Dallas at the End of 2015 May Be the Cinderella of Big Cities. That's OK, Right?

If former Dallas City Council member Angela Hunt is our symbolic Cinderella, we can live with that.
If former Dallas City Council member Angela Hunt is our symbolic Cinderella, we can live with that.
Stanton Stephens

Business Insider last month included two Texas cities in a listicle they called, “The 15 Hottest American Cities for 2015.” Not us. Austin and Houston. But I took a look at a particular piece of research that the authors seemed to be working off, a report called “The Young and Restless and the Nation’s Cities,” published in October 2014 by City Observatory, a consulting group supported by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation

It’s a great report, driven by an unabashed bias: the belief that a city’s ability to attract college-educated people 25 to 34 years old is a strong indicator of its social dynamism. The authors also openly confess a strong bias in favor of cities as opposed to suburbs.

Hell, I’m in on both counts. I mean, I wish listicles of hot cities were based more on numbers of real old guys, but I know that’s not going to happen, so I’ll go with the smart youth, especially in or near downtown.

What I found when I looked at the underlying report was that Dallas actually looked better than Austin or Houston on a few key measures. In fact, I felt that we were almost Cinderella-like in the way our finer innermost qualities had been overlooked in favor of the vulgar and flouncy affectations of our wicked stepsister cities. I almost wanted to sit down on a stone step with my pail and mop beside me and sing about it to the mice, which maybe is what I’m doing right here.

Austin was way ahead of us if you measured “young and restless” people, as the article called 25- 34-year-olds, as a percentage of entire metro areas. Well, yeah. We’re surrounded by child-rearing family places like Collin County, the places that made the young people restless in the first place. Restless to get away. Houston was a percentage point behind us.

I don’t know if we have any bigger disconnect in Dallas than our stepsister Texas cities do between close-in urban areas and 'burbs. Maybe not, but you and I know that ours is a big one. So I looked at the report to see what it said about young and restless people in close-in neighborhoods, especially the rate at which they were moving to close-in areas, since that was what the authors had told me at the top they really cared about.

Wow. The rate of increase in young, restless people living in close-in areas of Dallas is the sixth highest in the country. The report said between 2000 and 2010 our close-in young, restless population went up by 89 percent, with St. Louis at 138 percent, Miami 118, LA 94, Baltimore 92 and San Diego 91.

Guess where the stepsisters were? Houston’s close-in restless-ers increased by 77 percent, and Austin’s went up by 25 percent.

Now, wait, I know, this is the kind of measurement that’s easy to misread. Maybe St. Louis had eight young people living downtown in 2000 and 11 more moved in. And Austin? I don’t know how you could pack any more young people into Austin even at gunpoint.

I just think it’s interesting that people writing listicles about cool cities tend to think of Austin even when Dallas has better numbers. I don’t know what our excuse is for being one-upped by Houston. Maybe it’s better just not to talk about that one too much.

These thoughts came to me while I was reviewing the last year in our own city, trying to figure what it might have to say about the years ahead. The truly striking difference for someone like me who has been watching City Hall for about 120 years is the degree to which younger people are already powerfully turning the political ship of state to a new course, even before achieving a voting majority in city government.

You may remember that the big news in this year’s City Council election was a partially successful effort by young, restless members of the council to back a slate of similarly young and restless candidates, with the Trinity toll road public works project as a litmus issue. When the ballots were counted, opposition to the toll road had risen to seven votes on the 15-member council, not enough to kill it but more than enough to make things interesting.

And, yes, things got interesting. We saw some real political ugliness at City Hall of a vicious flavor not really known here before. Council member Scott Griggs was the target of a bizarre setup in which City Attorney Warren Ernst tried to bring felony charges against him for a verbal assault on a woman at City Hall that not one of eight witnesses would confirm. It’s still not clear if Ernst, who is now suddenly retiring, thought up the campaign against Griggs himself or was put up to it. And by whom.

I said at the time an attempt to bring fake felony charges against an honest person is the moral equivalent of hiring somebody to put the guy in a wheelchair. Seriously ugly business.

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But nobody said politics was easy. If you look at the deep, ground-shivering change the younger political element in the city really represents, it shouldn’t be surprising that the blowback can be harsh. This goes way beyond Seinfeld and his buddies at the diner.

The new element in the city, represented on the City Council by Griggs, Adam Medrano, Philip Kingston and Mark Clayton, is really talking about turning the basic social, political and physical structure of the city on its head. After a half-century of flight and gated enclaves, the young middle-class wants back in.

That spells a 180-degree pivot in land-use patterns, real estate values, public works strategy (that Trinity toll road, for example) — all the basic factors that people bet their money on and have for decades.

The old guard is not merely invested financially in the old model. They’re invested in it culturally and morally. They can’t stop thinking that all this walkable urban diversity and living downtown business is a bunch of hippie crap. They’re not going to stop thinking that, even when their stubbornness begins to bite them in the billfold, because culture trumps money.

So it’s a fight. It has to be. And the new has to defeat the old.

Council member Philip KIngston, like many of the city's new young leaders, is probably much more conservative than he looks in some ways, when people stop poking on him.
Council member Philip KIngston, like many of the city's new young leaders, is probably much more conservative than he looks in some ways, when people stop poking on him.
Stephen Young

But here is what I really think when I look out over the year ahead. The fight itself is a good story for us in my business. Good copy, we call it. But maybe the fight itself blinds us to what lies just beyond when the fight is resolved. And you know, it has to be resolved one day, because one day the old guard must take up residence in the far, outer enclave suburbs of heaven ... or some other place.

All of the signs and tea leaves and smoke signals I can see tell me that the next Dallas, the new Dallas, will be a lot more like the old one than anyone seems to understand yet. Listen, people pick where they go for one of two reasons. The place. Or what they’re going to do there.

Austin is a place place. People move there for pretty much the same reason now they always have, which is to be in Austin. It’s pretty; it’s cool; it has great music; it’s like never leaving college.

Dallas has always been a do place. Nobody ever — I feel very safe in saying never ever ever — moved here because they were dreaming of living within walking distance of the Trinity River. People come here for jobs, a leg up, a foot in the door, a startup. That doesn’t make us ugly. It makes us Cinderella.

A town like this has its own kind of buzz, a really high-wattage one. Think about it. In Austin you can almost get ticketed by the police for not being mellow enough. In Dallas there is absolutely no pressure to be mellow. Here, people might think you have the flu.

In the end, on the far side of the very difficult transition we are going through now politically, we will find that the new regime is deeply conservative in many of the ways the old one was. From former City Council member Angela Hunt forward, the new regime has been interested in preserving close-in neighborhoods and counting the money carefully at City Hall, reinvesting in basic infrastructure instead of big showboat attractions that somebody thinks will improve the economy. In that sense they may be even more conservative than the old Dallas Citizens Council crowd.

The new regime is markedly unlike the worst of the old one in its embrace of diversity, its disgust for racism and its embrace of the urban street, that place where all shoulders rub, like Klyde Warren Park. And I guess I had better hurry up and mention that the better part of the old regime had a lot to do with creating Klyde Warren, so there’s not an entirely day and night difference.

Maybe the fight blinds us to the fact that this is an evolution in which the city’s true inner character will endure and flourish on the other side. We don’t mind being Cinderella, do we? I mean, yes, she had to do all the work. But she was the hottie. This is still Dallas. I think we’re always going to take that bargain.


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