Big idea if there's ever another Dallas Festival of Ideas: Don't have it in February. The lousy weather last week put a crimp in the weekend's schedule of idea-generating events in the Arts District.
What was supposed to be a daylong series of panels, group discussions and performances by local artists, dancers and actors was edited down to a few sessions Saturday afternoon at the City Performance Hall, Winspear Opera House and Booker T. Washington High School. About 700 people did slosh through the slush to hear out-of-town and local experts talk for several hours about the city's future in areas of race, architecture, education, digital technology and culture. Mayor Mike Rawlings, in his brief opening remarks, said he hoped it would be "yoga for your mind."
Despite bungled PowerPoints and a lack of microphones, there was some lively back-and-forth on these topics. At the panel on race, keynote speaker Ta-Nehisi Coates, an author and senior editor at The Atlantic, blasted continuing and unmonitored unfair housing practices that discriminate against minorities (in Dallas and elsewhere), starting with the old policy of banks red-lining real estate to keep minorities from owning property in white neighborhoods and the recent disaster of sub-prime mortgages nicknamed "ghetto loans." "If you think [housing discrimination] isn't happening anymore, you're living in a dream world," said Coates.
Coates said it shouldn't take federal funds and government studies to solve the problem of "re-segregated" neighborhoods and schools. If people want to solve these issues, the city should form its own team of monitors, sort of a squad of "mystery shoppers" who investigate and report lack of code enforcement and bad housing practices in areas such as South Dallas. He also suggested taking a look at how housing discrimination has divided the city and perpetuated racist attitudes. "Race comes from racism, not the other way around," said Coates.
Out of the panel on architecture, led by architect and A Country of Cities author Vishaan Chakrabarti (winner of last year's Connected Cities Design Challenge for development along the Trinity River), came ideas for creating "nodes" of business and residential living in Dallas. Instead of the old spoke-and-wheel, with a downtown business district in the middle and suburbs surrounding, there could be bustling mini-cities all over Dallas County.
Opportunities abound for close-in development, said local real estate developer Maria Loveland Schneider. She's interested in building new apartments in Pleasant Grove, where there haven't been any new units since the 1980s. "It's an area of Dallas that's low-income, but not poor," she said. She also said Dallas is one of last big cities in the country with huge tracts of empty land, some of it surprisingly scenic. "There are chalk cliffs on Jim Miller," she said, referring to Far East Dallas, and areas near Fair Park with rolling hills and beautiful views of the skyline. Right now, however, those neighborhoods struggle with attracting retail businesses, said Schneider, and overcoming their designations as "food deserts" devoid of decent grocery stores.
A big problem with Dallas' city planning, said professor and architecture critic Mark Lamster, is that there isn't any. "There is no vision," he said during the session on "The Physical City." "No one is tying it all together. There needs to be one person at City Hall driving the vision for Dallas." Instead, said Lamster, "anyone with a lawyer can have whatever they want." Example: in a single square mile of Oak Lawn, there currently are 189 "planned developments."
The ideas generated in the education segment boiled down to "teach more like the Japanese" and "give teachers more authority." (Like that will ever happen.)
The need for a "chief digital officer" at City Hall was one notion to emerge from discussion of Dallas' digital future. "Digital foresight strategist" Rahaf Harfoush cited "digital culture" used in other cities that attracts tourism and improves quality of life. In Barcelona, an online network connects residents over 65. In Boston, the "Street Bump" Smartphone app registers drivers' pothole encounters and sends locations to the road repair department. (That drew big applause from the audience here.) An app in Rome called Dogalize connects dog owners to each other and to dog-friendly cafes and parks. City leaders and strategists (some form of "strategy" or "strategic" was used about every four seconds in these talks) should look at how Dallas is reflected in posts on Instagram and Vine to see who "emerging voices" are, said Harfoush.
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The "big idea" in the session on culture wasn't a new idea at all. Leading the panel were George Getschow, who runs the Mayborn Literary Nonfiction Conference in Denton, and poet and essayist Luis Alberto Urrea, who founded a book festival in Tucson. No surprise, they proposed launching a huge new book fest in Dallas, based at SMU and chaired by former First Lady Laura Bush (of whom Urrea is a big fan). "Hand out a big trophy," said Urrea. "People will love it." (That the panel on this topic was happening inside the Winspear Opera House, located in the country's finest new collection of theater facilities, was not lost on some attendees.)
The emphasis on a book fest, not a theater or performing arts festival, was a disappointment to panelist Teresa Coleman Wash, founder of TeCo Theatrical Productions, the 21-year-old resident company at Oak Cliff's Bishop Arts Theatre Center. "The invited guest was set on presenting the book festival idea," said Wash in a post-festival interview. "But it would be disastrous to focus attention on a book festival when so many Dallas arts organizations are struggling. We've got to address that issue first. We need a paradigm shift. The city has to think of the performing arts differently. We're not just entertainment. We create jobs. We drive the economy. And I think it's important for the mayor to understand the caliber of talent that we have here."
Wash thinks there should be an arts council made up of leaders of Dallas' large and small theater and dance companies and other performing arts entities. They would meet regularly "to have real conversations about the challenges we have."
Now that's a great idea.