Dallas Is Changing Because of its Neighborhoods, Not its Business Leaders

Ninety-nine point nine percent of what urban planner Larry Beasley says is brilliant, and usually when I do think I've got him being wrong on some point, it's because I'm not being brilliant. It always turns out to be something I misinterpreted.

That said, I think he may be one tad off the beam today in David Flick's very interesting piece in The Dallas Morning News about the future of the city. Flick quotes Beasley, who is Canadian, saying: "In Vancouver, in my culture, direction comes from city government. In Dallas, the business and philanthropic community has been more influential, and it may be that group that ultimately decides what gets done."

Let's hope not.

More to the point, that's not true. Everything good here has happened in spite of the city's business leadership, usually as the result of bitter battles in which the business leadership, thank goodness, was defeated. All the attributes Beasley cites as contributing to this city's uniqueness -- leafy low-density neighborhoods near downtown like Old East Dallas and North Oak Cliff, hip, semi-walkable mid-rise districts like Turtle Creek and Uptown -- came about only after the business leadership and its vassals at City Hall got beat.

Had it been up to the city's traditional business leadership, Central Expressway would be one long, steaming and roaring, stinking and rattling double-decked expressway, and none of the wonderful revitalization of the M Streets and other adjacent neighborhoods would have happened. Old East Dallas would be riven by fat one-way thoroughfares designed to help people escape to the suburbs, and most of the inner city would look like Harry Hines Boulevard just before a major police hooker sweep.

The "traditional" business leadership (notice I'm hedging on which business leadership I mean) has always operated out of a rigidly hierarchical social and business culture, negatively sensitive to class and ethnicity, in which ultimate Nirvana is a gated community of MacPalaces floating in the Heavens and guarded by the Marines. These are the same people who brought us the Trinity River Project, about to become the single biggest waste of time in modern American urban history.

The very best ideas brought forward in recent years in Dallas have come from ex-punk bicycle nuts like Jason Roberts and company, who thought up the Oak Cliff Trolley line as a way to make downtown more porous, while City Hall and traditional business leaders were still trying to make it more rigidly segregated.

Here's the one good thing about that traditional business leadership I'm talking about. Most of them are so old by now -- one foot in Palm Springs, the other in the grave -- they're about to be no longer with us. Meanwhile a very new and different business leadership is emerging. It really cheered me up, for example, to read over the weekend that the incoming chairman of the Dallas Regional Chamber of Commerce had paid a visit to the Morning News editorial board to inform them that the Trinity toll road project is a dead item.

I bet those editorial writers all looked sidelong at each other as if to say, "So that must be what we've been smelling!" I would have wanted to be a fly on the wall in the News board meeting room that day, were it not for the cobwebs. Beasley could be partially right if he's talking about a totally new business leadership emerging from the corners of the city's board rooms, but only partially, because the very best ideas -- the original thinking, the winners and the dominant themes -- have come from and will continue to come from the city's eccentric neighborhoods as expressed by their elected political leaders, people such as Angela Hunt, Scott Griggs, Philip Kingston, Adam Medrano and a handful of others.

It's possible, if you think about it, to construe those people and the places they represent as "the market" -- the smart market, in particular. The new style of business leadership, then, may be one that intends to listen to the market instead of giving the market the business. Then Beasley could be onto something. He almost always is.

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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