City Hall

Dallas City Hall Blind as Bat About the Trinity River's Value

Back in the good old days of cartoons, it was considered howlingly funny for a cartoon character to be old, bald, not very bright and legally blind. Have him walk into a door and fall down sharply: The audience was spitting up popcorn, falling out of their chairs.

We’ve made enormous progress since then, of course, but I do sometimes wish I could summon a similar sense of humor when I have to think about Dallas City Hall and anything having to do with nature. Ha ha.

Right now we’re having a City Hall debate again about the Trinity, the major river that runs more or less through the middle of Dallas, dwindles to a spittoon sometimes in the long dry seasons, and swells to Red-Sea-size during spring and fall monsoons.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers supposedly is dangling its sword, whatever that might be (something in the order of a pen-knife, I suspect), over the city’s head, because the city has rendered the river un-navigable by building a thing called the Stupid White Water Feature (SWWF), a would-be recreational structure that back-fired, in the river near downtown.

The Corps wants the SWWF fixed or blown up to restore navigability to federally required standards. But Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings has endorsed a plan to go instead to the Congress and seek an exemption from national laws so that the Trinity near Dallas, unlike the rest of the nation’s rivers, would be exempted from the navigability standards.

And that’s the least of what the mayor and his ilk want to do with the river. The big gleam in their eyes is an elevated multi-lane expressway they want to build all along the waterfront downtown, jammed up against the river bank, an homage to mid-20th century automobile culture that would act as a ferocious barrier between human beings and the river itself.

We have talked about all of that here before. I’m not laughing yet. I don’t want to talk about it again, but I feel I have to point out a larger reality. It’s one that ought to be unmistakable, but it flies right by City Hall and many of the city’s mature vision-challenged leaders with learning differences.

If our aim is to “grow” the city, if the ultimate goal of all civic activity should be to expand the tax base to enable people to make money off land values — and I am willing to stipulate to those goals for the sake of argument and just for grins — then the single smartest investment the city could possibly make downtown would be a beautiful, serene, unfettered and natural park.

Let’s look at it first strictly in dollars and cents. Data from the most recent census shows national consumer spending on outdoor recreation at almost twice what we spend on gasoline and other fuels, way ahead of pharmaceuticals and cars, trailing only financial services and healthcare. So the first way to look at this great big potential natural resource in the very midst of our city should be as an economic engine.

It’s old news that millennials are moving into the very hearts of major cities. Perhaps less well understood is that by 2017 they will represent the single largest spending sector by age in the economy. The outdoor and travel industries are still trying to figure them out. The millennials seem to love being out of doors but not so much on golf courses or beaches with waiters holding trays, going instead more for back-packing or anything else that’s off the beaten track and away from waiters.

Of course it’s a mistake to over-generalize about anything so vast as an entire American generation. Lots of young people might love to take off on a foot trek across Patagonia, but a tough economy makes that difficult or impossible for them. And that only makes the opportunity here more tantalizing — a chance to create a vast natural park at the heart of a city.

Eric Nicholson’s reporting here in the Dallas Observer on City Hall’s Trinity Forest park-building efforts so far has established a hard and indisputable fact: The people who run the city at this point are from the wrong era, possibly even the wrong planet concerning contemporary nature-park development and management.

The SWWF is sort of funny — they built a fake rapids so screwed up it had to be closed the day it opened — but then it’s really not funny when you think what it tells us about the people in charge. And for once I guess I won’t lay it to their being bald or blind as bats. It’s a cultural thing.

People can’t see outside their own cultures. Culture is the universe. It simply is not within their culture even to imagine finding a major economic resource in that thing down there that they think of as an ugly, smelly, channelized, levee-bound sewer, even less the square miles of trash trees and abandoned truck tires abutting it.

They do not see it. They cannot see it. They will never see it. They will keep sucking all the water out of sensitive bird ponds and carpet-bombing rare glades in order to build golf courses, because it is in their culture and in their nature so to do. For them, wilderness is a bewilderment. 

But then they’ll die. They’re old. They’re Mr. Magoo, the bald, blind cartoon guy. They can’t go on forever. Sooner or later they walk into a door. That’s why it’s so valuable and so important now simply to slow them down, get in their way, stave them off.

They can do a tremendous amount of harm. Let’s say they get away with building an expressway on top of the river and turning the entire Trinity Forest into some kind of half-assed, badly neglected golf course. That wouldn’t merely spoil the resource itself. It might even spoil the city’s chances for good growth, good opportunity and the good life. The ultimate outcome could be dystopian.

But every day they get stymied, every single day that river still draws breath is another day closer to a better future for the river, for the city and for you and me. This is a moment when sheer obstructionism can be heroic.
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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