Amy Silverstein's cover story here last week, "Road Runners," exploded one of my own favorite and time-honored paradigms; the city versus the suburbs. Silverstein exposed a scenario in which people in the boondocks are getting reamed in exactly the same way and even by the same people as folks in the city.
Her piece painted a portrait of rural areas east of Lake Ray Hubbard and Lake Lavon, 25 to 40 miles northeast of downtown Dallas, where the forces of big central planning are working to expunge small idiosyncratic communities, all in the name of so-called "regionalism." And by regionalism, we mean, of course, sprawl, cheap development and huge public works construction.
A private company is seeking to build a toll road through that area, and, up until very recently when overwhelming public opposition seemed finally to slow things down a bit, the company was getting powerful support from ... no ... surely not again! ... not them again ... YES!
THE COG! is officially the North Central Texas Council of Governments, an obscure federally mandated planning agency whose mission is supposed to be seeking regional consensus on how federal transportation dollars are spent. But the consensus stuff went out the window long ago when the sprawl dudes — people who make tons of money building highways and sewers and selling new houses on raw land — figured out, like Willie Sutton, that THE COG! was where the money was. In recent years, THE COG! has emerged as the sprawl dudes' strike force, typically marshaling all kinds of utterly phony-baloney fake engineering and population studies to back up the latest flim-flam-thank-you-ma'am scheme for the sprawlsters.
For years and for a bunch of reasons, I have railed against THE COG! They wanted to double-deck Central Expressway, a truly stupid idea that would have killed the rebirth of the M Streets. They turned what could have been a truly revolutionary subway system downtown into a stupid Timmie Toot-Toot trolley system spread out all over the map to nowhere and back that does absolutely nothing to contain sprawl (surprise, surprise). And they still want to ram an unneeded toll road through the center of Dallas right along the Trinity River, annihilating the huge development potential of a river park.
In my ranting I have always believed - well, more than that, really, I have always cherished the belief - that THE COG! wants to screw the city because it is the vassal of the boondocks. But what Silverstein's story so effectively laid bare was that THE COG! wants to screw the boondocks, too.
My own mistake - and a mistake I fear I see others about to make, too - was in assuming a causal connection between THE COG! and the people who live in the boondocks, as if the boondockians were egging on THE COG!, telling it, "Go get those city people, rip up their river and make sure their rail system is stupid." Because ... because?
Ah, but there is no because because that's not it at all. Not a bit. My view these long years has missed a central reality. The boondockians are every bit as idiosyncratic and self-determining as we urbanians. Here's the really cool thing I saw in her story: I could easily see myself trading places with a boondockian someday.
Land? Streams? Fenced fields where my wife could keep a herd of toothless three-legged rescue dogs? Oh, man, I'm there already, at least in my dreams. The boondockian life is cool in all the same ways the urbanian life is: People get to decide how they want to live on their own scale and in their own damn good time.
So who's against that? How could that hurt anybody? Oh, come on, we all know the answer to that one. The sprawl dudes make all their money off the cookie-cutter machine, the great big steaming rumbling roaring industry that churns out gigantic new highways, sewers as big as the Mississippi and identical houses marching off over the horizon like lemmings. They can't be stopped by a bunch of little weirdos insisting on their own weird little ways of life. Fire up the 'dozers!
So, wait a minute. Something very new and very important is brewing in the city right now in anticipation of City Hall elections next May. For my own two bits' worth, I have to tell you I think it's wonderful — sort of a miracle. But in light of the rural and suburban rebellion against THE COG! over toll roads, I wonder if we urbanians may need to pause and re-ponder our situation.
The thing I am talking about is still so nascent, wet and half-formed that it doesn't really even have a name yet, although I am told D Magazine publisher Wick Allison is already calling it "Dallas First," which I think is sort of brilliant. It's the idea that Dallas needs to put up its hand and say "Stop" to THE COG! and to the sprawlsters in general. In just the last couple of years, a keen new awareness has grown in the city that the notion of regionalism is far less benign than the word itself might imply.
In the matter of rubber-tired transportation, for example, the city might benefit by pushing a lot of it outside the city limits. Every time THE COG! comes around asking how we intend to handle all the traffic that needs to get from one corner of the region to the other, maybe the city needs to say, "We don't. Next question?"
Of course this is not to say that a huge population doesn't need huge sewers or huge and effective means of getting around. Obviously we do and we will. The question is more like this: Where does the overall design come from? Who draws it? Where does it originate?
We urbanians and the boondockians really are saying the same thing — we will draw it. We will tell you where and how we want to live. Our region, when we are done, will look like a crazy quilt of idiosyncratic blips, blobs and empty spaces, because we, as human beings, are idiosyncratic blips and blobs. The one thing we all agree on is that none of us wants to wear your straitjacket.
Engineers, planners and sprawl dudes are the very last people who should be originating the design for the region, because they all think in straight lines. We humans are much more like nature — an infinitely fine and feathered confluence of curves and circles. From our flowing lack of linear predictability we will conjure organic spores of settlement, here and there. Look at us up close, and we will make no sense whatsoever. Look at us from afar, and we will be beauty. Like nature.
Now, COG! Where are you? Come forward again. Now you may show us your roads.
Are we opposed to construction? Do we hate enterprise? Do we not want anyone to make a profit again ever? Oh, of course not. Most of us are hoping for a little bit of profit ourselves someday.
I think what most of us would say is that those brilliant entrepreneurial minds who brought us sprawl, when we wanted sprawl, just need to reorganize. They need to figure out how to make money serving the needs of organic disparate community rather than insisting on imposing linear structure on communities that don't want it and will not have it.
So where does that bring us vis a vis the next council elections? Isn't this all pretty far out in airy-fairy la-la? How do you put it on a yard sign?
I still like "Dallas First!" It very effectively communicates the city's need to stick up for itself and the importance of voting for candidates who get it, who aren't roll-overs and sell-outs to the same old sprawl dudes. But I think we urbanians would miss a very important bet if we failed to see our commonality of interest with the boondockians, not to forget our common enemy.
Recently the opponents of the proposed Blacklands Corridor toll road through the boondocks won a small victory notable for us urbanians because it's so much bigger than anything we ever have won on the Trinity toll road. In the face of ferocious public opposition to the road, the technical staff of NCTCOG actually came out against including it in regional long-range transportation plans. That fight is far from over. But this small victory shows that the boondockians know what they're doing. It also highlights that we all have a common antagonist called ...
THE COG! If we can begin to see how THE COG! really works, if we all see our shared susceptibility to it, the common threat it poses to us all, then I think the larger shape of shared destiny looms up behind it in relief. By seeing how the central planners of sprawl operate and what they want to accomplish — the utter and complete erasure of individualism — then we can also begin to see the happy wonder of what it is we all want to do instead.
Ultimately, THE COG! is a political Frankenstein's monster, a thing given life but no soul. We need to BRING DOWN THE COG! I'll put that on my lawn, and Wick can do Dallas First! on his.