Last night, due to the wondrous interconnective powers of these here interwebs, I was graciously invited by Kevin Walker to take part in The CultureLab’s informal round table discussion on Dallas and its ability or lack thereof to become or be considered a Creative Class city; and what might be the necessary barriers, hurdles, or next steps towards that end. The event was hosted in Southside on Lamar, which I must admit, I haven’t spent enough time down there, and is pretty cool — if potentially overscaled and overly internalized as a building.
As the invite shows, the special guest was a gentleman named Micheal (Mike) Pratt, a man who was involved in starting Digital DUMBO and who I didn’t know (or think I knew from Adam). I walked in, we immediately recognized each other and pointed, “didn’t…I…just…” Yes, in fact, we had just met the past Wednesday at D Magazine/TEDx’s “What Are You Working On?” social event.
As it turns out, he’s a pretty important dude and now due to familial obligations, he is now ours based here in Dallas. If I was to put a finger on one standout trait of Pratt’s, it is that he sees opportunity in chaos, in creating order out of that chaos by way of instilling and then organizing a culture of community. Community (in the very real or more abstract digital notion) is essential for fostering creativity. Collaboration comes from the space between me and you. WE is always smarter than ME.
First, some background on DUMBO. Like many hip urban areas where the name comes from the common shortening of names for people and places (J-Lo, T-Mac, LoDo, SoHo, etc), it is an acronym for Down Under Manhattan Bridge Overpass.
Because it sits in a V beneath the Manhattan and Brooklyn Bridges, it was what the real estate community would consider useless land: under elevated freeways, on the third side and at-grade freeway, and the fourth waterfront. But, this was the East River, long considered the outfall for 19th and 20th century dirty industry’s effluent. It also had terrible access. How do you get there, parachute out of a moving vehicle from the bridge above?
All of its built-in undesirability made for cheap land with an existing urban fabric, some old warehouse space. This is New York City where incredible demand can make any and all land valuable. It also had a subway station at its periphery.
In it, creative start-ups found first, cheap space. Presumably through various previous associations that cheap space was then broadcast to creative acquaintances looking for similar, funky loft-type space. Eventually, as they began to agglomerate still under the radar, digital DUMBO came along and provided a digital center of gravity to go with the emerging physical one.
The digital version brought these businesses and the individuals behind them together. People who would otherwise just pass each other on the street or stand nearby waiting for the next F train, were now meeting at events organized by Digital DUMBO, sharing ideas, sharing business cards, and small startups began pooling skills, collaborating on projects that otherwise might have been too big for one or the other.
Although much of our dialogue last night revolved around digital media, design and creativity comes in many forms. Type in design into google earth and a number of companies pop-up including building architecture and digital architecture. This isn’t the last time I will make that parallel.
DUMBO: the physical, made possible by the organizing power of the digital version.
Now on the map, DUMBO like many new hip spots in any city, was first pioneered by creatives looking for little more than cheap space, then colonized by peers, and once a critical mass was apparent, then organized and marketed outwards. Now, even the big firms want to be a part of the digital organization and physically open up shops there.
In a way, it is gentrifying, both the digital and physical community. And that isn’t a bad thing. The pain of gentrification stems from our biologically-wired resistance towards rapid change. At its basic level, gentrification means investment. It is only not ok when there is a clean sweep of the old in favor of the new.
Over the course of the history of all cities, every area has at one time “gentrified.” Any place that becomes exclusive or static, eventually becomes boring. To resist investment or inclusion of “the other,” means to stagnate and ensure a slow strangulated death. On the other hand through gentrification, exclusivity also comes at an increase in price point.
What happens however, is that those original pioneering creatives rise in class as their creation, their collective organization, their neighborhood rises. They can then move on and focus their energies on creating new places or investing in the next generation of young creatives looking for cheap, cool space and the culture of community to match. They’re now experienced in How-to and capitalized, ensuring the uplift of various other portions of the city.
In order to retain the spirit of places, places need organizations and leaders as stewards. Physically, they also need protection once an area rises to what we might consider its ultimate, highest and best use. In DUMBOs case it was to become designated a historic place on the national registry in 2007. It is now protected from getting scraped clean in favor of all glimmering waterfront condo high-rises (which may very well form the connection between DUMBO and the rest of Brooklyn ultimately, as DUMBO-driven demand creates the need for more residential space nearby). The demand driver, the sense of place remains.
Dallas is often considered by the Joel Kotkin’s of the world as the epitome of the “polycentric city.” Last night, creative acquaintances of Kevin’s in town from Chicago, NYC, and Tokyo pointed out that they left Dallas because of a lack of livability. Their words, I promise you. A UTD grad student pointed out that you have to be from Dallas to know where to go for virtually anything, there are no centers of gravity with a sense of place, an understood identity, that registers beyond a local level.
The truth of the matter is that Dallas isn’t polycentric as much as it is non-centric, it is the placeless anti-city that Mumford warned about with the rise of personal automobility and the extensive infrastructure to support it. While Bishop Arts, Lower Greenville, uptown, Lakewood, Oak Cliff, X+, Deep Ellum, Design District, Cedars, Expo, Fair Park, etc. may register to us locals, what do those names mean to a recent graduate from Stanford, Columbia, or NYU (which surpassed Princeton for the first time ever in applications last year).
These local Dallas spots are all still neighborhood centers. DUMBO now registers nationally. For the City to compete on the national and global scale that it wants to, these are the areas that have to rise to regional and national prominence. They have to start small. They have to find leaders. They have to build communities online that are self-organized, like-minded, and motivated to parallel with the physical communities they want to live in. But, they also have to welcome an increase in density to accommodate the desire to be a part of these clusters.
DO-IT YOURSELF CITY
Dallas is too busy worrying about how to attract creatives when it needs to focus on keeping them first. I’m always amazed by how much talent this city exports, hands over in exchange for nothing, to other cities, considered more interesting, more livable, more amenable to their creative endeavors and desired quality of life.
For a business or a city to compete in the 21st century (or any time period really), it isn’t enough to simply do something the best or be the biggest, but best embody the spirit of the times. The 21st century will be known as the anthropocene, or era where people and quality of life come first. Portland and Copenhagen are generating the attention they are because they are not so much winning but the first out of the gate. We have the potential and ambition to surpass them.
What the Non-centric City of Dallas is struggling with from a physical and economic standpoint, is its parallel problem of form and function. Form helps foster function. Dallas is for the most part formless. If the city was the web, imagine an internet with no websites, ways to access them, or everything was pay-walled.
The city and the web are both human constructs, both perhaps modeled after the way our own interconnected brain and bodies work. The City and the internet are two parallel geographies and quite possibly the two greatest advances in human civilization.
They are both facilitators of connections, between people, goods, capital, and ideas. They have the potential to allow us to achieve all of our needs and wants, the emotions that make us human and drive the economy.
There is a reason why there is probably far more to learn about cities from Stephen Wolfram than Frank Gehry. One is a true architect just in a digital world, creating communities and facilitating connections, advancing true human possibility, while the other sculpts platinum (a purpose perhaps, but its true transformative value is limited). The parallels don’t end there.
Both have hubs, ports, and linkages. Websites are like buildings. The use of the building is like a website’s content and they must interface with the stream of movement, the digital transportation between points and destinations. For websites, traffic is critical and they must create clouds of interconnectivity. Buildings must interface with the various forms of transportation and facilitate ease of use.
Both have “sites” that get “developed” according to “codes.” Coding which is becoming increasingly open-source, meaning more individual customization and local empowerment. However, our codes for physical cities lags behind. It is still written for the 20th century economy. It is not ever changing and adaptable, but static and antiquated. Imagine if the web was written and interfaced in DOS.
The internet as designed by conventional city code. Your city has you.
From similar simple terminology to the actual read/write nature evolving in both, the 21st century economy will be increasingly defined by 21st century industry, which means 21st century principles, of mass customization, collaboration, and transparency.
The digital geography is the physical geography. The more the lines blur, the better.
Currently the City and many of its future industries are in chaos, scattered all over the City with little interrelationship, or mutual dependence. The City and its potential new industries therefore are less than the sum of its parts. Through organization, clustering, and collaborating they can become more than the sum as many industries that need and want to grow as a driving force of the 21st century economy, one of creativity, collaboration, synergy…of empowerment, are looking for the physical neighborhood mirror.
While the internet was once feared to breed a generation of shut-ins, the opposite has happened. We still yearn for social contact and the internet has become the tool to not only collaborate from distance, but to organize physically and provide the catalyst for change of urban neighborhoods.
Any area of the city needs both a digital and a physical interface, a way to empower the citizens to be a part of a community, to be stewards. It is the cities, the neighborhood organizations, and the leaders (or those that are yet to emerge) that have to facilitate this, that look to organize and recruit the scattered small creative businesses into their potential cluster. To compete in the 21st century, we must foster centers of gravity, of intellectual foment, digitally and geographically.
In many ways, this is exactly what is going on with GoOakCliff, a parallel geography of internet awareness, marketing, and then organizing and empowerment, associated with a specific place, fostering a sense of collective care about neighborhood, about home. These various neighborhood areas have to accept change, and alternative forms of transportation like streetcars in order to support the density that is sure to come, to fulfill the exploding demand for authentic, interesting, vibrant urban locales.
Since many of these organizations don’t yet exist, therein lies the opportunity for creative energy. If you’re creative, don’t leave. Customize your world. Focus your energy here, make a culture of community from scratch, both digitally and physically. Create order out of chaos, form out of the formless, place out of the placeless.
Dallas can’t be a great digital mecca without associated great neighborhoods. The people we want to attract aren’t ready to flock to Dallas yet. Fortunately, we can create those places, those clusters of innovative activity and expansion of the possible. But business as usual won’t get us there.
Like DUMBO, make the city/your neighborhood your creative outlet. This is the self-designed century of collaborative, mass-customization. Take control. Let the Dallas be your canvas.