The Dallas Myth: A Review


pegasus.jpg


The neon Pegasus has been a  traditional symbol for Dallas because it graces the top of the Magnolia Building, at one time the tallest skyscraper in town, and could be seen for miles. If it looks familiar, that's because it became a trademark of Mobil Oil. Mobil Oil started as the Magnolia Oil Company. This means that a favorite symbol for Dallas is an oil company corporate logo. Image from www.3baylor.edu.

Harvey Graff's new book, The Dallas Myth: The Making and Unmaking of an American City, is a thorough and devastating examination of how Dallas developed its larger-than-life image, its aggressive business culture, its ambitions, its conformity and fearfulness - and, especially, its malign neglect of the past.

A history and English professor at Ohio State University, Graff lived here for more than 20 years, teaching at the University of Texas at Dallas and eventually teaching a class on Dallas' history. In doing so, he discovered how ignorant his students were about Big D. The bus tour of the city that his class would take often was the first time many of his mostly suburban students had ever visited downtown.

Why should they? And why should anyone care about Dallas' past? As many newcomers to Dallas eventually learn (especially if they've asked to see any building older than 30 years), this is the city without history. It's a popular idea about Dallas' origins: This is the city with no reason to exist here -- there are no natural attractions, no mountains, no real lakes, and the Trinity River is not navigable to the Gulf of Mexico, ergo, it's not good for trade.

Actually, there were perfectly practical reasons to build a city here in the 19th century. Dallas stood on trade routes and was surrounded by great land for cattle, wheat and cotton (and later, oil). That's how the city first sold itself to people headed west. It was only when hard times hit in the '20s and '30s and the Dallas labor market began turning to unions that the city began inventing the myths about our lack of history and natural resources.

Why? Because if there was nothing here, then our city leaders and businessmen must have been true visionaries, building all this from scratch. We peasants owe them everything. And if there's no historical significance to anything, everything is up for grabs: Anything can be bought, bulldozed and redeveloped. Dallas is constantly reinventing itself like this in the hopes that the next big project will change everything (while fearing that it won't). Simultaneously, it's constantly trying to bury the past - such as its history of political extremism and racial violence.

In much of this, Graff notes, Dallas is not unusual. The ruling business interests, the hunger for outside approval, the fabrication of historic-looking buildings: These are true of many American cities. Dallasites may brag about our independence, our faith in the free market - but the city, just like many others, has depended on government handouts, from the deal that got us the Federal Reserve Bank back in 1912 and the defense spending that helped the city boom during World War II up to today's government contracts in medical research and telecommunications. It has been federal money, in part, that has kept Dallas afloat when oil money couldn't.

Nevertheless, Graff concludes that Dallas truly is different -- because of the Dallas Way. The Dallas Way is our city's tradition of weak democracy, of letting commercial interests commandeer city government. Private profit-making and public policy blend in Dallas in ways that would set off alarms in other cities. But the tradition has been that Dallas' great business leaders set aside their personal gain for the good of the city. Perhaps they did, but Graff points out that their idea of what constituted Dallas managed to leave South Dallas and West Dallas off the map (the black and Hispanic communities, respectively). Even at its most enlightened, the Dallas Way was mostly the North Dallas Way (the well-off white community).

This general mindset -- mixing the ideology of the free market with the reality of a well-connected business oligarchy -- has given us the kind of city one might expect, Graff says. We have corporate skyscrapers like giant jewels, monumental developments like Victory Park or the Trinity River project - and we have a starving infrastructure. We have a school district whose white, middle-class tax base abandoned it when desegregation was ordered, and we have a half-billion-dollar Arts District that can't keep people downtown after the symphony's over. The long-term work of forging a real community or a cultural audience or a top-notch research university doesn't attract many captains of industry.

Graff declares that, in effect, the Dallas Way has failed Dallas, and he offers a long list of charges, including the way it stalled the 14-member council reform out of a fear of losing power to democratic forces and, more recently, how it frustrated Mayor Laura Miller's attempt to re-focus the city on small-bore "livability" issues. Graff gives special emphasis to the 2004 Booz Allen Hamilton report commissioned by The Dallas Morning News ("Dallas at the Tipping Point") -- which found city leadership seriously wanting when it came to today's challenges in urban development, particularly the city's "legacy of racism and neglect."

It's not as if Graff were breaking news on much of this. As he himself indicates, The Dallas Myth builds on the work of historians Patricia Hill and Michael Phillips and journalist Jim Schutze. Perhaps their revisionist approach is finally gaining traction.

Perhaps. But while The Dallas Myth advances this approach, it also hobbles it: Reading much of the book is a chore. The preface and introduction hooked me, but the book becomes grindingly repetitious, and its prose style often slips the surly bonds of English to soar into the academic lingo of "dichotomous portrayals" and "formative interrelationships."

Graff is dogged. Such thoroughness is admirable in a historian. In a writer, it can read like overkill. As he demonstrates our city's lack of real identity by going through songs about Dallas, novels about Dallas, every major Dallas building, it feels more like he's settling a grudge.

It's frustrating. At one point, Graff notes that part of the Dallas Way is the belief that you're either with us or against us. With Dallas, there's no complex middle ground, no dissent allowed. It's frustrating because The Dallas Myth makes it too easy for many Dallasites to decide just where Graff stands - so they can safely ignore him.

[A minor point but in the interests of full disclosure: Michael Phillips, author of The White Metropolis, is my brother-in law.]

You can hear my radio version of this review here.


August 12, 2008 8:14 PM | | Comments (4)

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Dallas was a shock to us when we arrived in 1977 (from Washington, D.C.). We had never been in a city so rigidly segregated. I spent my early years in Denver covering the travails of desegregation in that city. Denver worked through some of these problems decades before Dallas even started to address them. Not that Denver solved them. But at least it did not avert its eyes.

1. The "mythical" corporate or white flight to the suburbs? Nothing mythical about either. They're facts. Check out the stats on the white percentage of students going to DISD. The numbers were in free-fall long before today's DISD financial scandals hit. They started when serious desegregation finally started to be implemented. The result is that Dallas is now successfully re-segregated. Fewer than 10 percent of DISD students are white. That large a population shift didn't happen overnight and didn't happen because of black or hispanic educators buying furniture for themselves with school funds.

2. The nostalgia for the grand old days of Dallas-the-City-That Works is based on sheer inequality. Things got done primarily because large sections of the city had no vote in what was getting done. It's a "nostalgia" for a time when well-connected whites had entitlement and no one else really had much of a say -- and the result was what one might expect from such a set-up: the ghetto-ization of the city's minorities into South and West Dallas and the rewarding of land investors in North Dallas or in downtown projects. In other words, the recent scandals about black city councilmembers that seem to have you so incensed are very small potatoes compared to the large amounts of city money thrown into schemes and redevelopments that, historically, have always managed to profit powerful, (white) private landowners.

3. It's also ironic that the accusation of cowardice directed at the review and Dr. Graff's book -- cowardice in not naming 'guilty politicians' -- is leveled by someone who then refuses to do the same thing, except in courageously describing the guilty parties as minorities. In fact, Dr. Graff does examine relatively recent political events, up through the Trinity River project, for instance -- discussing the role of city/minority leaders like Ron Kirk. But what Dr. Graff's book targets are far larger, older, more broadly based political-economic-social forces than than the recent crimes perpetrated by black city council members. In this light, Dr. Graff does indeed name individual civic leaders' who were responsible for how Dallas became Dallas -- old favorites like R. L. Thornton and G. B. Dealey.

Disappointing that neither the book nor the review mention that, particularly in recent times, local government itself has failed Dallas. It's easy to pick on the mythical corporate or the white flight of and to the suburbs. It's dicier to spotlight elected officials, most of whom are minority. Corruption, scandal, indictment now rule the day. Dallas is a lost city, more now Detroit and/or Baltimore than Charlotte and/or Seattle.

Such unfulfilled promise of a once almost great city.

Interesting in light of Dallas' compulsive forgetfulness that local media have largely overlooked this book. You can't say that they've ignored it completely. There has been a mumbled comment here and there. But in other cities citizens would be locked in debate by now.
I doubt if many Dallas residents even know the book exists, much less what it says about their city.
It might help if the book were better written. But it's an academic work, with all that comes with that mode of writing.

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This page contains a single entry by book/daddy published on August 12, 2008 8:14 PM.

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