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SUBURBS Arlington: There Really Is a There There

The city’s best asset-its location-is the very thing that’s kept it from having an identity. Until now.

“WE’RE nobody’s damn suburb,” MU Richard Greene likes to snarl It isa common enough refrain for the mayor of Arlington that it may end up gracing his tombstone one day.

In more patient moods, Greene explains that, rather than a suburb, Arlington is Texas’ seventh largest city, a very complete city of 100 square miles and 287,000 people-a city in which phenomenal growth has taken place since 1950, when the city had 4 square miles and 7,800 people. He might add that, with General Motors, the University of Texas-Arlington and the Great Southwest Industrial Park, about as many people come in to work in Aldington as go out every day. That with the Texas Rangers having their best start ever and Six Flags Over Texas celebrating its 35th anniversary, a record 7 million visitors are expected to come play in Arlington this summer. That Arlington is second only to Collin County as the fastest-growing part of the Dallas-Fort Worth area. That growth in south-cast Arlington has been so explosive recently that the addition of two new zip codes has been proposed for the area south of Interstate 20, where formerly sleepy Mansfield is itself becoming a suburb of Arlington.

Another sign of the boom: Now that The Dalian Morning News-owned Arlington Morning News has increased distribution from five to seven days a week, and the Fort Worth Star-Telegram’s Arlington edition has become the Arlington Star-Telegram, Arlington is the largest Texas city that has two competing daily newspapers.

The newspaper war that started this past spring with the launch of the Arlington Morning News in direct competition with the Star-Telegram’s Arlington edition has had folks around the Dallas-Fort Worth area wondering, “why Arlington?” And while Mayor Greene says that “the papers are more involved than the general public” in the newspaper war, he knows why this is happening in his city. “Arlington’s biggest asset is its location,” he says, “but it’s denied us an identity.” Yet he then describes Arlington’s identity perfectly: Arlington is about the ” art of the possible-recognize your limitations and move on,” he says.

If suburbness is defined by a city’s relation to the other, bigger cities around it, then Arlington is the mother of all suburbs. Trace it in the history: In north Arlington, just north of where the luxury Lakes of Arlington subdivision is being started, was the 1840s site of the first non-Indian settlement in Tarrant County. Bird’s Fort lasted almost a decade- until some upstart named John Neely Bryan came and sweet-talked everyone there into, basically, commuting to his new settlement a little to the east-Dallas.

The population center of Arlington seemed to pick up and move itself every few decades or so to the place where there was action linking Dallas and Fort Worth-again, the art of the possible. In the early part of the century, the lnterurban train that linked Dallas and Fort Worth came through central Arlington and the mineral well in the center of town drew many visitors; later, the growth along U.S. Highway 80 kept downtown Arlington vital. Downtown began drying up and the well was permanently capped when the opening of the D/FW Turnpike, now Interstate 30, shifted attention and development to north Arlington in the 1950s; the fact that the turnpike was a toll road kept development there to a slower pace than it might have been and, some say, set the stage for growth to the south, as Interstate 20 was built.

Arlington was able to take advantage of these opportunities thanks to both luck and the vision of one man, Tom Vandergriff, who served Arlington as mayor for 13 terms-from 1951 to 1977–and as a congressman for one term in 1982-83. Now 70, he’s the Tarrant County Commissioners Court judge.

Tom Vandergriff grew up in Arlington and then went to the University of Southern California in Anaheim in the late 1940s to study broadcasting; when he speaks, you can still hear in his mellow bass voice the reason why. But Anaheim itself fascinated young Tom Vandergriff more than broadcasting did. It was there that Vandergriff first had The Vision:

“Anaheim was beginning to emerge, to explode as one of L.A.’s premier suburbs,” Vandergriff recalls, and he felt that Arlington, too, with its location between Dallas and Fort Worth, could have that kind of growth. After losing a broadcasting audition to a young Chet Huntley, Vandergriff came home to work at his fathers business. Vandergriff Chevrolet, and to make Arlington grow like Anaheim.

For the vision to become reality, Arlington would need a major employer and more square miles, an amusement park like Disneyland, and a major league baseball team like the California Angels. Through his father’s business Vandergriff became aware that GM was looking for a site for a major factory. GM purchased its Arlington factory site in 1951, the year 25-year-old Vandergriff first became mayor. The rest fell into place, he recalls, the rest being the land (“in those days, if you felt you were big enough to say grace over it, you could annex it ” ), the amusement park (he basically talked Angus G. Wynne Jr., developer of the nearby Great Southwest Industrial Park, into creating Six Flags Over Texas, after unsuccessfully trying to get Walt Disney himself interested in Arlington), and the baseball team {“it had to be baseball, a summer sport to go with the amusement park”).

Part of the Vandergriff vision was a decentralized Arlington, with discrete areas where people who likely worked elsewhere would shop, live and play. That explains several curiosities about Arlington’s high-growth years, such as why there was no push to build roads that would connect different parts of the city, why there’s no public transportation, and why the old downtown was replaced by faceless city and county government buildings.

But, ironically, what long has kept Arlington from having a central identity is now working in its favor. Mayor Greene sees his role as a dual one: to attend to services like police, sewers and traffic, even in the face of extraordinary growth, and “to seize once-in-a-lifetime opportunities to advance.” Now both providing services and seizing opportunities have actually resulted in a slow, steady push toward developing a central “identity” for Arlington. Getting the spiffy new Ballpark In Arlington funded and built, thus keeping the Rangers in town, could have qualified in either category. Public transportation, says Greene, will be a must; the city has made small steps in that direction by starting a trolley service for tourists staying at the entertainment district hotels.

So what about a downtown? Plans are afoot to add more park space, close off some streets, uncap the old mineral well, and add small retail shops that would bring foot traffic and psychologically and physically link together the Arlington Museum of Art, the central Arlington businesses-largely city offices and financial institutions-and the University of Texas-Arlington. Both Greene and Vander-griff say they think some kind of downtown revitalization will happen, though they say it will require private funding by the area’s employers.

One of downtown’s biggest supporters is Joan Davidow, head of the Arlington Museum of Art. She fits right into the Arlington can-do philosophy: In five years she has tripled the museum’s budget and brought it national attention. Arlington needs a downtown, she says, because “downtown is the heart of Arlington and downtown Arlington is the heart of the Metroplex.”

So back to location again. Physically, Arlington maybe the heart of the area, but it also has a large and demographically valuable population which has not been well served by major media intent on covering Dallas first and then maybe Fort Worth. So now the Fort Worth and Dallas newspapers have come to town to engage in the ’90s version of the newspaper war-the battle for outlying territory.

Star-Telegram Arlington editor Gary Hardee, a veteran of the H era Id-News war on the Herald side, keeps on his desk a fatigue helmet with Mickey Mouse-style ears attached. (In a way, Tom Vandergriff got his wish for Disney to come to Arlington last year when Disney bought Capital Cities/ABC Inc., owner of the Star-Telegram.) Hardee believes the ultimate goal of the Arlington Morning News, with its distribution as part of The Dallas Morning News, is to “drive circulation to The Dallas Morning News,” while his paper “covers the hell out of Arlington and the surrounding communities.” Arlington Morning News editor and publisher Gary Jacobson acknowledges that the-Star-Telegram, having established its Arlington edition four years ago, is strong competition but says that his paper will cover Arlington with the thoroughness associated with The Dallas Morning News.

The News has largely ignored Tarrant County over the years, but it has not escaped their attention that “54 percent of the Star-Telegram’s circulation is now in eastern Tarrant County,” as Hardee says. This spring The News also launched a Northeast Tarrant County section to compete with the Star-Telegram’s Northeast Tarrant County edition.

And of course Mayor Greene has figured out the opportunity for Arlington in this one. Said he in April, ” the only thing they [the Star-Telegram] haven’t done is change the name, which we think they’re gonna do.”

Sure enough, by May the name “Fort Worth” had been removed from the Star-Telegram’s Arlington office building. By July 1, the Arlington Morning News had upped its distribution to seven days a week. On July 4, the Star-Telegram declared “Independence Day” for Arlington and rolled out the Arlington Star-Telegram. The suburb that a few months previously had no dally paper of its own suddenly became a city that had two.

Perhaps now all Arlington needs to lock in a sense of its own identity is to host some World Scries games-and there are those who think even that is possible this year.