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Travel USA: The Renaissance rides into rodeo town

Rough and rugged Fort Worth lies at the heart of Texan cowboy country. Now it's trying to shed its Wild West image and become a little more cultural.
IN THE vast parking lot outside Billy Bob's Texas, a young woman crouches between cars to have a pee. Her friend shrieks and giggles when they find they have been discovered, and both tear off towards the queue outside the bar. It's a steamy Friday night, the temperature has barely dipped below 100 degrees, and Fort Worth's most famous watering hole is packing them in with a mix of drinking, gambling, country music, and bull riding.

"Leyt's git Wesss-turn!" bellows the rodeo compere, just as a young man in a Stetson and leather chaps falls from the back of a bull called Freddy Kruger. Dusting himself off with bitter resignation, the cowboy's expression belies the reality of weekends at Billy Bob's: he's like a seasoned porn star, tired of the crowd's astonishment at his prowess, but not ready to give up his exotic and quite particular talent.

This is the Wild West as tourists would always have it: rough, adventurous and slightly vulgar. But the locals - while they come to Billy Bob's for the country music - are tired of the cliches that have taunted them since Fort Worth was founded nearly 150 years ago. The population of Texas has been growing steadily since America's hi-tech industry started relocating here, and with laptop cowboys from the north joining the already oil-rich Texan elite, the combined affluence has meant hunger for something more than simple Tex-Mex culture. So one family has struck back by building a monument to culture and sophistication in the heart of Cowtown.

Recognised as the Medicis of Fort Worth, the Bass family of millionaires has created a proud little city-state amidst the untamed American landscape of skyscrapers and freeways, almost single-handedly revitalising Fort Worth's downtown core. It started almost two decades ago, when the Bass brothers rebuilt a hotel. Then they put up a few skyscrapers - of the tasteful emerald-green variety. A theatre was added. Bit by bit, they restored the existing low-rise, 19th-century buildings, and added a few art-deco structures for good measure. This year they crowned "Bassville" by building the European-inspired Nancy Lee and Perry R Bass Performance Hall (a tribute to their parents), which now houses a local opera, symphony and ballet. They ensure the protection of the good citizenry with their own private security firm - aka the Basstapo; the burghers, for their part, delight in the munificence of their Renaissance princes, and the fact that the cowboy thuggery of the past has all but been relegated to the old Stockyards district, where Billy Bob does business.

So now the Bass family is in control of about 40 downtown blocks in an area that was once known as Hell's Half Acre. Thoughtfully, it's been renamed Sundance Square.

"It's just a big car park, really," explains a friend from Manchester, who moved to Fort Worth three years ago. And in the centre of the downtown core, where European visitors might expect to see a piazza or a fountain, Fort Worth does indeed have a parking lot, backed by a wall mural of the cattle drives of the last century. But hey, this is America, and it's actually damn convenient to be able to get a parking spot. And once out of the car, the surrounding architecture of the Square is enough to distract from the assortment of all-terrain vehicles in its centre.

Gentle pink granite glows next to sturdy redbrick reliability. Turrets are decorated with mosaic inlay, and lacy marble frills neatly trim the tops of several buildings. The high-rises that exist stand sentinel to the modesty of the immediate downtown vicinity, neither overshadowing nor distracting from the redbrick-paved Square. The new performance hall is a flash of white limestone; two Goliath-sized angels trumpet the arrival of culture to the Wild West.

To be fair, other Ewing-style characters had already set a trend for the Bass family to follow. To the west of the city - to the east is Dallas and the dreary array of strip malls that precede it - is the cultural district. There, the names of the museums are a testament to pre-Bass millionaires. The Kimbell Art Museum (Kimbell was a grains and groceries man before he struck oil) is like a Beginner's Guide to Modern Art. A Gauguin next to a Cezanne, close to a Van Gogh, and then a Munch. It is a refreshingly manageable size to explore, and special exhibits are put together in conjunction with galleries around the world to ensure a greater influx of European masters.

The Sid Richardson (cattle and oil) Collection of Western Art houses the best of American artists Frederic Remington and Charles Russell. Ditto the Amon Carter (newspaperman) Museum, which has also preserved Remington's feral cowboy sculptures, in all their sweat and savagery. The Fort Worth Botanic Garden has studiously recreated a Japanese garden, where fat koi float in calm pools next to the Meditation Garden, confirming the city's nascent nobility.

There are still hints of Fort Worth's cowboy heritage everywhere - after all, Texans are proud of their home-grown culture, if a little desperate for it to diversify. In the historic Stockyards, the Wild West is neatly corralled and tamed for easy consumption. Next to Billy Bob's, a genuine rodeo is held every weekend at the Cowtown Coliseum, and real cowboys and cowgirls shop at Leddy's Boots and Saddles on the main drag. "Got any in red? It's my lucky colour!" croaks an old-timer who was set to compete in the ring but had left her boots back home. Nearby, the spectators fill up at steak houses on two-inch thick slabs of beef that are served on hot tin plates, a force of habit after so many nights out on the open range.

Away from the Stockyards, along the drive to Dallas, the more ribald elements of Texas add a frisson to the polite rebranding of Fort Worth. Dusty shacks advertise Mild to Wild Tattoos, all your "law enforcement" needs, and, at the disreputable Hooters bar, the sign practically grins when it announces "live midget tossin' and cockfights all week".

There is no private gendarmerie to protect these outskirts of the city- state. Fort Worth has shuddered and turned its back on the unsavoury elements of its lawless past. And so the whole town is reminiscent of Frederic Remington's most unusual cowboy painting, on display in the Amon Carter Museum. Grey and static, in the winter scene two men guide their horses up to a wooden fence. They seem tired of the rough and tumble lives they have led. One man, with his hand on the gate, is ready to open the way to a more genteel way of life. Like the Fall of the Cowboy, Fort Worth has been through some changes, and now looks forward to a more refined future.

Getting there: the best airport is Dallas- Fort Worth, with non-stop flights from Gatwick on British Airways (0345 222111) and American Airlines (0345 789789), and in summer from Manchester on American