Less than a mile from D/FW Airport, brand-new street signs proclaim the names of two newly paved streets snaking through acres of raw dirt -- the corner of Al Razi and Al Hazen. In the distance, the first new house in the Al Hamra subdivision soars up off the ground in a forest of lumber roaring with saws and air compressors on a Friday morning. You can tell already it's going to be a whopper. Ten feet higher and the chimneys will get clipped by the big planes coming in low to land at the airport.
I drove out here on a slate-gray Friday morning because John Danish, a longtime Irving City Council member and chairman of the Dallas Area Rapid Transit board, told me this was what I needed to come see if I wanted to get what was going on in Irving. I had called him first thing that morning after reading a story in the paper about an ugly Irving council meeting the night before.
Danish was one of a four-vote minority on the City Council to vote against a resolution sponsored by the mayor of Irving to defend America against a takeover by Islamic Shariah law. Muslims residents crowded the council chamber to denounce the resolution as an expression of Islamophobia. The resolution endorsed a bill now in the Texas House that would make it illegal for Texas courts to use "foreign laws."
Irving Mayor Beth Van Duyne, sponsor of the anti-Shariah resolution, has been on Fox News and talking to Glenn Beck lately about the danger of a Shariah takeover of America. She is one of a cadre of Texas politicians gleaning political points lately by figuratively setting fire to the homes of immigrants, all the while blinking her eyes vacantly and denying that she means anyone any harm.
Look: I don't blame anybody for being frightened by the nightly news these days. I don't think I ever imagined that one day I might grow more or less accustomed to seeing videos on the news of people about to be beheaded. This seems like a genuinely scary world to me. And, yeah, from fear is born xenophobia, bigotry, maybe even some persecution. I guess there's nothing surprising there. Fear tends to father very depressing offspring.
But that's why I felt a need to check in with Danish. I knew he'd cheer me up. He and I have talked about Irving in the past. My ill-informed, drive-by, Dallas-dwelling take on Irving, based entirely on trips to the airport, was always that people there lived in strip shopping malls. Danish set me straight a long time ago.
Irving is Danish's birthplace. He's 64. Irving was a country town when his father, son of an Ellis Island Czech immigrant, settled and eventually became a prominent Baptist minister.
During Danish's own long career as a local lawyer and civic leader, Irving has grown to a city of a quarter million people. All of that growth, he believes, came from that place he wanted me to see and understand, where the airport swings open like a gate on the entire planet.
"There is no question that we have been a community that has a welcome mat out to the world," he told me on the phone, "and because of that there are so many different communities that have come into our city. We're talking about Koreans, Indians, everyone."
He pointed me toward the area on Esters Road just outside the southeast corner of the airport, near the Irving Islamic Center, to make a particular point. Many of the new residents flooding into that area are Muslim. Many other religious, national and ethnic groups are there, as well. What unites them is affluence.
"The neighborhood that has taken hold up there has some of the most expensive beautiful homes you will see being built in any community," he said. "People from all over the world have come to settle there.
"You now see here all of these different groups and philosophies coming together there. And, man, what a symbol of what America ought to be, when you think about it. Think of the Statue of Liberty and what it represents. I believe that's what Irving is. Irving is a reflection of the American dream."
I asked about Van Duyne and the Shariah law resolution. In her public statements she has denied that her council resolution and the House bill it endorses are Islamophobic. But those assertions of innocence seem transparently dishonest and cowardly, not to mention absurd, given the lurid anti-Muslim rhetoric in which the whole anti-Shariah law effort invariably is draped, including Van Duyne's own public comments.
I asked Danish what she's really up to. How does it profit her to stir this pot in Irving, where affluent immigrants are quickly becoming such a visible element of the community? Danish went silent on the other end for so long that I held my cell phone away from my face to see if the call had dropped.
Finally he said, "There are two primary forces in politics. You can either campaign on the positive, give the people a vision of hope, prosperity, optimism. Or you can campaign on fear.
"Both of these forces are very powerful," he said. "John F. Kennedy campaigned on the positive. But Richard Nixon was very powerful on the negative force.
"After Kennedy gets assassinated, LBJ brings forward his acumen and with his political skills he passes the civil rights legislation. Nixon sits there, looks at that and thinks, 'You know what? I can finally drive a wedge in the South.'"
I asked him what kind of force the immigrants represent in elective politics in Irving at this point. He said voting -- or not -- is a problem. Most local elections are decided by 8 percent of qualified voters with a split of 5 percent Republican and 3 percent Democratic. So far, not enough of the new international population has made it to the polls to make a dent.
That will change, he said, and maybe Van Duyne's anti-immigrant rhetoric will help. Danish said what he sees in friends and clients in the immigrant community is an almost infinite courage and determination to succeed, qualities he assumes they will bring to politics when they get to that point in their priorities.
"I have a client who made it out of Vietnam as a boat person," he said. "This guy is working on his third Asian supermarket over in Arlington. It's like a nine million dollar project.
"His trail took him from Vietnam to riding a bicycle in the Netherlands to working for Jewish developers in New York City to California to Texas.
"They have a spirit of confidence, not just him, all of them, that is almost fearless when it comes to taking on challenges in the American system. I have seen it also with Hispanic clients of mine who will build another business after another one after another, and they just never believe that they will fail.
"Man, it is a vibrant spirit that is very very refreshing and unique to watch, and I'm glad we can see it because of people who are still willing to come into our country."
I have to call people like Danish for reality checks every once in a while, because it's so easy for me to miss what's really going on in that vast suburban expanse beyond the city's borders. For some reason it's a landscape that can defeat my best attempts at focus.
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Friday I drove back to Dallas on Highway 183 through a light rain. A tin-gray sky was clamped across the horizon like the lid on a pot and it was all a blur. Drifting by me in the haze on both sides of the freeway were these great soft-shaped structures like giant dumplings, one of them a new car dealership, the next a cathedral, then perhaps a commercial museum or gigantic freak show of some kind that I was halfway tempted to visit.
Everything reaches forward from the service road with grasping neon hands, waving and begging for traffic, for a moment of your time, for an audience, some ticket-buyers, the faithful, the bored. It's easy to fly and see only the garish façade, to miss the drama behind. Something about the suburban skin of the place hides its beating heart.
I believe Danish. It's a strong heart bent on happy outcomes. Beth Van Duyne and her anti-Shariah fear-mongering are not the long story of Irving or of Dallas and its suburbs. Twenty years from now nobody's going to remember Beth Van Duyne. She can get herself invited to be on Fox News a few times, maybe score another guest-spot with Glenn Beck. Who knows, maybe she will even claw her way up to that least hallowed of all halls, the Texas Capitol.
But that Vietnamese dude Danish was talking about? He's going to own 100 supermarkets all over the Southwest 20 years from now and his grandkids are going to be studying Renaissance art at the Sorbonne. You think he's going to spend his time reminiscing about Beth Van Duyne? You think any of us will?