Ron Natinsky is the Chosen One? What's Our Second Choice, Then?
I don't like end-of-the-year round-up stories reminding me of all the stuff I've already forgotten over the year, because most of it was stuff I forgot for a reason.
One of the national New Year's lists reminded me that on August 28 the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police department arrested Paris Hilton for possession of pot and cocaine. When that happened I actually couldn't wait to delete it from my memory, and now here I am, knowing about it all over again.
I have similar problems with lists telling me what's going to happen in the year ahead. First, they never tell you the good stuff.
I would read those lists if even one time they had specific juicy predictions, like, "Tribune Company CEO Randy Michaels walks into a bar, says, 'Watch this,' offers waitress a hundred dollars to expose her breasts."
And then it really happens!
A list like that would be interesting. But we never get lists like that. Instead what do we get? We get predictions that fall in the category of, "probably true but who cares?"
It's especially the case locally, which brings us to D Magazine's recent adventure in the uninteresting occult, an article in the December issue called "20 Things You Need to Know for 2011." In that piece the magazine's editor predicted correctly but boringly that the current mayor of Dallas, Tom Leppert, will not run for re-election in May and that the establishment candidate to succeed him will be the famous, the fantabulous, the one and lonely only...Ron Natinsky!
You know. The famous Polish ballet dancer, right? Oh, no, wait, that was Nijinsky. The magazine editor was talking about Ron Natinsky, a relatively colorless North Dallas businessman and city council person about whom you probably don't remember ever having known much of anything. He is to be the new excitement, according to D.
And it all falls into place, doesn't it? All of a piece. You may remember that before becoming our incumbent mayor, Leppert was a relatively colorless business person of whom you knew nothing. Then suddenly he was the jazz! Now he's going away, and Mr. Kadinsky is going to be the jazz. Sorry, Natinsky.
You might even wonder how it happens. How do relatively unknown colorless persons who have never taken notable positions on much of anything suddenly become the excitement, and how does D know about it in advance? But you really don't need to ask that question, do you?
It's what makes Dallas Dallas. It is the Dallas way—the way things always have been. Every few years when the current excitement gets worn out from being so exciting, a small coterie of business leaders scans the local horizon to choose someone who can be trusted to fill their new bill. And then D announces the name.
It's a process not unlike the one by which the high lamas of Tibet search for the reincarnation of the Dalai Lama, but instead of a Dalai Lama we get Ron Natinsky. In fact, there are important parallels. Note that it's the Dalai Natinsky who rotates, not the high lamas who select him. The high lamas, known locally as the Dallas Citizens Council, just go on and on, and that is why things stay the same and the same.
The basic culture of leadership in Dallas has not changed since the decades right after World War II. It's still based on a near religious faith in what I call the World's Biggest Ball of String—the big new excitement downtown, the football stadium or the fancy new bridge or the lavish new opera house that's finally going to put this burg on the map. And once this burg is finally on the map, then watch out, Buster, because from then on this burg is going to be...
On the map!
But it's too late! People don't use maps any more. The Dallas Citizens Council is still trying to put Dallas on the map, and how many people even have one? The Citizens Council guys need to get their grandchildren to teach them how to turn on the GPSes in their cars. Wow! Look at that! Dallas is already on the GPS!
Yeah, guess what? So's my driveway. Both cars. So what? Everybody knows where everything is now. To be interesting, you have to take it up a notch from having people know how to locate you. Things are a bit more competitive now. People need not merely to know where you are but why they should want to live there. And maybe we've turned French or something, but the reality in today's world is that wanting to live somewhere involves less of work and more of the rest of life.
None of this is news. It's the "creative class" thing propagated by authors and urban theorist/researchers like Richard Florida and Christopher B. Leinberger. All of it is known and broadly understood. But not here, not by the people who still happen to run our own fair city.
Jim Landers of The Dallas Morning News Washington bureau had a really interesting piece in the January 2 paper about efforts of Ohio cities battered by the collapse of American heavy manufacturing to rebuild themselves by attracting young professionals. Landers quoted a civic activist in Dayton who told him: "Companies want to go where the talent wants to be."
Dayton is trying to make itself more attractive to young creatives by developing the Miami River, which runs through the center of the city, as a bike and hike park. Meanwhile, of course, Dallas is still trying to develop the Trinity River, which runs through the center of our city, as a freeway.
Well, and I forgot. Dallas is also going to have the world's biggest make-believe suspension bridge west of the Mississippi, east of the Pecos, south of the Red River and north of Waco.
Man, watch 'em line up! People will be coming here from Oklahoma!
So, if you haven't already guessed, I think the Calatrava "signature bridge" over the Trinity River and the arts district downtown and the new "deck park" over the Woodall Rodgers Freeway are all a bunch of useless ego trips for old out-of-it rich people, and they will do nothing to build the future of the city.
But guess what? In spite of all that, I am headed into this new year full of hope and optimism for our city.
There are people here who get it. They're young—surprise, surprise. Their trailblazer has been Angela Hunt, the East Dallas District 14 council member who stood alone and braved political firing squads in her opposition to the proposed Trinity River toll road. But now the rest of them are coming of age, too, and are ready to move into position with Hunt.
During the holiday, I had morning coffee with Scott Griggs, a 36-year-old patent and trademark attorney who will run in May for the council seat in District 3, which runs from the west bank of the Trinity River across from downtown all the way to the farthest southwest leg of the city limits abutting Arlington and Duncanville.
Griggs talked to me about his own theory of cities and communities, which is pretty much the opposite of the World's Biggest Ball of String theory. His view is that Dallas must address itself to very small things, everyday pragmatic things that make living here easier and better, and then big things will follow.
"As a city, we need to start realizing the importance of small changes, as well as the big projects," he said. "We have to start small and organically and grow.
"I grew up here. Big and sexy is part of Dallas, but there is room, too, for small and incremental changes."
He brought up something that struck a chord with me, having to do with the mainly Latino community called La Bajada (roughly, "Downhill" or "The Flats") in West Dallas at the foot of the new Calatrava bridge.
He said: "If you go and talk to some of the people in the La Bajada community, they say, 'We didn't ask for a bridge. We have a street that people drive too fast on, and our community center needs a new roof.'"
Yeah, I happen to have been a witness to that one. Several years ago I attended a so-called "consensus-building" meeting on the Trinity River project and Calatrava Bridge, carried out in La Bajada by some damned consultant/contractor for the city. The city couldn't even be bothered to hold its own meetings.
The consultants made people sit at tables and play with little Monopoly board tokens to show their preferences for what should be emphasized in the project—one token if they wanted cute little music venues, another one if they wanted food vendors, another one for kite-flying, etc.
An old man in a straw hat stood up and asked, "What if we're against the whole thing?"
The lady running the meeting said, "I'm sorry, sir, but that's not one of the choices."
It was so deeply and offensively patronizing, I wanted to scream. But then I saw that the people of La Bajada were getting up one by one and quietly walking out, so I felt better.
Griggs gets all of that intuitively. "Making a better Dallas is not only about big projects but at the same time investing in people," he said.
There is a serious, important, challenging cultural divide between this generation of young neighborhood and business activists—the Angela Hunt generation—and the high lamas of the Citizens Council. I don't kid myself for a moment that in the year ahead the high lamas are going to lose their power or their ability to pick the next mayor.
But the Biggest Ball of String guys can't last forever. The Angela Hunts and the Scott Griggs types are champing at the bit. And somewhere out there a truly better city lies ahead.
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