Why the Observer Stinks

photo by Joshua Martin

Even if you haven’t read the Dallas Observer since back when Laura Miller was its star columnist, the paper has been an important voice in the discussion about Dallas. Especially in the debate over the Trinity River Corridor Project, the Observer has made useful contributions. The city was a better place for the paper’s watchdoggery.

All that changed in September. In the space of one week, the Observer committed two offenses that call into question whether the paper has anything of worth left to say. And these transgressions don’t merely raise pointy-headed concerns over how journalism is practiced; we’re talking about actions that could actually diminish the city.

 Let’s put a face on it: Jim Schutze. The Observer’s city columnist is a talented writer, dogged reporter, and, from all accounts, devoted father. Space prevents a full listing of his awards and professional accomplishments, but it should suffice to say that D Magazine once named him the city’s best muckraker. Now, though, it appears he has come unhinged.

In the conclusion to a column about why the Trinity Project is in trouble and how the toll road there will never get built, he wrote the following: “But the really important fact, embedded in all of this, is that we have idiots steering the ship.”

Think about that statement. Schutze didn’t write those words in a blog post, something hurriedly tossed out to the electronic ether before he ran off to yoga class. No, he wrote that in his column, in the paper. He had time to consider his words. He’s a writer. Presumably he had access to a thesaurus. And Schutze decided that the most important fact in the debate over the Trinity is that idiots are working on the project. And then, even worse, his editor(s) read that and let it stand.

Anyone in this city who has met the people working on the Trinity Project knows they’re not idiots. Their most vocal critics would not use that word to describe them. The names that jump to mind—Gail Thomas at the Trinity Trust; Rebecca Dugger, Theresa O’Donnell, and Mary Suhm at City Hall; Michael Morris at the North Central Texas Council of Governments—these people are not idiots. These are intelligent, caring people. Now, they might be intelligent, caring people who are wrong. The Trinity Project might drown everyone in Dallas, as Schutze says it will. But if that happens, it won’t be because the people working on it are idiots.

I think if you write that—if you call these people idiots—you’ve demonstrated something worse than a bias. Call it bigotry. You’ve shown that you have a closed mind and contempt for people who disagree with you. And you’re lazy. Because, come on, idiot?

That was the first transgression. The second happened just a few days later, after the Trinity Trust unveiled to the media a scale model of the entire project. On the Observer’s blog, Unfair Park, Robert Wilonsky summed up the paper’s take on it thusly: “We’ve just posted the slide show from Sam [Merten]’s trip to the Trinity Trust, where they unveiled the world’s most expensive and incomplete model in the history of glue. Seriously, after spending half a million dollars and taking two years, they couldn’t debut a finished model? What’s the rush? Somebody? Anybody?”

(Full disclosure: while I’ve only eaten lunch once with Jim Schutze, I regularly play cards with Robert Wilonsky and consider him a friend.)

Here’s why that post was telling: the Observer, as an organization, can’t even appreciate what is clearly a work of art. Forget the politically charged issue about the river and the road. Ignore whether the model depicts what we’ll one day see in earth and water and trees and concrete. We’re just talking about its craftsmanship. In that discussion, the Observer has shown it is blind to beauty. That’s a sad condition, worse than idiocy.

Susie and Charles Kendrick, the husband-and-wife team who built the model, are among the best on the planet at what they do. And their Trinity Project model is so complicated, so ornate, that it’s hard to get your head around.

It features more than 43,000 feet of fiber optics to light up street lamps and buildings. One building itself, Renaissance Tower, just 6 inches tall, houses 650 feet of fiber optics. Charles said at the unveiling that it was important to him that people who live near the Trinity can come see the model and locate their house on it. That way, the mammoth project can be brought down to a personal level. To create that intimacy, he built 40,000 houses into the model, each about the size of a penny, with the footprint and roof line and color of every house an exact miniature replica of the real thing. And since Google couldn’t give him the detail and data he required, Charles drove every street in the area, photographing the buildings himself. Then he had to build computers to store all that data—not just the houses but the buildings downtown, the bridges, the river, the entire topography.

I asked him if he had more than a terabyte of data, the biggest unit of memory I’d heard of. That’s 1,000 gigabytes. He said, “Oh, more than that. At one point, I thought it would be cool to keep track of stuff like that. But it got to be too much.”

A few weeks before the unveiling, Charles and Susie realized they were more than a few weeks away from being finished. They worked 20-hour days, seven days a week, up to their deadline. And, no, they didn’t entirely finish it. As you’re reading this, the Kendricks are probably down there in the Design District, working on it right now.

And it didn’t cost $500,000. Charles himself was surprised when he heard that figure. A private firm, Alon USA, paid for $275,000 of it. The fiber optics weren’t part of the original plans, which inflated the cost a bit. In the end, the Kendricks will be paid just north of $300,000—on top of which they’ve donated $100,000 worth of their own time. For their efforts, they were ridiculed.

Which brings us to how these transgressions by the Observer wind up hurting the city. Do you know why Charles Kendrick took on this project in the first place? He works with high-paying private developers all over the country. So why take on a messy public project? Because he’s on the Observer’s side. He wanted to get the Trinity Project all laid out for everyone to see, so there can be no disagreement over, say, the relation of the road to the park. The footprint of that controversial toll road? “It’s dead freakin’ nuts accurate,” Charles says. “That’s why I’m doing it. I’m holding people’s feet to the fire. And the city knows that, too, because I made them nervous when I asked for all the road information. I’m not going to show a lie.”

Now, because of the Observer, he’ll probably never take on another public project. “There are so many people out there who want to contribute to the Trinity Project,” he says, “and they’re just killing it, which is what sucks the most.”

The model, by the way, besides holding feet to fire, will be used to raise private donations for the unfunded parts of the project. Gail Thomas at the Trinity Trust says that watching Bill Lively raise money for the Dallas Center for the Performing Arts convinced her she needed a model. Lively was inspired to use models after he saw the way Ross Perot Jr. marketed Victory. I asked Lively whether there had been a donor he could recall—no naming names—who was reluctant to give but who then gave after seeing the models. He said he couldn’t name names because there were too many to remember. They raised $67 million last year.

“It’s foolhardy to say that the Trinity model cost too much,” he says. “The return on that money will be manifold. Anyone who doesn’t appreciate that model doesn’t understand a project of this magnitude.”

Which is a polite way of calling someone an id— No. That wouldn’t be right.

Write to [email protected].


Keep me up to date on the latest happenings and all that D Magazine has to offer.