Could the Dallas Way be the Right Way?


Dallas was George W. Bush’s first choice for a retirement destination but it gets low approval ratings elsewhere. A recent poll of readers of American Style magazine rated Dallas only 24th out of 25 large American cities as an arts destination. It came in immediately behind those well-known cultural magnets Milwaukee and Las Vegas, and ahead of only Jacksonville FL, even though it dwarfs all three places in terms of population, arts institutions and urban amenities. An apparently typical assessment residing in the blogosphere states flatly “God I hate Dallas. Everything about it. Especially the airport. Which is the only part of Dallas I’ve ever been in.”

There has always been urban rivalry, going back at least to the days of the Greek city-states. When Phoenix overtook Philadelphia in the census rankings some years ago, the local newspapers delighted in printing unflattering pieces about the other and extolling their own virtues.

Increasingly, this rivalry goes beyond traditional boosterism. Cities used to be places where one lived, but they have become metaphors about lifestyle and identity, and the personal has become increasingly highly political.

In the last presidential election, the former mayor of Wasilla, Alaska seemed to argue that small towns were the keepers of the true American flame, which upset quite a few urbanites. But not all cities are created equal. The creative class thesis suggests that, like high school, there is cool and there is un-cool. This gets complicated when the nerds decide the cool places are. Cities that are designated as cool, like Portland, also tend to be among the least ethnically diverse.

In short, we are now quarrelling about which cities are the coolest, based upon the extent to which they serve as extensions of our personalities and manifestations of our identities. This has always existed in terms of local rivalries—New York and New Jersey, Minneapolis and St. Paul—but now it is taking on the characteristics of cultural civil war.

In this scheme of things, Dallas ranks among the totally uncool, which is probably one of the reasons George Bush chose it. But reputation is not necessarily its reality, as visitors to the city can find out for themselves. On a recent Friday afternoon downtown, I saw a line of school buses jostling to drop off and pick up their passengers ranging from young children to strapping adolescents. Every ethnicity seemed to be represented. They were not going to a sports event represented but regular traffic to the Dallas Arts District, a contiguous area amid the high rises that covers 68 acres and contains a broad array of theatres, museums and the city’s Arts Magnet school.

Texas is hardly short of arts destinations: San Antonio ranked high in the American Style poll, as did Austin, which is known for its South by Southwest and Austin City Limits music festivals. Although Dallas does not automatically come to mind when thinking about highbrow culture, its Arts District is not just a vanity project, but is part of a restructuring of the city’s image taking shape for over three decades. The Arts District was anchored by the opening of the Dallas Museum of Art in 1984; this was followed by the Myerson Symphony Center [designed by I.M. Pei], the Crow Collection of Asian Art, the Nasher Sculpture Center, and the renovation of the Booker T. Washington High School for the Performing and Visual Arts [Norah Jones is an alumna]. Most recent to open is the AT&T Performing Arts Center, the fourth of the cultural buildings to be designed by a prize-winning architect.

Most metro areas would delight in this kind of enhancement. Yet Harvey Graff, in his book “The Dallas Myth” suggests the city has grown by “brash boosterism”. He argues the ‘Dallas Way’ of getting things done involves an existential denial of the past [especially negative events, notably the Kennedy Assassination] and an equally strong denial of any limits to the future.

Graff believes that the Dallas Way fails its residents. He argues little, if anything, has been done for poorer neighborhoods. There is substance to this of course: all American cities reflect the inequalities of our society

Yet what Dallas is doing is still remarkable. In addition to the Arts District, it is pursuing costly projects such as the DART light rail network, which is connecting formerly neglected neighborhoods [now reviving to create a new Uptown] and reaching out to middle suburbia, where whole plazas are sprouting Asian stores and restaurants. No-one is going to be confusing it with New York any time soon, but it does seem that the Dallas Way also has things to recommend it. House prices have not cratered; the Metroplex is not in the fifth circuit of foreclosure hell like Phoenix or Las Vegas.

Of course, this comes at a literal price, and a figurative one. Reviving some neighborhoods means gentrification. Spending on light rail tends to support young adults rather than children needing kindergartens. Stable house prices in some Dallas neighborhoods can mean modest homes costing more than a half million dollars, the antithesis of affordability.

Yet the growth machine worked in the past and helped Dallas become a leading producer of higher end jobs and a high degree of home ownership. In many ways Dallas works better for its diverse residents than many urban aesthetes might suggest.

This leaves unanswered the question of the aspirations of a city like Dallas to be taken seriously by the urban tastemakers. In the current climate, that seems unlikely. Cool is going to beat out the rest—except in the contexts of jobs and incomes, which is the world in which most people operate. Economic growth in Dallas and Houston gets little attention in the chat rooms where the defenders of Portland and its counterparts congregate. But as for me, I’m thinking that for the very first time, George Bush might actually be right.

Andrew Kirby has been associated with the journal *Cities* for nearly thirty years. He is based in Arizona.

Photo by purpletwinkie

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Just because a place isn't overhyped...

... doesn't mean it's not a great place.

Austin is extremely overhyped and over-mentioned, compared to what you actually get. I'm a former resident. In fact, I've lived all around Texas. I actually think Houston is very underrated because it has all of the big-city amenities (and more) as Dallas, yet a more laid-back vibe and more casual demeanor similar to Austin. It also has unquestionably the best restaurant scene and fine arts scene in the state. Along with a formidable economy and international appeal. Dallas and Houston may not make the silly "cool" city lists (which are often biased toward college towns such as Austin) but they have all of the elements, and then some.

I have problems with the

I have problems with the monolithic right-wing political stance of the Establishment in the Dallas/Fort Worth area, which is of course why the junior Bush chose a gated enclave in that area (there aren't all that many places in the United States and absolutely none abroad where he could expect to be so free of harassment); that's one of several reasons I chose to retire in Austin rather than in North Texas. But beyond that, there are many wonderful things about the city (the overall population of the city is, for example, quite liberal), including its arts offerings (especially when combined with those of Fort Worth), its shopping, its night life, the sports venues of the area and even some of the recreational areas (particularly around White Rock Lake); and of course it has been one of the major engines of economic growth in the United States over the last couple of decades. No wonder it has been a continuing magnet for newcomers both from the United States and abroad.

What's fascinating is the continuing hate relationship of many of the older cities of the United States toward Dallas. It is not primarily about its conservative politics (or those people would have the same attitudes toward cities like San Diego, Phoenix, Salt Lake City and Atlanta, among other places), nor about the Assassination (or other cities that have had comparable assassinations, like Los Angeles, Buffalo, Washington and New York would share the odium). It seems to have been the product of a particular era after World War II, when the Northeast and Rust Belt were on top of the world, only to be challenged for the first time by the booming population and economy of Dallas (and Houston), the first wave of the Sun Belt boom and cities of the South (which everybody had always felt superior to) as well. Such perceptions take on a life of their own, and everything from an assassination to an infuriatingly successful football team to a hackneyed prime time soap opera full of stereotypes were used to reinforce the feelings.

Dallas isn't perfect, but it's doing quite nicely, thank you.

Dallas has lots going for it--rapid job growth, high-level of in-migration, affordable real-estate, and a top-notch airport that can fly you anywhere non-stop. It can boast of a number of Fortune 500 headquarters, and it seems that companies from outside the state continue to relocate hefty portions of their operations on a weekly basis. As for high culture, Dallas has got Austin and San Antonio beat by a mile (Austin is without a doubt a "casual" capital, what with all the live rock music, but good luck enjoying a world-class orchestra or viewing prestigious art exhibits). Most admirable is that the city's wealthy elite (ie. Hunt, Perot, Murchison, Cuban, Headington)contribute a big chunk of their own money on the arts as well as major civic infrastructure such as a park suspended over the freeway or a new Calatrava-designed bridge. It's also got the all the best spectator sports (Cowboys, Rangers, Mavs, Stars, FC Dallas) of any city, and can now boast of having the worlds' most impressive football stadium. Shopping destinations here can't be beat.

Yes, Big D will do just fine in spite of its 'uncool' ranking. I have to think that the 80's TV soap opera had something to do with the city's image, as it embodied values and personalities antithetical to the sensibilities of the current cool set. Still, the amount of international exposure that Dallas got from that show has been incalculable and had a big hand in lending the city a pro-business character.

Sure, Dallas has ways to go before one can consider it a walkable city. In the past decade many investments have been made in its downtown core to make it more liveable-thousands of new apartments, urban parks, and the most extensive light-rail system in the Southwest. The new Arts District additions have also helped, but I don't see the city ever becoming southern version of Chicago anytime soon, even if that's what many city's own boosters seem to yearn for. I write about this at length at my blog, Architecture + Morality

My question for you is in

My question for you is in reality- how good is the job market there? The reason I ask is because as someone who tried to get a job in Austin- a city that seems to get breathlessly mentioned in countless puff pieces as being "The" place to go because of jobs, tech, etc etc, the reality was different: There were actually not a lot of jobs that I found and of those, the competition for them was extremely fierce. What's the situation in Dallas?

"as someone who tried to get

"as someone who tried to get a job in Austin- a city that seems to get breathlessly mentioned in countless puff pieces"

Exactly -- puff pieces. That should tell you a lot.

Every city in the US was hit

Every city in the US was hit hard in the past couple of years, but in Dallas a little bit less so. Unemployment here is around 8 percent, but in the last 10 months the DFW region added around 24,000 jobs, much of it in professional business services. By virtue of the region's size, its economy consists of a broad mix of industries, with the mundane but highly critical ones like finance, manufacturing, legal services, transportation, telecom, medicine and energy complementing more lucrative ones like computers and software. Austin is much smaller and beholden to the fortunes of a couple of key sectors, notably technology and government.

The coolness factor of Austin only adds to the competition for the few jobs there. Dallas-Fort Worth is a bit better since it is far more diversified, and one's prospects are bit better for established bricks and mortar fields than elite technology companies. If you're looking for tech jobs, chances are you'll find them in the suburbs like Richardson (Texas Instruments) or Plano (EDS/HP).

After having lived in one of

After having lived in one of the so-called "coolest, hippest" cities in the country- San Francisco, places like Dallas, Houston, or just about any other city that isn't ridiculously expensive seem like pieces of heaven to me. But then again I've always been a sort of homebody and seldom really ever go out and do things like going to clubs, art museums, and so on. What I do on a typical weekend could just as easily be done anywhere. The reality is that this is the way most people live: Ordinary mundane lives where they go to work, come home, eat, sleep, and get up and do it all over again. Perhaps some feel better about themselves knowing they live in a "cool" city. But personally I think its all overrated. At least in a city like Dallas we could actually afford to own a home.

Dallas is a Great Place - almost

I had the pleasure of living in Dallas for 4 years and the pain of living in Houston for the same time period. Without degrading Houston, I'll admit I just did not fit in. I refused to use terms like I'm fixin to get a coke (coke meaning any soft drink), buy a pick-up truck or use my front lawn as a driveway. The extreme density and 200% humidity (it seemed that way) was simply too much for me. Dallas was a place I found it easy to live in. It however, is NOT a walkable place if you lived in the suburbs, vs most suburban areas in Minneapolis where walks, parks and trails abound. Working downtown Dallas was great and living in the suburbs was very social. Homes were (and still are) a bargain and there is character and attention to detail in residential and commercial developments that make Dallas a nice place indeed. In general the densities are low making Dallas feel less claustrophobic. The north suburbs of San Antonio are also very impressive and affordable.

I had the opposite

I had the opposite experience, in that Dallas to me felt very sterile, uninteresting, and just vanilla in comparison to Houston. I was also very impressed with Houston's rich and diverse restaurant scene, impressive museum district, and abundance of tall trees and green foliage. To each his own, I guess.


So not every urban area is popular with urban liberal hipsters. Who cares what they think? We need more urban areas that haven't been ruined by those types.

If I want to relocate, a place like Houston or Dallas seems a far better choice if I want to get ahead in life. Hip places like Portland seem too over controlled and nannyish, making getting ahead much harder.