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Jim Schutze: "Welcome to Dallas"

Award-winning columnist Jim Schutze has been with the Dallas Observer since 1997.  Here, he welcomes you to your new home with some solid advice. 

Some time back, there was a guy from Dallas, a native Texan, who married a French-Vietnamese woman. His sophisticated and reserved mother-in-law lived in Paris. Finally, she came to Dallas for a visit.

Driving in from the airport, the guy was very curious how she would react. He had to cut across town on surface streets to get to their place, through a sort of jumbled up region of retail, dive bars and old apartment blocks. The mother-in-law was silent in the back seat. He and his wife traded sideways looks.

Finally she leaned forward and said in French to her daughter, “It’s kind of crazy here. Like Saigon during the war. I like it a lot.”

That wasn’t that long ago as most places measure time, but in Dallas-time it was enough for most of that area to have totally transformed. Now on a balmy weekend night the sidewalk tables are jammed with diners and people-watchers. The storefronts are all top-drawer restaurants. The apartments, new and old, are abominably expensive. Squint your eyes and you could be in Paris.

It happens that fast here. And the best thing is that you can turn your back on all of that high-end glitz if you like, drive half a mile and find yourself back in war-time Saigon, virgin territory just sitting there waiting to be transformed or preserved, whichever you refer, by you. That’s what the Parisian lady understood: Crazy is a door opening.

We can summarize the myths vs. reality part of it for you pretty quickly. Never a cowboy town. Not really ever an oil town. Dallas was a cotton brokering center after the Civil War, sending cotton to the Northeast, serving as a banking, insurance and wholesaling hub to the American Southwest and Northern Mexico.
Some of that legacy is bad, especially where racial integration is concerned in the old city proper. The city suffers from staggering poverty in its left-behind neighborhoods.

Drive out into the suburbs and you’ll find yourself in some of the most diverse neighborhoods in the country, ethnically and internationally. But most of that is affluent diversity, not a diversity of rich and non-rich.

The most exciting parts of the city are the old, crazy, messy parts now being taken over by younger people, Gen X on down. Young people flock here in record numbers because the cost of living is relatively low; there are jobs and business opportunities; it’s not quite as cut-throat as the Northeast, West Coast or Chicago. For example, think of the area called North Oak Cliff as Brooklyn-but-your-parents-don’t-have-to-support-you.

Those new younger inhabitants of the city are beginning to get elected to office and flex their muscles a little. City Hall is a mess. If you think of a typical City Council meeting as a bad Thanksgiving Day dinner, you can mentally divide the council up into two parts — the parents table and the kids table. No matter how old you are, even 100, try to sit at the kids table.

Dallas is beginning to have truly walkable fun areas, like North Oak Cliff, Henderson Avenue and Lower Greenville in East Dallas, Deep Ellum and the West End on the east and west borders of downtown. Otherwise, if you’re not in an area that looks definitely friendly to pedestrians and you try to walk anyway ... you … will … be … killed.

Don’t. Live. It’s a cool place. 

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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