The Dallas Myth: A Review
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.
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.
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