Thursday, May 23, 2024 May 23, 2024
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The Wussification of Dallas

We used to have fun here. We used to smoke and gamble and ride our bicycles without using our hands. Then, for some reason, we decided to make everything illegal.


illustrations by Artman


Don’t smoke. Not even in bars. Because you might ruin the health of those bar-hoppers who are there to get a cardio workout. Take those stickers off your window. No dogs allowed. Put on your bike helmet. Put down that toy gun. You are under surveillance. Hang up that cell phone. Don’t touch. Don’t walk. Don’t run. No horseplay. Tear down that dangerous playground equipment. Fireworks? High-dive boards? Are you kidding? It’s the crazy minutiae of it all that gets you. You end up breaking the law without even knowing it.

SAINTS AND SINNERS: Dallas used to have enough room for Sheriff Dan Harston (with noose), Benny Binion (in handcuffs below), and everyone in between.
photography courtesy of Dallas Public Library

This is not the original spirit of Dallas, the “money and attitude” city once seen by the world as the home of wheeler-dealers who play no-limit poker and practice no-limit commerce with equal abandon, and for whom a three-martini lunch is for days on the wagon. This is Big D, for heaven’s sake, not the People’s Republic of San Francisco. Oh, it’s true Dallas always had its share of Bluenose Brigadiers. Sheriff Dan Harston was busting up stills years before Eliot Ness ever set foot in Chicago. There’s a reason, if not a good rationale, for the gerrymandered crazy quilt of Sunday blue laws we still suffer, and why certain anatomically correct sexual aids have to be sold as “novelty cake toppers.” But if most people in Dallas were saints on Sunday morning, they were sinners the other six. Or is that image of Dallas all just a bunch of hype, a holdover from the TV version of Dallas?

Well, yes and no. And yes. Dallas is a city built around a number of myths and legends. But they are our myths and legends, and to this day they inform how we think of ourselves.

 Dallas is the city of the infamous Frogtown brothels, which stood on the site of today’s American Airlines Center and Victory Plaza. Some of our most influential citizens made their bones winning oil leases in poker games at the Baker Hotel. Lester “Benny” Binion ran a casino and a numbers racket out of the Southland Hotel in the 1930s, all with the silent, paid-for approval of the city’s leadership. This is the brassy city of notorious card sharp Titanic Thompson, operators like R.L. Thornton, and booze-besotted and brawling newsmen like Wilford “Pitchfork” Smith.

In truth, Dallas was Las Vegas before there was a Las Vegas. The Top O’ Hill Terrace casino in Arlington was the most notorious gambling house around in the 1930s and 1940s. In its heyday, the literally underground casino—it was a 6,000-square-foot basement—attracted such luminaries as H.L. Hunt, Clark Gable, Hedy Lamarr, Mae West, John Wayne, Frank Sinatra, Ginger Rogers, and even Bugsy Siegel.

Yet paradoxically, and increasingly, one finds that Dallas is also the city of encroaching laws and regulations. Dallas has banned brandishing toy guns. It has prohibited pocket bikes on the streets. It has outlawed any contact between a cabaret dancer and a customer. Surveillance cameras keep vigil over downtown, just like George Orwell’s Airstrip One. It’s gotten so weird that in 2007, Deputy Mayor Pro Tem Dwaine Caraway considered proposing a law to criminalize teens who run around with their boxers showing. (Instead, he settled on launching a media campaign that included billboards, a truly awful rap song on urban radio stations, and his appearance on Dr. Phil.) As for that great Dallas pastime of poker, 2006 and 2007 were banner years for Dallas SWAT, which staged paramilitary raids on dangerous underground poker houses such as Dallas VFW Post 1837, mainly for the benefit of A&E’s Dallas SWAT reality show, with the bonus of tens of thousands in cash seized.


There’s no one villain to blame for this state of affairs. In Chicago, they have Richard Daley. In New York, it’s Michael Bloomberg. In those cities, the practice of treating adults like children can be traced straight to the mayor’s office. If that were the case here, fixing the problem would be easy. Throw the bum out, and it’s all over. But what’s happening in Dallas is all the more troublesome since it’s rising in little, separate springs, threatening to water down the wild spirit and self-image to which we cling. The hard edges are being rounded, softened, and fitted with child safety bumpers.

So how did Dallas become the town of, well, if not Big Brother then certainly Big Mother?

A few theories: the restructuring of the City Council in 1991 (from at-large representation to 14 districts) made it easier for council members to trade favors and support for initiatives that focused on their own fiefdoms, instead of focusing on Dallas as a whole. This paved the way for the creeping growth of municipal rules, regulations, and codes. One could argue that the influx of new arrivals has brought new ideas about the proper role of city government right here at home (though Dallas has always been a city of immigrants from all compass points going back to its first days). Then, of course, you can never underestimate Dallas’ desire to be a “world-class city”—as often as not, a code phrase for aping whatever trendy initiatives have taken root in New York, Boston, Los Angeles, and Chicago. Finally, the idea has taken hold not just in Dallas but everywhere in America that every good idea ought to be a law. Ultimately, there’s no clear point of origin for this streak of paternalism, nor can you pin down any watershed moment. It’s been death by a thousand paper cuts.

Take the city’s smoking ban, passed in 2003. It wasn’t outrageous. It wasn’t wholly unprecedented. But that initial ban set a precedent for the latest draconian ban on smoking, which targets bars, of all places. And pool halls! (The council even debated outlawing smoking in private residences if children are present. Yes, they considered outlawing smoking in your own home.)

In the early years of her administration, former Mayor Laura Miller made prohibiting smoking in restaurants a centerpiece of her agenda. (Plano was years ahead of Dallas in banning the evil plant.) The argument went like this: it’s a public health issue, no different than ensuring that restaurants store food at safe temperatures. And, aiming for the voters’ pocketbook, Miller added that smoking was a financial issue, since smoking-related illnesses cost city taxpayers by way of city funding for, among other places, Parkland Hospital. So smoking was banned in most eateries. Miller’s successor, Mayor Tom Leppert, championed the new ban on smoking in all bars for those very same reasons. On April 10, the law will go into effect.

Both bans and the reasons behind them sound nice on the surface, but they can’t bear the weight of thoughtful consideration. Leave aside the argument that restaurant and bar owners know best what their customers want and that it’s their property anyway and that no one forces people to go to a smoky restaurant or bar. No, just take the anti-smoker justifications at face value: the ban is about public health and public health costs.

“It doesn’t make sense,” says Jacob Sullum, a Dallas-based senior editor for the libertarian-oriented Reason magazine. His position is that cities like Dallas, far more than state and federal governments, trod on the individual rights of Americans and claim to do so for their own good. It’s all bad logic and circular reasoning, Sullum says. “If it were really a health care cost issue, then two things. One, they should look at prohibiting serving fattening foods, since obesity is more of a costly health care issue than smoking.” More than three-quarters of Americans are overweight. Almost half qualify as morbidly obese by government standards. “And it’s a cold way to look at it, but smokers actually reduce health care costs because they tend to die younger,” Sullum says over a lunchtime beer at Luna de Noche. (Which is something else rarely seen anymore in the neo-Prohibitionist chill that has descended on Dallas.) “Besides, the second point is there are a lot of other dangerous activities that cities would never think to prohibit, but they go after smoking because it is unpopular.”

The goal, he says, is not to protect patrons who don’t want to breathe unhealthy smoke when they’re drinking beer and eating deep-fried chicken wings. No, the goal is to encourage smokers to quit. A noble goal, perhaps, but is that really a city government’s responsibility?

photography courtesy of Dallas Morning News

Mayor Leppert seems to think so. Leppert says that he approaches every issue with the idea of individual rights first and foremost in mind. But on the smoking ban issue, the right of the public to a smoke-free night of drinking trumps the rights of the person who invests his time and money to build and operate the place where patrons can spend the evening drinking. “Philosophically I want to keep government out of as much as I can and rely on the private sector,” the former construction CEO says. “But this is a public health issue, and not everyone has the choice we think they do about where they work or where they go out.”

And that’s the snowball. A good intention begets an idea that’s arguably good, and it just rolls from there.

“It’s always a slippery slope,” Sullum says. “What’s reductio ad absurdum now is the rationale a decade later.”

He notes that when the war on Big Tobacco really got under way in the early 1990s, opponents joked that next the health watchers would go after Big Fast Food. Today, New York City and Chicago ban transfats. There have been serious proposals for a junk food tax at the state and national levels. The Los Angeles City Council recently banned any new fast food restaurants in South Central Los Angeles. This little bit of motherly overreach hasn’t grabbed North Texas, but it’s only a matter of time.


We’ve seen a deluge of these kinds of—oh, call them “nanny state laws” if you’re a cynic, “quality of life” laws if you’re otherwise inclined—in the past decade, and every year, it seems, more and more get proposed. The effect is cumulative. Take a look at just three of the laws and their enforcement in the time period covering July 1 through October 1, 2008:

Four citations for violating the city’s smoking ban.

About 400 citations for violating the law that requires bicyclists to wear helmets.

Just under 500 citations for people using cell phones in school zones. (Keep in mind that school only started in September, so that’s about 500 in a seven-week period.)

Cops and code enforcement have nothing better to do? In Dallas?

Let’s concede that smoking is an issue that can affect more than the smoker or the business owner. But what about bicycle helmet laws for adults? How can that possibly affect anyone else? Yet there it is in the City Code, Section 9-8: “A person commits an offense if he operates or rides upon a bicycle or any side car, trailer, child carrier, seat, or other device attached to a bicycle without wearing a helmet.”

The roughly 400 riders who did so operate or ride upon such devices in Dallas between July and October 2008 got popped with no-helmet tickets that cost between $74 and $135. Then it gets even weirder. Dallas City Code, Section 9-3 says you can’t even take your hands off the handlebars, or race a friend, if you’re on the street. What else are bikes for?


MAYOR, MAY I? Mayor Laura Miller started the battle against local smokers in the early years of her administration, banning cigarettes and cigars from restaurants. When Mayor Tom Leppert took over, he extended the ban to bars and pool halls.
photography by Dan Sellers

A new law took effect last year that prohibits convenience stores from having more than 20 percent of their windows covered by ads, especially around the area with the cash register. At first, supporters of the ordinance said such ads, usually in the form of stickers, created visual blight. Then they played the crime card, noting that there are 6,000 calls to the police a year from convenience stores, 1,000 of which are for serious crimes like robbery and assault. The second point might be debatable, and no one would argue that crime prevention is outside the city’s proper purview.

The author of the convenience store rules, Deputy Mayor Pro Tem Dwaine Caraway—Mr. Pull Up Your Pants himself—says he has spoken to owners who are happy about the new regulation. “They say when they pulled the ads off, their employees said they felt safer and it looked nicer,” he says.

Which left me wondering why store owners couldn’t have pulled the ads in the first place, without the law compelling them to do it. I pressed Caraway about why the law was needed, and, surprisingly, he didn’t use the crime prevention justification.

“When you have a house, and the house has to be cleaned, you may make the bed, but is the room clean if you have socks, underwear, ties, towels, and paper on the floor?” he says. “These little things like picking up socks—or taking signs off the windows—those things make for one clean, vibrant community. It may be small to some, but it’s great to us. You don’t see any of those stores in the north with all those signs all over the windows. How many signs do you see at Simon David? If these people are truly concerned about advertising, they’d do what Wal-Mart does and advertise in the Dallas Morning News or put them in sales flyers that go out in the community.” 

And so now the city is in the small-business advertising consulting game, too. 


Among the myriad problems with these kinds of paternalistic laws is that they are generally so unenforceable—except those that are cash cows. The slipperiness of the paternalistic laws creates a contempt for legitimate laws, and it burdens the system with paperwork that doesn’t get resolved. Half a million class C misdemeanor citations were written in the 2006–2007 fiscal year for picayune things like panhandling, jaywalking, and the like; more than half of those are in warrant status. The city spends time and money fining and even incarcerating people for “crimes” that present a danger to the offender and no one else. Given how many violent crimes are committed every year in Dallas, enacting paternalistic laws raises the question of priorities.

Too many laws also make it hard to keep up with what’s prohibited and what’s mandatory, especially when they’re laws that address problems that don’t exist. How many people actually know it’s illegal to give your own money to a panhandler after dark? How many know you can’t give food to homeless people without a permit and health inspections? Okay, again, we’re in the area of legitimate public safety concerns with these. So how about this one: who knew that contact with a dancer at a strip club is illegal? No one who’s been to a strip club, that’s who.

In 2006, when the Dallas City Council was debating installing red-light cameras, Councilman Steve Salazar wondered if they couldn’t install cameras that would also capture images of the sidewalks around the intersections. That way, he said, if some other crime was committed, police could use the video evidence. Others on the council wondered if those cameras—and the automated ones used to identify parked cars on city streets that have outstanding tickets—couldn’t also record and store information on the license plates, regardless of whether there had been a violation. Council member Angela Hunt didn’t at all like the line of inquiry, but she lost the fight. While she may have been on the losing side, that doesn’t make it the wrong side.

“I trust [Police Chief David] Kunkle to responsibly handle that kind of information, but I don’t know who the next chief or council might be,” she says over lunch at the Capital Grille. “We don’t know who might be surveilling citizens and what they might use that kind of thing for. I wanted to stop that kind of 1984 system in its infancy. They can track the population, and I know that’s not a good thing. It’s disturbing.”

So Dallas has red-light cameras and downtown surveillance cameras (the latter funded by a grant from the Meadows Foundation), despite serious questions about the efficiency (and, as of December 2008, the legality) of either.

“I’m all for public safety, but give me the statistics,” Hunt says. “Give me the facts. Don’t just expect me to go with something because you say it will make it safe.”

The cell phone ban in school zones might not make things safer, but it does make something: the fine for yapping and driving is $259. Between the start of the DISD school year in September and October 1, the new law put $130,000 in the city coffers. The Park Cities and most every other North Texas city now have this revenue enhancer in place—an answer to a problem that doesn’t really exist.

I sat through the City Council’s public safety committee meeting in mid-2006 when a group of Southern Sector pastors pleaded to ban the sale of toy guns. They were dangerous, they said, because cops might shoot a kid mistakenly, or, worse, a kid might use a realistic one to commit “armed” robbery. The law that passed, City Code, Section 31-16, says it’s an offense if you display or brandish a replica firearm in any public space within the city. There are a few exceptions for replica collectors, theatrical productions, and such.

Tragically, there are one or two instances a year nationwide of kids getting shot by police while wielding toy guns. Fatal lightning strikes are 35 times more common. But kids have been playing with toy guns since, well, real guns were invented. This problem is much more recent. It raises the politically incorrect question of whether police are too quick to shoot anyone in possession of a firearm. After all, that’s the side of the equation that’s changed.


Dallas was recently ranked 17th on a list of 35 major cities for paternalistic laws, from prohibitions of vices like drinking and smoking to gun laws and health coercion. Not a terrible ranking, until you consider the rugged, free-wheeling self-image we like to cultivate.

Laws, regulations, and bans like these are cropping up all over North Texas, and what’s so annoying is they are almost always for our own good. So they say. No more high-dive boards at Dallas swimming pools. They’re deadly killers, don’t you know. Richardson just took down the cool old rocket ship playground equipment at Heights Park, because the stuff that brought 40 years of fun to kids was deemed “too dangerous.” Dallas has, in recent years, toyed with banning gun shows, foul language, and adult cabarets altogether.

There’s plenty of room for people of goodwill to argue what defines harm to another, and what a city government’s powers ought to be. Public health and quality of life certainly have a place in the debate. But so should choice and individual freedom. After all, if you’re talking about banning someone from doing something that has no effect on anyone but himself—well, whose life is it anyway?

For my part, no matter where I am in North Texas, I’d like a city government that paves the roads, keeps the zoning sane, arrests predatory criminals, supports quality of life through cultural enterprises and parks, but otherwise leaves us alone to do as we please. 

Right now, Dallas has a law (Section 43-5) that prohibits attracting a crowd on sidewalks by talking loudly or acting unusual. This could have come straight out of any mother’s mouth: don’t act like a fool in public, and keep your mouth shut. And pull up your drawers, while you’re at it. Some on the Dallas City Council also want to muzzle people who show up at council meetings to have their voices heard.

Is that how the city views its citizens, as rambunctious children who need to be told how to behave in polite company, perhaps put in time out? Is that a healthy relationship for either governors or governed?

G.K. Chesterton, a man with no connection to Dallas but who one might assume by his role as a leading 20th-century Christian apologist would side more with the modern-day moralists, said: “The free man owns himself. He can damage himself with either eating or drinking; he can ruin himself with gambling. If he does he is certainly a damn fool … but if he may not, he is not a free man any more than a dog.”

Of course, in Dallas, dogs can’t sit on restaurant patios. So maybe it’s a wash, anyway.


Write to [email protected].  





Try to Follow These Laws. We Dare You.

The degree to which these laws are enforced varies, of course, but these are not archaic or anachronistic laws accidentally still on the books. This is just some of what modern Dallas considers worthy of regulation, laws, fines, and even arrest.


Code Section 41A: “An employee of an adult cabaret, while exposing any specified anatomical areas, commits an offense if the employee touches a customer or the clothing of a customer. A customer at an adult cabaret commits an offense if he touches an employee who is exposing any specified anatomical areas or touches the clothing of the employee.”

And just in case you’re wondering what those “specified anatomical areas” are, the city helpfully provides a list that shows the romance that lives in the legal heart: “any human genitals, pubic region, or pubic hair; any buttock; or any portion of the female breast or breasts that is situated below a point immediately above the top of the areola; or human male genitals in a discernibly erect state, even if completely and opaquely covered.”

On a Friday night last fall, my dedicated pursuit of this story brought me and a pocketful of singles and twenties to a table near the main stage at The Lodge. To spare us all a little embarrassment, suffice it to say I went home covered in glitter and the smell of body lotion.


Code Section 9-8: “A person commits an offense if he operates or rides upon a bicycle or any side car, trailer, child carrier, seat, or other device attached to a bicycle without wearing a helmet.” Code Section 9-3: “No rider of any bicycle shall remove both hands from the handlebars or feet from the pedals, or practice any acrobatic or stunt riding upon any street, nor shall any person operating a bicycle upon a street participate in any race for speed or any endurance contest.”

I took my mountain bike down to White Rock Lake, and despite egregiously riding with no helmet, no one seemed to care. Not other riders, nor the two police officers I saw. I even did the “Look ma, no hands” off and on for at least a mile or two. On the ride home, I passed four motorcyclists, all with the wind whipping through their hair. Mandatory helmets are only for bike riders, not bikers. Groups of guys in leather on hogs are a more intimidating lobby than groups of guys in spandex shorts.



Code Section 31-16 (d): “A person commits an offense if he displays or brandishes a replica firearm in any public place within the city.”

I organized a game of “capture the flag” around White Rock Lake on a Saturday afternoon in September using Airsoft replicas. Despite seeing four goobers running around in camouflage jackets shooting at each other for close to two hours, no one on the trail around the lake or hanging out in the picnic area on the northeast side seemed remotely alarmed.


Code Section. 3-1(a): “It shall be unlawful for any person to … wear any costume for the purpose of attracting attention of the public.” Code Section. 3-2: “No person shall operate or park a vehicle on a street nor shall the owner of a vehicle permit the vehicle to be operated or parked on a street for the primary purpose of advertising.”


Code Section 31-13 (a)(1): “A person commits an offense if he sleeps or dozes in a street, alley, park, or other public place.”

Remember that spring afternoon you played Frisbee with the dog in the park and then dozed off while your honey read a book under a shady tree? Scofflaw!


Code Section 31-19(a): “In this section SODOMY [ed: their caps] means any contact between the genitals of one person and the mouth or anus of another person.” Code Section 31-19 (b): “A person commits an offense if he solicits another in a public place to engage with him in sodomy not
for hire.”

That means what you think it means. If you’re in a bar or on a sidewalk and you even ask a stranger, your significant other, or even your spouse for a special favor, even one to be granted later, in the comfort of your own home, you just committed a crime. No, this isn’t about prostitution—that’s a whole different section.


Code Section 31-20(a): “In this section OBSCENE CONDUCT means the touching or displaying of the anus or any part of the genitals of another person or the breast of a female.” Code Section 31-20(b): “A person commits an offense if he solicits another person in a public place to engage with him in obscene conduct not for hire.”

And here you get in trouble just for asking to get to third base.


Code Section 43A-8(b): “A diving board or platform must not be placed more than three meters above the water level without approval of the [city].”

Yes, this includes private swimming pools. You have to ask permission of City Hall to have a high dive. And no Dallas city pools have them anymore, either.


Code Section 43-5: “No person shall, by loud talking, unusual acts or exhibitions, attract a crowd on any sidewalk or refuse to desist when requested to do so by any police or other officer.”


Code Section 45-4.5(a)(1): “A [taxi] driver may not wear cut-offs or shorts … .”