The view I give you here sometimes of City Hall is depressing, and yet some twinge of conscience provokes me now and then to tell you how optimistic I am about the city. According to the surveys, I think you are, too.
Between City Hall and the city, a strange reality gap looms. It’s as if they are two planets spinning on independent axes. For just a minute, let’s leave Planet City Hall behind and go visit Planet the Actual City.
In the actual city, I hear an entire chorus of voices every day brimming with brilliant ideas. I think of state Rep. Eric Johnson, the author of a proposal on gentrification that is so much more than a legislative proposal: His ideas for creating a synergy between gentrification and upward-bound poor neighborhoods are the beginning of of a whole new philosophy of city-building.
On what some people would assume is the other side of the fence from Johnson is Raymond Crawford, a neighborhood activist fighting to protect neighborhoods south of Kiest Park in Oak Cliff from becoming a dumping ground for the subsidized housing that the old power structure doesn’t want in its own backyard. But here is the real secret: Crawford and Johnson are not on opposite sides of a fence. They are on the same side. They are both smart, commonsense city builders with great ideas for creating stable neighborhoods.
I hear voices like Khraish Khraish and John Carney, the West Dallas landlords whom City Hall has painted as vicious slumlords. Between the two of them in the last six months, they have come up with more solid ideas for keeping poor and working class neighborhoods together, based on both business sense and a sense of justice, than anybody at City Hall has produced, ever.
We have people in Dallas like Monte Anderson, the developer who did the Belmont Hotel and is now a bidder for taking over Fair Park, and David Spence, one of the key pioneer developers of Bishop Arts and North Oak Cliff. Both have proven track records for creating strong, new, stable development in parts of the city that the old oligarchy has virtually abandoned.
If anything, the city is brimming with optimistic and determined successful younger leaders who know how to make urban living and urban business work. I want to come back in a minute to what their shared secret ingredient may be, but, first, let’s go back to Planet City Hall.
For all the depressing stories I have to tell you on a daily basis about City Hall — City Hall doesn’t get neighborhoods, doesn’t get parks, they dump concrete in the river, dig craters in the forest — the real story about City Hall right now is the growing power of an enlightened minority on the City Council. As of this recent election, we are now up to a solid five votes on the council made up of people who do get all the right stuff.
It’s a 15-member body. Eight votes are enough to run the city. The truth is that the smart progressive city-building side of the city is within three council seats of taking over. That’s exciting.
So what about that secret ingredient? What binds together all of these new younger voices even when they may seem to be taking opposing positions? At the risk of sounding trivial, I believe the answer is that people in the sort of Gen X to millenial demographic wave are just cooler with each other. It’s a deep, long, generational change in how people of diverse backgrounds view each other and deal with each other.
I am not making any claims for a post-racial society or anything like that. Take a look around at the country. God knows we’re not post-racial. But generally speaking, people at the younger end of the spectrum tend to have had way more significant experiences of diversity in their lives than people at the older end, and that makes a big difference in the day to day.
I’m not saying they all love each other or even agree on issues necessarily. I am saying they are better able and more inclined to be basically cool with each other, which affords respect, which affords the true secret sauce I was alluding to above. Social trust.
Social trust is the big difference between the opposite ends of the age spectrum. Social trust makes everything possible that was impossible before. You can disagree. You can compete. You can even fight over issues. But if you are bound together by a modicum of social trust, then you can survive your differences and find common ground again later. Everybody doesn’t have to rush out to the suburbs and spend all their money building medieval walled plague villages because they think everyone else wants to come get them and cook them up and eat them.
Now let me take you on an even weirder tangent. France. Have you been watching? In the early round of presidential elections, the French went through a big Trumpian populist nationalist thing with Marine Le Pen and the National Front. This spring everybody thought she was going to clean up at the polls, pull France out of the European Community and then begin expelling people from the country if they didn’t smoke at least two packs a day and wear berets.
Instead, a young unknown banking wonk named Emmanuel Macron wound up crushing Le Pen 2 to 1 in the May presidential election, and by June when France started holding its legislative elections, Le Pen’s party could barely hold its head above water.
What happened? History will tell, but a lot of French voters told reporters after the legislative elections that they were sick of politics, sick of blowhards, tired of being played for chumps and just wanted people in there who were smart and had practical, forward-looking ideas.
Le Pen’s own National Front party had contained two warring elements, one for change and the other for racism and xenophobia. Obviously there are strong parallels in our own national politics and in local politics, as well. The turbulence and fanaticism of the times are driven by some very dark impulses, but that doesn’t mean that all hunger for change is dark.
The local issues we find most challenging in Dallas are not at all unrelated to the national and even international issues roiling the headlines of today. They all come down to fundamental definitions of the good life and of social justice. What is good? What is fair? Can one quality exist independently of the other? If not, how do we get to both?
And here is the big trick in figuring these things out. We are accustomed to dividing politics up into left and right wings, conservative and liberal, but I don’t think that’s the right operative matrix for what we’re dealing with in Dallas now. What’s the left-wing position on school reform? What’s the right-wing position on whether we need a new expressway or a new park along the Trinity River through downtown?
There are strong divisions of opinion on our local issues, just as there are on the national ones, but if you flew up to 20,000 feet and looked down on the city, the people debating our local issues would be divided into camps based not so much on philosophy as on generation. Nobody young wants a new expressway on top of the river. They want a park. The people who want the expressway are mostly old, because they have no intention of ever getting out of their cars.
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Parks are public and shared. Parks only work when people have social trust. Without social trust, nobody wants a park. They want backyards and high walls.
The toughest, most intractable urban issues all turn on social trust. The only way you can foster dense residential development is in a context of social trust. Otherwise everybody wants to live in a gated cul-de-sac in the middle of a cow pasture.
Because younger people are cooler with each other and capable of social trust, they will be capable of resolving basic problems that have vexed Western industrialized societies for a century and a half. That’s what the French hope Macron will bring to France. It is what our five votes on the Dallas City Council today will bring to Dallas when they turn into eight votes.
I’m optimistic. So shoot me.