City Hall

When Is Dallas Aware of Its History, and When Is It a Prisoner of Its History?

Do you ever have the feeling you’d like to take the old year, put it on a little raft, set the raft on fire and push it out to sea? Nothing against the old year. Maybe it’s even a way of honoring the year just passed. But it would also be nice to be done with the old year in some very final way.

At the very tail end of the old year and looking forward to the new one, I had coffee with Dallas school board member Miguel Solis, and we talked about prisoners of history. We both agreed that the hand and mark of history lie heavy on our city, especially the north-south racial divide and the old alliances and enmities that seem to dog our every step. I wondered if he had any ideas how Dallas might escape its jealous past.

Why Solis? Who better? Not yet 30, Solis in 2013 became the youngest person ever elected to the Dallas school board. In 2014 he served as the board’s youngest ever president and is now president of the Latino Center for Leadership Development, a nonprofit seeking to develop new young minority leaders, not only those of Latino origin. 

So here was the setup for our coffee meeting: I said we still have Dallas with this big, old, ugly racial/ethnic borderline slashed across its belly roughly along the Interstate 30 east-west expressway. Efforts to erase or at least ameliorate that division go back to the League for Educational Advancement in Dallas (LEAD) in the mid-1960s. But it’s still there, in many ways unsoftened and unbudged.

We still have the same basic political divisions, especially the obvious ones based on ethnicity and ethnic geography, and we still have the same basic alignments, in particular the alliance between the old white business leadership as represented by the private Dallas Citizens Council and black officeholders for whom the Citizens Council is still their only consistent and reliable source of campaign funding.

And this is not to say things are utterly unchanged or that we have seen no morsel of progress since the '60s. If things hadn’t improved a good deal over what they were back then, I do believe the city would be under permanent National Guard martial law by now.

Mayor Mike Rawlings’ “GrowSouth” initiative to foster economic development in the city’s poverty-plagued southern hemisphere is not fake and is delivering measures of promise and hope to parts of the city that have always been deserts of despair.

But look at it. We’ve still got the line, and it’s not just a slash across a map: I can see the line, feel it and hear it when I attend City Council meetings. Why is there no meaningful ongoing alliance between southern Dallas minority council members and the so-called white progressives?

Whenever a good honest fight comes up, why are the black and Hispanic members still craning their necks to look for approval from old, rich white guys in the audience while the young, white progressives stare at the ceiling? Shouldn’t they be looking at each other? Couldn’t they look to each other?

Over our coffee, Solis approached things very diplomatically, I thought, since he was basically saying people shouldn’t spend too much time reading my stuff. Well, not exactly. He said it’s good to know the history, as long as you’re not over-impressed by it.

He said bridging the old gaps will be the work of “this new generation of Dallasites who are cognizant of the history but didn’t necessarily experience it themselves.”

It’s an interesting point. He was saying basically that the city needs more leaders who are not necessarily deeply rooted in the city’s past.

“People who have lived the history of Dallas or who paid attention at one point may be keyed into what you have highlighted — the relationships that haven’t done anything, for example.

“There is a sense of knowing that something needs to be done but not knowing how, because they feel that they have seen everything tried. It’s not apathy. It’s seeing policies and actions that have been taken but not seeing things change.”

He quoted JFK: "Change is the law of life. And those who look only to the past or the present are certain to miss the future."

I said I got what he was saying, it was something I see all over town, not just in southern Dallas. I have spoken with older white liberals in North Dallas who, in their disappointment over the meager fruit of their own past efforts, fall somewhere between crabby and brokenhearted.

Solis — who went to Harvard graduate school by the way — is very smart about how he says this, but he basically says the best bet for change and progress is to kind of step right around the crabby and the brokenhearted. In southern Dallas, for example, new young minority leaders, some of whom may not even have grown up in Dallas, are already beginning to assume leadership roles.

“I am seeing a new generation of Hispanics and African Americans who haven’t experienced the history themselves,” he said, “so there is not this sense that we tried it all and nothing happened, so what can we do? Instead there is an optimism and idealism, a willingness to come to the table to do some decision making and to do things differently.

“There has to be a bridging of the gap by thought leaders, people from all walks of life, who are young and live in Dallas, who want to make a difference, who see the I-30 divide, see the rise in poverty in our city and understand that we need to rethink the way we develop our city.”

OK. I definitely get all that. I couldn’t agree more. I can’t think of a better remedy for what ails this city than mega-doses of fresh thinking from outsiders and new arrivals. But I also can’t help remembering that everyone who dates from the old Dallas — I am talking white people, black people, Hispanics, straight people and gay, Jewish people and Gentile — everybody in the old Dallas has the same word for bumptious, newly arrived, outspoken, fresh young people with new ideas.


I’m not kidding. I spent my first five years here trying to figure out what a Yankee was. I knew I was one, of course, but I was trying to measure the universe of other people who were included.

My first big step was to decide it was anybody from north of the Red River, including Oklahoma. Then I heard somebody talking about Yankee accents and realized he was talking about people from Plano, so I had to pull the line down even closer.

I believe it was a former member of the staff of this newspaper, gay, who first introduced me to the concept of “obnoxious, trouble-making gay Yankees who come here and try to tell Dallas gay people what to do.”

Gay Yankees. Who knew?

Maybe I haven’t gotten around enough to make the comparison, but I don’t know of another major city in this country, in the past anyway, more reflexively resistant to outside influence than this one. For a long time Dallas wouldn’t even ask for advice.

When light rail was first being debated here, I remember sitting through an actual City Council debate about whether the birds, when they landed on the overhead catenary (the electrical cable that supplies power to the cars), would all catch fire. I was sorely tempted to raise my hand and suggest that other American cities had already dealt with this issue, but I decided it would exceed my role as a journalistic observer.

So, wait, am I saying that Miguel Solis is naïve and doesn’t understand how resistant Dallas is to outsiders? Am I saying these people he describes as not having experienced the history themselves will be targeted by the ones who have and will be tarred, feathered and ridden out of town on a rail?

Yes. But you know why? Because I’m a prisoner of history. I’m just exactly what he’s talking about. I know all the reasons why this won’t work and that won’t work.

Solis said something funny about people who take action and people who don’t. He said he knows a lot of people his age who just “overthink it.” Maybe an essential part of the ability to act, he said, is not knowing exactly what you’re doing in advance but plunging ahead anyway.

I think that part may be called courage. Or foolhardiness, depending on one’s perspective.

We talked about a lot of other stuff. He suggested there may be an entire body of thought and culture around the nature of good cities and good streets that is apart from or somewhere above all the old ethnic and class-bound divisions. If we were to talk to younger adults across all of the old divisive borders, he suggested, we would find they tend to have a shared vision of urban transportation, for example, setting them apart from older people across all of the same lines.

You know: more walking, more trollies, fewer cars, more park, less highway. That kind of stuff. I think he’s right. I also think you’d find just less sense of division. The old ethnic divisions are not gone by any means, but the borders are softer the younger you go.

So let’s imagine we really can set 2015 down on a lovely little raft full of fireplace starters, shower it with rose petals, soak it in gasoline, shove it out to sea and toss a match.

With only 2016 to think about, can we imagine this year as the one when those divided eyes on the City Council connect with each other at last, when some light bulb turns on above them and they see their commonality? Or am I still just a Yankee? By way of full disclosure, my wife says she may find a way to work that word into the inscription on my headstone.