The scene is mostly unchanged from that day in 1963.
The roadway slopes downward and gently to the left from the crown of the hill, and if you look up you still see a seven-story, red-brick building towering above trees lining the street.
From most vantage points, you can see a window apparently open on the sixth floor of the building, looking down on the scene below.
Decorative concrete columns border the road, next to what is best described as a grassy knoll. The top of that grassy knoll is not so grassy these days, not with tourists tramping on it for another view of Elm Street and the Texas School Book Depository Building.
Visitors, too, have worn the grass on both sides of Elm about halfway down the street, midway between the red brick building and a railroad underpass.
This late-winter day is typical of all the days that have passed since Nov. 22, 1963, when the motorcade of John F. Kennedy, the 35th president of the United States, rode through Dealey Plaza.
When you see this in person, you can see how Oswald could have done it. It’s so close. Much closer than it looks on TV.
A visitor to Dealey Plaza
School children on a field trip, school papers and clipboards in their hands, look back up the sidewalk toward the intersection of Elm and Houston. A group of Chinese visitors scramble over the still-white concrete pergola up the hill from Elm, near a sign telling them where Abraham Zapruder stood with his 8mm movie camera that day.
A married couple, hand in hand, walk down the hill to the street, where a vendor is selling a makeshift newspaper showing Kennedy assassination sites in the Dallas area.
He gets few takers from the visitors, most of them not yet born 53 1/2 years ago.
“When you see this in person,” an onlooker who didn’t want to be identified tells me, “you can see how Oswald could have done it. It’s so close. Much closer than it looks on TV.”
And then it strikes you: This 200-foot stretch of carefully tended asphalt is likely the most-visited and most-photographed city street in America, drawing the quiet and the curious, those who view it with reverence and others who treat it as nothing more than a lark.
Two Xs in the road
The Deposity looks largely unchanged, Elm Street appears to be little different, and Dealey Plaza — a spot near the Trinity River where the earliest white settlers in Dallas located a trading post in 1839 — is being restored to how it looked in 1963.
And yet, there are minor changes that a discerning visitor would notice.
The Stemmons Freeway sign, which for a moment blocked Zapruder’s film of the presidential motorcade, has been removed from the hillside along Elm in favor of a sign that hangs above the roadway.
Also gone: The famed Hertz Rental Cars sign sitting atop the Depository, a landmark in the city in 1963 — the roof-wide sign was dismantled and removed in 1979 — that told visitors the time and temperature. That afternoon, the clock read 12:30 as Kennedy and his wife, Jacqueline, rode through the plaza, accompanied by the governor of Texas and the vice-president and reporters and television crews and all the trappings of a presidential motorcade.
12:30 The time showing on the clock on the Hertz Rental Cars sign atop the Texas School Book Depository as President Kennedy’s motorcade made its way down Elm Street on Nov. 22, 1963
The trees along the road are larger these days, particularly a tree that’s grown taller between the sixth floor window of the Depository and the first stretch of Elm Street below.
Oh, and something else that wasn’t there in 1963: Two white Xs painted on the pavement of Elm, added, I’m told, by the people who have made a cottage industry of Kennedy’s assassination in the area. Some of them staff a Kiosk near the Depository front door offering a guided open-convertible tour of Kennedy sites in Dallas; others sell maps of the area or happily rehash conspiracy theories with onlookers.
Nothing at the scene tells you what the Xs represent, but you instantly know: The first unofficially marks the location of Kennedy’s limousine when he was struck in the back by Lee Harvey Oswald’s second shot, and then — 90 feet or so down the street — the site of the third and fatal shot.
Not far from those Xs, you can still clamber onto the concrete plinth where Zapruder stood, filming the scene of the most public and most publicized murder in American history.
And there is something else in Dealey Plaza that wasn’t there the day Kennedy died — the Sixth Floor Museum, devoted to the life and times and death of Kennedy, cut down at 46 in the third year of his presidency.
A metro-east connection
The museum — located on the floor of the warehouse where that Friday Oswald stacked boxes to hide his assassin’s lair, took aim at the back of Kennedy’s head, fired three shots, abandoned his rifle and fled — uses video, interactive displays and historical artifacts to tell the story of Kennedy’s presidency and his death.
You see campaign buttons and a Chubby Checkers record and photos of the Cuban Missile Crisis, film of the battle for civil rights and the Kennedys’ wedding picture and a clip of Kennedy’s call for manned exploration of the moon.
And then, for a visitor from our part of Southern Illinois, comes a surprise.
A UPI teletype machine in the museum shows an editor breaking into a story with news of Kennedy’s shooting. The story that was interrupted? A crime report from Edwardsville regarding the Madison County Sheriffs Department.
In a display showing the initial wire story reports of the shooting, a UPI teletype machine features what was moving on the wires that day. (Think of a teletype as your Facebook news feed of 1963: One of these machines stood in every newsroom in America, chattering as it printed out the latest stories moving on UPI and AP at that moment, so anchors like Walter Cronkite and David Brinkley had something to read into the camera.)
This day, preserved for history, shows this typed exchange from harried UPI editors trying to interrupt the regular news feed:
Edwardsville, Ill. – The Madison County Sheriffs Office said today it has no clues t
Get off NXR
Get off NX Get off Get off
(Dallas) 1-An unknown sniper fired three shots at PTOU
Kennedy seriously wounded - - -
The teletype machine is not 15 feet from a glass-enclosed corner of the museum, housing the assassin’s perch used by Oswald in the southeast corner of the sixth floor.
Scott Foresman Publishing Company boxes -- meticulously duplicating the cartons used in the Depository a half-century ago -- obstruct the assassin’s location alongside the window, much as the boxes would have hidden Oswald if anyone had intruded on his hiding place back in 1963. The display, using Dallas police photographs from that Friday, duplicates a stack of boxes used by Oswald to support his Italian-made Mannlicher–Carcano rifle.
From that point on, displays in the museum recount eyewitness descriptions of the assassination, and show cameras used by photographers and just plain folk to capture the scene of the shooting and the aftermath, including an identical copy of the movie camera used by Zapruder. His film is shown at several points in the museum, ending always just before the fatal shot.
Also: Films of the Kennedy funeral, a display showing the fatal shooting of Oswald by Jack Ruby, including the suit and Stetson worn by Dallas Police Det. Jim Leavelle displayed in the exact position he took — handcuffed to Oswald — as Ruby pulled the trigger.
Without taking sides, several exhibits explore the conspiracy theories that have flourished in the half-century since the murders of Kennedy and Oswald, a cottage industry that may never go out of business.
On a higher note, the tour concludes with a moving film recounting Kennedy’s life, presidential term and legacy, followed by another glass enclosure showing where Oswald hid his rifle and ran down the stairwell as he fled the Depository.
Sunglasses and earrings, and a rocking chair
At the corner where Oswald made his escape, across Houston Street from the assassin’s lair, sits the Museum Store + Cafe.
Books and Kennedy memorabilia line the walls, from the scholarly and serious — some of the hundreds of books written about Kennedy and his death — to the oddly immaterial and macabre.
You can, apparently, buy duplicates of the sunglasses worn by Jack and Jackie Kennedy in Dallas that bright fall day. Famously, Kennedy had to tell his wife repeatedly to remove her sunglasses as their Lincoln convertible made their way through the throngs in downtown, so the people could see her face.
You can also buy silver earrings that match the motif of the concrete patterns adorning each side of the Texas School Book Depository entrance.
Among the items on sale at the museum store: Sunglasses like the Kennedys wore, earrings showing the motif of the School Book Despository concrete work, and a Kennedy rocking chair.
And you can pay $515 for a replica Kennedy Rocker, a price that seems steep until you read the accompanying sign noting the chair’s “rocking motion aids circulation and relieves stress.”
Oh, well then.
Outside the museum, visitors continue to line Elm Street, even as typically busy afternoon Dallas traffic makes its way through the west end of downtown and onto interstates and other roads past the railroad underpass.
During a break in the traffic, a laughing teenager hands his cell phone to a friend, dances out to the middle of the street and does a jig on the fatal X, mugging for the camera as his buddy clicks away.
Joe Ostermeier has been with the News-Democrat since 1975. He was 10 years old when President Kennedy was assassinated in 1963, and waited on his porch that Friday afternoon for a special edition of the News-Democrat to arrive at his Belleville home. He can be reached at 618-239-2512, or @JoeOstermeier
Sixth Floor Museum
411 Elm Street, Dallas, Texas
Hours: Monday noon-6 p.m., Tuesday-Sunday 10 a.m.-6 p.m.
Admission: Adult $16, Senior (65+) $14, Youth (6-18) $13, Child (0-5) free.