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New Dallas and the Old Guard need authentic experiences
By Lee Cullum |

IN A WAY, THIS Christmas issue is unwittingly devoted to the new world of Far North Dallas. (See “Why Piano?” page 174, and “Amazing Place,” page 61.) I began to ponder the riddle of life on Belt Line and beyond one Sunday night when I was seated at a dinner for the opening of Blooming-dale’s. Although the new store is in Valley View Center, just south of the thoroughfare that seems to be a Great Divide in the destiny of Dallas, this glittering new emporium, with its breathtaking inventory of the accouterments of the good life, is an apt metaphor for much that’s, exciting and disturbing about the current circumstances in our city.

As I was serving myself from the elegant buffet, a woman whispered in my ear, “This crowd is loaded with press people and developers.” She was right. Certainly, I was one of the predatory press, there to monitor this latest salvo in the battle of the malls and to gain whatever advantage for my publication that I could.

I did pick up some interesting information. According to sources close to the warfare, Sakowitz Village and Adelstein Plaza are suffering; the Galleria is slow but solid and sure to succeed eventually; all three can expect some trouble from newly refurbished Valley View; and the first of Dallas’ super-malls, NorthPark, endures with the scrappy assurance that a third story soon to be added to Neiman-Marcus will produce prestige and profits.

These candid observations on the retail blitz of Far North Dallas were made more palatable by the lavish array of desserts. All the same, there has been a level of mercantile opulence at these openings-Saks Fifth Avenue, Marshall Field’s, Gump’s and now Bloomingdale’s-that strikes a cautionary note even while it entrances.

I felt this same sense of irresistible unreality at a party last summer when a ranch north of The Colony was transformed into a magical playground. For me, it was the best party of the year-the one I wouldn’t have missed for anything-because it told us so much about ourselves.

A remarkable number of women there were dressed for the hunt (as we usually are). But this time, unbridled aggression challenged the setting sun: Strapless gold lamé Western garb; blue and white Indian feathers falling almost to the ground from a beautifully coiffed head. It was fantastic.

But the disturbing aspect of all this flamboyance is that it sometimes masks desperation. Far North Dallas is not a phenomenon unto itself; it’s Old Dallas played in a higher key with thumping undertones of real-not potential-affluence. But in the land of the fast buck, fortunes are lost as quickly as they are made. And that creates considerable anxiety.

The Old Guard is not immune to the blandishments of the Far North. On the contrary: Sensing that they need the energy of New Dallas, they’re driving themselves to exhaustion trying to keep up. Retailing, banking and building, like the Enterprise ride at the Fair, may be spinning out of con-trol. Our accelerated demand for greater speed and more complex aggregations of human energy could have the same tragic results. We’re becoming a people recklessly on the make, and we’re leaving ourselves and our children no place for repose.

At Fort Worth’s Caravan of Dreams near Sundance Square, there’s a cactus garden on the roof. John Allen, who works there, says that cactus plants have extremely small root systems. In fact, they store up all available desert water (which isn’t much) in their own plant structures-inside themselves. “It’s a remarkable adaptation,” says Allen.

This led me to wonder about Far North Dallas. Is it possible that these suburban pioneers, in their struggle to adapt to relentless change, are storing up experiences as quickly as they can in order to sustain their lives without the types of root systems that have grown gradually over the years?

If so, Dallas must be sure that it offers its people authentic experiences. The opening of the Dallas Museum of Art’s sculpture garden was one; it was the distillation of SO years of effort. The German Fortnight at Neiman’s was another. The Fortnight succeeds time after time because, in addition to promoting goods, it’s a genuine celebration of another culture. And it’s not only for the black-tie crowd on opening night. The doors swing open to everyone the next day.

Lena Home’s luminous performance at the Music Hall at Fair Park was another authentic Dallas experience. Some people who saw her said that Horne was “not as sophisticated as they had expected.” They missed the point. By talking candidly about her black origins in Alabama, she shared with us a triumphant personality wrestled from the cauldron of show business in extremely turbulent times. Even her dancing, in its obvious imperfection, let us know that her life has not been easy. She conveyed reality, redeemed by her art, and that’s what we needed from her.

I have a close friend who moved to Dallas from Massachusetts several years ago. Working on a photography project in the West, she began to collect Western folk art: saddles, chaps, bearskins, beaded Indian headbands. I once asked her how she transferred her psyche from New England to Texas, Wyoming and Utah. “It’s easy,” she said. “Folk art is essentially the same everywhere. If I had stayed in New England, I would have collected folk art there. But since I live and work in the West, I’m responding to that culture-but from my original base in New England.”

I think she’s onto something. Maybe it’s the same impulse that prompted me to fix turnip greens and corn bread for lunch the day I wrote this piece. I suspect that it has to do with what Joan Didion saw as our need “to remember who and what we are.”