Harold Carmichael III, known to his friends as Trey, had band practice the night before 19,000 people sent him on a mission to Austin. He’s 47 and ekes out a living as a graphic designer and creative director, but he has been drumming in local bands for years. Practice ran late. And then he got just enough sleep to ensure that he walked out the door later than he’d planned.
Heavy traffic started on I-35 around Temple and stuck with him all the way into the city. When he reached the Capitol, he ran into more problems. The visitors’ lot was full, so he had to park at a meter on the street three blocks away. Then he had to find someone who could tell him where the Texas House Transportation Committee was meeting.
“It was a very busy day,” Carmichael says. “There were tons of tourists in there milling around, looking at the dome and everything.” By the time he found the right room, it was too late.
Carmichael’s journey to that point began in March. That’s when State Rep. Dan Branch (R-Dallas) filed House Bill 3520. Its purpose, laid out in 149 surprisingly convoluted words, was to designate a seven-mile stretch of Central Expressway—from I-30 to Park Lane—as President George W. Bush Expressway, effective September 1, 2013. Not technically a renaming, but not not a renaming, either. Once the signs go up and traffic reporters get involved, the difference between a designation and a renaming is irrelevant.
“It’s a way to help promote the new library,” Branch has said of his reason for filing the bill. In other words: turning Central into a very long driveway for the newly opened Bush Presidential Center on SMU’s campus. It’s something University Park has already agreed to do; the stretch of Airline Road and Dublin Street between SMU Boulevard and Mockingbird Lane is being renamed Bush Avenue.
On March 14, Carmichael started a petition at SignOn.org to stop Branch’s bill, explaining that “to rename this historic stretch of road after a president who has done little if anything significant for this city ignores our local history and compromises our integrity. W. may live here now, but he does not represent our fair city.”
After about a week, the petition had garnered about 2,000 signatures. Then Carmichael got an email from someone who told him he had shared the petition on Reddit, the user-generated news site that bills itself as “the front page of the internet.” He went back and looked—the number of signatures had jumped to 10,000 within hours. As of this writing, 19,024 people have signed Carmichael’s petition.
“It doesn’t surprise me that people feel strongly about not having another highway named after Bush,” he says.
As a drummer, he’s used to staying in the background. He prefers it. But since his is the only petition out there, he began fielding emails from the media. Not everyone bothered with that formality. Calvert Collins, a reporter from Fox 4, showed up at Carmichael’s door unannounced. While he didn’t especially want to talk to someone from Fox—he was wary, given the national news division’s history with the president—he knew he had to talk to someone.
“And they only aired one sentence of our 15-minute conversation,” Carmichael says. (To be fair, what ended up on the March 28 newscast was more like seven sentences.)
Even though Carmichael never explicitly said his petition was a protest against Bush, most people probably took it that way. But that’s not the case. Carmichael is certainly no fan of Bush’s. That much is true. But he didn’t start the petition because he doesn’t want Central Expressway renamed after Bush.
“I don’t want it named after anybody,” he says. Carmichael’s motivation has more to do with history than politics.
Central, or at least part of it, first opened to the public in 1952. The whole thing was finished in the summer of 1956, at the time stretching from downtown Dallas to Campbell Road in Richardson. But its roots go all the way back to 1911, when city planner George Kessler urged officials to build what he called Central Boulevard. Since Kessler’s plan involved buying the right of way from the Houston and Texas Central Railway and tearing out the tracks, it didn’t become more than an idea until the mid-1920s. And since the politically connected railroad company Southern Pacific was against the construction of Central, it took a few more decades before it would cause its first case of road rage.
Harold Carmichael Sr., Trey’s grandfather and namesake, was one of the many men who helped make Central Expressway happen. “My grandfather, he worked for the Works Progress Administration back in the ’30s and ’40s. He was a civil engineer, I believe,” Carmichael says. “He worked on the Central project for a number of years. I can’t remember—I know that my dad told me he thought he was one of the land surveyors, and he was involved in securing some of the land around the highway to build it, some of the right of ways and whatnot. I don’t know exactly for sure. It’s been 20 years since my dad passed away, so I haven’t talked to him in a long time about it.” He laughs.
Carmichael says his grandfather was quietly a big figure in local real estate circles, “in terms of knowing everybody that the highways are already named after: the Thorntons and the Marvin D. Loves and all the other people. He came up during that kind of golden era of Dallas when it was booming, you know?” Among his other accomplishments, Harold Sr. was instrumental in setting up a multiple-listing system for Dallas real estate brokers. “So he’s got a bit of a legacy in town, although he was one of the people who kind of stayed in the background and didn’t want any spotlight.”
There aren’t any highways named after Harold Carmichael Sr., no streets or buildings, not even a park bench. The only legacy he has is Central Expressway. And so on April 16, after borrowing gas money from a friend to get down there, Trey Carmichael found himself in Austin fighting for what little his grandfather has left, armed with a CD containing his petition—a PDF file that ran to more than 2,000 pages. He had learned about the meeting because he’d set up a Google alert around the same time he started the petition.
By the time Carmichael found the room where the Transportation Committee was to meet, it was 9:15 am, and the committee had already met. Branch’s proposal—which now calls for a shorter stretch to carry the designation, from Knox-Henderson to Park—had passed through easily, and now the room was empty.
“Eventually, they put a sign up on the door of that meeting saying if you need assistance, come to room such-and-such,” Carmichael says. “So I went looking for that. Had to ask where that was. Went down there and talked to a couple of young people in the Transportation Office. I left my petition with them, and they said they would see that the committee members got it.” His laugh is like a shrug. Like: “Yeah, right.”
There was nothing else he could do, so he got in his car and headed back to Dallas. Later that day, he eventually wound up on Central Expressway. And while he drove, he was reminded how little a new name is needed, even as a marketing ploy.
“They’ve already got highway signs up for the library,” Carmichael says. “Just the standard Presidential Library Next Exit signs. People aren’t going to have a hard time finding it. You can see it from the highway. It’s in central Dallas. It’s on SMU’s campus. I mean, how can you miss it? People aren’t going to have trouble finding that thing. It’s absurd. Anybody’ll tell you how to get there.”
He adds, “Of course, if they have to tell you to take the Bush to the Bush to get there—that might create more of a problem.”