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.

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.

"To be truthful, the media don't talk about the good stuff," says Mr. Holze. "For me to organize a press conference on Waco and where we've come in the last five or six years, I know nobody would come."

Betty Williams, a cashier at the Dr. Pepper Museum, grew up in Waco and still gets together with friends from elementary school.

"To me it's still a small town, with a lot of Southern hospitality," she says. "I lived in Denver for 23 years, but I got tired of that big city. Too smoggy."

Down at the Elite Cafe, a group of Waco natives grouse about how the town can be a little too sweet and quiet at times. And they remember the wild but misunderstood leader of the Branch Davidians, David Koresh.

"I used to play pool with him," says Veronica Hargraves, a small tattooed woman with spikey black hair who describes herself as a "housewife." "He was a nice man. They left everybody alone."

"The only thing David Koresh did was step on people's toes," adds Jimmy Leonard, a truck driver who delivers mobile homes.

Across town at Buzzard Billy's, Mike Mayfield says Waco should be remembered for more than just the Branch Davidians.

"Nobody I know even knew those people existed out there," says Mr. Mayfield, who sells beef to restaurants like Buzzard Billy's. He remembers the standoff's fiery end because he was out golfing that day. "Then all of a sudden, I turn on the TV, and it's a 'Waco Tragedy.' " He shrugs. "It's a bad rap."

But don't expect any sympathy from Amo Roden. She's a trustee in the Branch Davidian church, and she's one of about four church factions fighting for control of the Mt. Carmel compound.

"I don't feel sorry for Waco," says Mrs. Roden, looking out toward the ruins, where a handful of visitors and TV camera crews stroll across the concrete slabs.

"Waco is in a boom, and they're expecting tourists to come out to see the town." She sighs. "They hate us, but they're willing to exploit us. Shame on them."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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