You know the song, right, “You’ve Been Talkin’ ’Bout Me, Baby.” Well, I’ve been talkin’ ’bout you, baby. All over town. Thought I should tell you what I’ve been saying.
When there’s a week like this with big national news going on in the city, I get calls from out-of-town reporters who have parachuted into town for the story. I used to do the same thing when I was a traveling reporter dropping out of the sky into some place, totally cold with two days to make a deadline. It’s called, “Look for the geez.”
I’m the 200-year-old columnist you call to ask about the bones in the closet and the bad old days in this burg. It will not surprise you to learn that I am the possessor and librarian/archivist of this city’s most impressive collection of local skeletons in closets and bad stuff that happened way back in the day.
And I do share. I don’t believe in obfuscation. I still have nightmares in which some of those old skeletons get up, escape the closet and start roaming around the landscape at night, so I want to make sure we all know where they are and what they look like.
This week I have been talking to reporters about the city’s peculiar and intractable issues of racial segregation and economic disparity. I have tried to paint a picture of the extreme social and political anachronisms that still dog our every attempt at progress.
In fact, I have developed sort of a reporter hot-button routine — things I can mention to get the point across. I always mention the existence here of police unions separated by race. That gets a rise out of them.
I tell them that City Hall officially divides the city map into northern and southern sectors. I mention that in 2013 after a five-year federal probe, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development issued a 29-page finding that Dallas City Hall enforces that north/south line of racial demarcation deliberately and with official policies, in violation of federal law.
But you know which one really gets them? I tell them that the old Dallas business establishment still works its will through a private entity called the Dallas Citizens Council. They never believe that at first.
I always add immediately that the Citizens Council insists it has no historical or institutional relationship with the infamous White Citizens Council of the segregation era. But then I add, “Even so, if that were your club in the Year 2016, would you not change the name?”
That’s usually good for a swear word or two.
So about then, after I’ve dropped the Citizens Council bomb on them, I feel that I have done my duty as the local teaser-geezer. Then, before they get a chance to jump off the phone, I add this:
Burdened as we are by a peculiar past, even hobbled by a certain disconnection from national progress, the fact remains that Dallas and its environs in the last decade have become a marvelous new realm, or, maybe more accurately, a couple of marvelous new realms.
Both new realms reflect changes that already took place in many other American cities 20 years ago. But they are happening here now, and these changes should make us all strongly optimistic for our future.
The change I know less well, because of where I live, is taking place in the suburbs, where a flood of new diverse upwardly mobile arrivals, American and foreign-born, is painting a brand-new version of the American dream on a brand-new canvas.
The pluralizing of the suburbs is not taking place without a few bumps and bruises, of course, as when Irving Mayor Beth Van Duyne tried a year ago to get a state law passed making it illegal for her town to be taken over by Muslims. I drove out there and found this whole new fancy-schmancy subdivision being built in Irving right next to the vast and gleaming new Irving Islamic Center – with street names like Al Razi and Al Hazen — and I thought, “Mayor Van Duyne, I think maybe your horse has already vacated the barn.”
But you can’t be out there, you can’t drive around or go into a shop and fail to grasp the way the suburban Dallas-Fort Worth realm is now knitted into the rest of the globe as never before. It’s not unusual to meet somebody out there who does business in Texas, Dubai and South Korea. And, you know, it’s like the cufflink business or something. I can’t even imagine how it’s done.
If the world is going to shrink, and it is, and if economic well-being is going to become a more international endeavor, and it is already, then we should all be thrilled with what’s going on all around us in our suburban belt.
The realm I know better is the city, and I always manage to squeeze this one in when I’m talking to out-of-town reporters. I think I’ve told this same joke six times in the last week, calling North Oak Cliff, “Brooklyn but your parents don’t have to support you.”
I notice nobody ever quotes it – not funny, eh? — but that’s OK: The point I’m trying to get across is that Dallas, although late to the game of hipsterization, is developing its own culture – quite unique, I think – of young back-to-the-city urbanization hybridized with old-fashioned Dallas entrepreneurial spirit.
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Here’s the thing. Nobody young moves here because it was always his dream to live within sight of the Trinity River. The gen-x-to-millenial generational spectrum coming to Dallas or staying in Dallas does so for the same basic reasons my now-geezinski generation did a third of a century ago, for opportunity, for a job, to start a business, to get a foot in the door in the underwear-model trade, whatever. To make money.
But this new wave also brings with it some wonderful qualities of tolerance and what I call geographical porosity. By that I mean they can move into what had been a poor Mexican immigrant community in North Oak Cliff, walk the streets with the Mexican families, maybe shop at some of the tiendas, even speak decent Spanish once in a while, and not just try to bulldoze everybody else who isn’t white middle class right off the edge of the world as I fear we did.
Bumps and bruises occur there, as well, of course. But here is the real perspective I can bring to it as a geez, even better than my collection of skeletons and nightmares. I can see the long arc of this. I can compare what this city looked like and felt like in 1978, when I first arrived here from a small colony on the other side of Mars, and what it looks and feels like now.
The arc is all to the good. It is a rainbow carrying us to a productive, harmonious and fulfilling future, as long as we keep those skeletons locked up. And that last bit is very important. Every time you walk by, check and make sure the door is still closed and locked.