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We Interrupt Our Regular Broadcast for Schutze to Say Something Positive About the City

There’s a groundswell of support in Dallas for community gardens and neighborhood farmers markets—but City Hall just wants them to go away.
Hal Samples

Normally what newspaper writers do at the end of year is fulminate—rant and rave. But I do that all year long. So for me the end of the year ought to be time to get a grip.

You know what really does calm me down and cheer me up this time of year? I feel better when I reflect on the relative irrelevance of most of what I write about the rest of the year.

City Hall. Who cares? Where is it? What is it? The North Central Texas Council of Governments. Sounds like something out of a wacko conspiracy theory. Got to be made up.

And while we're at it, me. I'm always going on like it's the end of the world. But I look out the window today, and it just looks like Dallas, Texas.

A few weeks ago I had a great lunch with the Reverend Joe Clifford, senior pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Dallas. We drove to Wingfield's on South Beckley and picked up unconscionably huge burgers, which we took back to the church library to eat. He said his doctor lets him eat one of those things "every quarter."

The rest of our conversation was not for quotes. Not that we talked about anything secret. But I didn't have my notebook out. The meeting was personal, not reportorial. I do a lot of that. I'm not sure it keeps me grounded, but at least it keeps me on the lower floors.

On the way down a long corridor leading to the library, Clifford, still a relative newcomer to Dallas, showed me a diorama on the wall depicting the role of First Presbyterian in the history of the city in a series of historical photographs. It's an entire saga that is quite moving. And I don't think a person would even glimpse it in a study of Dallas based on the official, governmental, political or journalistic record.

First Presbyterian, founded in 1856, has a diverse membership now but was historically one of the city's white churches. No surprise there. All the old saws about Sunday as the most segregated day of the week held true in Dallas, just as they did in Ann Arbor, Michigan, where I grew up in the 1950s.

But what you see in the diorama is the saga of First Presbyterian reaching across those barriers of race, fighting for the desegregation of health facilities and pushing the racial envelope in other ways.

It's a lesson I apparently have to re-learn every so many years. In the 1980s I wrote a book on the history of racial politics in Dallas, based mainly on journalistic and official records. Only after it was published did I begin to perceive an entire inner history of the city—a story of forces that powerfully shaped the Dallas of today while leaving only faint footprints on the public record.

I learned, for example, the story of Rabbi Levi Olan of Temple Emanu-El, whose parents came here fleeing the Ukrainian pogroms. In the 1950s and '60s, Olan, now deceased, was a persuasive voice for tolerance and intellectual maturity in a city that only decades before had been run by the Ku Klux Klan.

Not bad.

I can't claim total ignorance of the city's better nature, because I married a native. I know from her, for example, that kids growing up in public schools in Dallas in the 1950s enjoyed a cultural experience considerably deeper and more sophisticated than what a lad of the same era would have experienced in the suburbs of Detroit, or, I suspect, the suburbs of anywhere.

My wife remembers her mother dressing her up when she was in elementary school in Oak Cliff for annual visits to the Dallas symphony, opera and art museum. The visits to the opera were preceded by weeks of lessons in her daily music classes. Doesn't sound like the boondocks, does it?

It's one of the ironies in the city's history: a place that was in many ways quite urban and urbane got covered up with fake cowboy motifs imposed by outlanders who arrived in the '70s and '80s thinking they had come to the land of the saguaro cactus, steel guitars and J.R. Ewing.

And then, sensing opportunity, the city played to that stereotype. Dallas installed a herd of bronze longhorn cattle in the shadow of City Hall, for example, where surely no real longhorn ever trod. I always thought those cows needed Yale's Whiffenpoofs to come sing, "We are poor little longhorns who have lost our way."

Whatever. History's a show like everything else.

All of this pondering brings me to the question of this day: If there was a powerful subterranean historical process taking place in the '50s and '60s, then there must be one at work today. So what is it?

 

A week after my lunch with Clifford, I went to have lunch at the Cosmic Café with Julia Barton, who was one of the voices of American Public Media's "Weekend America" until it folded earlier this year. She is a veteran of public radio in Iowa City and Philadelphia and an expert on media repression in Ukraine.

So why do I know somebody like that? Easy. I spoke to her journalism class at Skyline High School when she was a student there in 1987. Her mother and I worked together at the now defunct Dallas Times-Herald. When Julia comes to town for visits, she is kind enough to show me her new children. Get old enough and you'll know interesting people too.

Walking to our cars after lunch, she made an interesting observation—that visiting North Dallas, where she was staying, is like a trip back in time, but coming to the neighborhood along Oak Lawn where we ate and where I work is like visiting an entire new city.

A cool city, we agreed. Cooler and cooler.

And there is your inner history of Dallas. Happening before our very eyes. In spite of every boneheaded, ham-fisted mistake by the city council or the regional transit agency or the county or the North Central Texas Council of Governments, a powerful force surging beneath the surface of official politics continues to make the city molt, shed and re-emerge as a bright new being.

I have been struck in recent weeks by the bizarre blindness of official Dallas to the huge new forces pushing up out of the soil all around it. Take the neighborhood farmers markets, for example. They're one small part of a major new phenomenon in the city having to do with people taking back control of their lives from the mid-century Mad Men regime of corporate technocracy. People want to pull themselves and their loved ones back to shelter from that Brave Old World.

Seems to me if city officials were interested in what goes on outside the walls of City Hall, they might poke their heads out the window once in a while and take notice. Dallas is a major national market for organic home lawn and garden products. The organic grocery business is booming, there's interest in community garden and in neighborhood farmers markets. North Dallas is yesterday. Oak Lawn is tomorrow.

So what is City Hall's response? Make it all go away. Community gardens, we learn, are not mentioned in the city's development code. Well, there you have it: They can't exist, then, until the code is amended—a process that may take years. Sorry, community gardens: You are not yet real.

Neighborhood farmers markets seem to be real but must be cut way back, the city tells us. The council must impose strict new limits on the number of markets allowed and their proximity to one another.

Last week I read back through some of my 1986 book on racial politics. I wanted to see what City Hall was doing back in the days when First Presbyterian and Temple Emanu-El were fighting for racial and social progress.

Guess what. City Hall back then was confronting deep-running, powerful change in exactly the way it is now—by dragging its feet, throwing up roadblocks and trying to make the change go away. Its response to black upward mobility was to try to cut the legs out from under it by using eminent domain to seize black-owned homes.

Didn't work.

I have changed a lot since I wrote that book, mainly by getting older. Or, as some of my colleagues put it, old. Back then, I saw City Hall's resistance to change as evidence of evil. Now I see it as evidence of City Hall.

City Hall works from templates. It has a template for keeping track of the storm sewers, templates for streets, electrical lines and how people live. Wherever a bulge or protrusion appears—a thing that appears not to be fitting into the proper template properly—City Hall sends out a crew with pipe wrenches, badges and sensitivity training to whack the damn thing back into shape. That's its job.

But the real city never stops bulging, protruding and molting from its old form into the new. And if you turn away from City Hall—and maybe from me as well—and look instead at what seems to be emerging, the city looks pretty damn good.

My wife and I ate dinner on a weeknight recently at Bolsa, a restaurant on West Davis in Oak Cliff. The place was jammed with people who looked like they had been teleported from the streets of SoHo in Manhattan. And that's a good thing.

Maybe this is national. Maybe it's happening in all American cities. What I care about is that it's happening here, and it's happening in spite of everything I write about the entire rest of the year.

 

There now. I have purged myself of positivism. Now I can look forward to another 12 months of unending, relentless kvetching.


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