I recently traveled through Hong Kong, and was intrigued by one man’s description of that bustling, prosperous city as “one of the world’s acupuncture points.” Another of those acupuncture points of mysterious importance must be Waco, Texas, where I lived from 2000-2010, before moving to Minnesota. Waco finds itself in the national news again and again, most recently for an astoundingly violent shootout between biker gangs in a restaurant parking lot.
If Hong Kong is a center for commerce and trade, Waco is a place where the needle seems to find tragedy and weirdness. The biker brawl at a “Twin Peaks” restaurant there is only the latest in a series of unusual events that have captured the nation’s attention.
Perhaps most prominent in the nation’s memory is the 1993 siege at the Branch Davidian compound. That siege ended with the buildings in flames, over 70 people dead and a divisive national debate over the federal actions taken. The incident inspired Timothy McVeigh to bomb the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City exactly two years later. Then, in 2013, Waco datelines appeared again as reporters covered a horrific explosion in a fertilizer plant just north of Waco in the town of West, Texas.
Adding to the attention paid Waco between those two events was the choice of President George W. Bush to spend his summers at Prairie Chapel Ranch in the town of Crawford, just northwest of Waco. White House reporters were forced to kill time and look for stories as the president alternately entertained world leaders and cleared brush from the land. Reporters were often seen morosely downing beers at Cricket’s, a downtown Waco bar, as the temperatures outside soared past 100 degrees.
Lines drawn from the Bush ranch, the fertilizer plant and the Branch Davidian compound would converge in a town that does not on its face seem very unusual. Waco is home to a thriving university, Baylor, and is divided demographically among black, white and Hispanic citizens. When I moved there from Detroit in 2000, I was warmly welcomed by the community and quickly made good friends who did interesting and often important things.
The summers were hot and the water tasted funny, but Waco also boasted a good newspaper and citizens who seemed genuinely committed to their community.
How did Waco become “Waco” then?
First off, it should be noted that (except for the biker shootout) the events identified with Waco did not actually happen there. The fertilizer plant explosion, the Branch Davidian siege and the Bush ranch were all in nearby towns. Waco was simply the nearest city of any size, with Dallas 100 miles north and Austin the same distance south.
Still, there does seem to be something of a convergence there, a meeting point for significant events. That links to a deeper truth about Waco, which has long been a crossroads and a place where the tectonic plates of culture and commerce collide.
In the late 1800s, the economy of the city was built on the convergence of the South’s plantation culture (it was the western extent of cotton cultivation) and the West’s cattle culture (as the Chisholm Trail crossed the Brazos River over Waco’s suspension bridge). Thirty miles to the east, one enters piney woods that stretch to coastal Georgia, while 30 miles to the west begin arid lands that extend to California. Today, many Texans know Waco as a stopping point on Interstate 35 between Dallas and Austin, and the road is blanketed with motels, gas stations and fast-food restaurants.
Waco’s status as a crossroads and as a meeting point for cultures centered elsewhere means that it can be everywhere and nowhere all at once: The perfect place for a president to hide out, for a reclusive sect to establish its base, for competing outlaw biker gangs to have a sit-down/shootout.
That status makes something else important, too. Most of the people involved in the incidents that have made Waco famous were not from Waco. Bush was from West Texas, and the reporters who covered him were from Washington, D.C., and New York. The Branch Davidians came from all over the world, and the heavily armed bikers involved in last week’s shootout largely arrived from elsewhere in the state.
Like Hong Kong, Waco is a place between cultures where disparate groups can gather, merge and collide.
It might just be (bad) luck that puts Waco in the news so often. Then again, the man in Hong Kong was right: Some places are just different, and the needles find their home there.
Mark Osler is a professor of law at the University of St. Thomas.