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The Rise of Dallas' New Pioneers

I get window shocked every once in a while. I'm in the car going from some pillar to some post, staring straight ahead thinking about stupid City Hall or the stupid North Texas Tollway Authority or stupid Fair Park, and then for some reason I look out the side window, and ... damn! What the hell is that?

It's a city! An entire metropolis is flourishing out my side window, knitting itself together in an entirely new fabric of living, and it seems to be doing it almost entirely without reference to City Hall or any of the other institutions I spend way too much time thinking about. It's almost as if there are two cities operating in separate circles of life, and that they barely intersect, mostly during hail storms.

Two friends of my son from his college years came to visit my wife and me recently to talk about Dallas. They were getting their bearings. That was our role. We're the bearings. They've been living for the last four years in Austin, which is where I thought they all wanted to live, all of those people, whatever they're called now, Generation IOU or something. One guy has been working in the capitol and the other is in retail. They told us they wanted to move here. To Dallas.


Dallas' New Pioneers

We were wide-eyed and blinking, silent for a long moment. Finally my wife sort of blurted, "Why?"

"Austin is over," one of them said. "It's been ruined by Hollywood. Dallas is what's happening."

We exchanged glances freighted with private meaning, a look that said, "Uh-oh. This must be something we're not in on."

So much for bearings.

I don't shock easily, but when something does try to knock me off my pins, I revert to journalistic nerdism to regain solid footing. Everybody keeps saying that some stuff is over and other stuff is happening, but that doesn't mean it's true. I'll be the judge of that. In fact if they don't watch out, I'll do an Excel spreadsheet on the subject.

So I started with my own neighborhood, in Old East Dallas, which definitely used to be happening. I went to the Dallas County Appraisal District site (nerdy enough for you?) and looked at a bunch of properties in the Skillman Shopping Center, just around the corner from me. I took what the appraisal district said were the taxable values of those properties in 2000 and then again in 2011.

I did the same exercise for several large higher-end retail and community-service properties on Preston Road near Lovers Lane, in the Bluffview/University Park area. And then I panned my way across the map to the Bishop Arts District in North Oak Cliff — one of those places everybody keeps saying is so, so happening now. I put those values in my spreadsheet, too.

Wow. In fact, damn. It's not a fantasy. In a decade, the taxable values in Bishop Arts increased by 235 percent. In the Skillman Shopping Center near my neighborhood, values went up by 157 percent. On Preston, 140 percent.

Look, you can't draw too many conclusions from that. The Preston properties started at the top. Bishop Arts 10 years ago was still in the basement and coming from behind. The square foot taxable value in Bishop Arts is still only $2.50, compared to 16 bucks in my neighborhood and 50 on Preston. (Those appraisals, from the looks of it, are about half the actual asking prices.)

But something is happening. The highest prices may be on Preston, but the buzz is in places like Bishop Arts and North Oak Cliff, the Design District between Interstate 35 and the Trinity River levee, the Cedars due south of downtown on the other side of Interstate 30. Those are the places where the people like my son's friends from Austin want to be. East Dallas? Not so much. I think East Dallas is so gentrified by now it probably looks to them like the kind of place you have to visit on Thanksgiving.

I went over to Bishop Arts one morning last week and threw myself on the mercy of David Spence, the North Oak Cliff pioneer developer. I thought maybe he could tell me what's going on. As he always does, Spence told me something about myself that I had never even thought of.

He said our generation, the baby boomers, came into the city in the 1970s with more of our suburban culture and roots than we ever knew. We wanted to be in the city, but we wanted to clear the land around us, rip out all the stumps and plow the soil so we could set up our own little restored cookie-cutter suburb in the city.

"My own coming to the city was as a part of that first urban pioneer bunch, the folks who started turning around Winnetka Heights," Spence said. "Our view of the city had a little bit of trench warfare to it.

"You set up the stockade, and then you move it, you march on down the line. All the language of development was kind of warlike."

Spence sees a different sensibility in the young people coming into North Oak Cliff, and other parts of the city too.

"The folks who come down now are interested in more permeability," he said. "I think they feel the suburbs where they grew up were so vapid that they're wanting to come down to be infused into the city.

"They're down here to soak up the culture. They're not necessarily here to change the culture. It's a real happy bargain in Oak Cliff and I imagine in other parts of town."

We ventured out into the triple digits for a stroll — I swear North Oak Cliff is cooler than other parts of town even when it's sizzling — and Spence introduced me to Megan Wilkes, a partner in a little pie shop called Emporium Pies. Spence is the owner and developer of a Bishop Arts bungalow now undergoing conversion to become the home of Emporium Pies when it reopens in September. Wilkes, by the way, is 25.

"Our generation isn't like my parents' generation, who just really loved the idea of taking something and making it better," she told me. "We weren't taught that when Christopher Columbus came to America he made it better. We were taught that he stole it from the Indians."

She said she and her friends don't want to steal anything from anybody. "If you're going to move somewhere, you do your best to make it better by adding something that's valuable to the community, but I'm not going to try to take any part of that community away. I think that's different. We want to interject our gifts, but we don't want to tell anyone else to change theirs."

She couldn't have known to what degree her words melted my own desiccated heart, but I nearly swooned when she told me she and her husband had a hard time deciding whether to settle in Dallas or Detroit. They almost decided on my own benighted hometown, the Motor City, because, "You could do anything there. It's like the only frontier left in the universe."

But Dallas won out, because they thought it might offer a somewhat more predictable return on investment. So it's not like they're totally un-shrewd, is it?

According to Spence, the new urbanistos have a much greater tolerance for this principle he calls permeability than did the boomer pioneers. It's OK for small commercial establishments such as Wilkes' pie shop to be cheek by jowl with residential areas, as long as they're cool, but it's also fairly OK for the residential area to rub shoulders with people we would have considered extremely uncool back in the day.

"I almost never have to apologize to my tenants anymore for the ruckus next door where the five roofers live," Spence said.

I also talked to Scott Griggs, the city councilman whose district includes North Oak Cliff. He agreed with Spence that there is a finer weave, a more braided and complex texture in the community rising up in North Oak Cliff than what came before. He summarized it as an ethic: Most things are acceptable as long as they come from within the community rather than being imposed from without by invisible forces.

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"It's seen as people building up their own community, versus someone coming in," he said. "You see a lot of local ownership. If you know the people, you actually know their faces and you see them, it changes the whole dynamic. There is much more trust."

When I listen to voices like these, walk the streets of North Oak Cliff and see what's being done, all of a sudden it makes sense that this new city weaving itself together all around me would have so little reference to the central institutions of the old city.

It's not that they don't know about City Hall. They know all they need to know, mainly that they want to do everything they can to avoid it. My generation's first impulse was to run down to City Hall and start beating our heads against it. Instead, people are faced in the other direction with a finger to their lips, more like, "Pretend it isn't there and maybe it will go away."

Could that work? Would it make my head feel better? Not sure. I think by now I sort of need the impact. But I'll say one thing. The view is sure better out that side window than what I look at every day through this damned windshield.

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