25 Years After the Branch Davidian Seige Waco Has Radically Changed
This Thursday marks the anniversary of the end of a 51 day siege just outside of Waco in 1993. A fire broke out in the compound and 76 of the Branch Davidians died. That siege branded Waco, but 25 years later the face of the city is changing and coming to grips with its past.
I moved to Waco two years ago, but I hadn’t been out to the Branch Davidian compound, Mt Carmel, until a couple of weeks ago. It’s about 13 miles outside of the city. Off a gravel road, a metal gate reading “Private Property” greets visitors, but the gate’s left open. After I got out and walked around I found there’s a new chapel way back on the property. The place honestly doesn’t look like anything special. Some mobile homes scattered around the clean cut acerage. There’s a stone memorial covered with the names of people who died iin the fire that destroyed the compound. Beyond that, you could easily forget what happened on this land 25 years ago.
Clay Turner, though, can’t forget. His mother’s house is literally across the tiny gravel road. He tells me, after the siege, people were constantly coming out there, just to get a glimpse of Mt. Carmel. Then, for a long time, nothing. So he was kind of surprised when new groups of people started showing up a few years ago. “The whole thing kind of died out and I guess Magnolia brought the publicity back.”said Turner.
If people in the 90s thought Waco was synonymous with cults and tragedy, in 2018, Waco means Fixer Upper, the Gaines’s hit remodeling show. Meagan Kitchens and her husband came all the way from Georgia to see Magnolia Market, and the Silos that are featured on the show. When I asked her how much of the show she watched she answered “Every episode. Everything is DVR Recorded and Chronicled.”Almost daily, people like the Kitchens’ wait in long lines to see what Magnolia has to offer. The remodeled grain silos are a prominent feature that can be seen from blocks away, and now it’s part of what’s called the Silo District.
But, Fixer Upper’s first episode didn’t air until 2013. Longtime Wacoans will tell you the city’s transformation started before that, as the memory of the siege faded.
In 2006, Chris Mcgowan and the chamber of commerce began trying to revitalize downtown. The goal was to define Waco as an attractive place where people would wanted to live and the city started attracting a lot of young people. “They were all everyone was under 40 that was doing anything when downtown Waco got started and maybe they didn’t know any better”Mcgowan said.
When you drive in downtown Waco today, there are people everywhere. Plus food trucks, and an Indian restaurant right next to a coffee shop called Dichotomy. It’s a trendy place that serves specialty drinks. More than just coffees. I met with Carmen Saenz there. She moved to Waco from New York for grad school in the early 2000's. “Physically the whole city was different, you know I noticed the difference driving down here today.” Saenz said. I ask who she credits for the change. “I don’t think it’s the Chip and Joannas. I think it’s the people who’ve been in the trenches for 20 years slowly changing the face of Waco, to make it a place where Chip and Joanna could come.” Saenz said.
Saenz’s also an LGBT activist, and says the city’s become much more accepting.
“The young people of Waco are changing the face of Waco as far as race relations, as far as LGBT issues and diversity. I think it’s night and day.More and more we’re having the difficult conversations”” according to Saenz. Wacoans in 2018 are less likely to shy away from the city’s past
Ashley Bean Thornton of Act Locally Waco also hosts a Waco Walking Tour. She takes curious tourists and locals through Waco’s almost 160 years. Thornton doesn’t shy away from the city’s history-- Branch Davidians and beyond. “You know that’s terrible history and we have to tell it. We have to say that’s part of who we are. We have to say and we’ve learned from that and we’re trying to do better and it’s hard and we’re not very good at it sometimes.” she said. Most importantly, if you try to pre-judge Waco she says “You have to get to know it” Because Waco has changed since the siege, and it continues to change.