Neil Emmons Died Last Week. In the Life of the City, He Counted.
Dallas District 2 Plan Commissioner Neil Emmons
Neil Emmons, Dallas' District 2 plan commissioner who died last week, was way deep in the woods on some big development deal many years ago, on the side of the neighborhood and giving the developer grief, of course, when a guy I knew who worked for the developer gave me a call from the hallway at City Hall.
By the way, this was not about Victory Park, the big Ross Perot Jr. development that Perot sold out of in 2010. That came later.
“I mean, really, Jim,” the guy said to me on the phone, “who in the eff is Neil Emmons, anyway? He’s just some dude, some random guy. He’s nobody. He’s just a gossip.
“But here he is at City Hall. He’s in here walking around like he’s somebody, telling a developer who has done billions of dollars' worth of deals all over the world — billions, Jim, billions — how to conduct their business. So, Jim, you tell me, what do you see that is wrong with this picture?”
I paused respectfully to show I was trying to think of the answer. Finally, in a tone of reluctance, I said, “You got me.”
Of course, I knew what he meant. It’s Dallas dogma. Moral and intellectual authority are counted in cash. People are bigger or smaller, more important or less important, more to be reckoned with or less to be taken seriously according to the mountain of money they do or do not represent.
And Emmons was just some guy, some dude. What did he have? Well, among other things, people who knew him well suspected he had an I.Q. through the roof, even though he was never the smart guy trying to show everybody that he was the smart guy.
What else? He was witty and glib a lot of the time, but one always sensed something more somber, deeper inside. I know, even though he was private about it, that he suffered serious health challenges fairly early in adulthood — something he wasn’t sure he would survive. And he had an income. I don’t think he was rich at all. He lived modestly. But he didn’t work.
Some set of factors and events came together to give him both a reason and an opportunity to do something meaningful with the rest of his life. I suspect he knew it would not be a long life. He was 45 years old when he was found dead in bed last week of causes still not known at the time of this writing.
And, yes, he was this guy, this dude who believed that sometimes he knew better what to do than the big powerful people. I don’t think any of that was necessarily an expression of animus against big powerful people as a category or class of human beings. Sometimes he just thought he knew better.
Sometimes he did.
The best example of that might be the deal I mentioned at the top, Victory, the big, supposedly mixed-use office, retail and condo district developed by Ross Perot Jr. beginning in 1999 near but not in downtown around a new basketball arena built on a reclaimed toxic waste site. For years nobody in Dallas could tell Perot, son of a billionaire presidential candidate, what was wrong with it.
But something was very wrong. Victory was an utterly soulless rich kid’s hollow dream of rich-itude. Insanely monumental and sterile, the place made normal people feel like Matt Damon on Mars right after the rest of the crew took off without him.
In 2009, a year before Perot surrendered his equity in Victory to investors, Matt Pulle wrote a very prescient piece for the Observer about what was wrong with it, in which Emmons was quoted. He told Pulle that the downtown development was doomed, “unless we design mixed-use districts for people of multiple income levels and we have the critical mass of retail and rooftops.”
Look, Emmons didn’t invent the concept of synergy and action churned by a diverse urban admixture of classes, cultures and things going on — or “uses” as such things are called in urban studies. Jane Jacobs talked about it in her book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, in 1961. Richard Florida revived the idea in The Rise of the Creative Class in 2002.
Christopher Leinberger (The Option of Urbanism) came here in 2008 and laid it out explicitly in dollars and cents to a luncheon crowd of Dallas movers and shakers: Land goes up in dollars-per-square-foot value, he told the Dallas crowd, the more an area feels like teeming Hong Kong and the less it feels like a sterile suburban Oklahoma shopping mall.
In the years right after Leinberger spoke here, values in funky North Oak Cliff took off for the moon and, yes, Perot bowed out of a stubbornly moribund Victory Park. But, no, that doesn’t mean big people here got it. For one thing, once you’re pretty well raised up and grown believing in the religion of new stuff, there isn’t much that can convert you to faith in funky old stuff, short of getting sent to a political re-education camp, which, of course, we don’t do in this society. Yet.
And secondly, to understand Jacobs or Florida or Leinberger, you’d have to go to dinner at least once with somebody who had read their stuff, meaning you’d have to go to dinner at least once outside the Park Cities. For some people, even sitting in a luncheon listening to one of them talk doesn’t help, because the minute he utters the word “diversity,” the rest of it comes across like random phone tones.
So it’s up to the random really smart dude with an unspoken cause to serve, who does read Jacobs, who does live the life she talked about in her book, to smuggle those ideas inside the iron dome. Even without a cause to serve, Emmons was coming to City Hall sooner or later, anyway, like a moth to flame, because he absolutely loved the give and take of it, especially the gossip.
That was how we met. It was in a crowded corridor outside the City Council chamber during a break. He said he knew I loved gossip, which I found insulting at first. I told him I didn't “love” gossip. I had a professional interest in gossip. He shrugged. We had a gossip duel. I saw right away he was a world-class gossip-smith, but I believe I held my own.
His uncanny eye for personal detail and a steel-trap memory gave him a great advantage over the kind of narcissistic blowhards you can meet in that same corridor 20 times over and they still can’t remember ever having met you before. Emmons had game.
And he had heart. This anecdote I heard first from a third party and then confirmed with Emmons: Several members of the Dallas Plan Commission were in a faraway city staying in a nice hotel on the city of Dallas tab while they attended some important conference on how to use sticky-notes, whatever. The person I heard about it from had just stepped off the elevator when he heard a commotion at the front desk.
A third member of the commission was having it out with the desk clerk over the fact that the hotel would not honor any more charges to his city of Dallas debit card. The chagrined plan commission member was on the verge of shouting and really making a scene, warning the clerk in this nice hotel in a faraway city that he had better be aware just whom he was dealing with, an official official, after all, of the great city of Dallas, Texas.
All of a sudden Emmons, who was a little ahead of my witness in the corridor, bolts to the desk, whips out his wallet, tells the clerk to put it all on his own personal credit card and quickly and efficiently whisks away the maker of the scene by one firmly gripped elbow.
Emmons and I talked about it a year after it happened. He wouldn’t confirm it on the record, and the guy who told me about it first told me off the record. I was asking, because, by the time Emmons and I spoke about it, the party of the dead debit card had become a defendant in an unrelated federal City Hall corruption trial. See. That’s not gossip. That’s news.
The guy was a major antagonist to Emmons on the commission. Every time Emmons tried to stand up to a developer, this guy predictably slipped in behind him with a knife.
I asked Emmons what it cost him. He said not much. I asked if he did it because he was embarrassed for the guy. He said not really. He did it because he was embarrassed for Dallas.
He loved Dallas. He believed in the city. For all our worship of wealth, he told me, this city is still way more open and susceptible to change than the old cities where people call conflict of interest “tradition.”
This is still a place where a bright committed nobody from nowhere can wander into City Hall, start buttonholing people, work on some campaigns, and gain the trust and interest of other people who care what happens. He or she can wind up just as important and just as influential as the guy who’s done billions of dollars in business all over the world.
You know what he’d be the first to tell you? That guy or that woman who’s done the billions in business needs to be there, too. She really does know things other people don’t know, and she really does bring resources with her to City Hall. You want everybody there, everybody you can possibly squeeze into the room.
As long as they all care about the city. That’s what really counts. That’s why Emmons counted.
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