The Year of Living Boringly
Let's do this. Let's not talk about all the big things that happened at City Hall in 2002. To be honest, there weren't any. Nothing happened. As usual. So what about this? Why don't we talk about what should have happened?
Let's say, for example, that a strange green gas settled over the city one late night in January 2002, and the following morning the green mists dissipated and Dallas woke up suddenly extremely cool. The people who run downtown got on the phone right away: "Now that we are cool, we can see that everything we have been doing in Dallas has been so uncool and so boring that we have been strangling the life out of the city. We've got to completely change directions."
The first thing on the agenda was to call off the campaign to move the homeless people out of downtown and instead devote major energy and resources to banning families with young children. Dressed in his new loose-fitting, all-black, shaved-head sexy-beast look, Robert Decherd, CEO of the Belo Corp., explained his vision for downtown: "It is a well-known fact that young children from age zero to 12 are extremely boring to everyone but their parents. These small people cause what sociologists call a Collateral Boring Effect. Wherever young children are present, adults are not free to behave as adults but must behave instead as if guests on a religion-oriented children's television program.
"It's because of this emphasis on making Dallas a PG-13 city that nobody wants to come here. We see the error of our ways, and we believe a radical change of course is urgently needed.
"Therefore with great pride we are announcing a new promotional campaign at Belo that we will call 'Family Last.' Like our old campaign, 'Family First,' this new effort will be aimed at sucking up to our audience, but in a much less patronizing way. Over the months ahead, Belo staffers at Channel 8 and The Dallas Morning News will offer tips and advice on how to ditch your family once in a while and have some real fun for a change.
"We will cover everything from stashing clothes in a health club locker to stashing cash in a secret account--everything you need to know in order to put fun first and family last! Eventually we hope to make Dallas the sort of city of which the mere mention will arouse lurid impulses from Bozeman, Montana, to Detroit, Michigan."
All right, throw a cold bucket of water on me, will somebody? That was never going to happen. I know that. But I think you catch my drift here. Dallas keeps trying to become cool, and it is cool in certain venues--Deep Ellum and Uptown, definitely Lower Greenville, possibly Bishop Arts if they ever get serious booze, McKinney Avenue if you pick and choose, other pockets I'm not thinking of. But the heart and core of the city--downtown--is cryogenically frozen because it is in the clutches of the blue-suit roll-up-the-sidewalks family-values types. If something great had happened in 2002, it would have had to do with changing that basic fact.
Take this whole deal with David Whitney, president of the convention center, and Chris Luna, chairman of the convention center board of directors. They both took pretty ferocious drubbings at the end of the year when it was revealed that the convention center has close ties to the city's naked bars.
I mean no disrespect whatsoever for the fine reporting done by WFAA-Channel 8 on various contracting and expense-account peccadilloes at the convention center. I speak as a licensed peccadillo hunter myself. In season--especially during sweeps week or shortly before a major circulation audit--any peccadillo is fair game for a clean shoot.
But if something really cool had happened to Dallas last year, Whitney and Luna, after they'd cleared up their contracting issues, would have been awarded the municipal equivalent of the Legion of Honor for their determined efforts to help Dallas shed its image as a Baptist concentration camp.
What do we think people think about when they're thinking about where to hold their conventions? "Ah yes, Dallas. Sure, we could hold our annual hardware wholesalers association convention there. On the other hand, we could just as easily offer a week-long retreat at Bob Jones University. We could call it 'Hardware Promise Keepers.' It just depends on how huge a failure we want our annual event to be."
People go to conventions, especially people older than 25, to get away from their families. They flee out the door wiping baby goo from their lapels, dreaming of whiskey, loud music and peccadilloes. That's the point. Can you imagine what kind of challenge those guys at the convention center must have persuading potential clients that Dallas can be a fun place? They've got to come up with a different naked bar for each subset--the men, the women, the straights, the gays, the seniors--because what else have we got?
All right, let's get off that and move on to something else that didn't happen but should have: Dallas woke up cool after the green gas and realized it had to ditch the whole stupid idea of paving over the Trinity River through downtown in order to make room for another expressway. No way was another stupid boring expressway going to do for the city what a really prime outdoor recreational resource could offer.
This is my 2002 fantasy story: In a major turnabout, downtown leaders called for the restoration and preservation of vast natural areas along the river, along with the creation of some man-made amusements like a white-water kayaking venue, an old-fashioned dirt-bottomed swimming hole and a fly-fishing zone along the river. Recruiters at UT Southwestern Medical School, major law firms and banks and in many small businesses reported a surge in their ability to attract talented young professionals to Dallas, once people found out there was something to do outdoors in downtown Dallas that didn't involve being ticketed by the police.
Didn't happen. Sigh.
Speaking of which, wouldn't it have been great if the same new vision had infected the city's park board in 2002? What if the park board had announced a new program of building skate parks, dog parks, running parks and stuff like that downtown?
Was there a way in 2002 City Hall could have encouraged the establishment of more pawnshops, gun stores, escort services, fortunetellers, chili parlors, herb merchants, witch doctors and taxi dancers downtown, so that visitors could tell they weren't at NorthPark Mall? But that brings us to the most troubling aspect of what did not happen at City Hall in 2002--a major change in leadership.
Before 2002, City Hall was led by Mayor Ron Kirk, whose ideas for the future were all about freeways on top of the river and clone-malls downtown. During 2002, the city was led by Mayor Laura Miller, who was supposed to bring radical change.
The thing you hear now among Mayor Miller's supporters in the business community is that she didn't turn out to be the radical they'd feared. Sometimes when I hear them say it, it sounds almost like a brag: "We've got Tinker Bell in the bottle, and the cork's in tight." And I think they're exactly right. She did not turn out to be the radical so many of us thought we were electing.
She says she's not for this zillionaire, she's for that one. She's not for this big-ticket program to redevelop downtown, she's for that other one. But these are all the same people and the same program. It's called great big projects designed to drive up land values.
High land values are the enemy. As long as land values downtown stay above a certain point, none of the cool small things can take place, the semi-dangerous things, the scary-exciting things, the things that have drawn peasants from the countryside since 15th-century London.
Look at how they think: They want grand parks and plazas and promenades. We don't need grand plazas. What is this, the Soviet Union? Why do we need a downtown to inspire awe in the peasantry? We need little things, cool things, things that are tucked away and unexpected, woven together and tugging apart.
The more we pile on infrastructure and debt, both public and private, the more money has to be squeezed out of the land to make sure the whole thing doesn't go upside down. Big rents, big stores, big offices, big bore. You can see all that stuff in Richardson.
The big threat, whenever anybody talks about doing it any other way, is that the big boys downtown will pick up their marbles and move the game to the suburbs. Then we'll lose all that tax revenue we need for things in the rest of the city.
But there's no game where the rules say one side gets to win all the time. I thought maybe Miller would be the one to start doing some tighter math on all this stuff: At what point are we having to give such big tax breaks that we might actually be better off just letting the big boys go? They don't just pay taxes. They cost us major taxes as well. We still have to count the money at the end of the day.
And what about the asset value we have in cityhood, in bright lights, in simply being the city, in being a place that isn't at all like NorthPark Mall? When do we worry about losing that particular golden goose?
Next year maybe. I sure didn't hear anybody talking about it at City Hall in 2002. That's why I say nothing happened. Nothing big.
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