A group of 35 people, mostly well-dressed women with folding stools clutched in one hand, wait outside the special exhibit galleries of the Dallas Museum of Art where the current exhibition is Pandora's Box, the Women of Ancient Greece. The attraction today is not just the collection of kraters and amphorae and reliefs on display, but Gail Thomas, who arrives slightly late but unruffled. "These are my most wonderful friends," she says with a wide smile, introducing the silhouetted figures on the ancient Greek vases to the group who has added this lecture to an agenda of lunch and shopping. Her understated skirt and elegant black jacket peg her as one of them, and she is--a Highland Park housewife for 15 years, a one-time Junior Leaguer, mother of three, and former cheerleader. A perfect hostess, Thomas knows how to make her guests feel right at home by talking about what they already know.
She doesn't use notes; she has obviously said all this many times before. Starting with Pandora, the subject of her dissertation, she stresses that the Olympians of ancient Greece are still relevant, that Athena, the goddess of the city, is present in all women: "It's your 'Athena,' you see, that is a member of the PTA and the Woman's Club," she tells the group. "We are all many myths. I was one myth when I was fussing at my husband this morning and I'm another now with you." She perfectly connects the myths to the lives of the members of her audience. Myth is something that never actually happened but is always happening, she tells them. Myths are more true than actual events because they're universal. After a discussion of the Greek city-center, or omphalos, and the myth of Athena, who wears the face of the snake-haired Gorgon Medusa on her breastplate, Thomas launches into her favorite story, the myth of Pegasus, the winged horse that was born from the Gorgon's blood.
According to Thomas, Pegasus, not J.R. Ewing, should be the patron god of Dallas, Texas, U.S.A.
Gail Thomas is a co-founder and the future director of the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture, one of the city's oddest institutions, but one with far-reaching power. The Institute has drawn eminent guests from all over the world to speak at its conferences, but most Dallasites have never heard of it and chances are good they wouldn't understand it if they did. Its wide-ranging definition of humanities includes economics and urban planning, yet it offers programs on arcane subjects like geomancy and sacred order. To the bemusement of architects and city bureaucrats, the Institute addresses practical city problems via literature and New Age-flavored seminars with titles like "Sacred Order in Design" and "Beauty in Business: Build It Beautiful and They Will Come." Founded by a couple of Jungian psychologists, a physicist, and some literature professors, it started as a kind of elevated academic book club, but it's having more and more impact on the future of Dallas.
In a city with a center gone to rot, the Institute's definition of itself as a "center of creative thought dedicated to the awakening of a sense of the sacred in the world" can bring out the cynic in the most wide-eyed activist. The Institute works through "courses and conversation" to "strengthen the capacities of soul to create the institutions of a new culture." If that still sounds a little vague, don't worry, as architect and longtime Institute Fellow Frank Ryburn explains, "It's supposed to be like that. It's a slippery organization, and it's hard to get your arms around it. That's always been one of the criticisms of the Institute. It poses an open-ended question, and that makes people very uncomfortable." You might say the Institute, too, is many myths.
The Dallas Institute was formed in 1980 after a faculty shake-up at the University of Dallas. The six founding fellows of the Institute, all formerly tenured faculty members at UD hired by college president Donald Cowan, met to read papers to each other in one of Deep Ellum developer John Tatum's warehouses. At that time, they weren't looking for much of an audience beyond each other. But 15 years later, the annual budget of the Institute, the architect of a $3 million downtown park, has jumped from $60,000 to $600,000, supporting a dozen full- and part-time staff members. The Institute is also planning a renovation and expansion of the gray Prairie-style house on Routh Street that has been its permanent home since 1981.
Adding to its mystery, no one's quite sure exactly what the Institute is. Is it a think tank? A consulting group? A university? Founding Fellows Gail Thomas, Donald and Louise Cowan, Robert Sardello, Joanne Stroud, and James Hillman were the original group of University of Dallas professors whose first mission was to "transform" education through their combined disciplines of physics, education, literature, and primarily, because of Hillman, psychology. Hillman, the eminent psychologist who had come to Dallas from the Jung Institute in Zurich, influenced the philosophy and language of the Institute and assured its early reputation.
Poet Robert Trammel, an Institute fellow, says, "Hillman was really the only 'giant' that's been on staff at the Institute. He attracted people from all over the world." However, the list of fellows, which the institute points to with pride, includes a number of "giants": Mortimer Adler, Jacques Barzun, cultural critic Ivan Ilich, pop psychologist Thomas Moore, poet Wendell Berry. This leads to another Institute mystery: Most of the local fellows can't describe exactly what their function is. Trammel admits a fellow is an ill-defined thing and adds, "I think I'm unique in my activity as a fellow."
The fellows perform most of their function just by being listed as fellows. Thomas says, "It's a matter of serving from the heart. It's the honor, the joy of coming together." The fellows, elected by other fellows, have meetings and retreats and occasionally deliver papers when asked to do so by Dr. Louise Cowan, the literary professor who was Thomas' mentor at UD and is now the Institute's dean of fellows.
Thomas had hoped that Hillman would establish a "Dallas School" of Jungian/archetypal psychology at the Institute, but Hillman eventually left Dallas for countryside Connecticut, some say worn out by the "spirit of Dallas"--a town in which a day at Neiman's is considered life of the mind. "Hillman has said you have to have a missionary zeal to live in Dallas," Trammel recalls.
Evidently, Hillman wasn't interested in converting Dallas to the way of the soul, so he followed his muse eastward. And ultimately Sardello followed, leaving Gail Thomas as the keystone of the Institute and the connection between the Institute and the city.
Sitting in the conference room at the Institute that looks like a grandmother's dining room, Gail Thomas wears a black suit with a tiny gold image of Pegasus on one lapel. There's a map of the city from Dallas Visions behind her, and the walls are hung with images of sacred geometry painted by Dallas architect David Yarbrough. Thomas is surrounded by her icons, but for the director of a public institution, she seems unusually hesitant about being interviewed and she has been difficult to reach, returning maybe one in five phone calls. Partly, she says, it's the nature of the Institute. "We've never wanted a lot of hype and publicity," says Thomas. "We just wanted to do the work. Our work in Dallas is soul work," she says, "because we are a city of spirit."
Thomas confesses that another reason for shunning reporters is--for an organization that depends completely on donations for its existence--self-preservation. Try as they might, the media, even the soberly supportive Dallas Morning News, can't seem to write about the Institute's work without it coming out sounding a bit ridiculous.
From the beginning, there was discussion about exactly what the Institute's role in the city should be. Not surprisingly, considering the aforementioned mission statement, concrete, measurable accomplishments haven't been the Institute's historical forte. (Let an auditor going over the $600,000 budget quantify "soul work.") But the Institute's highest achievements, of course, are supposed to be intangible; it ministers to the imagination, spirit, and the soul.
Still, there are practical endeavors. The Institute's toughest critics admit that its Teachers' Academy does a lot of good. Headed by Institute Fellow Dona Gower, the program's purpose, to re-ignite the imagination and energy of burned-out public-school principals and teachers by studying classic works of literature for graduate credit, is a natural fit for the Institute's philosophy and seems to work.
But Thomas' longtime personal passion is the city in the broadest sense imaginable. At the University of Dallas, she headed a program called Center for Civic Leadership, the first to offer a master's degree in civic leadership, and since the beginning of the Institute, she has considered urban planning a part of its humanist mission. Since 1982, the Institute's annual "What Makes a City?" Conference has been the most publicized of its efforts to connect the ivory tower to the broken pavement of the city's center. The series of lectures and seminars throws together philosophers and developers, mixes archetypal psychology with urban development, and addresses topics such as "Crisis and Carnival" (subtitled "an exploration of the manner in which the arts, freed of their entertainment modes of presentation and placed within a carnivalistic sense, can dissolve inequality and distance between people, bringing about sudden and unexpected renewal"; sell that to County Commissioner John Wiley Price.)
Ironically, as Dallas' need for pragmatic, hard-nosed urban planning seems to have reached a crisis point, the Institute finds itself in a better position than ever to directly affect the city. You see, the Institute has more than Pegasus in its corner. It has always depended on its considerable social connections for its financial survival. Its board generally includes many of Dallas' biggest developers, builders, and boosters.
Longtime Institute supporters and millionaires Jeffrey and Nancy Marcus are also longtime friends of Mayor Ron Kirk and his wife. Representing the Dallas Institute, Nancy was one of two cultural ambassadors who accompanied Mayor Kirk on his recent trade trip to South Africa; cable tycoon Jeffrey went along, too, as a private businessman. Nancy Marcus just started her three-year term as Institute board president and Matrice Ellis Kirk serves on her board.
Mary Ellen Degnan, originally hired by the institute to publicize the Dallas Visions, a joint project of the Institute and urban architect James Pratt, is currently "on loan" from the Institute to the city, as executive director of the Dallas City Center Association, a group of downtown stakeholders planning to revitalize the city's core, profitably, of course, beginning with downtown housing. And the Institute itself has a place on the board of the new organization. Thomas, of course, is its representative.
The Institute has often been criticized by those in more hands-on civic efforts for sitting on its hands: It has been frustrating for some to see its formidable influence and wealth reduced to unapologetic sittin' around talkin'. ("When we say 'work with,' we mean 'talk about,'" says Thomas.) Critics of the Institute aren't rare, but the complicated social connections of its members and the clout of its circle of supporters--who often pay commissions to architects and planners--make them reluctant to be identified.
Much of the Institute's focus has been on the aesthetics and philosophy of urban planning; it seems to work overtime to avoid nuts and bolts and politics. There's been more concern about urban sociologist William H. Whyte's four principles of urban design (food, benches, trees, and water), for instance, than about the complexities of providing affordable housing. "On the one hand," says a critic, "they serve a purpose here in Dallas because no one is standing around saying we need good design. We've never really had a true vision of what this city should be. But what are they going to do to implement the ideas they came up with? Do they function politically? Have they ever gotten hold of an issue and made it a cause, lobbying for votes and bond issues? If they went to the trouble for the idea, what about the action?"
Thinking things into existence is the answer. The Institute's first publication was titled Imagining Dallas and current Board Chair Nancy Marcus says, "Our way is not that dynamic force most of us are used to. I believe that thoughts and ideas, and what we focus on, come into being. It happens time and time again in our lives, and it can happen in the lives of cities." If it sounds like the Music Man's "think" method applied to urban planning, what's surprising is that it seems to be working.
Ralph Cousins, now a private consultant in affordable housing and urban development, was with the Center for Housing Resources, a nonprofit consulting firm dealing with affordable, low-income housing and community development, when he was on one of the Institute's panels. He responds to criticisms that the Institute is all high-flown talk: "Is it fair to slam Troy Aikman because he can't dunk a basketball? The Institute's focus is on the symbolic and psychological aspects of city as opposed to the nitty-gritty and up-to-your-elbows-in-mud aspect of the city."
When the Institute does act, it's criticized then, too. The Institute credits itself with two tangible accomplishments: Dallas Visions and Pegasus Plaza. Of course, it's precisely these projects and the Institute's involvement in city planning that have attracted the most criticism. The question is, what qualifies a bunch of professional and amateur humanists to spend $2.5 million in tax dollars on a city park?
On a spring day, Pegasus Plaza, at the corner of Main and Akard, doesn't appear to be much more than a wide place in the sidewalk. Drive by too fast and you'll miss it because it has none of the eye-catching drama of traditional monuments. The centerpiece of sculptor Brad Goldberg's mythic, myth-based design is a misting limestone fountain; another fountain is connected to the natural spring beneath the Magnolia Building which supplies the water for the plaza. A giant rock crystal rests in the stream. Scattered around the concrete rectangle are billion-year-old granite boulders, each engraved with the name of one of the nine Greek Muses: Euterpe, the muse of music and the bringer of joy; Calliope, the muse of heroic poetry and eloquent speech; Polyhymnia, the muse of sacred song; Melpomene, the muse of tragedy.
The plaza's dramatic impact is perched where it's always been, on top of the adjacent Magnolia Building, the steel and neon red horse that, if anything, symbolized high-flying economic success when Magnolia Oil (now Mobil) first put it there. At the corner of the 16,000-square-foot plaza, unless you know it's there, it's difficult to discern the image of a flying horse inlaid in the dark brick. As an Institute fellow could tell you, it's the "shadow" of the bright-red, 15-ton myth-cum-corporate logo above.
The construction of Pegasus Plaza, with its runes and rocks, was going to provide tangible proof that the mayor and city council were "doing something" about the death of downtown Dallas. It was supposed to kick off a revitalizing redesign of downtown Dallas, $30 million to be spent over 10 years for infrastructure and street-level improvements. Of that, $7 million was spent on Main Street, most of it on invisible street improvements:Sidewalks were widened to 18 feet, trees were planted, light standards were erected, and banners (designed by Diana Goldberg, Brad's wife) were hung. But not long after, Pegasus Plaza was completed, and the Elm and Commerce Street improvement projects were deferred.
Pegasus Plaza was a project straight from Thomas' heart. In 1991, in response to a request from then Mayor Annette Strauss, designer Louis Salcedo and the Institute wrote a proposal for the beautification of Main Street. Around the Institute, the story of how Gail "grabbed the monograph" she'd written on Dallas and its flying red horse and went downtown to sell the city council on her myth of Pegasus is almost a myth itself. It didn't hurt, either, to have a tangle of social connections to North Dallas.
This is her turf--the archetypal psychology of myths. And Pegasus, the flying horse, is her favorite metaphor. Thomas believes the old landmark is the perfect symbol of Dallas. It probably is, but more for its oil wheeling-and-dealing connotations than the Jungian associations with which the Institute likes to bridle him.
Here's the myth of Pegasus as Thomas tells it: Pegasus is the child of Poseidon (ruler of the sea) and Medusa (the snake-haired Gorgon whose face turns men to stone). His name means "geyser," and he sprang forth full-grown from his mother's severed neck after Perseus chopped off her head. When his feet first touched Mt. Helicon, a spring burst forth which later became sacred to the muses, the goddesses of Greek artistic inspiration.
Never mind that the Magnolia Building's red horse was originally put there because it was, and is, an oil-company logo. According to Thomas, Dallas was "frozen" by the Gorgon of economic decline; the stamp of Pegasus' hoof at Pegasus Plaza would renew the soul of the city's center, and its creativity would flow again. At this point, the average Dallasite would call for an "Amen."
The concept won the competition. Critics and fans alike agree that the single thing that persuaded the Dallas City Council to award the Main Street contract to the Institute was Thomas' power of storytelling. Talk did become action and the million-dollar word was "soul," a word so alien to the dollars-and-cents vocabulary of Dallas that it seduced the city council as effectively as the sirens' song. So Dallas got its soul-center, its omphalos, the bellybutton of downtown. And the Dallas Institute, a group of psychologists and literature professors, was chosen as the design team.
The discovery that there was a spring on that site tied in perfectly with Thomas' Pegasus myth, and the Institute's plan called for the city to uncap the spring and pump it to the plaza's fountain, a monument to Pegasus. The spring had once served as the water source for the Adolphus and had provided water during a drought in the '50s, but had been capped off in the '60s. The Institute chose sculptor Brad Goldberg to work with Salcedo and landscape architect Luis Santana on the project.
Ever the myth maker, Thomas recalls the experience as "pure joy." In truth, the project was not as god-kissed as the Institute would like to remember. Goldberg, who in the end inherited the entire design project when Santana moved to Brazil, says now, "I think I could have done a better job with the totality of the plaza. I inherited Luis' design and was sort of expected to be the savior of the project, but I was just able to add my own spirit on top of what was already there."
Perhaps the Institute's lack of practical experience was reflected in the project. Or, you could say, the Muses aren't always flowing as they should. The fountains still have clogging problems due to the mineral levels in Pegasus' spring. And Goldberg says the mist over his sculpture is supposed to be much higher, and the contractor has yet to fix a broken wind sensor, so the project has never been quite finished. Finally, some people are wondering if the power of myth extends to paychecks: They have yet to receive their final payments for work they did on the plaza.
Apparently, in the years since Thomas wove her spell in the city council chambers, it has dissipated. Goldberg complains that the city has not maintained the park. When he took people to the plaza recently, he says, he was "so embarrassed at my city. They don't clean the fountain; it was filled with algae, scum, and trash. They threw out these cafeteria-style garbage cans. I had a gun pulled on me, and there were kids skateboarding. This is supposed to be a place of healing. The crystal is ravaged. I don't think there were any funds allocated for maintenance."
Thomas admits maintenance at Pegasus Plaza has been a problem, but she believes it will get better when it's turned over to the parks department this spring.
The design community has problems with the plaza, too. Other architects, who like many of the Institute's critics for obvious reasons prefer not to be named, feel that it should be a more "civic place." One questions, "Why should the plaza serve as testament to the goals of that one organization? Pegasus Plaza says more about the Institute than it says about Dallas." And though Goldberg's work on the plaza is generally praised, the overall concept, which one architect says is not "bold and grand" enough, provokes objection.
David Dillon, architecture critic for The Dallas Morning News, wrote in his initial review of the plaza, "Critics could argue that Pegasus Plaza has too many elements and materials for its own good." But, he admits, "one can ignore the myth and still enjoy the space."
Unlike many civic monuments and sculptures, which are imposing from afar, you have to be in the plaza to enjoy it. You have to look up at the top of the building and do some reading to "get" what it's all about. Some liken the Institute's plaza to other public art where personal agendas and questionable aesthetics have taken over civic projects--Trammell Crow and his controversial herd of bronze cows in front of City Hall, for instance. Is Pegasus Dallas' myth or Gail Thomas' myth?
Of course, the plaza's concept is not yet complete. The idea was for it to be furnished with kiosks selling food and books, that it would serve as a gathering place. As the pamphlet about the plaza produced by the Institute for schoolchildren says, "Maybe people who come to play at this new park...will play joyfully, sing songs of inspiration, tell stories and read poetry."
Goldberg reflects that the plaza was the Institute's "transition from theorizing to doing things." After 15 years of bringing urban experts to Dallas, when it came time to put theories into action, the Institute found it's not such an easy task.
Still, the Institute is delighted with the plaza. Nancy Marcus, who says, "I have drunk from the fountains of Rome," finds the idea that there is a natural spring at Pegasus Plaza a source of "tremendous hope" for the city of Dallas.
Trying to keep a balance between culture and society, between the wealth that supports it and the idealism it espouses, has always been tricky for the Institute. It's been accused of elitism--because it's not well-publicized, because its programs are expensive, and because its vision of Dallas seems to mirror the views out the windows of its North Dallas board members.
It's not easy to find the Institute if you haven't been invited. Institute President Nancy Marcus' story of how she became involved with the Institute seems typical: She "literally wandered in off the street into the Institute" not long after she moved back to Dallas.
There's not much of a budget or desire for publicity, so "most people do just find us," says Thomas.
Degnan says, "Because our ideas are unique, people think we're elite."
This spring's seminars range in cost from $25 to $185. (The Institute pays a stipend to the educators who attend its summer Teachers' Academy.) In the spring, the Institute's high-dollar patrons lunch at The Mansion and talk about the soul, speaking the Institute's own language of myth and archetypes. It's an unlikely power vocabulary in a city as down-to-earth as Dallas, but the Institute translates it into the language of Dallas wealth.
According to Norman O. Brown, "money is the soul of the world." The Institute's ties with business have always been strong: The first board chairman was one of Dallas' biggest contractors, Henry C. Beck, and he was succeeded by John Castle from EDS. Some are suspicious of the Institute's ties to development, the force that made Dallas the city it is instead of the city the Institute wants it to be. Thomas defends the association, arguing that it's "impossible to effect changes without dealing with the developers and the corporate world."
A conference last year invited Dallas' leading developers to come together and each give a 10-minute talk on how their projects were adding to the soul of the city. All of them came and many of them, like Neal Sleeper, developer of City Place, felt inspired by the experience. "It helped us all think about building a long-term sustainable community instead of just our individual projects," says Sleeper. "They've been able to do some consciousness-raising among people who are building projects to think about those projects having a positive impact on the city as a whole."
John Fullinwider, director of Common Ground, a group that tries to keep roofs over the heads of poor Dallas citizens--leaving their souls to someone else--has been invited to speak at an Institute conference this year. Skeptical of the Institute's agenda, he sees it as "ministering to the soul of the downtown business establishment."
"Wealth has its own delusions," Fullinwider says. "It makes you feel more powerful than you really are. Those who own Dallas have created a city that's approaching soul-death, if you want to put it that way. I mean, this is a city where it's against the law to put up a notice about a lost puppy."
Even Institute fellow Robert Trammel has been wary of the danger of becoming too overtly involved with the city establishment and power structure. At the Institute's 10th anniversary gathering, Trammel suggested to his fellow fellows "that we think about disbanding before we became an institution."
And affordable-housing consultant Cousins says, "I guarantee those people in South Dallas don't care about the 'sacred center' of the city." He wishes the Institute could connect their idealism with practical need. "I'd like to see some of their philosophy taken into the nuts and bolts of revitalizing South or West Dallas."
The other civic project the Institute claims as its own is a grand plan for the future of the entire city of Dallas, laid out in 1992 in the book called Dallas Visions for Community: Toward a 21st Century Urban Design, published by the Institute and written by urban architect James Pratt. But there are two versions to this particular myth.
Thomas describes the collaboration by saying, "James Pratt did the design work, I did the philosophical work."
Pratt says, carefully, "The Institute provided the venue for Dallas Visions. We wrote a joint grant to the NEA and that led to other local contributions."
Neither wants to discuss the specifics of their disagreements, beyond saying--perhaps significantly--that Pratt wanted to display the finished Visions project at Fair Park, Dallas' decaying Art Deco exposition complex. Thomas, in Pratt's words, "absolutely refused. She said no one would go there." It's a familiar Dallas argument, but an odd position to take about a plan in which the landmark park figures centrally.
In the end, Dallas Visions was displayed in a place more comfortable to the Institute's members: the barrel vault of the Dallas Museum of Art. There, according to Degnan, who supervised the display and publicity, "thousands saw it." The Dallas Morning News, a major sponsor, printed a special section devoted to it, and it was shown at the Anita Martinez Community Center and the West Dallas Multi-Purpose Center (though Degnan makes no great claims for how many in those communities came to view it).
Both Pratt and the Institute view Visions as the inspiration for the Dallas Plan, the official outline for capital improvements over the next 30 years adopted by the city. But Plan insiders say this isn't so. Karen Walz, current director of the Dallas Plan, was not around when Dallas Visions was being created, but as she understands it, "The Dallas Visions project did a wonderful job of describing urban-design issues in Dallas, the linkages between Fair Park and downtown, for example. Shortly after that, there was a sense in the city that we needed a priority list for the city for capital improvements, and Mayor Steve Bartlett asked Robert Hoffman to come up with specifics. As the Dallas Plan evolved, it became apparent that you couldn't decide on priorities for capital projects, unless you knew what your goals were. We needed sets of policies and action items. The Plan had community workshops and the Institute participated and helped facilitate those discussions." The Plan people's version is that their plan incorporated ideas laid out in Visions, but that Visions did not "inspire" the Dallas Plan. It's a squabble that is lost on the people who live or work in Dallas.
In the end, Pratt and the Institute parted ways. The Institute has not thrown its clout behind Pratt in his ongoing battle with the city over the specific implementations of Dallas Visions (such as whether Haskell Avenue should be straight, as Pratt demands, or bend to accommodate a historical church), and, Pratt says, "I don't think they have the professional capability to take action. They're not planners. They don't have schooling in public affairs or urban planning. Basically, they're a small philosophical group which doesn't tend to take on gutty problems." Pratt, who had been named as fellow of the Institute in its early days, is not listed in its current brochure.
In its own peer group of urban-ideas professionals, the Institute gets contradictory reviews. Gloria Wise, director of American Institute of Architects, which presented the Institute an honor award in 1992, is typical of most when she admires the Institute for the people it brings here. "I love the idea of thinking about the city," she says.
Her appreciation and enthusiasm for the quality of the Institute's panels and the eminence of its guests is shared by most people involved in planning the future of Dallas. But so is her feeling that the Institute's language is obtuse, a little too New Age, and needlessly mystifying. Thomas insists, "These are archetypal truths. The soul knows no other. More and more, people want to talk this way." Judging from the length of time Thomas Moore's books on the soul spend on bestseller lists, she's probably right about the latter. (Moore is a fellow of the Institute, too.)
According to Degnan, the Institute is making an effort to be more accessible, but its vocabulary is specialized.
Now the Institute is discussing the city of the 21st century, about which Thomas has written an essay, posing the question: Do we need cities? Why? "We don't need the city as an economic engine anymore," she explains. "Corporations have moved outside the city and telecommunications obviate the need for close physical contact. But we do need cities to be human, to pass on our cultural values, to preserve our communal values and skills."
Suburbia has failed us, she explains. It's the suburbs, not the core city, that are the root of violence and gangs. "When we live together, we have to use and forge communal values, to work out systems. We fool ourselves into using technology to protect ourselves and it doesn't work. We support humane architecture, urban villages where people come face-to-face with each other." When she talks about this "close physical contact," she seems oblivious to the obvious geographical space between most of the Institute members and the average inner city denizen.
"We are envisioning an urban village downtown," Marcus explains. "It seems like the whole world is talking about mixed use, sacred geometry, downtown living. We will incorporate all that." She imagines a neighborhood where people will "pick up their bread at Empire Bakery, walk to the symphony, and live together in a place of great beauty." The basic vision is in place on paper and "a number of people are talking about it," says Marcus, who lives in a brand-new faux French-chateau mansion in the Park Cities.
For the Institute, in the past, talking is all the action that needed to take place. Thomas says the urban village is such a "new and fragile concept," it's hard to communicate it to the media. "It could be so wonderful, I would want to live there myself." But there's been a shift in the Institute's role calling for active involvement in the physical side of the city. It's not enough to build a city of dreams, "it's a time for action," says Thomas.
"What's important now is that we're all called to be healers," she says. "That's what being a citizen is--being willing to serve each other. We're all broken, society and the individual." She believes "every development and building should be created to heal the city."
Pegasus Plaza was imagined as an inspiration to encourage people to return to the city's center. The odd thing is, perhaps for reasons unrelated to the "soul" that lurks there, it seems to have worked. Developers have decided there are dollars to be made investing in downtown Dallas, and the Institute is reaping its return on its investment of imagination.
A 20-year history of civic volunteerism and professionalism allows Mary Ellen Degnan, the Institute's spokesperson and publicist, to speak the acronymic language of city bureaucracy with dizzying ease. But she speaks the language of the Institute, too, and has become an important interpreter between bureaucrat and dreamer.
Thomas states that "Dallas is a city of spirit that needs to find its soul."
"What that means," interprets Degnan, "is that Dallas has been a city in such a rush to build that we didn't stop and think first. Now it's time to plan and think."
Thinking about the condition of Pegasus Plaza, Goldberg points out, "The Institute is always saying Dallas doesn't think about the past, it's always looking ahead to the future. In a way I think they're already going on to the next project when the plaza still hasn't been taken care of."
Degnan says her special contract with Dallas City Center Association, which pays the Institute for her services, will allow her to help, using the Institute's healing metaphor, to "stanch the bleeding at the city's core."
Dallas City Center Association, which she heads, is supported both by the Central Dallas Association and the city. The Institute sees it as the next step after Pegasus Plaza; as Goldberg says, "The whole idea of Pegasus Plaza was to create the energy for people to want to live downtown." Basically a neighborhood association like the Deep Ellum Merchants Association, the Dallas City Center Association is made up of downtown's players and stakeholders, the business owners and landowners like Southwest Properties, Hall Financial, Adolphus Hotel, and Neiman Marcus, with a financial interest in the revitalization of downtown Dallas. Its first priority is putting downtown housing into office buildings such as the Mercantile Bank, the Republic Bank, and the Magnolia Buildings. Urban architect Graham Greene broke ground on the Joske's building in March.
"Our goal," says Degnan, "is 5,000 people living in the central business district by the year 2000." Starting from just about zero. This is where the lines get blurred: The Institute shares the same goal as the developers, but the reasons are different. To put it in the Institute's language, are they nurturing spirit instead of soul? Growth without thought?
A lot of people think, as architect and re-use specialist Ryburn does, that "anything that happens downtown is good." The Institute's plan seems to be for an urban village populated by the affluent, and "community," a favorite word at the Institute, has a limited meaning there. Pratt suggests that the Institute's leaders are not comfortable outside their own exclusive community, making it difficult for them to think in terms of the variety of communities that truly comprise a city.
In order to use public funds, developers must provide 20% affordable housing. Dallas' median income is officially set at $44,000; 80 percent of that or below is considered low-income; that caps the rent of 20 percent of these units at $500.00 a month, which eliminates many of the people who would live downtown or would be interested in living there. Urban sociologist William Whyte pointed out several years ago that Dallas "seems to think that if panhandlers and street people were eliminated, downtown's problems would be over."
We Believe Local Journalism is Critical to the Life of a City
Engaging with our readers is essential to the Observer's mission. Make a financial contribution or sign up for a newsletter, and help us keep telling Dallas's stories with no paywalls.
Support Our Journalism
Fullinwider takes that view a little further, pointing out that "the city's only near-Bohemian neighborhood, Deep Ellum, has an edict to get rid of the panhandlers whereas artists have traditionally been in sympathy with the poor."
"The point I tried to make when I talked to the Institute," recalls Cousins, "and I don't think many got it, is that from a historical-ethnic-social standpoint, all new development was going to take place on top of existing neighborhoods. It is not right to completely tear down State-Thomas just because there's a higher economic. It was a low-income black community, but that community had been there for a long time."
Sculptor Goldberg says, "To do its job, the Institute should be embracing of criticism. When you're trying to go against the grain of a place, you're going to get friction." Goldberg, who says he still feels ambivalent about living in Dallas because "it's a city with a lot of inferiority feelings," says that "the Institute has become one of the best things about my life in Dallas now. It took the Institute to make me realize why I live here: Dallas is a place that really needs someone like me. Dallas is a place that thrives on money and economics. But art is the way we live together as people, and the Institute understands that."
It's harder to understand exactly why a mix of ancient mythology, spiritual psychology, and the right social connections has been able to ignite the activity in downtown Dallas that has stymied local government. Fullinwider considers Dallas "more a collection of bank notes than a city." Certainly, Dallas business types could never be accused of excessive spirituality. But they seem to believe in the Institute's myths: They flock to its seminars and they bought its flying horse. In a town considered the buckle of the Bible Belt, the Institute works by invoking the myths of pagan Greece, by using soul power.