Rouging the Corpse

I'm working on a new joke. I've been working on it all week, but I can't come up with the punch line. Maybe you can help. This is as far as I've gotten:

Dallas Mayor Laura Miller walks into a bar. There's this guy sitting at a table with big horns growing out of his head, a red tail, a pitchfork in one hand and a split tongue. He says, "Look, Mayor, I want to build a toll road along the Trinity River so I can help speed your lovely constituents on their way to a certain destination I have in mind for them [wink-wink]."

Miller hems and haws, shakes her head, looks dubious. Then she says: "Would it have pedestrian promenades with scenic outlooks?"

That's as far as I can get, then I can't think of anything funny. I get too angry.

The river-bottom land interests are still pushing hard for a brand-new multilane superhighway jammed in along the banks of the Trinity River where it runs through the heart of downtown. Miller is very proud of the fact that she may be able to whittle them down from eight lanes to six, and she hopes to get them to agree to put in various "amenities." Think: portable toilets on the road to hell.

But wait a minute. It's our land. It's our money. Their superhighway will do a poor job of relieving our traffic congestion and a worse job of "creating new tax base" (not). And it will ruin the park we want to build there. So why is the mayor so proud of slicing the dime with them? What dime?

Why not just tell the road hustlers this: You've got a 1950s suburban sprawl idea; it's totally incompatible with truly urban life; we're out of money, and we're out of clean air; we need to concentrate on our very best shot, and that's parks, fountains, sidewalk cafes, peddlers on stilts and an urban zest the suburbs don't have. To make any of that work, we need to get more people out of their cars, not attract more people in cars into the urban core.


Of course, if this were only about mean greedy landholders vs. virtuous cosmopolites like myself, it would be a lot easier for most of us to make up our minds. The reality is that there are people of good intentions, bad intentions and OK intentions on both sides of the Trinity River toll-road thing. On the two sides we have very different but sincerely held worldviews, almost like vying religions.

On the one hand you have Michael Morris, transportation director of the North Central Texas Council of Governments, a bright man who talks passionately about Dallas proper slipping "farther and farther away from the center of things" if it fails to remain fluidly connected by roads with the rest of the metropolitan area.

On the other hand you have people like...well, me, for instance. As far as I can tell, most of the rest of the metropolitan area is made up of strip shopping malls, vast treeless housing developments that look like prototypes for the first settlements on other planets and phony-baloney music academies in metal buildings covered with brick veneer and Doric columns made of extruded foam.

So why do I need to be fluidly connected with that? And don't tell me it's because that's where the future is. If that's true, then why do suburban kids put on decal-tattoos and black clothes and come slipping into our downtown on the weekend? I say life is headed our way, not theirs, because their way is boring. No community, however excellent its highways, has ever succeeded in convincing its own offspring that sensory-deprived anesthetic torpor is a true high.

We are coming to the fundamental understanding that cars and highways are always agents of sprawl and always the enemies of urban life. Mass transit and urban density (people on top of people on top of people in big exciting buildings with lots of lights in the windows) are the jazz of life.

The single event most often credited with the renaissance of Toronto, Ontario--its emergence as one of North America's coolest cities today--was the killing of the Spadina Expressway project in the early 1970s. Ontario Premier Bill Davis made history when he said in June 1971: "If we are building a transportation system to serve the automobile, the Spadina Expressway would be a good place to start. But if we are building a transportation system to serve the people, the Spadina Expressway is a good place to stop."

John Sewell was a young lawyer and community organizer in Toronto in the 1960s. His role in fighting to protect old neighborhoods from "urban renewal" put him on the city council in 1969. His leadership in the fight to kill the Spadina led to his becoming mayor of Toronto in 1978. He's an author and a writer for an alternative weekly newspaper in Toronto now. I sent him an e-mail about the proposed Trinity River toll road last week, and then he and I spoke by phone.

Having lived through it and been a part of it, he feels passionately that the two most important elements in the modern history of Toronto have been the defeat of the road hustlers and the advent of mass transit. Roads--that is, big highways--just don't work in the city, he says.

"Part of the problem is that you can never have enough roads," Sewell told me. "The minute you build a road, it's always crowded.

"The other problem with roads is that they eat up an extraordinary amount of land. They pollute the air because of the things that go on them called cars. They cause health hazards in terms of accidents and so on."

Mass transit, on the other hand, he said, is cheap, efficient and provides "an opportunity for the people in the city to get to know each other.

"Toronto is known for its ethnic and racial diversity. We have numbers of different people from different countries, different languages, different cultures, all living together relatively peacefully. I believe it's because of the public transit system.

"What happens is you get on the bus or the streetcar or the subway, and you are forced to travel with a whole bunch of people that you don't know, and they are forced to travel with you. And you get to realize that there's nothing wrong with them. They look a bit weird, their kids look a bit weird, but they aren't scary at all."

By putting "lots of people in the same place at the same time," mass transit facilitates the fun part of urban life: sidewalk cafes, the simple art of strolling a crowded sidewalk.

"I think people like urban environments," he said. "They're fun. When you say, 'Let's go visit Toronto,' people don't go stay in the suburbs. You pay good money to go to Paris and London, not to be on the edges but to be downtown. Because it feels nice."

He cited his own son as a product of the urban environment he helped create in Toronto.

"My son is 27. He got the very first drivers license he ever had last week. His girlfriend does not have a drivers license. These are very hip people. My son has a very very popular band in Toronto. They are not lacking for money.

"They don't have a car. They just haven't wanted to do it. As they say, 'Well, most of our friends don't have cars either.'"

Michael Morris, you tell me how building "radial improvements" will help my son have a band and a hip girlfriend and no car in Dallas 10 years from now. Then maybe we'll talk.

When one thinks of what the city could do instead of building a multilane toll road along the river, some of the underlying assumptions in the toll-road plan are all the more disturbing. Here are some items I would be willing to bet our esteemed city council knows nothing about: Does the Dallas City Council, which is supposed to vote up or down on the toll-road project next month when it returns from its summer hiatus, understand that it will be expected to sign a "no-compete" agreement with the toll authority? I'm talking about an agreement by which the city would legally hamper its prerogative to build other roads downtown in the future.

A study of the proposed toll road completed in October 2000 by Wilbur Smith Associates, contractors to the North Texas Tollway Authority, included as one of its core assumptions that the city of Dallas would agree that "no competing limited-access highways will be constructed in the Trinity Parkway study area." I asked the tollway authority if they will demand the city sign a no-compete contract, and, after thinking about my question for three days, they conceded that some type of non-compete agreement would be needed.

And does the city council understand that all of the financial viability data for this proposed toll road assume and require that it will be eight full lanes of traffic, with a 55 mph speed limit but traffic allowed to travel at actual speeds of at least 60 mph? And the data assumes much less connectivity with other roads than what the council has been shown?

Let's say Miller does succeed in trimming it down to six lanes from eight. Maybe she keeps enough people happy that way and keeps enough political contributions rolling in to ensure her next office-seeking adventure. But her legacy in Dallas will be of greatness lost, for the city and for herself.

The punch line is something about the devil saying: "You can have all the pedestrian promenades you want, Madam Mayor, as long as I..." Nah. Can't get it. Whole thing makes me too mad.

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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