Don’t know about you, but I got goose-bumps when former President Clinton, in the middle of his convention speech Tuesday night, gave Dallas a shout-out.
He said, “We saw in Dallas how great our police officers can be. Help us build a future where nobody is afraid to walk outside, including the people that wear blue to protect our future.”
Call me easily pleased, but I thought it was a turn-around moment. By complimenting the way the Dallas Police Department handled the recent murders of five police officers, Bill Clinton used our city as an emblem for good. He named us as a place where people know how to deal successfully with terribly difficult problems.
Hey. Beats the post-JFK assassination moniker, “City of Hate.”
In fact I woke up Wednesday still thinking about it. Yes, our city has suffered ghastly tragedy, and, yes, we’ve sort of staggered into the 21st century still dragging remnants of a very dark racial past. But, damn. “We saw how in Dallas …” We need to stop and think about that one. That’s not nothing.
We’ll be modest about it, of course. We will recall that in the not terribly distant past at the end of the 20th century, the relationship between our police department and the minority community was among the worst in the nation – bad enough to merit congressional hearings.
And I know we won’t easily forget the haunting words of veteran civil rights organizer Peter Johnson, who just this week warned us of a generation of young, despairing nihilists in our city’s toughest neighborhoods who “don’t give a fuck about living, dying, going to jail, not going to jail.”
No, I think we’ve got all that down. We know about it. I’m not talking about going all Pollyanna-goo-goo because Bill Clinton mentioned us in a very positive light.
In the time I have been in Dallas (I wasn’t born here, but I moved to Texas before I knew what I was doing), Dallas has run through a series of mottoes, ranging from the extremely boring to the merely embarrassing.
When I got to town just after the Pleistocene Era, the motto of my newspaper, emblazoned on the building’s facade was, “The Times-Herald Stands for Dallas as a Whole.” So boring. The city as a whole, as opposed to what? I wanted to come downtown at night with a ladder and paint under it, “Please don’t leave out the W.” Never did it, though. Too chicken.
Then we had, “Dallas, the City that Works.” I always thought that was lame, too. Everybody works. That and a dime, cup of coffee, you know. Oh, let’s all pack up our things and take a vacation trip to Dallas, so we can watch them work. Work, and then what?
What is the one they have for us now? “Big things happen in Dallas.” Great. Go ahead and say that. Everybody’s waiting. All ears. What big things? Could you name just one or two? If you were going to put a huge Fiberglass statue of your big thing out on the freeway to greet people, what would it be? I’m afraid to ask.
But what about “The City That Gets It?” What if the name we made for ourselves was for figuring out tough problems? Same issue at first, maybe — the list. We figure out what tough problems? Our answer couldn’t just be, “Well, all we know is, President Clinton said something sort of nice about us once.”
We’ve got to reach a little higher than that or keep it to ourselves.
I’m daydreaming about coming back thirty years from now on a magic carpet, the carpet of what-if. What if I looked down and saw a vast urban forest park in the center of that 277 acres, with families gathered around picnics, lovers strolling and un-helmeted punks skating?
What if a reconstituted State Fair of Texas were at one end of that park, still conveying all of the wonderful agrarian tradition and carney hucksterism of early 20th century Texas during the annual fair. But it would also open its gates the rest of the year providing the kind of cool old analog entertainment that by then will have been smothered everywhere else by digitalism?
What if there were always some kind of major festival or exposition going on at Fair Park – every single weekend – drawing in visitors from all over Texas and surrounding states?
Oh, wait. I’m turning around now to look west. I almost forgot. What about the river? Let’s fly over there on the carpet of what-if and see what’s going on.
Look at this! They didn’t build that highway after all! The entire length and breadth of the river is alive with people hiking and biking on trails, playing soccer and … no! What in the hell is that? The stupid fake whitewater feature? Do not tell me this. They fixed it? They figured it out? But I told them they couldn’t do that!
I look down from my magic carpet, and I see people all over the stupid fake whitewater feature and up and down the river in kayaks and canoes. And the river even smells good! I don’t know if I can handle this.
Aha, now I remember what I wanted to see. I’m very curious. Let’s cruise over to the park cities and see what’s going on with the gold coast.
Oh, my goodness. Will you look down there? Who are all those people jamming the sidewalks? And some of those cars parked up and down the proud boulevards look kind of like beaters and clunkers. We need to dip down a little lower and read these signs on the lawns of the mansions.
“Rooms for Rent, Free Breakfast.”
Amazing. The mansions have all been cut up into rooming houses. Did Bernie get elected after all?
Oh, wow, I think that dude down there in the shades and the backwards baseball cap must be D Magazine publisher Wick Allison. Wow, he’s got to be 100 years old by now, but the man still looks great. He’s wearing a Speedo and a tight-fitting tee shirt. He’s waving people into his mansion with a little American flag and a placard that says, “First Night Free.” Ever the survivor, that Wick.
Now I know where I need to go. I need to fly back to South Dallas. Not “Southern Dallas.” I want to go back to the area specifically around Fair Park and get a closer look at old South Dallas, the segregated all-black neighborhoods that the old fair board was always trying to fence out or fence in.
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Will you look at that? Almost all of the old small frame houses are still there but painted up and tidy, which tells me people aren’t dying on the vine for lack of money. I see a lot of elderly black people, original residents, I guess, but I’d say a good half of the people out and about on those streets are Latino. I see young people, too, of all ethnicities, probably living in those cunningly rehabbed small apartment buildings. Looks to me like North Oak Cliff came to South Dallas, and they shook hands.
I could fly over to City Hall and try to see inside, but I don’t need to. I’ve seen enough out here to be able to tell you exactly what’s been going on inside City Hall. Since I left or died or was taken back to my planet, whatever, Dallas has had a series of young mayors and city council members who were women, African-Americans, Hispanics, Asians, Muslims – the kind of people who were able to lead Dallas successfully forward into the 21st century. And because Dallas is now the city that gets it, it elects mayors and city council members who get it. They get it together.
Doesn’t mean there are not battles and rivalries, disputes and competitions. Of course there are. Those all are wired into our nature as human beings, forever.
But the thing Dallas gets – the it, the factor that makes Dallas what it will be 30 years from now — is knowing how to resolve those contests with decency and respect for all. That’s what Dallas gets. Respect. Not a bad thing to be known for. Might even be some money in it.