What a ‘Lost’ 1967 Film Can Teach Us About How To Build Dallas’ Future

“The Walls are Rising” was described throughout the night as a “horror film,” and its depiction of the city and the dire state was, at times, shocking.

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Yesterday evening the Dallas Chapter of the American Institute of Architects screened a lost film about Dallas entitled The Walls Are Rising. Originally produced in 1967 by the AIA, the film attempts to diagnose the city’s urban ills and suggests solutions. At the time of its production, it was screened all over Dallas to community groups and other organizations, and covered extensively in the Dallas Morning News. Nearly 50 years later, interest in the unearthed film is still strong. The event drew a crowd that approached 200 people to the seventh floor of the Sixth Floor Museum, an oddly appropriate setting for a film intimately tied to the civic reaction to the aftermath of the JFK assassination.

The Walls are Rising was described throughout the night as a “horror film,” and its depiction of the city and the dire state was, at times, shocking. Perhaps most disturbing was the fact that the conversations Dallas was having in 1967 are nearly identical to the ones we are having now. The city is overrun by cars, and demands of an automobile-centric society are threatening neighborhoods and downtown. The Trinity River offers the promise, the film professes, of a massive urban green space, and could be retrofitted with a town lake that could rival some of the most serene urban parks in the world. And though the film didn’t use the words precisely, it suggests that Dallas was, as it always seems to be, at a tipping point. We could take charge of our city planning or urban form, or we could “continue to live in an accident.” Perhaps the most frightening thing about The Walls Are Rising, is that the history of Dallas appears like a cycle of perpetual repetition, like a Kafka story or a Star Trek episode, stuck in an endless time loop and damned to a continuous repetition of our mistakes.

The film was accompanied by an introduction by the Dallas Morning News’ Robert Wilonsky, and afterwards he moderated a panel discussion with architects Howard Parker and Larry Good, as well as downtown real estate broker Jack Gosnell. The general sense was that bringing this movie back to light offered a damning indictment of our city’s lack of action and inability to get its planning right. Wilonsky, after asking if any city council members or city staff were at the screening (there were none), suggested a more direct method of getting its message into the consciousness of the powers that be. “We should project it onto the side of city hall,” he said.

Well, I don’t think we should do that at all. The Walls Are Rising is certainly a curious historical document, a kind of civic time capsule. Yes, parts of it echo the same frustrations we have today with regards to our city’s incompetence, overly “business-friendly” mentality, and tendency to favor economic development over livability. It shows that we have been long considering the same improvements, like the Trinity, more livable neighborhoods (“Every neighborhood should have small grocery store people can walk to,” the film demands), hike-and-bike trails, public transit, and better parks. Some of these things have been adopted with measured success, others are still pipe dreams.

But what is equally interesting about the film is how it inadvertently frames the underlying assumptions of Dallas’ planners and architects in 1967. The Walls Are Rising is, essentially, a propaganda film, and a rather clumsily and overtly constructed one at that. It tries to convince or cajole its audience into swallowing two main ideas. Comprised of 8,000 photographic slides (and no moving images) and set to a variety of music — from jazz to R&B to classical — it opens with a long montage of Dallas’ streetscapes set to dissonant free jazz. Its messaging is rather blunt. Jarring breaks in the soundtrack are paired with expressionistic shots of jagged automobiles in a junk yard or Robert Crumb-esque landscapes clogged with telephone wire. The first section of the film makes the point that Dallas is a mess, ruled by the automobile and clogged with signs, utilities, concrete, and other “visual noise.” It mentions a conversation apparently underway at the time of bulldozing much of South Dallas, and then suggests, with tongue planted in cheek, well “why don’t we bulldoze Oak Lawn too?”

After it has made its case that Dallas is a mess (“have you considered how ugly the rooftops older buildings are when seen from the height of our new skyscrapers?” it wonders), it lays out a solution. And the solution, is the architect. Here we get the portrait of an architect as Platonic philosopher king, the creative mind who holds the keys to solutions “many of us don’t see.” More clumsy montage seeks to set our perspective in stone. The city, in all its messy disorganization – highways and burlesques shows are lumped together with kids dancing to R&B and televisions blaring in empty rooms – should strive to realize the serene glory of high design. Images of Dallas’ architectural gems are juxtaposed with photos of the orchestra and galleries at the Dallas Museum of Art, all paired with symphonic music or sometimes just silence, a respite from the messy and noisy chaos of “bad Dallas.”

There are some funny moments. Public transit is such a foreign concept to Dallas in 1967 that it has to be explained as if to a kindergartener (“a single engine pulling multiple cars”). If we force our citizens to live on concrete, the film wonders sardonically, why do we bury them in serenely manicured green cemeteries? It then makes the Jonathan Swift-like suggestion that we bury our dead under asphalt.

However, what I found most troubling about Walls Are Rising wasn’t the way it diagnoses many of the urban challenges we are still facing today, but rather that, in 1967, it was setting the stage for the mistakes Dallas would make throughout the 1970s and 1980s.

Walls Are Rising represents a transitional point in this city’s thinking about itself. Released in the wake of J. Erik Jonsson’s Goals For Dallas program, it is a symptom of a civic enthusiasm that would define how this city would address its problems for the next 50 years. This is a vision of a city handed over to the “experts,” dictated from the top down. It is a city that is looking outside of itself – to the great European capitals, to the models of antiquity, to the successful urban places on the East coast – for answers to problems that are particularly its own. Despite the affinity between our contemporary desire for walkable neighborhoods and a more livable downtown, what Walls Are Rising actually pushes for a kind of misguided modernism. It looks down on crowded sidewalks, irregular strips of storefronts, clogs of signs, and low or pop cultural activity and sees them all as blemishes to the idea of the city. It dreams of an ideal city of manicured, carefully considered, well-designed set pieces. Not too long after The Walls Are Rising screened extensively around Dallas, the city would invite Vincent Ponte to town to serve as the all-knowing architectural “philosopher king” for downtown, solving urban ills with architectural design, and putting the nail in the central business district’s coffin with his attempt to segment uses – pedestrian, vehicular, commercial – onto separate levels.

I also found the way the film uses representations of high culture – the orchestra, the art museum — to be particularly provincial. And it is not an attitude that we have yet abandoned. Our attitude towards the trappings of high culture are still regarded as a kind of reified manifestation of the ideals of the good city. Our regard for our “arts” is still the product of a church-y mentality that equates moral value to manifestations of culture whose stratifications of value have more to do with class taste. Do we really want to live in a city that is all orchestra and no burlesque? Is the serene quiet of the art museum superior to the soulful energy of R&B? I doubt anyone today – or few involved in actually making this film – would argue that it’s one or the other, but that it is presented this way in the film is a reflection of Dallas’ characteristically sanitized cultural idealism. After all, we only just completed the Arts District a few years ago to sustained fanfare, and from an urban perspective, what have we made? A well-manicured, architecturally designed dead zone.

So no, we shouldn’t screen The Walls Are Rising on the side of city hall, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t revisit it when the AIA eventually makes it available (which they say they will online, though I imagine they’ll have some legal hoops to jump through with all the copyrighted music it sneaks into the soundtrack). As a historical document it is both intentionally and unintentionally foreboding. Yes, we continue to have the same conversations and we continue to face the same problems as a city. We allow accommodation of the car to dominate our urban planning; we subjugate the needs of the citizen to the needs of business and growth; we need to design great parks and urban spaces and take care to build a city that is beautiful. But the film is equally valuable as evidence that our solutions can often create new problems.

Howard Parker, who became president of AIA Dallas in 1971 and remembers the film from all those public screenings in 1967, was the highlight of the post-screening Q&A session. Displaying the wisdom and freedom to speak one’s mind that civic leaders earn with their years, the 86-year-old chastised the city’s attitude that pursues “economic development at any cost,” and bluntly likened the Trinity River toll road to the Berlin Wall. “It may be a case that we are getting exactly what we deserve,” he said, arguing that the city has been able to make bad decisions because the public rarely holds their public officials and servants accountable. “There is very level community support in that council chamber.”

A little later, during the open Q&A, an audience member in his early 30s asked how citizens can hold their officials to account. What’s the best way to get their attention? Show up at city hall? Organize public forums? Stage street demonstrations?

Parker jerked back. He said he hated the idea of a demonstration, which would be unseemly.

In his sour reaction to the idea of public protest, I believe we can see where part of the disconnect lies between Dallas’ desire to be better and its inability to achieve its dreams, namely, our scant appetite for real political action. Parker’s reaction to the mere suggestion of public protest was a reminder that, despite his refreshing frankness and candor, this is still Dallas. We still like to keep our politics and our planning clean; we like to handle our civic matters politely. We still tend to think the way forward is a matter of figuring out who, exactly, are the most expert experts who can save us from the mistakes and successes that are the product of messy mayhem of public action. This is still a city whose power brokers and politicians largely distrust the capacities of its own citizenry, that respects order and decorum first of all. We can always figure out how to get things right without first letting things get out of hand.

Maybe the real takeaway from The Walls of Rising, then, is precisely the opposite of the film’s intended conclusion. We have spent much of the last 60 years trying to turn our city into a symphony. I’m sure AIA could dig up architectural plans, and documents, and renderings, and drawings, and films enough to fill Borges’ imaginary Library of Babel. Perhaps now it is time to make things dirty. Maybe the younger generation, whose anger and frustration with this city was felt most palpable during the open forum after the film, are the ones who understand this best. We have trusted the market, the bureaucrats, the architects, the planners, the experts. Maybe the only option left is to take the streets back ourselves. It’s up to us to topple the walls.

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