Starting a city magazine in Dallas in 1974 was like a surfer catching the Big One. Not to diminish the hard work, late hours, imagination, and sheer determination that went into it, but none of those fine qualities matters in a startup if the idea is wrong. A new magazine for Dallas’ booming upper middle class 40 years ago happened to be the right idea at exactly the right time. It was such a good idea that—even after a libel lawsuit by the mayor, only seven pages of ads in the 11th issue, and more than 50 percent staff turnover in its first year—the magazine was a success.
There was an optimism and excitement in Dallas then, much like there is today. DFW Airport had opened the year before (and five years later, American Airlines would move its headquarters there from New York). Texas Instruments and its suppliers were recruiting a highly educated and diverse workforce from all over the world. Those new residents were demanding more of the city: more culture, more dining options, more entertainment. The city was alive with possibility.
But there was a fly in the ointment. In 1974, when we launched D Magazine, the city of Dallas—unknown to us—had reached its apogee. For the next four decades, while the region boomed, the city stagnated. Its only real growth came mostly from immigrants, poor and uneducated. Today, the city’s median income is 18 percent below the state average, with nearly a quarter of its population living below the poverty level.
What happened to that exciting city of 40 years ago?
Sadly, it comes down to one word: busing. In 1976, after years of experimenting and wrangling, a federal court imposed busing to end desegregation. Neighborhood schools were eviscerated. The effects were immediate and traumatic. Whites fled in droves, followed in 10 short years by blacks. Collin County quadrupled in population; little DeSoto in southern Dallas County nearly quintupled. Meanwhile, South Dallas—where bad schools are no more popular than in North Dallas—lost as much as 60 percent of its population.
Newcomers to Texas had already been settling near the new tech centers to the north of the city; now parents fleeing the reach of the federal court set off a gold rush of home building. The regional economy roared to life as the core of the city hollowed out. If a quirk of history had not preserved Highland Park and University Park as independent cities with their own school system, Dallas might have emptied out completely.
Downtown Dallas—which in 1975 hosted more than 300,000 workers every day—was converted into a maze of one-way and multi-lane streets to enable people to escape during rush hour. To make commuting even easier, we added the DART light-rail system, constructed at a cost of billions, to connect suburbs to downtown. The goal was to make it easy to get in and out, not to stay for entertainment, not to spend on restaurants and shops, and certainly—nobody even considered it—not to live amid downtown’s desolate, empty streets after dark.
Forty years later, according to the census, only 70,000 people now work within the downtown loop. But the streets and access roads remain dedicated to the ghosts of suburban workers whose jobs long since followed the workers to Plano and beyond. As for DART and its startlingly low ridership, only D Magazine asked before the referendum to fund it why anyone in a northern suburb would want to go downtown. As it turns out, they didn’t. Why would they? There was nothing there.
Demographics change, sometimes suddenly and radically.
But then one day there were people downtown. Living there. Walking the streets. Partying. Working in lofts and office buildings blocks away from their homes. Not only that, nearby was Uptown, the most exciting neighborhood in Dallas, which had popped up almost out of nowhere.
What caused this to happen?
Consider one huge demographic statistic. In 1960, 44 percent of households in the United States were married couples with children. Today, that number is 20 percent. Let’s take in the implications of that. The way we built this city starting in the ’50s and ’60s—on the suburban front-yard, backyard, and garage model—is not the way most people live today. (Ozzie and Harriet has been off the air for a couple of generations now.) The city’s housing stock in North Dallas and East Dallas is not only aging, but it is also out of tune with the way people now live.
On top of that, our largest generation, the baby boomers themselves, want urban living, too. The Uptown PID estimates that 20 percent of its residents are empty nesters.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the age curve, millennials are upending every notion of the post-war suburban experience. Car sales for that age group are down 30 percent. In 2010, 26 percent of millennials had not even bothered to get a driver’s license.
Is this indifference toward the automobile just a temporary blip? Like their fathers and grandfathers, will millennials eventually fall in love with the car? Not going to happen. In a complete surprise to traffic engineers everywhere, driving in the United States adjusted for population growth seems to have reached its peak back in 2005. It has declined every year since, with vehicle miles driven down 9.26 percent. The use of the automobile, for the first time in American history, is in significant decline. With the emergence of transit providers like Uber, Lyft, and Zipcar, car ownership, even in a transit-deprived city like Dallas, seems unnecessary to many people.
Millennials make their preferences clear: 88 percent want to live in an urban environment within a close distance to their jobs. This demand, backed by baby boomers also opting for urbanism, is already reshaping Dallas. Uptown, the Cedars, Trinity Groves, Farmers Market, and Henderson are responses to this market demand. But these areas—unlike Uptown—are small. It takes acreage to attract the kind of population density that brings services to neighborhood residents. In return, services like restaurants, salons, and dry cleaners bring jobs.
In fact, the whole way of thinking about downtown for the last 40 years is suddenly—almost shockingly—out of date.
Not only is the old idea of downtown as a central business district for suburban commuters no longer true, it is also an actual impediment to fostering the highest and best use of the central city’s land to capitalize on the huge demographic change that is bringing a demand for urban living to Dallas.
Dallas has land, and it is cheap land. Right now it has no value because elevated highways used by interstate truckers and long-distance travelers crisscross it. We can replace those aging and outdated interstates with development-oriented boulevards bound by narrow streets. In doing so, we can actually improve traffic for local residents by forcing the interstate traffic to the loops.
There are acres of diamonds under those highways. Uptown has shown it. Uptown is one of the most economically vital neighborhoods in Texas. To mine those diamonds, the city will need to act fast to reshape the infrastructure to meet the market’s demands for easy transit, walkability, connection, and convenience.
Dallas faces an opportunity that, in terms of demographics and societal change, is as historic as the post-war baby boom. That change reshaped America into a suburban nation. This one—happening before our eyes—is a huge market demand for urban living. If we respond to it, it will reshape downtown Dallas as a large, urban neighborhood, stretching from Baylor University Medical Center through Fair Park and the Cedars to Trinity Groves in West Dallas.
The decades-old real estate boom that made our suburbs rich left Dallas behind. Now the wheel turns. The city has the makings of its own boom within its grasp. Embrace the data. The world has changed. Now’s the time to make the most of it.