was sauntering down one of the gravel paths at the Arboretum, marveling at the spring color, when I remembered a story someone had told me in passing some months ago. It was when the Shakespeare Festival of Dallas was searching for a new home. With great gusto, my friend, a devotee of the Arboretum, was describing the _ discovery of a natural amphitheater overlooking White Rock Lake. As if struck by the obvious, he declared the site a perfect place for the staging of The Merchant of Venice or Othello. But just as quickly, his face darkened. “It could never happen,” he sighed, “the neighborhood groups would stage an open revolt.” A few weeks later, I was mulling the growing power of neighborhood and single-issue groups in local politics when the great debate over the Santa Fe railroad spilled out of East Dallas and onto the front pages. The sentiment was uncompromising: either scuttle the plans to use existing rail lines connecting Garland with downtown, opponents raged, or nothing short of the dismantling of DART would follow.
Then, days after that, former Dallas mayor J. Erik Jonsson spoke to a crowd of some 300 people on the occasion of the anniversary of D/FW airport, dropping an innocent remark that only grew in import as I left chewing on it. What he said, flatly, was that the D/FW airport could not be built today,
Whatever you or I thought of the idea of putting twenty-eight square miles into trafficking airplanes back then (and a lot of people thought it was pretty stupid), today it looks like brilliant foresight (I will resist the temptation to call it vision). The airport is the major economic engine driving the growth of this region. And considering our current woes, we can be darn glad it’s there.
Could a project with paybacks stretching way into the next century be appreciated, applauded, or even tolerated today? Not in the current political climate, that’s for sure. And though Mayor Jonsson was thinking of how unlikely it is that environmental agencies would give a nod to such a project today, he may also have had in mind the rising tide of “aginners”-naysayers who have, throughout the Eighties, found an unprecedented new voice in local government.
Let me be clear. I am not agin the aginners. Those who would point to obvious flaws and follies (often the press) in projects that inhale large sums of taxpayer money perform a service for fellow citizens. One need only to look at the new DART service plan versus the old DART service plan to see the result of informed, committed negative feedback.
But the cacophony of negativism can also be a noisy cover-up for a slack and selfish public view.
Public transportation? As long as it doesn’t go through my neighborhood. Low-income housing? Not in my back yard.
And the naysaying doesn’t stop with costly public projects. Look at the Grand Prix. The fellows who brought the race here and staged it at Fair Park thought they had a good thing going for Dallas. What they got in return was grief and lawsuits from the surrounding neighborhoods. Now the city of Addison reaps the economic trickle-down of the annual race.
And then there’s the Arboretum. You’d think a couple of acres of harmless flowers and a restored historic house or two would be relatively free of conflict. Think again. Remember the fliers foretelling that an expanded arboretum would spell doom for botanic life as we know it? And when that hysteria died down, new concerns surfaced. Arboretum president Walter Durham tells of a time when a jazz trio was intercepted by a police helicopter after neighbors complained about the noise.
Over the past year or so, the roar of angry citizens-and City Council members-shouting “NIMBY” has been deafening. That may be understandable when you consider that many groups felt cut off from the city’s power structure until relatively recently. But the noise of democracy coupled with weak leadership equals chaos.
That should give us pause as we move toward more single-member districts. Though it’s true that the present system has stacked the at-large deck in favor of white Republicans from North Dallas, I’m not sure that that’s a good reason to reject the concept out of hand. As we add single-member districts, as the Charter Review Committee will undoubtedly do, we would do well to consider how little we’ve gotten done since the advent of representation that is by definition narrow rather than full-view.
A foreboding note on the pure single-member district type of government was sounded recently by Phoenix Mayor Terry God-dard, who has been called the best mayor in America. Speaking to a Dallas civic group, Goddard told how he “led the charge” to convert Phoenix’s council from all at-large to all single-member districts. In hindsight, he said, the new system has some insurmountable kinks. It has, he said, increased citizen involvement (and lengthened council meetings). But the new system offers little incentive for a council member to reach out of his or her myopia and cast a vote that benefits the whole. “Essentially,” Goddard said, “you must rely on their good will and their background.”
Will that be enough for Dallas? I don’t think so. I hope the Charter Review Committee will give serious consideration to retaining some at-large seats, with fairer representation in mind. The quadrant approach-requiring candidates to live in either south, north, east, or west Dallas-might do the trick.
In the meantime, perhaps someone who can command the respect of even the loudest dissenters will surface. Mayor Annette Strauss ran her first term on a platform of consensus. She likes to think of herself as a mayor who listens, and who builds bridges between opposing camps. As such, her leadership style may have been long overdue.
But let’s hope this second go-round will allow her more latitude to lead. Perhaps without the prospect of a third campaign she will be able to offer bolder initiatives and firmer guidance. Then, instead of speaking softly through the chaos, she can cut it with a big stick.