FIRST PERSON The Reluctant Dallasite

Overdressed and obnoxious-that was my impression of this city.

IB IT POSSIBLE TO LOVE THIS city? Is it possible to like this city? I moved from Austin nearly two years ago, and I’ve been trying to figure out Dallas-and my feelings about it-ever since.

In many ways, Dallas is what Dallas seems: a starched shirt wannabe. Aching to be neither, Dallas to me comes off as overdressed and ambitious. And, ultimately, obnoxious. But in other ways, Dallas is surprising. It is a friendlier, grittier and more complex city than I imagined.

Coming to Dallas from Austin is a little like leaving a really cool bar for a health spa. If Austin is the endless summer, then Dallas is the never-ending retail period between Thanksgiving and Christmas. One is play, the other work; one idealized youth, the other unrelenting adulthood. (A telling difference between Austin and Dallas: The former is a place you want to live, while the latter is a place that, for one reason or another, you have to live.)

I lived in Austin for 13 years, traveling there after college in the mid-1970s from Maine with a girlfriend. (Pretty Austin, huh?) Mine was the envied Austin life. By day, when not flipping burgers or churning out free-lance articles, I hung out at secret hideaways on Lake Travis and splashed around in the frigid waters of Bar-ton Springs. By night, I quaffed brew under the beer-garden stars of the Armadillo World Headquarters, hugged the bar at Antone’s when it was down on 6th Street (seeing the Fabulous Thunderbirds and Stevie Ray Vaughan play to audiences of 15, 20 people) and caught Joe Ely at the original Soap Creek Saloon out on remote Bee Caves Road. When family and friends came to visit, I was a one-man Chamber of Commerce, taking them around the Hill Country and through the capitol and up Mount Bonnell and into leafy neighborhoods and down the Drag and all over Zilker Park.

Not so slowly, though, Austin changed. The developers came. They paved over the Lake Travis hideaways. Their housing developments contaminated Barton Springs. Bee Caves Road became an exclusive address for the nouveaux riches. Big glass towers shot up downtown, ruining views of the Capitol building and creating a generic Sun Belt skyline. Detractors of Austin’s course had a name for it: Houstoni-zation. But in my capacity as politics editor of the city’s alternative weekly, The Austin Chronicle. I called it something much more damning: Dallasization. Houston, I argued, while ugly, was at heart free-spirited, its sprawling faults the product of its wild and untamed character. Dallas, I wrote, was overplanned, uptight and soulless, and served more accurately as the blueprint for the emerging Austin. The legendary liberalism and tolerance that defined Austin. I said, were giving way to the greed and conservatism commonly associated with the “city that has no reason to be,” as the Big D boosters say without a hint of irony.

Alternative weeklies are many things, but they are not places to make money, or even a living. That didn’t matter much until the fall of 1989, when my wife gave birth to our first child. Suddenly, I had to start thinking of all those, those.. .other things-health insurance, a savings account, a car that ran more often than not. It seemed now I had to grow up. Grown-ups had real jobs with all those. . . other things. Dallas, in the form of a staff job at American Airlines’ in-flight magazine, offered me that. Austin didn’t.

I had been offered the job twice before and turned it down for different reasons. I was hoping that divine intervention would save me from what seemed my fate: life in Dallas. It never came. And so, traveling with several bags of preconceptions, I left the city I loved for the city I loathed.

Having visited Dallas only twice, I had formed impressions based on what I had heard and read. Dallas struck me as a heartless and cold city of regressive politics, bland architecture, rampant materialism, mediocre culture and no natural beauty. “Dallas is just a big overgrown East Texas town without the scenery,” was the way one friend put it.

I dreaded even the idea of looking for a place to live in Dallas. I asked friends about various neighborhoods. A couple of them suggested Fort Worth, saying it was more Austin-like and that, in terms of where I worked-D/FW Airport-the commute would make no difference. One person suggested the Mid Cities, citing the1 ease of the commute and the suburban virtues of low crime and good schools. But most folks steered me to Lower Greenville Avenue. I did indeed settle on a neighborhood in old East Dallas. Tree-lined with older homes and within walking distance of nightclubs, bars, restaurants and a bookstore, the neighborhood has a feel I didn’t know existed in Dallas.

One experience here remains embedded in my memory. My wife and I decided to take our little boy, Sam, who was then about 4 months old, for a stroll down Lower Greenville. We stopped to read the menu in the window of Nero’s, a tony Italian restaurant. A waitress caught our eye and invited us in. We demurred, gesturing toward Sam. “Oh, he’s no problem,” she assured us in a down-to-earth tone. Sure enough, after we sat down and ordered, Sam started wailing. My wife took Sam into the restroom, but you could hear him crying throughout the restaurant. “I guess we’ll just take everything to go,” I told the waitress as she brought our appetizers. After a while, my wife returned from the bathroom without the baby. “Where’s Sam?” I asked. She pointed behind me. The waitress was walking him and he was settling down in her embrace.

STILL, AFTER TWO YEARS HERE, I DONT YET feel completely at home. Nor am I heartened by an acquaintance who tells me it took her 10 years before she started feeling comfortable here. In fact, she still vividly recalls an evening years ago in the restroom of a nightclub. She looked at the painted and hyperdressed women around her, peered into the mirror and saw herself alone in a crowd. “I looked so out of place with my short, straight hair and minimalist makeup,” she says. “There was an incredible sense of isolation.”

Dallas isn’t even an easy place to visit. When a friend told me his mother came for a weekend. I asked where he took her. He said the West End, which he, himself, couldn’t stand because of its “planned fun” ethos. He said he also drove around some wealthy neighborhoods, an activity his mother enjoys. And that was about it. Of course, he said, he could have also gone to the grassy knoll, but, he asked, why?

Perhaps it is worth noting that my friend moved here not long ago from Atlanta and carries an attachment to his former city not unlike mine to Austin. But longtime Datlas-ites, even natives, echo similar sentiments. Upon meeting me for the first time, my pediatrician said wistfully, “You’re from Austin. I’d love to live there. But. ..” Our family doctor had the same reaction, only stronger. “Why did you leave Austin?” he said. “I went to school in Austin. It’s beautiful there.”

The paradoxes of the two cities are best revealed by their core identities. Dallas operates on the myth of rugged individualism while Austin runs (jogs?) on commun-alism. Dallas, for example, practically deifies certain personages, such as H. Ross Perot and Tom Landry, Austin, on the other hand, reveres the collective: the music scene and the Barton Springs lifestyle. Out of Dallas comes the Apparel Mart. Out of Austin comes Whole Foods Market.

Yet, curiously, the communalism of Austin results in greater individual expression while the rugged individualism of Dallas produces greater conformity. Breathes there a truthful soul in Texas who would argue that Austin is the quirky, idiosyncratic, arty city of the Lone Star State, with all the individual expressions that implies, while Dallas is its business center, with all the attendant uniformity that implies? Austin is a collection of free spirits who’ve created from and for themselves a community of belonging. Dallas is an enclave of careerism geared toward self-enhancement in which the community, the idea of community, is merely rhetorical.

Because of that, Dallas, unlike Austin, has not developed a culture of criticism. Rather, apparently feeling threatened by discord or self-analysis, Dallas leaders stress above all else “unity.” As a result, Dallas marginalizes its analytical thinkers and its dissident voices, which leads only to a deepened sense of alienation and, ultimately, hostility. In Austin, every imaginable thing is debated. Even the newspaper comes under regular attack-there have been petition drives about it and town meetings over it.

Yet, for all its rigidity, Dallas is still a big city with many of a big city’s virtues. Ethnic diversity is far more noticeable on the streets here than it is in Austin. In Dallas, it is not uncommon to see racially mixed couples dining at restaurants and strolling down sidewalks and shopping in malls. Nor is itunusuaTtbr different races to be in the same nightclub or other venue. In Austin, despite its much-vaunted liberalism, mixed coupling is a sight virtually unseen. Rarely, too, are different races seen mixing together at bars or other social outlets.

And while the racial climate in Dallas is decidedly hot, at least there is a climate. In Austin, where Interstate 35 has been called a Berlin wall of racial divide, race as a political issue and even a social dynamic is far in the background. Though hardly a model, Dallas is more of a tapestry of overlapping African-American, Hispanic, Asian and Anglo neighborhoods. And although the old guard remains resistant to emerging political realities, it is the minority community-though assailed constantly for being “confrontational” (read: uppity)-that will change the way people think of Dallas. Indeed, the minorities, it seems to me, are creating for Dallas its much needed culture of criticism.

The longer I live here, the less I see Dallas monolithically. I still prefer Austin’s essence, but Dallas, as a real place with multiple realities and nuances, constantly surprises and occasionally even gratifies. My neighborhood is one example. The city’s transitional politics is another. And, if it is a hundred little things that make life worth living, then one of them is Dallas’ restaurant offerings: Ethiopian, Thai (plentiful and excellent, neither of which can be said of Austin), Indian, excellent nouveau Texan and Southwestern, good Italian and French, and at least credible Spanish, Cuban-even Lebanese.

I also like professional sports: watching them, going to them, discussing them. In the ’60s, when the Cowboys began, I loved their maverick image. But as time wore on I came to hate the Cowboys. I hated all that “America’s team” business. I hated Tom Landry. He seemed a personification of everything I perceived about Dallas. But the Cowboys these days, well, they’re different again. Under Jimmy Johnson, the Cowboys are playing a spirited brand of ball that harkens back to the early days of Don Meredith. And though my heart hasn’t completely thawed yet, how can it not be warmed by a team that reinvents itself almost through sheer will and belief?

And there are other little things about Dallas. Saturday mornings choosing fruits and vegetables at the Farmers Market. Taking my little boy to feed the ducks at White Rock Lake. Hanging out in Deep Ellum, which, as another planned-fun community- albeit a little less planned-is a bit off-putting, but is still as close to Austin as Dallas gets.

There I go again. But that’s to be expected, I guess, when you’re learning to love, uhm, well, when you’re learning.


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