Why Again Would a Golf Course Bring Wealth to Southern Dallas?
The concept of the cargo cult was invented by white anthropologists to explain the behavior of black Pacific Islanders. We shouldn't be surprised if the concept came out making rich Europeans seem smarter than indigenous islanders. To the anthropologist belong the spoils, you know.
But cargo cults really exist. They're based on the use of ritual and magic to cause a large ship or airplane full of rich people, often the Kennedys, to appear bearing a bountiful cargo of gifts.
Several cargo cults sprang up on islands occupied by American forces during World War II after the Americans withdrew, taking with them their plentiful food, equipment and especially their technology — boxes with talking people inside, rocks containing pieces of the radiant sun and murderous volcano poles.
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The best known cargo cult still in existence is the John Frum Movement on Tanna Island in the Pacific nation of Vanuatu, where episodes of Survivor have been filmed. Every year the people of Tanna clear landing strips, fashion replicas of radio towers from bamboo and even march in homemade American uniforms in an attempt to cause the American military to return from the sky with rich planeloads of bounty.
To the anthropologist, this kind of magical belief is an artifact of ignorance, but in the view of the late British author Arthur C. Clarke, magic was a force that infused and directed the lives of modern people more than so-called primitives. After all, modern life is a virtual cocoon of technologies most modern people understand not at all yet use every day, and, as Clarke said in his famous third law, "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic, especially in Dallas."
OK, I added the Dallas part. But Clarke did say the thing about magic and technology. I found myself pondering his law the other day, because I was thinking about the other side of cargo cults, the part the anthropologists never seem to even look at. Take the idea that wealth is a magical consequence of having a lot of Americans around: How do the anthropologists know the people of Tanna didn't get that idea from the Americans?
Which brings us a very long way around the world and back to Dallas. I got off on this whole cargo cult thing because I have been trying honestly to come to an understanding of The Dallas Morning News and its fervent belief in and championing of the so-called Trinity Golf Course. This is a plan to build an exclusive and expensive "world-class" golf course for private members on public land, specifically on top of a toxic waste dump in a perennially and bitterly poor portion of southern Dallas.
The golf course will be distant from developed areas, cut off by flood zone and forest. But it will be in the southern hemisphere of the city, which traditionally has been poor and minority.
It is the belief of the city's only daily newspaper — and I believe this is a sincere, committed and fervent belief — that installing an exclusive new golf course with member joining fees already estimated north of $150,000 will cause wealth to occur in the surrounding areas of the city.
I happen to know this area of the city. I have hiked it and driven it and walked it for years. I could even call it a place dear to my heart. But just to check and make my sure my heart was not deluding me, I went back last week and checked the census tract data.
Four census tracts surround and include the area where the new golf course is proposed. The area is a triangle of almost 500 acres of land between Interstate 45, U.S. 175 and Loop 12, five miles southeast of downtown, hemmed in by the Trinity River and White Rock Creek. Some of the area is sparsely settled, other parts are neighborhoods of single-story houses of 1,500 to 2,000 square feet, 40 to 50 years old.
I looked at 2007-2011 data from the American Community Survey published by the Census Bureau. When I saw the census data, I played around with them a little more in my own Excel spreadsheet just to make sure my eyes weren't lying to me. No such luck. It's as bleak as it looks.
In 2010 the census reported per capita personal income for all Americans at $40,584 in 2010 dollars. The average of per capita incomes for the four census tracts surrounding the proposed golf course is $11,097. The tract closest to the golf course has a per capita income of $9,758.
Unemployment in this area may or may not look high to you, depending on how you squint your eyes. It's a little more than 11 percent. But there's a dirty little trick in measuring unemployment in this part of town. You're only unemployed, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), if you have been employed at some point and hope to be again. If you are "not in the labor force," you don't count as being unemployed.
The astonishing number in this part of the city is of people who have never been employed and are not looking for employment. The average "not in the labor force" percentage for the four census tracts near the golf course is 37.95. That's almost 40 percent. In hard numbers, it's 5,078 people.
The official BLS definition of "not in the labor force" is this: "Includes persons aged 16 years and older in the civilian noninstitutional population who are neither employed nor unemployed in accordance with the definitions contained in this glossary. Information is collected on their desire for and availability for work, job search activity in the prior year, and reasons for not currently searching."
But let's do this maybe an easier way. I just randomly selected a census tract up around Arapaho and Plano roads in suburban Richardson and looked at how many people up there are "not in the labor force." It's 15.2 percent.
Should we dwell on that number — the "not in the labor force" one? I assume everybody will want to start talking about race right away. OK. The area we're talking about around the future golf course is substantially whiter than the city at large and a tad less black.
The census says Dallas is now about 50.7 percent white. The tracts we are talking about are 57.88 percent white. Dallas is 25 percent black. The area around the golf course is just under that, at 24.15 percent black.
We don't know who's not working. Here is what we can say. One hell of a lot of people in this area are not working now, have never worked and probably will never work.
The area is bitingly poor. I assume most of us will see a correlation between never working and being poor. From there we may diverge. Whose fault is it that 5,000 souls in this area are "not in the labor force?" We could pull up chairs, get some pitchers of iced tea and a fan and sit here and argue that one all night long if you like.
But this is what I want to know first. What earthly good will a golf course do? The Morning News is calling the proposed golf course a "tipping point" and a "game-changer" for southern Dallas: "Something big needed to happen — a top-quality attraction that would lure residents on a mass scale away from their northern havens and into the heart of southern Dallas," the paper said in a recent editorial. "As [Dallas Mayor Mike] Rawlings notes, it'll help change the mentality of southern Dallas as a 'charity case' and instead get people to recognize the huge investment opportunities there."
Really? Tell me how that will work. Just tell me. I don't have anything against the golf course. They're saying it won't cost the city any new money and the private sector will have to raise the bulk of the cost of building it. I don't know why the city would give away land to a private club, but that's not my big sticking point.
I want to know how establishing an expensive golf course in a very isolated area surrounded by largely impenetrable flood-zone and forest will cause wealth to occur in nearby neighborhoods. Obviously, even if the golf course does very well and signs up a ton of wealthy members, they won't need 5,000 caddies. When they do hire caddies I doubt they will sign up too many applicants whose résumés are completely blank. And how wealthy are caddies?
This isn't really how the world works, is it? Prosperity is not a cargo that appears on the beach when the Kennedys show up in their ship looking for a place to play golf. It really does take more than that.
I ask, because there is something in the Morning News view of things here that seems eerily consonant with their entire approach to southern Dallas. We have, for example, the ad nauseum finger-wagging campaign they keep flogging on their editorial page, called "Ten Drops in the Bucket," in which they list distressed and trashy properties in southern Dallas and insist that someone clean them up.
Again, I think these are absolutely sincere expressions of concern, but the central message always seems to be, "Stay where you are but dress up like us, make your lawns look more like our lawns, and cargo shall come to you."
Now we have this even stranger iteration of the cargo cult: "We shall cause rich golfers to drive on highways within a mile of your neighborhoods, and their richness shall fan out somehow, and soon you will no longer be 'not in the labor force.'"
They say the Byron Nelson golf tournament may come to it. Yeah, maybe. I'll start taking them seriously when they tell me the Kennedys are coming.
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