Rouging the Corpse

I'm working on a new joke. I've been working on it all week, but I can't come up with the punch line. Maybe you can help. This is as far as I've gotten:

Dallas Mayor Laura Miller walks into a bar. There's this guy sitting at a table with big horns growing out of his head, a red tail, a pitchfork in one hand and a split tongue. He says, "Look, Mayor, I want to build a toll road along the Trinity River so I can help speed your lovely constituents on their way to a certain destination I have in mind for them [wink-wink]."

Miller hems and haws, shakes her head, looks dubious. Then she says: "Would it have pedestrian promenades with scenic outlooks?"

That's as far as I can get, then I can't think of anything funny. I get too angry.

The river-bottom land interests are still pushing hard for a brand-new multilane superhighway jammed in along the banks of the Trinity River where it runs through the heart of downtown. Miller is very proud of the fact that she may be able to whittle them down from eight lanes to six, and she hopes to get them to agree to put in various "amenities." Think: portable toilets on the road to hell.

But wait a minute. It's our land. It's our money. Their superhighway will do a poor job of relieving our traffic congestion and a worse job of "creating new tax base" (not). And it will ruin the park we want to build there. So why is the mayor so proud of slicing the dime with them? What dime?

Why not just tell the road hustlers this: You've got a 1950s suburban sprawl idea; it's totally incompatible with truly urban life; we're out of money, and we're out of clean air; we need to concentrate on our very best shot, and that's parks, fountains, sidewalk cafes, peddlers on stilts and an urban zest the suburbs don't have. To make any of that work, we need to get more people out of their cars, not attract more people in cars into the urban core.


Of course, if this were only about mean greedy landholders vs. virtuous cosmopolites like myself, it would be a lot easier for most of us to make up our minds. The reality is that there are people of good intentions, bad intentions and OK intentions on both sides of the Trinity River toll-road thing. On the two sides we have very different but sincerely held worldviews, almost like vying religions.

On the one hand you have Michael Morris, transportation director of the North Central Texas Council of Governments, a bright man who talks passionately about Dallas proper slipping "farther and farther away from the center of things" if it fails to remain fluidly connected by roads with the rest of the metropolitan area.

On the other hand you have people like...well, me, for instance. As far as I can tell, most of the rest of the metropolitan area is made up of strip shopping malls, vast treeless housing developments that look like prototypes for the first settlements on other planets and phony-baloney music academies in metal buildings covered with brick veneer and Doric columns made of extruded foam.

So why do I need to be fluidly connected with that? And don't tell me it's because that's where the future is. If that's true, then why do suburban kids put on decal-tattoos and black clothes and come slipping into our downtown on the weekend? I say life is headed our way, not theirs, because their way is boring. No community, however excellent its highways, has ever succeeded in convincing its own offspring that sensory-deprived anesthetic torpor is a true high.

We are coming to the fundamental understanding that cars and highways are always agents of sprawl and always the enemies of urban life. Mass transit and urban density (people on top of people on top of people in big exciting buildings with lots of lights in the windows) are the jazz of life.

The single event most often credited with the renaissance of Toronto, Ontario--its emergence as one of North America's coolest cities today--was the killing of the Spadina Expressway project in the early 1970s. Ontario Premier Bill Davis made history when he said in June 1971: "If we are building a transportation system to serve the automobile, the Spadina Expressway would be a good place to start. But if we are building a transportation system to serve the people, the Spadina Expressway is a good place to stop."

John Sewell was a young lawyer and community organizer in Toronto in the 1960s. His role in fighting to protect old neighborhoods from "urban renewal" put him on the city council in 1969. His leadership in the fight to kill the Spadina led to his becoming mayor of Toronto in 1978. He's an author and a writer for an alternative weekly newspaper in Toronto now. I sent him an e-mail about the proposed Trinity River toll road last week, and then he and I spoke by phone.