In a New Year, A New Dallas City Manager Will Encounter the City's Past
The old Dallas called itself "The city that works," because it worked. In this new year, our new city manager will have to figure out why that's not so true any longer.
Library of Congress
It’s a new year. I am thinking about Father Time. Or should it be Mother Time? Mainly, I am so embarrassed. I dropped a stitch at the end of last year. I had to find out by reading The Dallas Morning News the other day that the incoming Dallas city manager, T.C. Broadnax, had been in town visiting with important people. I realized with a blush that I had neglected to pencil him in for his meeting with me.
Broadnax did have conversations, of course, with people at the News, mentioning to them that he was in town for a week for what he called “pre-engagement meetings.” I think those are what I called “dates” when I was young. I’m sure the people at the News filled him in on the big picture.
If I had met with him, I would have filled him in on the gossip. In fact I would have provided him with a verbal version of the Jim Schutze Gossip-History Map of Dallas. It goes sort of like this:
You have your very rich people, mainly in the north, and you have your very poor people, mainly in the south. Lots of out-of-towners and know-nothings have focused on this divide — hard to miss since the city prints it on official maps — and have mistakenly assumed that they know something. They know nothing. I hope the new city manager will not make the same mistake.
He mustn’t think of Dallas as an apple cut in two but more as if it were a hamburger in which the rich old people in the north and the poor old people in the south are the buns. Caught between, a feast for both, are the meat and fixings, otherwise known as young people.
Dallas is not the new city manager’s first hog auction. He has been around a bit already — Tacoma, San Antonio, Pompano Beach. I would be willing to bet that in his week of speed-dating here in Dallas his eyes and ears already have popped at a few outstanding anomalies.
I’m sure one of his dates must have been the requisite dinner or lunch with four old rich white guys and two old black clergymen. That stitch was not dropped, I bet. I’m also sure the people he had dinner with told him all about the city’s wonderful history of cooperation, trust and amity between the two hemispheres, very rich and very poor. And I’m certain he must have wondered, “Why?”
And remember, this is about gossip, which is interesting, not about ancient history, which is boring, so we’re not going to go spelunking into the caves of ancient history to find out why Dallas is so odd. It just is. If Broadnax thinks those guys at the dinner were sort of scary and weird, then that’s enough.
Now what about the meat and fixings? Who are they? They are younger. They don’t have the same severe ethnic divisions. They’re somewhat segregated by race but not as badly or quite in the same way as the older element. When you see them encounter each other in public, you don’t have the feeling that you are witnessing a ceremony at the United Nations.
Many of the meat-and-fixings crowd actually grew up in the suburbs, which they now regard as one great sensory deprivation chamber. They tend to be educated. Some of them are well traveled. They are drawn to the city because they are drawn to each other. They feel right when they are surrounded by the city’s sizzle and fizz. They would all rather be in Brooklyn or San Francisco, but not everybody can live in Brooklyn or San Francisco, so they have set about creating their own little Brooklyn-ciscos here.
In numbers that increase every year, they are winning elective office and infiltrating the corridors of power. But they’re not there yet. They’re not the money. The old rich white people are still the money. The poor people in southern Dallas still need the money.
The rise of a new younger more independent leadership is happening in the city’s black and Hispanic communities at the same pace as in the white community, because the larger phenomenon is generational, not ethnic. The big new differences are between young people and old people, not between ethnic groups. But, again, the turnover is not quite there yet.
The people in the two halves of the bun, rich and poor, north and south, may live on different planets but they are united by a ferocious attachment to the past. Based on that past, the rich ones believe that City Hall’s job is to shovel money at them when they ask, mainly in the form of massive tax breaks for their real estate endeavors and bond money support for public works projects related to their endeavors.
No single issue binds the city to its past or threatens its future the way the Trinity toll road does.
The rich white people pour campaign money into the coffers of candidates who are supposed to represent the interests of poor people of color. When those candidates get elected, they vote for the rich guys’ tax breaks and public works projects. They salve their consciences by telling themselves that those votes are only for “white people deals” anyway, so who cares?
The old entrenched black leadership asks only for separation and peace, expecting little in the way of real change. In fact, they view a rigid stasis as their best bet. From school reform to the economy, the only real change they want to see is not much change at all.
When a powerful California developer came to town a decade ago to launch an entire new clean industry that would have provided tens of thousands of new jobs in southern Dallas, the old entrenched black leadership united with the old rich white leadership to run the guy out of town and into bankruptcy. Why? Because his industry would have competed with holdings of one of the old rich white families, and because that much new economic activity in southern Dallas might have destabilized the old black leadership cabal.
So in the day-to-day life and career of the new city manager, how does all of this gossip work out? What does it do? What happens?
I’m fairly certain the term “Trinity Toll Road” came up at that dinner, and, even if it didn’t, Broadnax has a reputation for doing his homework, so he probably already has some notion what it is — a massive public works project that the city has been arguing about but not building for decades. And let’s give ourselves a break and not dive too deeply into all those caves of history, either.
All he really has to see is how that issue works at City Hall, because “the toll road,” as we call it, is emblematic of everything. The idea of building a multi-lane, limited access, high-speed highway along the Trinity River through the center of the city is a political Holy Grail that the old rich white leadership has pursued for a half century.
When this all started, they had their reasons. Since then, a lot has changed. The old hub-and-spoke urban-suburban architecture of cities everywhere in America has shifted back to what cities used to be — densely developed close-in neighborhoods where people live, work and play.
The conspiracy theory about why the old rich white leadership remains so ferociously wedded to the toll road assumes that it’s about money. And maybe. To some extent. Some of the backers certainly do own real estate downtown, and they may believe a new highway will enhance the redevelopment value of that land.
But just as many of them will have noticed by now that massive highways operate against land value in the new urban reality, whereas a nice new urban park in the same place might enhance their chances. So I don’t think real estate schemes alone can be the answer.
The force that keeps the Trinity toll road plan on our plates almost 20 years after it was approved by voters is the same one that unites those two halves of the bun I was talking about before. The past. The past itself is the great mother of the bun.
In the past, the old white leadership decreed, and what was decreed was done. Some kind of mixed-up middle class troublemakers on the City Council might have voted against it, whatever it was, but the black votes rode in behind the rich white ones like the cavalry, and the deed was done. Everything worked. In fact, Dallas called itself “the city that works,” because it always worked.
That’s much less true now, because the grip of the past is weakening. The old leaderships, rich and poor, black and white, have failed to apprehend the new city, to see how it is emerging and what it will become, so they keep trying to rebuild the old one. That can’t work forever. It can’t work for long.
But the central fact Broadnax will have to figure out — I bet he already has, based on his dates — is that it still works now. The new city isn’t here yet. The old math still prevails. The city manager works for the eight-vote majority on the council. The old rich white leadership and the old poor black leadership still hold those eight votes.
To survive one week, let alone a year, Broadnax will have to sign up with the eight votes and do their bidding. I just hope he will also keep one eye on the one trend I watch most closely:
Six years ago the meat-and-fixings part of the sandwich, the new younger element, held one seat on the City Council. Five years ago they had two seats. Three years ago it was three seats. Now it’s four solid, as many as six on many votes, and in the last year they have managed to cobble together eight-vote coalition majorities on a number of important issues.
So, sure, he needs to know where we’ve been and where we are. But we can hope he will also keep an eye on where we’re headed.