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The Tunnels Didn't Kill Downtown Dallas; Dallas Killed Downtown Dallas

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The Dallas City Council is reopening the question of whether the underground tunnel system beneath the buildings downtown is what killed downtown street commerce in the 1990s. Apparently now that downtown is on the rebound, some people suffer from a superstitious fear that reopening closed portions of the tunnel system might awaken and unleash slumbering ghosts.

I've just been here too long. I remember downtown with the tunnels and without. The debate about the tunnels killing downtown reminds me of Ridley Walker, a dystopian novel my son had me read a couple years ago: In a primitive post-apocalyptic society centuries after the nuclear holocaust, illiterate people speaking a kind of fractured English try to piece together clues to what happened.

They believe that an ancient leader whom they call "Mr Clevver" conspired with an evil being whom they call "the littl Shynin man the Addom" to blow up the world. Now, whenever I hear the tunnel debate surfacing again at City Hall, I think of it as the story of "Mr Toonl" who conspired with an evil force called "Ovr Buildin" to suck the bodily juices out of downtown Dallas.

The belief is that the underground tunnel system, which contained myriad shops and eateries, was responsible for killing downtown's sidewalk retail scene in the '90s. It's a view popularized by former Mayor Laura Miller, who apparently believed that all of the people who used to gang the sidewalks downtown climbed down into the tunnels and, from there, just disappeared.

It could explain why there is such superstition about efforts to reopen any portion of the closed tunnels: Maybe people are worried all those tens of thousands of pedestrians are still down there. And plenty pissed off by now, one would think. Yeah, if that's true, don't open the door.

But we're not illiterate Iron Age post-apocalyptic people. Yet. Can we not go back and read a little bit of recorded history? If we did, the annals would tell us that downtown Dallas died a death of a thousand cuts, the worst of which was the insane over-building of the office market here in the early to mid-1980s. That's what left us naked with a bull's-eye on our backs.

The entire Texas real estate market collapsed in a slow-rolling series of economic crises in the late 1980s and early 1990s, often lumped together now in memory as the "Savings and Loan Crisis."

Nobody took a worse hit than Dallas. Downtown is a lot better now than it was five years ago, but it hasn't come close to full recovery. Mr. Clevver himself couldn't have done longer-lasting damage if he had bombed the place.

What was it like before? It was all kinds of things. It was cool, it was trashy, it was chic, it was coarse. There were fancy-pants dining establishments and little walk-down Greek cafeterias. Downtown was all kinds of stuff all junked together and a whole lot of fun.

I spoke to city councilman Scott Griggs yesterday, and he said he does think the tunnels contributed to the decline of downtown but only as an element in a larger mentality. The idea back then was to control and sanitize downtown, make it less public and more like a suburban shopping mall.

"Downtown became very anti-pedestrian," he said. He said turning all of the streets downtown into one-way thoroughfares allowed cars to go faster and rendered intersections more daunting for walkers. In that atmosphere the tunnels offered a safer and more privately controlled alternative. For downtown to be vibrant again, he said, it must embrace the "complex chaos" that urban theorist Jane Jacobs wrote about.

It's getting there. My caveat would be this: How about City Hall and the city council stepping the hell back every little chance they get and allowing people to do what they think will work? If somebody downtown thinks he can make money re-opening a portion of the tunnel system under his building, let him go for it. If somebody else wants to serve lunch in hot-air balloons and won't drop the bananas Foster on anybody, let him try.

Why doesn't City Hall and especially the city council learn how to just get out of the way? What is wrong with City Hall people anyway? Oh, and now I have just thought of something really scary. It's about those tens of thousands of people being down in the tunnels all these years. You know where the biggest closed unexplored manmade cavern is under downtown, right? Underneath City Hall.

Is ... that ... where ... they ... come from?

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