The Dallas Myth: One Professor's Love-Hate Relationship With His Former Hometown

A full book report is forthcoming; Schutze has been handed his homework -- a copy of Harvey Graff's The Dallas Myth: The Making and Unmaking of an American City, being published this month by the University of Minnesota Press. Graff, currently a professor of English and history at Ohio State University, taught courses in Dallas history at the University of Texas at Dallas beginning in 1975 and became a significant player in the city's historical and preservationist societies. In 1998, he moved to San Antonio and discovered he liked it far better than Dallas, a city he would come to define not only by the great chasm of disparity separating north from south, but block from block. He writes of San Antonio that it's "less fearful of the potential for conflict arising from cultural and social mixing" than Dallas, perhaps "because it was already a minority-majority city."

We only received our copies of the 400-page tome late yesterday; I'm one chapter in and riveted. But thus far in my digging, Graff doesn't explode The Dallas Myth so much as crystallize it. As he writes in his introduction:

"Over two decades, I struggled to understand Dallas both as a physical place and as cultural and political economic space. I was unable to recognize in Dallas what most appealed to me in older cities. I was disconcerted by how Dallas presented itself on the ground and was represented in the discourse that filled the air: as the self-proclaimed exemplar of 'new,' 'Sunbelt Cities,' with downtown rapidly eclipsed by suburbs and exurbs and a growth machine directed toward seemingly endless expansion. My perception of difference and feelings of estrangement propelled me to come to terms with Dallas."

A few pages later, when writing about how he approached the book, Graff says this of his 20-year home:

"What is most striking about Dallas is not its differences from other U.S. megalopolises, but rather its exaggeration of features that many contemporary cities share: spatial decentralization; preoccupation with economic and geographic expansion to the exclusion of environment and quality of life; the assumption that business elites are best fitted to define the common interest; the erosion of civil society, open debate, and political opposition; the absence of shared public space; the increasing spatial segregation of racial-ethic groups and their stratification along lines of class and power; and the transformation of culture into a commodity to be purchased, repackaged, and sold. In Dallas, these features of urban development existed almost unopposed for a half-century or more, so the cityscape starkly reveals the strange new world they made. This understanding emphasizes the simultaneous making and unmaking of a major American city."

The book is currently available from Amazon; a handful of local bookstores reached this morning say they're "on the way" and should be on shelves by week's end. (Borders in Preston Royal has 12 copies due in tomorrow or Friday, at the latest; the Barnes & Noble across the street has a lousy three copies on the way.) Regardless, it's a necessary addition to your summer reading list -- and among a handful of books treating Dallas with a scholarly seriousness, in addition to such essential tomes as Warren Leslie's Dallas Public and Private: Aspects of an American City; Darwin Payne's Big D : Triumphs and Troubles of an American Supercity in the 20th Century; Dallas Rediscovered : A Photographic Chronicle of Urban Expansion 1870-1925 by William Lindsey McDonald; Imagining Dallas from the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture; Michael Phillips' White Metropolis: Race, Ethnicity, and Religion in Dallas, 1841-2001; and Patricia Evridge Hill's Dallas: The Making of a Modern City, much of which you can actually read here. And, of course, there's Schutze's The Accommodation: The Politics of Race in an American City, copies of which disappear from Unfair Park HQ every time a new writer shows up.

Schutze's review, and an interview with Graff, are forthcoming. Till then we have reading to do. --Robert Wilonsky

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