When a panel discussion of the proposed Trinity toll road begins this evening at 6:30 pm at Rosemont Elementary, something will be quite different about it compared with the same kind of events during the run-up to an anti-Trinity road referendum seven years ago. Everything.
Seven years ago the supporters of the road were a lockstep army that included all of the establishment media and pretty much the entire elected and business leadership of the city. They painted any and all opponents as heretics, loons and embezzlers, saving their special venom for City Council member Angela Hunt, who organized the referendum. She was accused of being a ... referendum organizer. How she escaped being burned at the stake we still do not know.
Now it's almost as if we could have a conversation. Just take a look at The Dallas Morning News. Yesterday Brandon Formby had a piece in the paper providing a balanced and informative portrait of the issues. In recent months Formby has given readers key information about the search for funding for the unbuilt 16-year-old project -- insights readers wouldn't have had without his work. Rudy Bush on the paper's editorial has been tough on efforts by the mayor to do a last minute rescue of the project's failing political prospects.
In the meantime D Magazine publisher Wick Allison has become much more than an outspoken critic of the project; he is now a born-again advocate for an entirely other school of thought on urban design, one that views big freeways as anathema to urban development.
See also: How Wick Allison Changed His Mind
Does that mean everybody hates the toll road now? Of course not. Rodger Jones on the News' editorial page keeps a good drumbeat going for it. Our mayor, who announced yesterday he'll run for re-election in May, has made it plain he'll make getting it built a top priority, and I even wonder if that's why he's running.
The point is that between 2007 and the eve of 2015, something very noticeable has happened to us as a city. We can now talk about things like this without immediately going for the throat. I don't want to get totally hysterical about it, but I have to say I almost wonder if Dallas has grown up. A little.
If we have -- if we have gained the ability to countenance disagreement without going straight into the worst kind of character assassination -- then that ability carries with it certain obligations. It means -- and believe me, I still hate this -- that now we may have to actually listen to each other.
I'm not going to dredge back through everything that was said seven years ago -- the lies, exaggerations and expressions of sheer stupidity -- nor am I going to give you any hints about which side said them (begins with, "not us"). It's all hot water over the dam and a waving of the bloody shirt by now.
Things have changed. Something has happened. I'm not sure I can put my finger on it. It's not only the toll road. I sense a new and wholly unaccustomed ability to engage in reasonable debate on a variety of topics, from school reform to Ebola, and everybody hates Ebola. This just isn't the way things used to be in Dallas.
In 1998, not long after my former colleague, Laura Miller, was elected to the Dallas City Council, she said to me (I paraphrase) that the most important thing in Dallas is to never talk about anything ever. I knew immediately exactly what she meant.
It's how people feel in small towns where everyone lives in a fishbowl. You mustn't talk about stuff in a small town, because if you talk about stuff, stuff might happen. People who talk about stuff are either bad people or crazy.
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People don't line up on issues anyway in a small town. They line up on the basis of social acceptance. You're in with the good people, or you're out with the bad people. The good people sing from the Good People Hymnal. If you want to be one of them, all you need is the correct hymn number and page.
Cities are different. People engage in public argument in cities, and it's not personal or at least not quite so personal. They can argue for a long time about whose turn it is to take the open stool at the bar without getting mad. Then they get mad. But it's amazing how long they can go. It's a sign of cityhood.
I don't think we've got it yet, but I believe we're getting there. We should be able to go to that thing this evening and hear each other out with hardly any catcalls, groans or angry shouting. Hardly. Any. Unless they bring up bogus traffic projections. Then of course we'll have to go back to our cars and get the baseball bats. The most important thing in a city is to never bring up bogus traffic projections. They never do that in Paris. I bet. It's interesting how the man-made environment shapes us and how we shape the man-made environment.
Rosemont Elementary is at 1919 Stevens Forest Drive near West Davis and North Hampton in North Oak Cliff. Bring a whoopee cushion.