City Hall

Dallas is Screwed Up, Which Is What Drew Many of Us Here in the First Place

Yeah, but the thing about Dallas being so screwed up is that being screwed up is also what’s cool about it. In everybody’s understandable push to make this a perfect city, we never should forget that Dallas’ glaring imperfections have always been among its attractive qualities.

Many years after the end of the Vietnam War, a colleague of mine was driving his very dignified French-Vietnamese mother-in-law for her first look at Dallas. Elderly, she had lived the last many years of her life in one of Paris’ posh arondissements. When he drove her out Harry Hines Boulevard through the prostitution zone and past the Korean knock-off-purse shopping-malls, she smiled fondly.

“It’s just like Saigon,” she sighed.

But that’s it, the thing I’m talking about. It’s that half-assed, half-built, slightly random quality that can appeal to a certain type of person at the right moment in life. A writer who lives in Raleigh, North Carolina, was here last year working on a story — he was either still 20-something or not-very-30 — and we talked. He had never seen Dallas before. His story was taking him to southern Dallas, Oak Cliff and Arlington. He told me he found what he had seen so far fascinating and was even thinking what it would be like to move here.

“But Raleigh is so beautiful,” I said

He agreed Raleigh is beautiful, but he said it’s sort of totally done, already formed, a bit rigid and, anyway, way too expensive — a place where all the goodies have already been parceled out. Here he saw a blank slate.

“I see all these warehouses and old run-down homes here, and I think, man, you could really do something with that.”

Which, of course, is exactly what people are doing. Let me be the last, apparently, to inform you of a great YouTube of North Oak Cliff’s own “better block guru,” Jason Roberts, speaking at some kind of New York Times-sponsored thing called “Cities for Tomorrow” about … it’s about cities, I would assume, and … tomorrow.
Robert Wilonsky at the daily paper and Jason Heid at D Magazine were all over it last week. It takes me a while to get to the cool things to read because I have to finish my Farmers Almanac first.  

In the YouTube vid, Roberts is giving a TED-type talk, very hyper-ventilated and fast-talking, which he can be, about all of the wonderful changes people of his ilk have been able to achieve in North Oak Cliff and some of the hilarious tricks they have pulled, like launching a webpage called “Oak Cliff Transit Authority,” then winning a big federal grant and turning a joke into a real-life trolley line.

C’mon. You can’t do that in Raleigh. You can’t turn a joke into a trolley line. You can’t do that in Park Slope or San Francisco or Boston. Those cities are all way too smart. They’ve spent decades nailing down their zoning and driving up their rents.

If you want a place that’s still got some frontier to it, some breathing room, you have to find a place that’s still a little bit of a mess. You need a Saigon, not a Paris.

New York University’s Furman Center and a bank, Capital One, cooperated on a recently published study of rents in cities nationwide that put both Dallas and Houston into an interesting perspective. Among cities where the supply of rental units tightened between 2006 and 2013, Dallas and Houston were unusual in having relatively flat rental rates. And while renters in places like San Francisco had notably higher average incomes, renters in Dallas and Houston tended to pay a lower percentage of their incomes in rent.

What does all of that mean? I think it means Dallas is a place where you can stick your foot in the door, a leg-up town, a good place to get started and, what the hell, not a terrible place to wind up. But all of that depends at least in part on Dallas being a little bit badly run and poorly supervised.

Think about it. Was it ever your dream as a kid to grow up and live in a place where you would be well supervised?

Some of the half-assedness is not amusing, like the potholes. Every time I get blown up by another one, I think about that $600 million they’ve spent on the Trinity River project and I want to go stake somebody out over a fire-ant colony. I have a little list.

We definitely have things here that need to change, which means we need to change them. But that’s my point. We can. Dallas is still wide open.

I attended a wedding outside Portland, Oregon, in a beautiful suburb, and people were talking about all the complex regulations their community had imposed on itself to achieve meaningful income diversity. I applauded them. A noble goal, indeed, I thought.

What I kept to myself, because I didn’t want to sound like I was bragging, was that we don’t need complicated regulations in East Dallas to achieve income diversity. Just walk down the block. Sometimes, if things look suddenly sketchy, run back home.

We may be sketchy, but we’re real, and we’re actually having fun.

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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