The Carnival Cruise Ship boat club barge that a rowing club wanted to build on White Rock Lake seems to have shrunk back into a modest, nicely designed facility that shouldn't really bother anybody.
More amazing, the rowing club people themselves seem to have shed their long forked tails, horns, gnarly teeth and bloody claws, and now they all look like perfectly nice people who just want a place to row.
How in the hell does something like that happen? Was there an exorcism? Is it all an elaborate deception? Or, last and least likely, did I get it somewhat wrong in the first place?
Carnival Cruise Ship
Well. I did pretty much paint them as demons from hell. And I may have suggested indirectly that construction of the floating clubhouse they want to install at the top of the lake would bring about the collapse of Western civilization.
But if I was wrong, it was only in degree. And I probably did pick the wrong bad guys.
A larger threat still looms over the lake's 1,300 acres in the form of shabby stewardship by the city. Someone at City Hall harbors a notion that the lake should be turned into a revenue-producing amusement park. That's where this kerfuffle came from and also the even worse one before it, an attempt by the city's park department to give away a valuable green space at Winfrey Point on the lake to a private institution, the Dallas Arboretum, for use as a parking lot.
The park department just loves parking fees and dance-hall rents. Among schools of thought in public park philosophy, we might call the Dallas Park and Recreation Department's approach the "Carnie School."
Last week Dallas United Crew held a public informational meeting at an East Dallas church. Their plans became known to most of the key constituencies around the lake last June when activists stumbled across them in documents obtained through public records demands related to the Dallas Arboretum/Winfrey Point debacle.
At that time, the plans called for a substantial public space on a second story to be rented out for social events, which presumably would have paid a cut to the park department. I probably can't even convey what kind of alarm bells a suggestion like this sets off around White Rock.
I spoke last week with Michael Jung, a lawyer who has served on many Dallas boards and commissions and now is secretary of the White Rock Lake Task Force, an advisory body established by resolution of the Dallas Park Board. Jung recalled the last time, a decade or more ago, when someone else proposed a floating social facility on White Rock.
"There was an idea at one point to revive the so-called 'Bonnie Barge,'" Jung said, "and run a party barge out of the Teepee Hill area.
"That sort of died an unnatural death because the proponents of it were so politically inept. When they got to the part about how SMU fraternities would be one of their main marketing targets, but, no, they wanted to assure the public that there would not be any alcohol consumption whatsoever, that's when people sort of dismissed them as being from Mars."
And that's exactly what the White Rock Lake advocates saw coming at them when they learned that the park department had been negotiating with a rowing club from Highland Park about what sure sounded like another party barge scheme.
Let's just get all the biases and bigotry and preconception out on the table where we can sort through it all frankly. When this idea hit the fan, it was met with horror by most of the people I talked to in the traditional White Lake constituency, by whom I mean the save-the-lakers, the Love-of-the-Lake crowd, the people who brought about the lake's fourth and most recent dredging in 1996-'98.
The lake lovers had nightmare visions of spoiled brat Park Cities children barely able to see over the dashboards of the Hummers they were driving around the lake at night, drunk out of their minds playing whack-a-mole with the peasantry.
And in the other direction? I watched the very tautly controlled faces of the rowing club people at last week's meeting as my own people, the East Dallas A'Ginners, rose one after another to deliver rambling harangues unsubtly suggesting that the rowing club was against democracy, transparency and crippled children. I think I could read a little of what the rowing clubbers thought of us while they sat there clutching their pews with white knuckles to keep themselves from rising to the bait.
Crazy senile hippie paranoid delusional crackpot wingnuts. It was on the tips of their tongues. I know it was. And frankly, I'm not going to argue the point. In some corners of East Dallas, those are honorific terms. (None of them applies, by the way, to Michael Jung.)
The meeting, in spite of everything I have already said about it, was a huge success, because it forced all of us to sit in a church and look at each other. From the East Dallas point of view, not only did the board members of Dallas United Crew look a lot like us, but, golly, they actually are us, some of them. The club did start out as the Highland Park Rowing Club, but it has in fact greatly expanded its reach, hence the name change, and a good many of its members are East Dallas residents.
Their main spokesperson was not a board member but varsity men's rowing coach Jonathan Stevens, who answered every single question amiably and intelligently, even the ones vaguely suggesting satanic origins for his club.
Josh Theodore of Page Southerland Page architects walked the audience through the design of the proposed clubhouse, explaining it as a minimally invasive scheme, and I would have to say he sold it. By the time he was done, some of the crazy senile hippie paranoid delusional crackpot wingnuts I respect most were on their feet saying it looked pretty darned nice to them.
A couple of people even made speeches to the effect that roping in some Parkies and getting them invested in White Rock Lake is a good idea in the long run. That way we'll have them around to go put the arm on when it's time for the next dredging.
But even in this rose-tinted mist of newfound good-feeling, a single difficult issue loomed. Several people, including Jung, asked Theodore and the board members of Dallas United Crew two things: Was it true the original plans called for a rentable social space on top of the clubhouse, and if so, whose idea was that?
The Dallas United people conceded that early plans had called for some kind of rent-collecting dance hall on top. They told Jung the idea had come from "someone in the park department." But when Jung and others persisted in asking who specifically had told Dallas United to put a dance hall on top of their boat club, the Dallas United people all suffered group amnesia.
The husband of a board member told me on the parking lot after the meeting that the club was thrilled when they got new directions from the park department, after the dance-hall thing went ballistic, telling them to deep six the dance hall.
"We didn't want to have run it," he said.
Later on the phone Jung told me he didn't really blame the Dallas United people for trying to duck a crossfire. "I understand," he said. "They're trying to get approvals and so on. They can't afford to make enemies at City Hall. But inquiring minds want to know."
Those inquiring minds are curious not just because they're all in the skulls of crazy senile hippie paranoid delusional crackpot wingnuts. They are curious because they are all too aware of a tendency on the part of park department officials to act behind the scenes pushing cheap commercialization as the solution to budget problems in a city that won't give them the tax support they need to run the parks.
I asked Jung if he thought a larger sub-rosa agenda was at work. He said he thought it was a smaller sub-rosa agenda. He recalled a time in the mid-'90s when he was on the board of Friends of Fair Park, and the park board was crazy to find ways to get money out of Fair Park.
What was their big idea? It was the same response City Hall has always had to any sort of promising entertainment, dining or recreational activity in the city. Charge for parking.
I was really struck by that after I hung up from talking to Jung. We should bring a team of UT McCombs business school students up here and have them use Fair Park as the subject for a study asking the question: "Over a 20-year period, how effective will charging for parking be in encouraging the long-range success of an entertainment or recreational venue?"
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
What happened to the Dallas United people was what happens to most people who wander into Dallas City Hall unanointed and unaware. They got sandbagged. Someone dragged them into a really stupid attempt to build a major project on White Rock Lake behind the backs of the key White Rock constituents.
Call us whatever. East Dallas don't miss no tricks. It was the trickery here much more than the project itself that set the jungle fires ablaze.
Now we know there was nothing about the boat house itself that needed to be secret. But there was every reason to try to sneak the dance hall under the blankets.
I can't think of a long-range solution to the larger problem here other than what we do already: grab our pots and pans, go out in the street and bang the hell out of them when we get excited. If they're going to be carnies, we'll be pot-bangers. A match made in Dallas.