago, I think it would have been a smoother road. People just weren’t as active and engaged and informed as they are today–and it’s all through social media. There are twitter accounts solely dedicated to this issue. Hundreds of people have shown up to meetings about Fair Park. By all appearances, this has caught quite a few people completely off-guard.  Back room deals, the bedrock of Dallas politics, just aren’t as easy any more.

Lesson #3: Take every opportunity you can to explain non-profit mechanics–and how you serve the community. There has been a lot of vilification of non-profits on social media over the last several months. Many assume that non-profits aren’t held accountable for their actions. Though there are certainly some accountability issues in the current management agreement, people don’t realize that non-profits are accountable in a thousand different ways–to board members, the public, funders, partners, etc.  And people also don’t realize how many management agreements the city already has with private non-profits. We’ve been in a management agreement with the city since the 1960s.

Lesson #4: If people are accusing you of not being transparent, change your actions. There are many, many things that baffle me about the current situation. The board of the foundation has yet to meet, but they’re presenting to the city a management agreement and a budget. This just seems totally backwards to me.  Board members are fiscally responsible–shouldn’t they have some input?  They should have been meeting for a year before they ever introduced a formal contract to the city. And yet, no changes are being made.  Instead, threats are being tossed around that this must be voted on in September–OR ELSE.  And so people are deeply worried about various shenanagins. As they should be.  It’s just baffling.  Also, here’s the funding chart that was presented to the City.

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If I had presented that to anyone, I would have been laughed out of the room and out of the job.  And perhaps that’s what frustrates me most about this whole situation. It appears that they’re being held to an entirely different standard than other non-profits. And that’s bad for all of us.

The worries continue about Fair Park. But at least it’s another opportunity to learn how to be a better Executive Director. Just do the opposite of the folks trying to take over Fair Park.

 

When History Comes Home: Aftermath of Dallas Shootings

On Thursday, July 7, I was watching a recorded episode of The Daily Show and decided to do one last Facebook scroll.  A friend that lives downtown posted about shots fired at that evening’s protest.  I thought to myself “Hmm. That’s interesting.” And then I saw a few more posts and realized that I should perhaps start watching live TV.

You all know what happened next.  That night, I turned off the tv around 12:30, stunned and numb and so very, very worried about my city.

When I woke up the next morning, I laid in bed for a while, listening to NPR, scrolling through social media. As I drove into work, I started thinking about how DHV should respond.  Because I knew we had to respond in some way.

The problem with becoming a community engaged museum is that when tragedy strikes your community, it hurts a lot more.  We’ve worked with a lot of officers to make the neighborhood safer.  We host monthly crime watch meetings. We’ve become good friends with various political leaders.  And it’s not just “we the museum” but also “me, Melissa.”

When I got to work on Friday, I sent a quick email to staff: we were going to be free that day. And then I posted the following on DHV’s Facebook page:

Today, we are grieving with our entire city over the terrible events that took place last night. We know that many in our neighborhood are directly impacted by these events. Though it feels like such a small gesture, today we’re offering free admission. If you need a place to reflect, we have a beautiful view of the skyline, shady trees, and two donkeys that are happy to give hugs. We love you, Dallas.

I also shared it on my personal page. This one little post garnered more Facebook likes and shares than anything we’ve ever done. Many of my friends, even non-local ones, shared it as well, praising me.  Here’s some of what they said:

High School friend: And this is why Dallas is the best. Melissa Prycer I’m sure you had a lot to do with this and I applaud you. What a great place for people to find a little peace.

Book Club Friend: The world is a dark and miserable place, and all we can do is be kinder. Here’s my friend Melissa, doing what she can.

Book Club Friend:

From Dallas – a community resource being the voice of reason. And offering free hugs in the midst of turmoil. Thank you Melissa Prycer! you and your organization are a breath of sanity – for your city, and for the country

All of Friday, I continued to be stunned–not just to the events of Thursday night, but to the response of what I considered to be an obvious and far too small gesture. But no other cultural institution offered free admission as a response. Every other institution seemed to have a fairly standard “thoughts and prayers” response, not one that connected directly to our neighborhood. And people seemed to notice.

I’m not here to call out my local colleagues, many of whom had to close for a few days as the crime scene was processed. But I am here to say this to the field: how sad is it that people are surprised when a history museum responds to current events? Isn’t that part of our job?

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Here in Dallas, we’re still grieving and processing. But I am so damn proud of my city right now. Recently, a friend of mine called me a “civic leader,” and when he said that, I twitched a little. Those just aren’t words that feel right for what I’m doing. The contrast between my last few days and what friends like Adam Medrano (our councilman) and Kourtny Garrett (ED of Downtown Dallas, Inc) have been through makes me very glad to be leading a small history museum on the edge of downtown. I’ve at least gotten some sleep.

I confess that I avoided the prayer vigil on Friday and the candlelight vigil last night. I just wasn’t ready to grieve in public with others. But tonight, as usual, we hosted our monthly crime watch meeting. Our awesome officer, Jeanette Weng, was there. Much of the meeting was business as usual, but we had cookies. And we offered hugs, which she gladly accepted. I know I wasn’t the only that teared up a bit tonight.

I will never understand why museums hesitate to become more involved in their communities. But perhaps if we hadn’t had our joint battles about unsheltered homeless or highway design, I wouldn’t still be grieving. If we didn’t host crime watch and neighborhood association meetings, we wouldn’t still be grieving. It may feel safer to remain distant. But if we hadn’t taken these steps, we also wouldn’t be quite so proud of how well our city is handling this tragedy. And we certainly wouldn’t have been prepared to respond when history came to our front door.