Young Dallas Leadership Must Think of Itself Now on a National Stage

Have we gotten past the throw-uppy feeling yet? Are we ready to talk about the future? We know there’s going to be one, good, bad or ugly. I think I see a little window. It’s local and global at the same time, and it’s exciting, not that we need excitement.

First, we will experience staggering failures and scandals ahead in Washington, because the American people, in their un-wisdom, have elected a self-jabbering clown as president. An orange one.

From those failures and scandals we will craft dramatic corrections. In those corrections we will find success. There is every reason for our own city, Dallas, to contribute to those corrections and to that success, at least as much as any city in the country. We have the stuff.

For a first peek through my window, look to Stephen Young’s piece here yesterday about a controversy over possible appointments to the board of DART, our regional mass transit agency. One of the candidates, Patrick Kennedy, is a standard-bearer for all of the smart, tough pragmatic thinking that new young players have brought to our city in the last 10 years and will take to the nation from cities all over the country in the next 10.

Kennedy is steeped in the new urban philosophy of dense but organic development — people weaving strong social fabrics in tight-knit neighborhoods while also achieving environmental economies of scale, setting two birds free to fly through the same open window. In his interview before a City Council committee, Kennedy espoused a whole new direction for DART, away from the promotion of suburban sprawl, toward enabling urban density.

His competitor for the post is Howard L. Gilberg, an environmental lawyer. Gilberg told the council committee that DART’s biggest need is for better marketing, a dubious idea at the moment since every person who boards a DART train at present costs the system $4.87, assuming they pay their fare.

Kennedy’s thinking, like the thinking of many new young leaders rebuilding inner city neighborhoods in Dallas now with startling success, is pragmatic before it is idealistic. He’s talking about what works. DART needs to double down on density in order to help create the human environment that will naturally support rail.

Old East Dallas and North Oak Cliff, two inner city regions the old leadership wanted to pave and forget a mere 10 years ago, are real estate success stories. It’s fine with me if somebody wants to talk about how it takes a village. I agree. It does. But way before we get to that, we need to recognize that the new urban thinking exemplified by Kennedy is a prescription for pragmatic success, for making the trains run on time and pay for themselves, for keeping people invested, for cleaning the air and keeping things cool.

Let’s call these “good-life” ideas. In general and over time, the national electorate responds to good-life ideas more powerfully than it does to the ideological concepts embedded in party platforms. Writing on The Dallas Morning News op-ed page yesterday, Harold Clarke, a professor of economics and political science at the University of Texas at Dallas, called them “valence” issues.

Clarke said valence issues include, “vigorous economic growth, the provision of high-quality health care, affordable educational opportunities, national security and protection from terrorists and common criminals.”

“Virtually everyone agrees that these are desirable ends of public policy, and political debate focuses on how to best achieve these goals.”
It’s a question of how to do it, and that question is almost always a physical, logistical or engineering question long before it gets to the part about the village. The New York Times two days ago published a smart and simple look at this question.

The first thing the old leadership thinks of and wants to do, when there’s a spare nickel to be spent on infrastructure, is spend it on roads, as we know all too well here given our decades-old cross-to-bear controversy over the Trinity toll road. Roads were a great investment — in the 1950s. The Times piece shows the country making a 35 percent return on investment in roads back then. But not now. Now the return is down to 10 percent.

Meanwhile, a new Urban Land Institute study shows phenomenal returns on urban walking and biking trails, and, by the way, one of the super-star trails cited by the ULI is the KATY Trail in Dallas, another hard-fought victory for the New Guard here.

And again, we’re talking real estate. The ULI study cites increases in property values along the Indianapolis Cultural Trail of 150 percent and along the KATY trail here of 80 percent. This is not kumbaya. Yet. It’s location, location, location.

Speaking of which, we are now living in a place called “Dallas Pond,” according to another New York Times graphic, this one published yesterday under the rubric, “Trump’s America.” It’s a map of the parts of the continent Trump won, eroded by coastal and internal areas of Hillary support represented as fictional bodies of water. Houston, for example, is called “Houston Bay,” and Detroit is “Detroit Delta.” Hence, because Dallas proper went solidly for Hillary, we are a pond of non-Trump territory.

The more I stared at it, the more moving I found it. Yes, the map shows an overwhelming amount of sheer land mass that Trump won. But when I look at the carve-outs, the places he didn’t win, and when I see our own place on that map, I see that we are allied with all of the nation’s most diverse and promising areas, mostly but not all of them in urban centers.

We all get by now that the Trump vote was a roar from the hearts of people who feel left out and shunted aside, lost in a new America that they cannot comprehend. I’m not sure how productive it is to sit around forever despising them and calling them deplorable, even though some of them are (the white nationalists, for example).

Anyway, what I notice among young people today is not that they have come up with some brand-new philosophy of race they can talk about. They don’t seem to want to talk about it at all. It seems to me they have just stopped thinking about it. It doesn’t turn into something new. It blinks off. It goes away.

Let’s go back instead to that stiffer ground I call the good-life issues. Two days ago, Michael E. Webber, deputy director of the Energy Institute at the University of Texas, Austin, had an op-ed piece in The New York Times in which he used market and industry data to decimate the idea that Trump will ever bring back the Kentucky coal-mining industry.

We already have gone down the road and around the bend too far toward clean air. We are too deeply invested in cleaner energy, from gas to windmills, and those sources are already too competitive. Eastern dirty coal isn’t coming back, because there won’t be a market for it if somebody tries to bring it back.

And who would try? Policy papers and polemics are one thing, but where is the investment money going to come from? Rich idiots? Oops. Forget I asked that one.

Look, I definitely am not saying that the right ideas will win out over time and we should patiently bide our time until that happens. We have no time to bide. In a peer-reviewed study published recently in the journal, “Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics,” James Hansen and 18 co-authors warned that sea levels, rising much more rapidly than scientists had previously believed, may pose an existential threat to humankind within 50 years:

“It is not difficult to imagine that conflicts arising from forced migrations and economic collapse might make the planet ungovernable, threatening the fabric of civilization.”

That great land mass of Trump votes, the whole nation within a nation that it represents, is on the wrong side, the dark side, the ill-fated side of success today and human survival tomorrow. But all of those incursions of the other America, the lakes, bays and ponds of pragmatically better thinking have it in them to turn the nation around.

We’re not just some small part of that. Dallas could be more. We need more local leaders to follow the lead of our own Jason Roberts, the one-time heavy-metal bike shop dude from North Oak Cliff who is now a national guru for better streets. People here who are smart and figuring things out need to think of themselves on a national stage. There was never a better time. There isn’t a whole lot of time.
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Jim Schutze has been the city columnist for the Dallas Observer since 1998. He has been a recipient of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies’ national award for best commentary and Lincoln University’s national Unity Award for writing on civil rights and racial issues. In 2011 he was admitted to the Texas Institute of Letters.
Contact: Jim Schutze

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