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The Invisibles

Harvey Graff's new book, The Dallas Myth, says the really interesting thing about Dallas is that it doesn't even want to have a reason for being. I know why that is. Dallas isn't really here. It's in outer space. Can you hear the theme music?
Courtesy of University of Minnesota Press

Sometimes people look at the wrong thing when they look at Dallas. They want to find what makes Dallas unique, so they look for something unique. But the thing that makes this region unique is its perfect, flawless, seamless lack of uniqueness.

OK, I know, it needs a little explaining. But listen: When they start looking around for people to populate the first colonies in outer space, they're going to come crawling to our doorsteps.

We'll say, "What's a doorstep?" And then they'll know we're perfect.

Harvey J. Graff, who used to live here, has written a new book called, The Dallas Myth: The Making and Unmaking of an American City, published by the University of Minnesota Press. He's an academic in a field called literacy studies at Ohio State University.

Graff lived and taught in Dallas from 1975 through 2004 and was active in community affairs. He was at the University of Texas at Dallas, which as we know is not in Dallas. It's in Richardson. Graff brings a lot to the table—the incisive, disciplined eye of an academic who's not a native but knows the city well. And he has very interesting things to say about the city in his book.

He explores why we have this bizarre need to keep repeating the no-raison-d'être myth: that there was no physical or "natural" reason for building a city here, and therefore Dallas is entirely the creation of human willpower. Graff does a great job pointing out that this nutty story is no more true or untrue of Dallas than of most of the nation's inland regional cities.

He ponders why Dallas thinks it would be a good thing not to have a reason for being, and he offers some very smart possible answers. He says the important thing is that Dallas doesn't need a reason for being: "More than most places, I argue, Dallas is an invention, an imagined environment, mythologized and promoted in singular images."

I think he's spot-on. The heroic myth of Dallas is that the city is entirely a creation of willpower and salesmanship, the twin pillars of secular fundamentalism. We are the ultimate evolution and expression of wild-eyed, ascetic frontier shamanism—a city where the most real things are the things we dream up in our heads.

That's what happens when you leave people out in the woods too long. They wind up with an origin myth that's spooky as hell and doesn't even make sense, but they find great comfort in it. Now, see, my argument is that these are exactly the kind of people you want to shoot off into outer space.

I almost hate to talk about this in the same breath with Graff, because his book is serious and very important, and I know you're going to take what I have to say as a joke. But it's not. I'm quite sincere.

Do you remember the Hale-Bopp people who all killed themselves while in their bunks in California in 1997? Their group was called "Heaven's Gate." They committed suicide because they thought the appearance of the Hale-Bopp comet was a sign that the Earth was about to be "recycled." I'm sorry, that's as much as I can tell you. They're all dead.

Many of them—on the lam and hiding out from family members, creditors and other interested parties—had lived in North Dallas off and on from the 1980s into the mid-'90s.

When the story of the mass suicide broke, I was the Dallas bureau chief for the Houston Chronicle. My boss called, naturally, and told me to buzz out pronto to the area in North Dallas and Richardson where the Boppers had lived, then talk to neighbors and friends, co-workers and so on to find out what their problem was.

I discovered that all of the Boppers' addresses were actually codes at a commercial post office where you could get fake addresses that looked like street numbers. My discovery led to one of the least distinguished paragraphs I have ever written in my entire 200-year reporting career:

Melvin Stokes, manager of the Mail Boxes Etc. store that the cult often used as a mailing address, held up both arms and shrugged to express his complete unfamiliarity with them.

Eleven years later, I'm still embarrassed. This just in, folks. Mailbox guy couldn't tell suicidal Hale-Bopp space-agents from anybody else in North Dallas.

Actually, he gave me another quote (this often happens) that was too good to use, too provocative. It would have taken the story way off down another path and required too much explaining.

I poked on him a little and said, "C'mon, man, the cops have shown you their pictures. You must have at least recognized some of them."

He sort of motioned around the place with one hand at the people coming in and out—a typical Dallas suburban mélange of types, maybe from Indiana, maybe India, maybe Industrial Boulevard, all speaking hip-hop cool-guy slang in indistinct accents and wearing sort of FUBU-looking rugby shirts, baseball caps and gold chains.

 

He said, "Why would I recognize anybody here?"

I remember looking around at this perfectly indistinguishable tide of temporary residents coming to check their fake street addresses for mail. Their ethnicity, national origin, culture and social character were almost completely cloaked and hidden by seamless layers of generic, mass-produced, media-marketed suburban anti-culture.

What a place to hide!

The perfect place, in fact. If you're a dummy and you try to go hide out in the middle of the desert, they're going to find you in about two hours with one of those infrared, heat-seeking satellites like they used on Che Guevara.

Just go to Richardson, slap a baseball cap on your head and some bling. You're the invisible man!

So that was the genesis of my theory of the Dallas suburbs as the antimatter of human geography. Check me on this, but I do not believe that any other city in America can touch us for having quite so completely indistinguishable an expanse of generic suburbia. In a place like Chicago you can tell the old suburbs from the recent ones, the Polish 'burbs from the Italian 'burbs.

But we are surrounded by suburbs all built within the same snap of history's fingers, a borderless maze of franchised retail places that all look the same and apartment complexes and single-family residential neighborhoods that all look exactly alike. The only way to find your way around is with GPS. Dallas suburbia is where somewhere ends and nowhere begins—human outer space—a place to make yourself up as you go along.

So you think I'm putting the suburbs down, right? Oh, please, no, not at all. Stick with me here a minute. I think the Dallas suburbs are where we will create the race of people who will conquer the universe.

Say you need to build a small colony on a platform out in the vicinity of the star Acubens. Things are going to be a bit Spartan at first until the community gets going. People will basically be living in titanium tubes and boxes, watching 1970s reruns on TV and eating flavored felt.

You can't send a bunch of 10th-generation Westchester County people out there who get all wobbly in the head and nauseated because someone is going to repaint the belfry on the chapel. "Oh my word, what if they get the hue wrong? We'll have to commit mass suicide."

You can't have people like that in outer space. They'd never last. They're locality wieners. You need people who have the courage to shed tradition and abandon place itself, people who can slap on a gimme cap and some bling and become whatever they need to be.

You need a race of people who have been toughened up to life in Nowheresville. People whose idea of a meaningful landmark is Starbucks. People for whom an address is a code registered with Mail Boxes Etc. People from Frisco!

Harvey Graff's book is fascinating for me, because I am fascinated, as is he, by cities, and the city I happen to know most about is Dallas. I love my part of Dallas. But I know in my heart of hearts that my part of Dallas, Old East Dallas, is a refugee camp for people who are hiding out from the real Dallas.

Frisco.

The outermost suburbs are where the future is being forged. While it makes perfect sense for Graff to study the old city—in line with his earlier work, informed by his own experience—some other kind of academic should come study the suburban fringe, the nowhere of Dallas.

Yeah, yeah, I know all about James Howard Kunstler, The Geography of Nowhere: The Rise and Decline of America's Manmade Landscape. Read it. Loved it. Very important book.

I have written here before about the more recent book, The Option of Urbanism by Christopher B. Leinberger, about how all the kids are going to move back into the city and live the Seinfeld life. Great news. I believe it. I'm all for it.

But Kunstler's book is a requiem. I'm sorry, but what can I do? Leinberger's book is a real estate brochure. Sure, the rich kids will move downtown for a while. What about the rest of humanity?

People, the vast mass of people, will live in more and more generic and mass-produced environments in fewer and fewer truly unique locales, because that's the relentless math of population growth, pollution and politics. A chicken in every pot and a unique code on every titanium tube.

I'm not embracing it. I already told you, I'm a refugee. But don't you think we should get past the sentimental notion that an absence of place is automatically a bad thing? Why is it bad? Is a sense of place like a limb or an eye?

 

So if you believe that, do you think it's a good thing for people to know their place? What are you, English? We are Frisco! We are free! We don't need no stinkin' sense of place!


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