To our regret or good fortune time only will tell, but Dallas is a great laboratory for viewing the forces roiling around American cities. We’ve got thunder overhead, rumblings in the basement and maybe a great day ahead.
Nationally, the divide between cities and everybody else has been consuming ink in recent weeks. Ross Douthat, writing in The New York Times, proposed that the best way to defend the Trump-Republican agenda from the anti-deplorable urban elites may be what he paints as a Teddy-Roosevelt-style trust-busting campaign to break the big cities up into little pieces.
Douthat may have been writing with his tongue lodged partially in his cheek, but author Richard Florida, the famed cityhood expert, took the suggestion seriously enough to answer. Florida says American cities already are too small to live up to their full economic potential.
Florida offers as proof a map produced by the Martin Prosperity Institute showing that the biggest cities in the United States produce a much smaller portion of national gross domestic product than big cities in the rest of the developed world. Rather than breaking them up, Florida suggests, we need to make cities bigger.
But as we know here, that’s not what anybody’s really talking about anyway, at least not in Texas. From the point of view of the people in Texas who despise cities, the problem with cities is that they all voted for Hillary Clinton.
Cities are viewed as bastions of anti-Trumpian disloyalty while voters in the rest of Texas would be honored to deliver their first-born daughters to be officially groped. Second-born, in fact, if the first one’s already too long in the tooth.
On the surface, the animus in the Texas Legislature toward cities has manifested itself in the form of laws to punish cities for being too nice to immigrants, for trying to protect schools and parks from fracking operations, for trying to improve local schools by raising taxes, for trying to annex adjacent territories, for trying to protect trees from being cut down, even for trying to protect passengers from psychotic ride-share drivers.
But it’s a mistake and waste of time to look for any kind of moral or philosophical unifying theme there. The only theme is that the people behind those laws hate city people, and they hate them because city people are Trump-haters who voted for Hillary.
All of that moral entropy is whirling around in the sky above us like a taunting tornado, but it’s not what we are hearing down in our own basement. Something else is growling round down there while we sit up here in the kitchen staring at each other. It's related to another level and type of urban issue being bandied about nationally.
That question is whether liberal ideas and policies on certain issues — zoning, density, the environment, labor law, including the minimum wage — operate against the poor. Conservatives seem to think they’ve stumbled on a devilishly clever new trope: insisting that restrictive city ordinances, especially in the area of real estate, are responsible for the high cost of housing and therefore to blame for most of the associated ills of poverty.
As someone who has covered real estate and land-use battles at the level of City Hall for about 100 years, I am here to tell you this idea is ancient and hoary, not new at all. In fact, sooner or later, this thought occurs to every would-be tenement builder with a backhoe and a pickup truck to his name.
Zoning restrictions are racist and discriminatory against the poor, the backhoe owner will declare, because two years ago he bought a patch of land zoned for single-family houses, and now the damned fiendish local zoning laws won’t let him build 600 cheap apartments on it.
It’s sort of amazing, when I stop to add it up, how many times I have seen a dude in a cowboy hat with chaw in his cheek and rodeo stickers on his truck trying to talk like Martin Luther King Jr. —– always a bad impersonation — because he wants to block-bust a nice neighborhood with cheap apartments.
The argument is that all restrictions are snobbish and the only justice for the poor is a free-for-all with no zoning or protection for established neighborhoods. When he gets done preaching, the cowboy hat gets back in his F-150 and drives out to his home in Bug Tussle where the only minorities are Lutherans.
Thank goodness people in cities are smarter than that. Most of us know there are two kinds of people who do not make cities work, who do not make sure the buses run on time or see to it that the garbage gets picked up the way it should: (1) really rich people and (2) really poor people. The people who make a city work the right way are the middle class.
We are invested in the dirt. We’re not going anywhere soon. The institutional arms of government need to work right for us, and they need to work right here, right now.
Yes, we have standards. Those standards have to do with safety, efficiency and pleasantness. If those are snobbish standards, then OK. Call us the snobs.
Middle-class people are not always pretty. I admit that. For example, most middle-class parents are totally feral about their kids. It’s why I don’t go to family restaurants anymore.
But no matter how obnoxious their children may be, the new urban middle class has interests that are solidly civic. The causes it cares about spring directly from home and family. Those interests do not necessarily fall square on a liberal-conservative axis.
Within our city, the so-called liberal-conservative paradigm has always played out in a very strange and idiosyncratic fashion having to do with the city’s long stubborn history of racial segregation. Until fairly recently, the City Council has always been ruled by a coalition of the old rich white establishment and the politically organized middle- and business-class black establishment.
The old white establishment, dominated by the big land- and newspaper-owning families, has viewed City Hall as a cash cow to be milked and manipulated whenever the old guard wanted to build a new basketball arena or put a new expressway on top of the river.
Among black leaders, I have always heard those projects described as “white people deals” — issues with no relationship or relevance to the daily lives of black people in southern Dallas. Therefore, black City Council members can vote for those items without penalty from their constituents.
But not for free. In exchange for those votes — black votes for white people deals — black council members have sought to extract what they thought they could for their own community. The big prizes are public housing projects that eventually exacerbate segregation. The little prizes are envelopes of cash that eventually get people sent to prison. Meanwhile, both sides of that equation seem to despise the newcomers to the city, maybe because the new urban middle class muddies the lines of division.
Who are the liberals here? The people who pay the bribes? Who in God’s name are the conservatives? The people who systematically bleed City Hall for tax subsidies for projects that should instead be allowed to succeed or fail on their own in the private sector? I really have no idea. I don’t think anybody does.
What’s growling around in the basement, what will surface as the main theme in the next mayoral election, has nothing to do with the old paradigm. It has everything to with the arrival over the last decade of a new, robust, younger, somewhat more diverse middle class.
The first truly significant marker for it was this year’s decision by the City Council to kill the Trinity toll road project, a bitterly debated 20-year-old scheme to jam a new expressway through the center of the city so a few old families could redevelop their land downtown.
The killing of the Trinity toll road was less a liberal-conservative issue than a question of sheer civic responsibility. The newly robust middle-class minority on the council persuaded a majority that the project was stupid, immensely wasteful and a betrayal of the city’s responsibility to make itself resilient in an increasingly threatening environment.
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The old guard tried hard to sell the black community on the idea that the toll road project would have a little something for them in it somewhere. This time, that pitch didn’t quite sell. A newly empowered Hispanic leadership, meanwhile, has never seemed to take any of those promises seriously, apparently taking the whole dialogue as a gringo deal.
At a personal level, at the level of social and neighborhood interaction, the new middle-class leadership emerging in the city is more white than black or Hispanic, but it’s also young. That factor alone puts it way down the road and miles ahead of the old guard on all of the ethnic and racial tolerance questions anyway. They get along. They give and get respect. That’s a big reason I don’t think the old paradigm fits any more.
Brewing in the basement, soon to emerge in the political kitchen, is a new debate about how to make the city work. The element that will emerge on top from that debate will have a pragmatic agenda.
It will not have a lot of time or patience for the old ethnicity issues. And it better get strong quickly and hook up with some other cities. The stronger the Texas cities get, the worse their shared problems are going to be with the boondocks.