Monday, February 26, 2024 Feb 26, 2024
71° F Dallas, TX
Politics & Government

Who Runs Fort Worth?

Four billionaires named Bass, for starters. But the city’s pyramid of power is more complex than that. Here’s who holds the cards in Cowtown.
Photography by Ralph Lauer
Edward P. Bass is a man who constantly reinvents himself. Since he also is a billionaire with an abiding fascination with the dynamics of cities, this means he occasionally reinvents entire sections of Fort Worth.

Other people may build castles in the air with their daydreams. But the daydreams of billionaires have a tendency to turn into plans, plans into projects, and projects into entire blocks of, not castles, but apartment buildings, nightclubs, restaurants, movie houses, parks on [op of below-ground parking, and performing arts centers.

That’s how Ed Bass’ dream of living in a downtown bachelor’s apartment resulted in the transformation of a key part of downtown Fort Worth. It happened like this: When Ed moved back home in 1979 from Santa Fe, there was no living space in downtown. So he rented a suite by the month at the Blackstone Hotel.

“It was such a bad address that not only would people not come visit me there, some people wouldn’t even phone me there,” he told me a few years ago.

Soon after, though, Bass Brothers Enterprises launched their Sundance Square project in the north end of downtown. Ed Bass looked at all the Sundance buildings with an eye to putting an apartment in one, but “none of [the spaces] really jelled.”

“Then, my brother Sid suggested that if I went across Houston Street from Sundance. 1 might find something.. .where 1 might be able to put an apartment on an upper floor and put something else downstairs.”

That “something else” eventually became the Caravan of Dreams, which not only included an apartment for Ed Bass, but also apartments for other Caravan staff members. But even though he now had a place for himself, he didn’t slop thinking about a larger downtown residential development. Bass explored several possible locations, but found nothing that was both structurally and economically feasible.


And there things sat until one night in 1986, when someone removed a section of flexible natural gas line leading to a hamburger grill inside Santini’s Sub Shop that backed up to the Caravan of Dreams. At 3:26 a,m, on Dec. 7, the leaking gas encountered a spark. The result was an explosion that leveled much of the block directly behind the Caravan and nearly knocked Ed Bass out of his bed. Later, the owner of a sandwich shop next door to Santini’s was convicted of arson. The Caravan ended up with a great big empty space right behind it, and Ed Bass had an opportunity thai was literally blasted into being.

“I figured anything that dramatic was trying to tell me something.” he told me. He had the Houston Street Bakery moved to Main Street and tore down the building it had occupied at the corner of Houston and Second. That, coupled with the space cleared by the explosion, gave him a development that was on the verge of being economically feasible.
So he went to the City Council with a proposal lor a tax abatement that would ensure that for 10 years. Bass would pay taxes as though no improvements had occurred on the property. The Council agreed. The result was the Sundance West development, which includes the Sundance Cinema with 11 screens, a 12-story apartment building, and several restaurants and shops. This was among the first of many public-private partnerships that continue to transform Fort Worth.

All this, because Ed Bass wanted to live downtown.

This is part of the reason why, when one asks, “Who runs Fort Worth?” the answer is nearly always, “The Basses,” or a variation on that theme, “The Basses and Dee Kelly [the Basses’ attorney].” But as with so much else in Fort Worth, unless one understands the historical nuances of that answer, one risks missing the point.

“The Basses” are not some monolithic entity moving through Fort Worth in mental lockstep. There is a family named Bass, composed of Perry Bass; his wife, Nancy Lee; and their four sons, Sid, Edward, Robert, and Lee, and their various wives and children (Ed is still a bachelor).

Perry Bass is the nephew of Fort Worth oilman Sid Richardson, who, with his buddy Clint Murchison (onetime owner of the Dallas Cowboys), rode the boom-and-bust cycle of the early days of Texas oil drilling, making and losing fortunes almost overnight, Both men ended up enormously wealthy. Richardson drilled 385 wells with only 17 dry holes. In 1957, Fortune magazine called him the wealthiest man in America. He died in 1959, having worked all his life.

In Fort Worth, The Civilized West, Caleb Pirtle III tells how Richardson, when asked about the size of his bank account, smiled and said, “Well, after the first hundred million, what the hell?” Richardson left his fortune to his nephew, Perry Bass, who also has been named by Fortune as one of the richest men in America, as have each of his four sons.

So everything the Basses do looms very large in this city. And whether or not they realize it, as they reshape Fort Worth’s physical landscape, they are inevitably reshaping Fort Worth’s emotional landscape as well.

To understand why this matters, it helps to have some history. Fort Worth used to be run by a group of men called the Seventh Street Gang. These were Amon Carter, Sid Richardson, the big bankers, the utility company heads, and a few selected CEOs, most of whom had offices on Seventh Street. The history of the Seventh Street Gang is the story of the men who started Fort Worth-the Terrells, Daggetts, Van Zandts, and such-who came as bold young men in the late 1850s, ready to take on the frontier.

Mary Rogers, social columnist of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, is a long-lime keen observer of Fort Worth and something of a historian. She has a theory about what happened when these bold young men began to get old. They wanted to ensure that their children and grandchildren would have a safe, secure, and economically healthy place to live after they were gone. “They invest everything they’ve got, every scrap of their soul and their fortune is invested in this little podunk community. They don’t want it to dry up and blow away. But they’re getting old. They see they’ve got to have new blood,” Rogers says.

She believes they did what old men have done since the beginning of time-they found the best and brightest of the next generation in the late 1800s and they mentored them.
One of the young men they put their arms around was feisty young Amon G. Carter, who arrived in Fort Worth in 1905 with nothing much except energy, exuberance, and ego, all married to a canny salesman’s mind, Carter understood the power of mentorship.

So in the 1940s and 1950s, Carter and the second generation of the Seventh Street Gang mentored the next group, which in turn mentored men such as Bayard Friedman, who became the last true Seventh Street Gang mayor from 1963 to 1965.

But the Friedman generation became afraid to mentor in the ’60s and 70s, when many middle-aged people viewed the next generation as a threat, not an opportunity. Because of political chasms and cultural divides, it was harder for the older men to recognize diem-selves in the younger men and their aspirations. In the past, the older men would say to the young, “Let me tell you what I’ve learned.” In return, they would get respect and a guaranteed place at the table where decisions were being made. They would be revered elder statesmen. That was the deal.

But by the time the Bayard Friedman generation came along, Fort Worth had grown and become more diverse. There were too many people out there, especially minorities and women, who didn’t even know a deal existed.

So where once the power structure turned on strength of character and community roots in a commitment to the community’s future well-being-and, of course, wealth- it now began to turn on wealth alone. When the mentoring stopped, an us-and-them mentality set in. Us were the common folk who weren’t here in 1850. Them were the descendants of” those who were here in 1850.

That us-and-them mind-set was first manifested in the 1975 vote to approve single-member districts. It caught many of the West Side, Seventh Street Gang power brokers by surprise. Once it passed, they had the grace not to challenge it in court. They did, however, set about to find ways to manage this new development, So a pyramid of power was put firmly into place that has shaped Fort Worth’s emotional and civic landscape ever since.

This pyramid of power has four layers. The first tier at the top is the smallest, made up of the ruling families of Fort Worth. These are the “old” families, people with deep roots in the city and, usually, deeper pockets.

They include, but are not limited to, Kay Carter Kimbell Fortson, niece of the people who established the Kimbell Museum; Josephine Terrell Smith Hudson (who has city founders on both sides of her family), Ruth Carter Stevenson (Amon Carter’s daughter), and Anne Windfohr Marion (daughter of Anne Burnett Tandy, who was the wife of Charles Tandy and the granddaughter of cattleman Burk Burnett, who owned the legendary 6666 Ranch); John Justin of Justin Boots; other descendants of founding families and the husbands, wives, children, and sometimes grandchildren of these people.

These people live in Westover Hills or Rivercrest, and usually belong to River Crest and Shady Oaks country clubs, the Fort Worth Club, the Petroleum Club, and the Jewel Charity Ball. They attend the most prestigious of the benefit galas, and sometimes, act as honorary chairs of such events. The women make their debuts at the Assembly Ball. The men usually are members of the Exchange Club.

When any of these people say they want something to happen, it’s going to happen. When any of these people say they don’t want something to happen, it’s not going to happen.

The second tier includes the corporate, professional, and political elite of the city: Mayor Kay Granger and some, but not all. of the City Council; Ross Perot Jr., whose Alliance Airport is transforming the area north of Fort Worth; Kenneth Devero of Downtown Fort Worth Inc.; corporate CEOs, such as John Roach of Tandy Corporation, Clark Johnson of Pier I Imports, Ed Schollmaier of Alcon Laboratories Inc., Jack L. Messman of Union Pacific Resources Company, and Gerald Grinstein of Burlington Northern Inc.; the publisher of the Star-Telegram, who is Rich Connor now; high-profile artists such as Van Cliburn; and, when they are interested, most of the rest of “social” Fort Worth.

When these people want something to happen, it will nearly always happen-unless it contradicts something the top tier wants. These people are nearly always allowed to act as if they were top tier.

The only civic interest for many of the “social” people is the Fort Worth Zoo. They support the symphony, ballet, opera, the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition, and all the museums. They attend all the benefit galas. The women often are in charge of such galas. These people hangout at the Fort Worth Club, City Club, River Crest Country Club, and Ridglea Country Club. Some, but not all, of the men belong to the Exchange Club, Some of the women made their debuts at the Steeplechase Ball, and a few older families belong to the Assembly. Nearly all the women are or were members of the Junior League. Both rabbis are in the second tier, but only a couple of ministers rank, this high.

Barry Bailey, formerly of First United Methodist Church, was in this group until he resigned his ministry this year in the wake of multiple sexual harassment charges. Even though he has become an embarrassment, Bailey is still treated with courtesy when he shows up at second-tier events. Some Bass family members were among Bailey’s congregation, and Bailey performed the wedding of Sid and Mercedes Bass. This connection is one reason the accusations against Bailey were not reported in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram until nearly everyone in town knew about them and the national media were about to break the story.

When Fort Worth’s second-tier people like the mayor and the City Council want something, it will nearly always happen – unless it contradicts what the top tier wants.

However, there is politeness, and there is politeness. Fort Worth’s elite have honed politeness to an art that would make Chinese Mandarins look crass. There is the friendly, even affectionate, politeness with which one listens to one s peers. Then there is the mannerly politeness that is the hallmark of social and civic interaction in Fort Worth. So far, Ross Perot Jr. is being treated with the first type of politeness. But people with his wealth and influence who do business in Fort Worth are expected to contribute both talent and money in Fort Worth. People are beginning to notice that his name is conspicuously absent from donor lists of certain causes. If this continues, he may find the chill factor increasing.
And then there is the mildly patronizing politeness that makes many of the people on the third layer think they are in the second layer-they always are listened to with great politeness. But as someone once said of this kind of civility. “Politeness is just organized indifference.” Many of Fort Worth’s professional African-Americans and Hispanics are well-acquainted with this type of polite indifference, as are nearly all female professionals.

The third tier includes the professional and the employed body of people who live and work in Fort Worth, people who often have their jobs because of what the top two layers do. This fact is never far from their minds, and it often governs just how far they are willing to push the top two tiers. Only those with independent means can afford to be really uppity.

This tier includes the school superintendent and the school board members; the county commissioners; board members of social service agencies, especially those where Junior League members do volunteer work; most of the churches; most of the business community; and the more affluent African-American and Hispanic professionals.

These people frequently act as both a goad and a brake for the top two layers. These are the people who run up flags to call attention to needs in the community and make proposals for programs, developments, etc. to tend to those needs. Usually these ideas are stopped at the second level, where they either are acted on or dismissed. Too many of the ideas from the minority community are greeted with that mildly patronizing politeness. But enough get through all the way to the top tier to keep this third level from getting too unhappy.

Third-tier people hang out at the Paris Coffee Shop. Some belong to the Colonial Country Club, but most play golf at municipal courses. Nearly all the women have careers, and their families and kids are important to them. They also support the symphony, ballet, and the museums. The men and some of the women belong to Rotary and other service clubs and sometimes get “loaned” to the United Way campaign. Those lucky few who belong to the prestigious Downtown Rotary are able to rub shoulders with people from both the second and first tiers, and even, occasionally, with a Bass or two.

People in this tier belong to the various chambers of commerce and to their neighborhood associations. They love their neighborhoods, but for the most part feel helpless to affect changes via City Hall. Occasionally, this layer will rear up and put the brake on something the top two tiers want, much to their consternation. They did it when they voted down a 1990 Cultural District bond issue. Many of them were involved in the infamous 1987 “zoo fight.” They lost the zoo dispute because in fights like that, second-tier people always win over third-tier people. The only time third-tier people have a chance to win is in something like that bond issue, where they can vote.

But when second-tier people take on top-tier people, they can occasionally win, Five years ago, Sid and Mercedes Bass purchased three already huge lots along Crestline Drive in the Rivercrest neighborhood to combine into one enormous area on which to build a house. Fort Worth’s finest eyebrows were raised when they bought one mansion and tore it down, and eyebrows nearly met hairlines when they then bought a house across the street and had it moved, because, word was, Mercedes had learned you could see over the wall from its second-story window. It was that wall, in fact, that gave neighbors a chance to express their outrage over such un-Fort-Worth-like wretched excess. When Sid asked for a zoning variance to build a hugely high fence around the estate, enough neighbors turned up at City Hall in protest to force them into agreeing to lower the height of the wall, set it farther back from the road, and lavishly landscape in front of it. Sid’s Wall is now almost a neighborhood tourist attraction.

The fourth tier of the triangle, the biggest and the bottommost, is made up of those with lower incomes, the poor, the uneducated, the voiceless, and those who not only don’t know who most of the top tier are, they don’t even know for care) where the Fort Worth Club is. These are the people whom the third tier is frequently trying to get the second and first tier to help, if only out of enlightened self interest.

You will have noticed one glaring omission in this structure. Where are the Basses? Well, the Bass families are the nuclear-powered light on the top of the pyramid-beaming enormous power, light, energy and, yes, beauty over the entire structure. And like most grand pieces of art, some people like them and some people don’t, but very lew ignore them.

Which brings us back to those billionaires’ dreams. Perry and Nancy Lee Bass and their four sons all are distinct, separate individuals with distinct and often separate interests and dreams. These interests and dreams move and shape nearly every part of their city in very different ways.

Sid Bass is credited with continuing the revitalization of downtown Fort Worth that began when Charles Tandy built the Tandy Center in 1977. Tandy was viewed by many as the visionary successor to Anion Carter Sr., who had died in 1955. After Tandy’s death in 1978, Sid Bass seemed poised to step into that role as he spearheaded Sundance Square in 1980.

At that time, Ed Bass was regarded as the arty or quirky Bass, what with his Caravan of Dreams nightclub and the controversial Biosphere II in Arizona. Robert Bass has his own separate wide-ranging investments, and he and his wife, Anne T. Bass, are keenly interested in human service issues, They are deeply involved in historical preservation, both locally and nationally. A former president of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, Bob Bass brought that organization to Tort Worth for its 49th National Preservation Conference last month. The youngest son, Lee, and his wife Ramona have a particular interest in the Fort Worth Zoo. And all the Basses are involved in the latest project Ed Bass is spearheading-the new Nancy Lee and Perry Bass Performing Arts Hall, scheduled to open in early 1998. Dallas may have “The Mort,” but Fort Worth will soon have “The Bass.”

Ed addition, the Sid W. Richardson Foundation, which the Basses control, gives enormous sums of money to the community each year. In 1993, it handed out $14.9 million. Along with the Amon G. Carter Foundation and the Anne Burnett and Charles D. Tandy Foundation, it is one of the Big Three in Fort Worth. (In 1993, the Burnett Tandy Foundation gave $10.5 million and the Carter Foundation gave $8 million.)

All this is why many people in Fort Worth give thanks daily that the Basses have pretty good taste. After all, we could have ended up with a city full of ugly, bland Tandy Centers.

Ten years ago, if you had asked people to pinpoint one Bass brother who would run Fort Worth for the foreseeable future, almost everyone would have pointed to Sid. Almost everyone would have been wrong. The Bass brother who has emerged as the visionary leader is Ed-Ed, the flaky one; Ed, the hippie one; Ed, the arty one. It turns out that Ed also is an astute businessman with good instincts, an eclectic group of friends, and a sense of humor and generosity. On his 50th birthday in mid-September, he surprised friends who had given him a surprise party by announcing that he is giving $6 million to civic and arts organizations with which his family is assodated-a million for every decade of his life, with one to grow on.

If Ed’s bachelor dreams transformed downtown Fort Worth between Throckmorton and Houston, other Bass dreams have transformed other parts of the city. Ramona Bass’ dream has transformed the Fort Worth Zoo. Bob and Anne T. Bass1 dreams for healthy clil-dren caused them to be the leading force in building the new Cook-Fort Worth Children’s Medical Center in 1989. The dansant dreams of Anne H. Bass, Sid’s first wife, transformed the Fort Worth Ballet in the early 1980s. And as early as 1980, Sid Bass’ discussions about Sundance Square included dreams of a downtown symphony hall.

This dream was temporarily delayed when Bob Bass became convinced that the perfect place for a new symphony hall already existed in the Will Rogers Memorial Auditorium in the Cultural Distria. The art deco auditorium was built in the Depression, but had deteriorated badly, Bob Bass believed thai putting the symphony hall there would not only provide a great new performing arts venue, but also save part of the city’s heritage. An elaborate public planning process was set up, The result was a bond issue in which the taxpayers would put up $20 million to be matched by $30 million in private dollars. It was resoundingly defeated in July 1990, because of long-festering resentments about tax dollars being used to subsidize projects seen as benefiting only the most affluent of the city.

But billionaires’ dreams rarely die. So it was no surprise to anyone when, nearly five years later, plans were announced lor a new Fort Worth Performing Arts Center within walking distance of Sundance Square. Only this time, Sid, Ed, and Lee clearly had learned a lesson from Bob’s experience. This hall is to be built entirely with private money-$60 million worth of private money, with Ed Bass heading up the fund-raising effort.

Ed Bass’ dream of how a library should look is responsible for the classically styled building covering the downtown Fort Worth Public Library, which was built underground in the early 1970s and had leaked ever since. It is adjacent to the area of downtown being most heavily affected by the Bass developments. In 1992. looking for an affordable solution to the leakage problem, Mayor Kay Granger invited Ed Bass in for consultation. He provided a design and helped raise the money to build the shell, but it was up to the city to furnish it. It remains entirely empty. It’s essentially a very expensive umbrella. But it looks so good next to all those Bass buildings.

Mayor Granger saw inviting Ed Bass in as a sensible use of a valuable city resource. But this is one more reason why. these days, if you ask who runs Fort Worth, the first name on everyone’s lips is Ed Bass. The second name is die Basses’ attorney, Dee Kelly.

Of course it’s a tremendous resource to have four billionaires in your city who care about it and want to do good things,” Kelly says matter of factly. Add the fact that the Bass “boys” have inherited their great-uncles well-developed work ethic, and you’ve got a source of tremendous power and influence. Ed Bass is not above walking the muddy grounds of some public-private construction project with a City Council member as they discuss problems that have cropped up. When asked by a city official for help, he shows up himself, instead of sending some assistant.

Kelly is unabashedly frank about his power and influence, and very-realistic about the source of that power.

“1 represent the Basses, the city of Fort Worth, American Airlines, die airport. I’ve been around a long time. I have connections, both politically and financially, not only here, but in Austin and. Washington, I can get to the people who can gel things done,” he says, in a very concise description of power. This is a man simply explaining how the world works. He’s a “gatekeeper.”

In Kelly’s view, in addition to the Basses, there are 25 or 50 other people, nearly all men, who run Fort Worth.

“We all know one another, we trust one another. We know who gets things done. We are accessible, and I think we’re diverse. We’ll help anyone who comes along. We look for good people no mailer their race,” he says.

Ed Bass echoes Kelly’s observation.

“In Fort Worth, we have an unparalleled spirit of cooperation amongst all sectors of our community, and a very good working relationship between our public and private sectors,”’ he says. One key to Fort Worth’ s successful revitalization of its downtown, as he sees it, lies in the success or. public-private partnerships, which combine the efforts of private investors with taxpayer money, in the form of tax abatements, infrastructure, or expenditure of bond money-and sometimes all three.

These work “mostly because we share vision and goals,” Ed Bass says. “We have a good idea of what we want Fort Worth to be, and that, first and foremost, is a good place to live.”

But what Ed Bass, Dee Kelly, Mayor Granger, and other civic leaders see as an unparalleled spirit of cooperation is seen by many neighborhood activists as giving the store away to rich developers. They think the “private” part of the public-private partnerships reaps many more benefits than do the “public” parts.

“I don’t believe taxpayers ought to help private developers,” says City Councilman Chuck Silcox, who represents far west Fort Worth’s District 3. “I voted for Ed’s deal because I thought he’d bring a lot of people downtown who had lots of disposable income, which would bring more businesses in downtown. But generally, if a project is a good project, then that developer should be able to get enough money for it instead of coming to the taxpayers.”

Silcox thinks a not-so-subtle change happened at City Hall during Bob Bolen’s long reign as mayor (1982-1991).

“Bolen started moving from the city manager/council form of government to what I call a quasi-strong mayor system. Kay operates in much the same way,” he says. Silcox isn’t the only person to make this observation. Neighborhood activists see Bob Bolen’s tenure as marked by a precipitous decline in real public participation, a gutting of the City Planning Department, and what is seen as an almost complete capitulation to developers such as the Basses and Ross Perot Jr. They don’t see the Basses demanding such power as much as they see the city leaders simply giving it to them. However, they see Perot as much more heavy-handed.

“I put the Basses and the Perots in two different boats,” Silcox says, in remarks typical of others’ observations. “I think Ed Bass is good for Fort Worth. He’s not demanding, The Perots are more demanding. I don’t think Ed looks at it that way. If he felt the city didn’t want something, or thought it would not be good for the city, I don’t think he’d do it. The Perots wouldn’t care if it was good for Fort Worth or not. All they’d care about is what they want.”

Given that, most people are simply grateful that Ed Bass’ views of how a city should work have been shaped by the works of thinkers and urban visionaries like William H. Whyte and Jane Jacobs. Ed Bass likes to think that Fort Worth is a city Jane Jacobs would love.

“Fort Worth has warmth, friendliness, and quality of life coupled with vitality, sophistication, and other advantages of a true metropolitan city,” he says.

And, he’s very clear that all the pretty buildings in the world are not enough to pull people downtown.

“More than one formula can work in a downtown, but no matter what, downtowns must have a critical mass of people, h is people that make cities work. It is people that make cities sate and interesting and fun.

“We are also very lucky…because our downtown is a workable size. We’re big enough to have a certain critical mass of activities and an audience to draw from. On the other hand, we’re small enough that each thing we do makes a perceptible difference,” he says.

Anything any of the Basses do anywhere in the city has a perceptible impact. How that impact is viewed is determined largely by where one sits on the pyramid of power. And here is a fact that is key to understanding how Fort Worth works: The pyramid itself is invisible to those on the top of it, just as a chair is not visible to the person sitting in it. These people sincerely see leadership in Fort Worth as encouraging and cultivating leadership, nurturing up out of all that diversity. They say they don’t “manage” diversity but “celebrate” it.

“One secret of why Fort Worth works is that we go about long-term planning with a broad base of community interaction. People feel ownership in both the vision and the process, and that makes the planning become reality.” says Ed Bass.

“I think the people run Fort Worth,” says Mayor Kay Granger. “We don’t have a Seventh Street Gang anymore. What we have is that we are really learning that all those smaller pieces matter. This City Council will listen to the League of Neighborhoods on equal status with the Chamber of Commerce, That’s what your interlocking pieces are about.”

“I think there are some well-developed linkages between the variety of communities that make up this city. I think one of the successes that you can point to historically has been a result of the different elements of the community maintaining, cultivating those relationships, those linkages,” says City Councilman Bill Meadows, who represents District 7, within which lie Rivercrest, one of the richest neighborhoods in the city, and Como, one of die least prosperous neighborhoods.

All of these people are telling the truth, as they see it from where they sit. However, the perspective is different for those who are on the lower tiers looking up. Many who don’t live in or work downtown believe the pyramid’s shadow has stunted the growth and vision that have tried to emerge in other parts of town. To these people, it seems as if both elected officials and the press abdicate their responsibilities to the larger public whenever anyone named Bass, Kelly, or Carier walks into the room.

“What I. sense now is a group of people who’ve always had money, who, at the right time, also exercise power. But they try to do it in a way so that the exercising of power is not so obvious,” says Star-Telegram columnist Bob Ray Sanders.

“Right now, the political leadership is responding to business dollars and business powers-with the idea that it’s going to benefit the whole community, unlike in many cities where it’s just to benefit a handful of business people. The political side is going along with what the business community wants.”

In Sanders’ view, this is a fairly benign process. But others disagree. They see a great deal of residual anger and cynicism from all those decades of being shut out that surface almost every rime any of the top-tier families are involved even peripherally in anything involving the city. This, and a very real tear of retaliation, means that what the top-tier sees as an open participatory process is constantly being distorted by a lack of trust and an unwillingness on the part of third-, and often even second-, tier people to speak the truth in public forums.

“The power brokers have evolved a process that is impressive, a process that has the appearance of participation, and even more so, the appearance of some personal stake in the outcome, but it’s illusory,” says one African-American professional who requested anonymity-as did many others-white, African-American and Hispanic-who were interviewed for this story.

“My assessment is that the powers-that-be, whoever they are, who run this city, they have their lieutenants-I don’t mean to paint them in any kind of sinister way, but I believe they are the persons who essentially, and for all practical purposes, write the script for the city.”

But the script doesn’t always get followed, as witness the 1990 Cultural District bond issue. Many people attributed its decisive defeat to the fact that the much-vaunted public planning process was a sham. Community activists had wanted to build satellite performing arts centers that would take the arts out of a Cultural District, widely perceived as a toy of West Side rich people. This would have given tangible evidence that the city really meant what it says about including everyone. But their plan was totally ignored. A second big factor in the Cultural District’s defeat was the lingering rancor over the bitter 1987 zoo fight.

The zoo fight marked perhaps the only-time a Bass family member has thrown his or her weight around in a public forum involving tax dollars. The Fort Worth Zoological Association’s most high-profile member was then and is now Ramona Bass, wife of the youngest Bass brother, Lee. This not only gives the Zoological Association incredible social cachet, it also has had a direct impact on the power it wields. The Zoo Association runs the zoo under contract with the city of Fort Worth, When it came up with a master plan for enlarging the zoo by fencing in more Forest Park acreage, and getting more parking by paving some heavily used public ball fields, a savage fight ensued between the wealthy members of the Zoological Association and the homeowners who live in the neighborhoods surrounding Forest Park.

Everyone knew die fight was over when, in the council chambers after a meeting. Ramona Bass announced to everyone within earshot that either the Zoological Association got what it wanted or “it’s going to be a long time before 1 give anything else to the city of Fort Worth.” This open threat was so shockingly uncharacteristic of usual Bass behavior that visible shivers ran through City Mall, and the most vocal opponents of the arrangement were symbolically crushed. The Zoological Association got, and still gets, everything it wants.

The incontestable fact is that the Fort Worth Zoo is light years better than it was 10 years ago. Another incontestable fact is that this excellence was achieved at the cost of previously open inner-city parkland and an ever-increasing entrance fee. Also left in its wake was a wounded, embittered group of caring, thoughtful people who may never participate in civic affairs again. Many count that cost as much too high. Worst of all. the highly public nature of the 200 tight spread an unhealthy, fearful silence among other people who love Fort Worth every bit as much as do the Basses and the rest of the top-tier families.

A perception exists that these families own or control so much of the city that anyone taking them on and disagreeing with one of their projects is in very real danger of being declared civic poison, or worse, of losing their livelihood. That is especially true in the minority community.

“These folks [second-tier people] have been shrewd enough to come up with these processes that give the appearance of a vested interest in making an impact in this city, in the fabric and evolution of the city,” the African-American professional says.

“But it isn’t happening. The response to single member districts is that ’we’re going to do it but change the rules of the game enough to make sure that even though they are at the table, they won’t have any impact.’ So, sure, since 1977, we have folks sitting on the council who look like me, but so what?”

This professional believes some of the fault is that the African-American community has failed to put its best and brightest in office, and then failed to support those in office in a financial way.

“These people are a check away from poverty-all of us are mortgaged to the hilt. There isn’t any place where anybody works, whether they are self-employed or working for someone else, that these people can’t get to. That sounds so paranoid, but it’s true, because our community is so small. The business community that makes up Fort Worth is such a clique that if a phone call gets made, it’s done. That’s reality. If you start pushing the right buttons, then those people will get cut off.”

As many minorities see it, if a black elected or appointed official pushes for substantive change that will improve quality of life for black people, that person will be “cut off”-denied the financial backing needed to win and hold office. In their view, former state Representative Reby Cary got cut off. Former City Councilman Jim Bagsby got cut off. The minorities who have been embraced most by the top two tiers generally are the people who have been the least challenging and who are seen as having some usefulness to the people on the top two tiers. For example, it is not unusual for minority council candidates’ campaign finance reports filed with the city to show that they’ve raised, say, $8,300: $300 raised in their districts and $8,000 from the Bass PAC, which is controlled by Dee Kelly. White council candidates will get similar sums from the Bass PAC, but generally, it doesn’t represent such a huge proportion of the total as it does for the minority candidates.

That doesn’t mean that the minority council member won’t be able to help the minority community. It just means that helping the minority community isn’t the priority of die powerful top tiers. The proof? Noone in Fort Worth is ever confused about whether they are in a white or a black neighborhood, even if no people are visible, because the contrasts are so stark.

“Until we create an independently supported black institution, a financial safety net, for those black people we’re going to send out to fight the battle, nothing will change. [Dallas County Commissioner] John Wiley Price is able to do what he does because he keeps drawing his paycheck and his constituents keep putting him back in office,” the African-American professional says. “They can’t get him, even though they keep trying. This isn’t new. It takes money. The Basses know that, The reason the Basses are able to do what they do is because they’ve got money.”

But Dee Kelly insists, “The Basses are never bullies. They will never try to force their point of view. They try to persuade, but they will never force,” he says.

“And they are accessible, especially Ed. And if you can’t reach them, you can always reach me.”

Kelly has a point. Ed Bass, especially, tries to make his case, tries to persuade people with facts and figures and architectural renderings illustrating his dreams. But in the end, one hard truth remains. It’s his dream, not theirs.

Even so, the people in Fort Worth who know and care who runs Fort Worth-and an astonishingly large number don’t-seem to have generally positive feelings about the Basses. Not only have they helped make Fort Worth a comfortable city in which to live, they also are an endless source of specula tion and entertaining conversation, in which everyone can become social and architectural critics, And unlike some rich families in some cities, the Basses don’t embarrass Fort Worth. After all, many point out, the city could have had a family of rich eccentrics burying Cadillacs nose down in Main Street.

The fact is, every city has powerful rich people. Fort Worth’s rich people just happen to be among the richest in the world. So, given that the Basses are too rich for anyone to effectively take on, most people in Fort Worth are just thankful they are benevolent rulers.

Is this healthy? Probably not.

Is it realistic? Certainly.

Will it ever change? In your dreams.

Related Articles

Arts & Entertainment

Here’s Your Opinionated Guide to the Dallas Symphony’s Upcoming Season

The Dallas Symphony Orchestra just revealed its new season. There are plenty of big booming shows, but also more reflective options, too.

D Magazine’s 50 Greatest Stories: The Greatest Bowling Story Ever Told

There is a good chance you won't read anything better this week than "The Most Amazing Bowling Story Ever."
Local News

A Dismal Snapshot of the First Three Days of Early Primary Voting

Fewer than 2 percent of Dallas County's registered voters have cast early primary ballots. Early voting ends on March 1.