What's the Catch?

Wait a minute. Before we snap to the conclusion that the new Trinity River plan unveiled last week by Mayor Laura Miller is yet another civic scam, know this: I've been sitting here for a week staring at it, and the more I stare, the more the hair stands up on the back of my neck.

Could this be a good thing?

Hey, are they trying to throw us off balance? For more than five years Dallas has been debating various eco-awful schemes for "fixing" the river where it runs through downtown, pretty much in the same sense you might get your dog "fixed." I decided a long time ago the final headline on this story would fall somewhere on a scale from "Disappointing but survivable" to "Herald of biblical end-times."

Then they throw us this curveball.

It's not perfect. There will be passionate objections, including those from people who say just leave the river the hell alone. And there always could be some super-secret fiendish business trick buried deep in the fine print, so that 10 years from now we will discover the Perot family actually owns the river. H. Ross himself will be out there with hands on hips and eyes bulging: "Now you people just take your paddles and skedaddle!"

I do think there lurks a hard-nosed sub-rosa lobby group out there that just wants a double-barreled Guns N' Roses truck route right up the river and damn the torpedoes. But nowhere is it written in stone that the troglodytes have to win every match-up in this burg.

We should allow ourselves at least a month of ogling, sighing and looking for good gossip on it before making any lasting commitments. But if it turns out to be as good as it seems at first blush, then this river deal will be a very big victory for the city's better nature. In that regard, I want to talk about two other issues in this town, one going on right now and another that took place between 1983 and '85, both of which support the idea that Dallas has a much better fundamental nature than sometimes is apparent. Taken together, all three instances may demonstrate that this is a whole lot smarter city than you might suspect if you were up on Mars reading the Morning News.

The other ongoing issue is skeeters. Citizen activists, to some extent marshaled by radio personality and daily newspaper columnist Howard Garrett, have been trying for several months to talk City Hall out of the kind of blanket, broad-band, kill-everything-flyin' mosquito spraying it did in response to last summer's West Nile virus scare. When I listened to city employees talk last week at a city council hearing on the question, it was pretty clear what the city had done last summer: Every time a dead bird was found with West Nile virus, they sent the fogging trucks out to spray neurotoxins on everything moving, including people.

And I think it was obvious why they did it: They're city employees; when citizens get excited, they want to be seen doing something, whether it does any real good or not. We call, they give a false appearance of jumping.

Garrett is an intriguing figure in Dallas. I have known him a little bit for years. I read his stuff sometimes, listen to him on the radio. Recently I heard him speak in person, and, I guarantee you, this is one of the most interesting speakers in Dallas, whether you care about gardening or not. (I don't at all, but I am forced to do a lot of hard work in a garden where I live anyway.)

Garrett comes to organic gardening from a decidedly un-hippie perspective. He was in the landscape business using typical chemical techniques when he decided that, among other things like maybe killing us, chemicals just don't work that well. They bollix up the soil and cause more problems than they solve. His particular brand of apostasy is to believe that 8 zillion years of nature are smarter than Texas A&M.

Garrett doesn't think we should poison ourselves if we can help it, but his main argument is that organic techniques are more effective and cheaper. He is managing properties such as the Frito-Lay national headquarters campus in Plano on a completely organic basis because he says he can make land look better for less money by keeping chemicals out.

He told me the other day he thinks Dallas is a major national center--maybe the major center nationally--for organic gardening. He measures by a typical Dallas yardstick: Forget about people's philosophies and just go count how many stores are selling the stuff. He concedes that Austin and San Antonio also have significant clusters of organic merchants, but he thinks Dallas is way ahead of them, storewise, and he claims we're even further ahead of places like Seattle that I would have associated sooner with organic consciousness.

"The only place you can find a metropolitan area where you can find hundreds of stores that sell a total array of organic products and understand how to do an organic program is right here in the Dallas area," he told me.

Knock me over with a feather.

Based on what I heard last week at City Hall, I think Garrett and people like Gene Helmick-Richardson, an organic pest-control expert who spoke to the council's health and environment committee, are just about to persuade the city of Dallas to back off major spraying programs in favor of much more effective, less toxic techniques to control mosquitoes. Knock me over again with the feather.

This is where I get to my point about Dallas' better nature, and now we go back to the early 1980s, when Dallas was locked in a furious debate over what to do with Central Expressway. The powers that be, led by a Dallas tycoon who happened to be chairman of the state highway commission at the time, were determined to "fix" Central by double-decking it. If they had succeeded, today we would have a great big roaring, stinking, smoke-blackened barrier running up the city's spine. Instead of the cool, sophisticated, revitalized residential and commercial areas beginning to form along the new Central now, we would have pawnshops, hot-sheet motels, warehouses and daily newspaper offices.

It was a horrible idea. It would have devastated the city. But City Hall was absolutely wedded to the idea, because the bureaucrats thought the business leaders were wedded to it. Only when grassroots community leaders fought the proposal to a dead standstill did the business leadership come around. Oilman Ray Hunt came on board against double-decking, and Hunt executive Walt Humann took over. Now you can sit outside Cafe Express 50 yards from Central, sip Chablis and not even know the expressway is there.

Former Mayor Ron Kirk always derided that entire process. He talked about how stupid it was for the city to have wasted 10 years (it was two) debating Central instead of just getting the dirt flying. I think that's why Kirk was so popular with a certain segment of the old business leadership cadre: utter disdain for community politics. And he subscribed unquestioningly to the view that money is intelligence.

Wrong-o. The people who came together to fight double-decking--I'm thinking of neighborhood activists Lynda Ender and C.N. Townsend, Councilman Lee Simpson, state Senator David Cain, Congressman John Bryant, many more I'm forgetting--represented the real underlying genius of the city, the real Dallas, the city's better, wiser, more supple and urbane nature.

By the same token, the people who have fought to save Dallas from some of the more Draconian river plans--10 lanes of pavement on top of an open sewage ditch--represent the city's best and brightest, and I'm not even going to start naming them because I will feel so bad when I realize whom I have left out. Well, I have to mention Ned Fritz. And Mary Vogelson. David Gray. Don Henley. The League of Women Voters. The Sierra Club. I have to stop.

Several days before the official unveiling of Mayor Miller's new river plan, she previewed it for the Morning News and the Dallas Observer. Also present were Rich Morgan of the American Institute of Architects, Gail Thomas of the Dallas Institute and Karen Walz of the Dallas Plan, all of whom had a lot to do with making this new plan happen.

Miller is clearly energized on this issue. She's willing to see the river corridor do some level of duty in relieving traffic congestion, but she sees recreation along the river as a chance to change the city's destiny forever. "Isn't the ultimate goal that we want to have people from all over the Southwest come to Dallas to be on the river with us? That's the ultimate goal," she says.

Thomas, director of the Center for the City at the private Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture, sees the new plan as a chance for the city to bind some of the wounds opened by angry debates of years past. "With all the groups we've met with since August, we have attempted to have a bringing together, a healing," Thomas says.

I have to admit I'm not always huge on healing. Many's the morning I wake up with a certain zest for opening a few new wounds. But even I can see that this plan, if it holds together, represents something much bigger and better than even the zestiest fight we've ever had.

Dallas--the real Dallas, the people out there, the 'hood, the demographic--did resolve Central the right way. Dallas doesn't want to give itself cancer with pesticides or secondhand smoke. And it will love this river deal, if it really happens. At some point in the not too distant past, Dallas, the city, became much smarter than its traditional leaders, who dated from the small-town days.

This is all catch-up.

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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