City Hall

An Attack of Houston Envy, and I'm Afraid It May Be the Neuro-Invasive Kind

Do you ever get Houston envy? It’s terrible. For me it always starts with a scratchy throat, then a splitting headache. What could be worse? Really. What could be worse than being jealous of Houston?

I sometimes get Fort Worth and San Antonio envies. They’re not quite as bad as Houston envy but still bad.

This latest bout fell upon me a couple weeks ago when I read Molly Glentzer’s piece in the Houston Chronicle about the completion of a $58 million renovation of Buffalo Bayou Park. When I worked for the Chronicle about 20 years ago, Buffalo Bayou was still a fetid slash of skunky water running east across the city to the refineries and the San Jacinto River.

Now Glentzer paints it as “a signature, verdant downtown gateway. Bikers, runners, lovers, dog walkers and young families with strollers,” she says, “have all taken note, filling its newly poured bikeways and running trails in ever-increasing numbers.”

Twenty years is a long time, you say? Anybody could transform an urban river in 20 years, you say? Yeah. Except us. I was writing stories for the Chronicle back then about Dallas and its big, bold Trinity River Project, when the current re-imagining of Buffalo Bayou was barely a gleam in Houston’s eye.

I remember that people in Houston were greatly impressed by the scope of Dallas’ vision for the Trinity. I thought some of them exhibited symptoms of Dallas envy, although when I inquired solicitously about it they said they were fine. Of course, now we hope nobody from Houston will even ask about our river project. The only response I can recommend is to claim you don’t remember anything about that.

Buffalo Bayou Park dates to the early 1920s, but it was all chopped up for freeways after World War II and became pretty much an urban wasteland. Houston adopted a master plan for its revitalization in 2002.
The lead consultant on the re-imagining of the park was SWA Group, an international architectural firm with offices here in Dallas. It wasn’t until 2012 that work began to restore the river’s original meanders and bring the park’s trails back to life. Now this newest portion of the park is already open.

Did I mention Fort Worth envy? Fort Worth is already watching bridges go up along a stretch of dry land that will become a diversion channel of the Trinity, creating “Panther Island,” an 800-acre development with miles of waterfront in what was a worn-out industrial district.

Listen, it’s not that Dallas can’t do things. We created Klyde Warren Park, a 5.2 acre public space on a deck above a downtown freeway, and it has been incredibly successful since opening three years ago. Klyde Warren is flat-out wonderful. I can’t think of anything bad to say about it, and I happen to have professional experience in the field of bad things to say.

But compared with Buffalo Bayou Park at 160 acres and Panther Island at 800, Klyde Warren is sort of chump change (there, I did think of something after all) in the realm of grand civic adventures.

And that’s my point. We don’t do grand civic adventures here. We do favors for people. The grand communal endeavor simply does not seem to be in Dallas’ repertoire of civic abilities. But if you’re a wired guy with your own country club connections or some serious bucks to spend on a lobbyist, then, sure, Dallas City Hall wants to talk to you.

I don’t believe that makes the Dallas way of handling civic affairs sinful. It just makes it small, as if the city’s eyes were always shrouded and downcast. City Hall sees what is at its feet, never what is on the far horizon.

Mark Lamster, the ever-prescient architecture critic of The Dallas Morning News, hadn’t even been in Dallas (from New York) that long when he wrote a brilliant piece about Buffalo Bayou as an expression of political coalescence around a single shared vision in Houston, as opposed to what Lamster called “ad-hocism” in Dallas. I don’t want to put words in his mouth, so I won’t tell you he agrees with me, but he does, when I offer this opinion: that the “ad-hocism” Lamster spotted here is a direct and deliberate expression of the structure of government in Dallas, which in turn is an expression of the old guard political culture.

By tightly husbanding control of the city in the office of city manager — a person hired, not elected — the city fathers here have maintained their own access while effectively shutting off access for the larger electorate. It’s not that voters can’t ever get anything done, but they can only get little things done, on the scale of new stop signs and storm sewer repairs.

To get big things done, like a grand public vision for the river, we would have to have what Houston has — a strong mayor system. To accomplish a great dream, a city needs someone at the helm who can steer a course but who also can be kicked off the ship if he steers a course the public doesn’t want.

It would oversimplify things to paint the Dallas system of government only as a conspiracy of the powerful against the weak. Although I do like that idea. But it takes two to tango — the bullies and the bullied.
Dallas was offered a strong mayor system in a referendum on May 7, 2005. That was, as Michael Ennis put it in Texas Monthly, the day “Dallas decided what it wants to be when it grows up.” Dallas decided not to grow up. It didn’t want to be a real city with a real-live, grown-up, strong mayor. And there were tons of neighborhood activists and minority leaders who joined the successful fight against a strong mayor system.

What they shared was the belief that they stood a better chance getting what they wanted from single-member district City Council members, who would act as their agents in seeking patronage from the city manager, than they might from a strong mayor, who might be … I don’t know … strong or something.

It was an expression of deep-running, longstanding political fearfulness, a political weakling mentality that can’t imagine pulling off anything big like a contested citywide mayoral race. Better to stand politely by and wheedle with the eyes for a slice of pie than risk a cuffing by trying to take a seat at the table.

That political fearfulness is at least half of what keeps things small here and defeats every grand gesture. And the other half, the part I prefer to talk about because it doesn’t involve my friends, is the conspiracy of the uber-rich, for whom Dallas City Hall works like a gumball machine.

All of that will change. The change will come from those people I see taking over North Oak Cliff, because, God love them, their parents filled them up to the gills with all kinds of entitlement and self-concept and barely a weak knee among them. Half of them think they’re smarter than the people who have run Dallas all these many years. And guess what? They are.

They’ll get rid of the city manager system, install a real mayor and do some big stuff around this burg one day. People in Houston will be so jealous, they’ll have to go to the hospital. I can’t wait.

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Jim Schutze has been the city columnist for the Dallas Observer since 1998. He has been a recipient of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies’ national award for best commentary and Lincoln University’s national Unity Award for writing on civil rights and racial issues. In 2011 he was admitted to the Texas Institute of Letters.
Contact: Jim Schutze