Dallas' Fork in the Road: One Way Leads to the Future, the Other to Plano

Every once in a while, somebody repeats some random anecdote to me, and it all comes together — all this Trinity River toll road, HUD segregation complaint, DISD school reform stuff that I pay attention to. After all, it's the same ball of wax — life in the city.

This is the anecdote I heard the other day: young couple with young kids, with a starter home in the inner city, love city life, work downtown, last thing they ever wanted was to be car commuters like their parents. But the schools in their area really suck. Really. Suck.

So they looked at Richardson, closest suburb with good schools. But, yeah, so did everybody else with young kids, with the result that small, fairly crapped-out houses cost unbelievable amounts of money there. So they're moving farther out to Plano — bigger house for less, great schools.

Oh, but they'll commute to work downtown on the train, right, like in Mad Men? Well, DART, the nation's longest, dumbest and slowest trolley system, is eight miles from their new home and far slower than driving. So they're going to wind up in their cars, commuting like their parents.

It's built in.

Last week I covered a thing put on by the American Institute of Architects Dallas chapter called "Choices for a 21st Century Dallas," where a number of renowned planners and urbanologists said Dallas is right now at a huge crossroads. The city can do one of two things. It can keep crashing on along the same path it has been on since 1950, basically making it harder and harder to live inside the city and easier to move out, or it can turn 180 degrees, make living in the core easier while at the same time either dis-incentivizing or at least no longer actively incentivizing the suburban trend of the last seven decades.

"Easier said than done," was my own thought, which I kept to myself out there in the peanut gallery at the Latino Cultural Center. Somewhat to myself, anyhow. There may have been a few Tourette-like outbursts. I did blurt something after they showed a map of areas in the city with the longest commute times and another map of where the most jobs are.

Surprise, surprise, the areas with the longest commute times are in the city's minority neighborhoods to the south, and the areas with the most jobs are in the majority white areas in the north. But they didn't mention the white/minority thing, just the commute times and the jobs, as if this were all a race-neutral problem of transportation infrastructure.

So, yes, Tourette syndrome did cause my hand to fly up on its own, and I did blurt, "That's the face of racial segregation, is it not? I wonder if any of you have thoughts about how transportation decisions can be used to incentivize residential desegregation."

I wound up in a brief little back-and-forth with Jeffrey Tumlin, a planner with an international consulting firm called Nelson/Nygaard involved in city planning all over the world. Tumlin suggested the answer to segregation is less in moving people around than in improving things where people already are and giving them more choices.

He said it's about "facilitating the creation of jobs closer to where you live ... small manufacturing and service jobs in new neighborhood centers that are underserved, investing in sidewalks, in street trees, in utility under-grounding, in storm drain improvements, Internet access.

"These are the small things that collectively add up to great economic opportunity, some of them focusing not just on infrastructure but on the social equation as well, on job training, on entrepreneurialism training, on all of the social things that create social cohesion within a neighborhood."

I said, "I don't mean to argue [a lie], but don't those things keep people where they are? How do you get them to move from south to north?"

"Why would we want to do that?" Tumlin asked. "It [south] is a great neighborhood."

"Because the city's segregated racially," I said.

"Segregation in and of itself I would argue is not necessarily a big problem," he said. "It's our instinct. It's our DNA. The problem is not necessarily segregation itself. It's the lack of opportunity that is correlated with certain socioeconomic groups."

I was aghast. Here I am in the audience, an old dude from the '60s. Here's this sharp-looking young guy in a hipster suit who's been out helping to design Abu Dhabi and shit. He's telling me something about how segregation is OK. I keep looking up there expecting to see Arkansas Governor Orville Faubus standing in the schoolhouse door in Little Rock in 1959, but instead I see this young smart guy. It was very cognitively dissonant.

I hunted him down afterward in the coffee area and we had a more normal, less Tourettey chat. Of course he's not a racist or a segregationist or any of that. His main mantra, in fact, is that truly forward-looking cities will market themselves to people of color, women and young people, who will be the major urban market of the near future.

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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

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