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How Dallas Became Big D

A new book takes a bleak view of our city. I’ll try not to insult its author.
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Harvey J. Graff has set out to deconstruct the Dallas myth. Graff, formerly of UT Dallas and now at Ohio State University, has written about Dallas intermittently for years, and he has thought long and hard about the city. One wishes that he had thought longer and harder.

Graff seems peeved that Dallas cares so little for its history.
photography by John Gay

In his book The Dallas Myth, Graff divides the titular myth into two parts: the city’s insistence that its horizons are unlimited, and its belief that, unlike cities on coasts or inland waterways, Dallas has no reason to exist. To debunk the founding legend, he tells us that the three forks of the Trinity were a natural place for a settlement. As for the city’s growth, he tells us that the city’s central location in the continental United States was a huge plus.

Here we are left with a problem, which Graff can’t quite bring himself to address. Granted, this is a natural place for a little town like Sherman or Greenville or Waco. But how did it become Dallas?

Myths explain things. Our myth is that Dallas was created—became “Big D”—out of sheer will. Graff doesn’t like that myth, but in 269 pages he presents nothing to contradict it, so he ends up contradicting himself. He finds Dallas exceptionalism annoying, but then finds himself conceding that Dallas is “different” and “truly exceptional.” Finally, he seems to give up: “More than most places, I argue, Dallas is an invention, an imagined environment, mythologized and promoted in singular images.” If that’s his argument, he should have just sent an e-mail. Shorn of the academic argot, that’s the very story we’ve been telling ourselves for 150 years.
But if that’s his only point, who needs this book? As it turns out, Graff has a few others things to get off his chest. He tells us he had to buy his first car when he moved here. “Both on the ground and in the imagination, Dallas is peculiarly fragmented and disorienting,” he writes. From that I deduce, he got lost a lot. He has my sympathy.

He also seems peeved that Dallas cares so little for its history. I admit it can be a little unsettling. R.L. Thornton once said, “Dallas doesn’t give a damn about history; it only cares about the future.” The unsettling thing is, he made this grand pronouncement in a presentation on why Dallas should be the site of the Texas Centennial Exposition of 1936, celebrating—of course—Texas history. Graff doesn’t tell that story, and I hope he doesn’t know it. I think it would make his teeth grind.

Graff chides us for being “one of the most spatially segregated cities in the United States, with large disparities in income and other indicators of class position … .” True that is, almost soul-crushingly true, but Census data show it is less true than when Graff was here and is becoming less true every day.

In fact, much of what Graff writes is less true today than when he seems to have observed it. He calls Dallas, for example, “a disintegrating city.” Does Dallas seem to be disintegrating to you? His subtitle is “The Making and Unmaking of an American City.” Are we being unmade? This is a book that could have been written years ago, and often seems that it was. Did Graff make a last visit here before dusting off his notes and sticking them in a book?

I don’t blame poor professor Graff. He says at one point, “Dallas is difficult to read and almost impossible to grasp.” It seems he came to deconstruct Dallas and left bewildered by it. I can’t help but take a certain perverse pleasure in that.

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