Last night I was lucky enough to hear Jon Gnarr speak at the Turner House in Oak Cliff. Gnarr is worthy of his own post. In the wake of Iceland’s particularly awful financial meltdown in 2009, Gnarr — a former punk rock musician, Icelandic comedian, radio personality, and self-proclaimed anarchist — launched a campaign for mayor of Reykjavík as a joke. Then, he won. Then, he took his job seriously. Then, he changed the politics of his home country forever. As he spoke, I thought of our own political situation in this city and couldn’t help but wonder if such a situationalist-ish approach to rethinking Dallas politics is overdue.
If you want to know more about Gnarr, check out this documentary. If you are wondering what he was doing in Oak Cliff, he was reading from his novel The Indian just translated into English for the first time by Dallas’ own Deep Vellum publishing. And after hearing him read, I can assure you that you must buy the book — and become a Deep Vellum subscriber — if you love yourself, life, and this city.
But that’s not what I want to write about. Before the event started, I had a conversation about, yes, the Trinity Toll Road. Hard to avoid the topic these days, particularly in Oak Cliff at book readings with anarchist Icelandic politicians. I casually mentioned to someone that a number of people, particularly younger, community-minded people, have told me that if the Trinity Toll Road gets built they are going to leave Dallas.
“That’s funny,” he said. “I was just saying that to someone yesterday.”
Now, let me put this in a little context. I met this person for the first time last night, though we have some mutual friends. He looks to be in his early- to mid-30s. He has a job in the creative industries — one of those boutique, entrepreneurial web, tech, branding, marketing firms thingies – he has been involved in a number of Dallas-focused community activities. He is married, has kids, owns a home, pays his taxes, volunteers, and shows up at book readings. And even though he is talented enough and works in an industry that would otherwise afford him the ability to choose where to live, he has chosen Dallas. And he hasn’t just chosen Dallas — he is out there trying to contribute his time, effort, and talent to make this city a better place. In other words, he is exactly the kind of productive, next generation, civic-minded citizen this city needs.
This profile matches some of the other people who have told me they would leave Dallas if the Trinity Toll Road is built. The common denominator, in fact, is that they are all people who are working really hard to try and make Dallas a great city. The feeling is that if the Toll Road gets built, it would be such a defeating and demoralizing blow it would make it seem like everything they do in Dallas, and for Dallas, is for nothing. The construction of the Toll Road — as a symbol, as an indicator of where we are politically and intellectually with regards to what kind of city we’re trying to make Dallas become — would undercut all their hopes and dreams about what Dallas could be and confirm to them that their worst fears of what Dallas might actually be. That is, an image-obsessed, backwards-thinking, politically, economically, and racially divided concrete wasteland ruled by an old guard that disdains its citizenry and sticks its nose up at progress. And who would want to live in that place?
I find this sentiment really disconcerting. After all, this is the generation that Goldman Sachs believes is going to change how our economy works. If Dallas pushes away young, creative people who already live here, how can it expect to attract more? This is why the macro economic issues raised by the Toll Road — as well as other transportation and infrastructure projects, from our long-range inner-city highway policy to realizing real and reliable public transit — are larger than concerns about lifestyle, urban real estate, walkability, livability, or quality of life. Here is what is at stake: can we take a city that is not doing a very good job attracting the next generation of leaders and entrepreneurs and transform it into a place that is appealing and ready to thrive? Or, will be thumb our nose at the next generation of leaders and entrepreneurs who already live here and give them a good reason to abandon ship?
I sympathize with this sentiment. But if I’m honest with myself, I know I’m not going to leave Dallas if the Toll Road gets built. I identify too much with Jon Gnarr; when it feels like there is no way to beat the system, that’s exactly when you know it is time to start punking the system. But I do think the day the earth movers start clawing into the Trinity Floodway prepping for the flow of concrete will be an extremely depressing day. I hope we don’t find out what that day feels like.
All this said, what I’m writing about is a very anecdotal indicator, the result of a handful of conversations. But after last night’s chat, I thought I’d put this question to you, dear members of FrontBurner nation. If the Trinity Toll Road gets built, will you leave?