From Ithaca, New York, An Apology to the Citizens of Dallas. And, An Explanation.
During the weekend, I exchanged a few e-mails with David Yearsley, the Cornell University associate music professor who, as you'll no doubt recall, attacked the Dallas Center for the Performing Arts with all the subtlety of a Longhorn bull mounting a comely heifer. Turns out, more than a few Friends of Unfair Park also reached out to the prof via e-mail and gave him the ol' proud-Texan what-for. So happens a couple even agreed with some of his points, but took great offense at the sneering tone of his essay -- one written without Yearsley's having recently stepped foot in Dallas, even worse.
Yearlsey and I were going to do a Q&A, but settled instead on something even better: a second essay he very kindly penned yesterday for Unfair Park in which he explains himself whilst also offering a few sorry-y'alls, as he sincerely hadn't meant to offend. You will find his 1,477-word response after the jump, along with a photo of Dallas he sent along to illustrate his point (one sent to him by a Friend of Unfair Park, and now the circle is complete). He only asks you don't e-mail him with further responses, as he'll check back later and, perhaps, comment here accordingly.
A Concrete Response
By David Yearsley
It is easier to demolish than to construct, and it takes far less imagination and effort to criticize than to make something happen. This is the main thrust of the numerous and heated reactions to my Counterpunch column "Art Set in Concrete," which appeared on Friday. It is a much-appreciated sign of the vaunted Texan hospitality that even such an ill-mannered guest as myself would be invited to return to Dallas (this time digitally) and respond, if not to individual blasts at my piece, then to the general tenor of the postings taking issue with me on matters of fact, style, and opinion. In these first hours of the Day of Rest, I've got my work cut out for me.
But before I raise a glass of North Texas Chardonnay to my hosts at Unfair Park and thank them for having me, I should apologize for the cheap shots in the article -- the obvious and admittedly sophomoric cracks about Houston-based Enron (I was thinking of Bush's Harken Energy and their in-bedded-ness with the crooks to the south), cowboy hats at the opera (I'm the proud curator of my great-grandfather's Stetson, himself the first elected sheriff of Dunn County, North Dakota, and am a great admirer of the Garland milliners), and a Longhorn bull doing nothing more than his reproductive duty. My article attempted a contribution to the venerable genre of the polemic, one not much practiced in the staid United States where even presidential debates avoid direct confrontation. The column was meant to provoke but not to insult, but committed the crime of the latter. Silly stuff and duly withdrawn!
Thus chastened, I am nonetheless encouraged that the article has achieved some polemical success by helping to inspire the spirited colloquy that ensued on the Observer site.
I applaud the efforts to do something rather than nothing, but, as should be clear from the article, I am devotee of the vibrant, relatively compact walking city with people out of their cars and on the streets and not behind the wheels or in front of their computer or TV screens in air-conditioned isolation. Under my despotic, but enlightened regime even distant suburbanites will be permitted to drive in from their cul-de-sacs and park near the hall, but they will find their opera house and kindred arts venues surrounded not by huge roads, but by welcoming public spaces and even real neighborhoods. But these arts commuters will have to bear the real costs -- infrastructural and environmental -- of this supposed automative luxury.
As the image of the Dallas Center for the Performing Arts included in my article sadly confirms, the car is the destroyer of urban life. Is mine a nostalgic, reactionary view? Yes, and unrepentantly so. Is it not downright depressing to see the way the Dallas arts site looks like a corporate campus and is encircled -- could I even say strangled? -- by those horrible roadways?
Also not withdrawn is my dismissal of the exaggerated claims that an influx of nearby residents marks a sign of a return to the urbanism I'm arguing for. Demographic data available on the Web site of the North Central Texas Council of Governments predicts a population for the Central Business District of just over 10,000 for 2010, double nearly that of 2005. The demographers claim the population of the area will rise to 16,000 by 2030, which would amount to about one percent of the population of the cIty of Dallas, and not including the far-flung municipalities beyond.
The numbers increase somewhat for the so-called Outer Central Business District, but neither do these document a major resurgence of downtown and environs. Yes, the trend is a positive one that bravely resuscitates the urban body from the moribund, but it hardly strikes me as robust. Dallas's interest in a revamped fleet of historic trams and the introduction of modern light rail are good things, but would it be too negative to ask whether the streetcars are mainly tourist attractions and a kind historic re-enactment, rather than a return to what was lost through suburbanization and the depredations of the freeways? But I do hope the these steps in the right directions become huge strides.
As far as the crack about bail bondsmen that provoked more than a little ire: A couple of years ago I was wooed for a job at SMU, and, as part of the very generous and interesting informational package, sent to me was a glossy pamphlet on the performing arts center. (After my Counterpunch piece I'm sure Dallas is glad I didn't come and take up residence among you.) On the front cover of the pamphlet was a night-time photograph of the center's construction site with an expressway in the foreground; the pamphlet's designers had not bothered to crop out the signs for bail bonds and other commercial activities of the underclass glaring in the foreground. (I haven't been able to dredge the photo up this morning, otherwise I'd scan it and send it along.) Have these inconvenient neighbors -- if one can be a neighbor across a seething highway -- since been relocated?
Still, it does seem to me that Dallas is trying to do many interesting and useful things, and it doubtless comes across as mean-spirited to complain about appearance, streetcars, galleries, major arts venues and the dispensation of real money for quality buildings and productions. But I am nonetheless distrustful of massive projects like this one that clear out huge spaces to let international star architects (notwithstanding the frequent protestations of Rem Koolhaas, designer of the Dallas Center for the Performing Arts' theater, against the "hell it is to be an international star architect" in which each building must make a statement that will put its owners, in this case the good people of Dallas, on the international map) have at it like kids in Legoland.
The Dallas Center for the Performing Arts reminds me of the Potsdamer Platz scheme built a decade ago in Berlin's No-Man's Land where the Wall once ran. In spite of its much greater urban density and mixed-used ideology, this project, which featured many of the same architects involved in Dallas, is too big, too cold to glitzy. It is strangely and dispiritingly dehumanizing. The warmth and brilliance of the interiors I see taking shape in Dallas similarly contrast with the overbearing grandiosity of the project as a whole: It is too much all at once in what looks like a giant traffic island. This 44-year-old dinosaur has its reservations about a mall for the arts with plenty of parking. I look forward to hearing an opera in Winspear, just as I have thoroughly enjoyed the performances I've attended in the Meyerson, but the experience of getting to such spaces could be so much more rewarding; going to the theater or to a concert can include more than simply being inside a great building with great acoustics and with world-class artists on stage and strolling past a bit of lawn on the way. Indeed, it would be interesting to know what percentage of visitors to these venues will come by means other than automobile.
Maybe I'm wrong about the Dallas project, and hope to be proved so when I come and visit again. Once the perimeter of the performing arts center is reclaimed from the savagery of the expressways cutting through -- and out -- the heart of the city, and once the distant shouts of children can be heard from a nearby neighborhood as one enters the opera house for an evening performance, then I'll publicly strap myself to a dunking stool to be erected at my own expense outside the opera house and let the good citizens Dallas exact their revenge.
In an email sent yesterday, Dallas native son Jackson Williams blasted me on a number of grounds, but was kind of enough also to provide this paragraph on downtown life and attach a telling photograph, one that contrasts so strikingly with the pallid version of urban life practiced in our present, not just in Dallas but across the United States.
Williams writes: "In the '30s and '40s, downtown Dallas was hopping (see the attached photo from 1939), then the nightlife literally died for the next 40-50 years. It's always been packed during the work week, but they'd roll up the sidewalks after dark. That began to change in the 1990s, and has slowly continued."
Oh how I yearn for this, even in "enlightened" Ithaca, New York, where I live, a place which also continues to make valiant attempts to revitalize a downtown decimated by the centrifugal forces of the car and mall culture. If one of the many shopping centers here were colonized for an arts center and architectural theme park it would be an improvement, but it would not be my answer to the obligations and opportunities of living in a city, big or small.
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