From the Publisher History’s Gift

How an ancient Athenian helped make modern Dallas.

In September we will celebrate D Magazine’s 25th anniversary with a special edition, The Making of Modern Dallas. Looking back over those 25 years, one development stands out in importance: DFW Airport. Not even counting the $228.5 million in annual revenues and 211,000 jobs it has generated, the airport has brought countless corporate relocations and stimulated more than 120,000 new housing units in the past four years alone. All that is well known. But it may come as a surprise to learn that our very modern airport has very ancient roots. Its origin can be traced to a young nobleman in Athens 2,500 years ago. The story reminds us of how cities, including our own, are built.

In 481 B.C., a huge new vein of silver ore was discovered in mines owned by Athens. When the extent of the discovery became known, the city rejoiced in its new wealth, and a proposal was immediately put forward in the Assembly to distribute the treasure among the citizens. The proposal was about to be enacted when a young man named Themistocles rose in opposition. Themistocles argued cogently that to disburse this newfound wealth would be to dissipate it. Athens would never be anything but a second-class city until it invested the money necessary to dredge and enlarge its small harbor at Piraeus and thereby transform itself into a maritime power.

Even at that moment, the young Athenian warned, Xerxes of Persia was known to be gathering shipbuilders and materials from all over his wide-flung empire. All that stood between Xerxes and world domination was Athens. For what other purpose was he building a fleet than to attack Athens by sea? Now was the time, and here was the money. To save itself, Athens must invest. As Themistocles sat down, the Assembly voted to reverse itself. The biggest public works project in its history was launched.

Only two years later die Athenians’ investment paid off. When Xerxes did indeed attack, waiting for him were the 200 new warships of the Athenian fleet. The Greek fleet destroyed the Persians at the Battle of Salamis, in what naval historians still regard as one of the greatest sea battles ever fought. Because of its enlarged harbor, Athens would remain one of the great maritime powers of the ancient world, and to this day Greek shipping companies dominate the world’s trade.

When Erik Jonsson became mayor of Dallas in 1964, he knew nothing about building cities. He had spent his life building Texas Instruments. But he had a large mind and the capacity to learn. If Dallas were to join the ranks of the world’s great cities, he decided, the first requirement was to understand what made cities great.

With a team of city planners and architects, he toured London, Paris, and a half-dozen other cities, finally visiting Athens. One evening on a balcony overlooking the harbor at Athens, he watched the barges going to and fro and looked out at the lights of the great ships anchored in the distance. Looking over that harbor, he understood what all great cities he had seen held in common: a port. At that moment, in Erik Jonsson’s mind, DFW Airport was born.

And at that moment, Erik Jonsson was looking down on the port built by our old friend Themistocles. It was true in his time, and it is true in our time: Cities are built on big ideas.


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