Due to popular demand, and without further ado, but with his permission, I present Russ Sikes's article on Dallas the Synthetic City:
by: Russ Sikes
Perhaps Dallas' identity crisis began with John Neely Bryan muttering to himself “Why build here?” Whatever its origin, 150 years and six million people later, the lack of an evident geographic purpose for the anchor city of this vast conurbation still troubles our psyche, inspiring episodic attempts at self-definition.
Our latest, “Live Large. Think Big” may make a great Chamber of Commerce come-on, and it does impart a sense of the spirit and possibility Dallas offers. But it's more lure than identity.
What IS Dallas really, this city of aspiration, ever in the making? The fact that we ask the question perhaps reveals more than any answer, but at a recent party, I finally heard a moniker that struck a chord: “Dallas, the synthetic city.” Synthetic. Instant ouch. Synthetic suggests man-made, artificial, contrived.
Man-made. Absent striking topographic features or coastline, most of our regional attractions are indeed constructed, including all area lakes and reservoirs. From our glass and steel business district downtown to glitzy sports arenas like AA Center and Cowboys Stadium; from entertainment clusters at Six Flags, Lone Star Park, or Texas Motor Speedway to vaunted shopping meccas like Neiman-Marcus and Northpark—even to vast, land-locked DFW airport—the celebrated features of this metropolis are thoroughly man-made.
“Artificial”. Big hair, fast deals and ostentation are part of the Dallas package. “Fake it till you make it” has been a creed among ambitious Dallasites for decades. In physical form, it is evident in the sea of simulacra that blankets the horizon, McMansions and theme restaurants fairly boasting their pretentious inauthenticity. Such traits do not speak of self-acceptance. Quite the opposite, they reek of striving and guile.
Contrived. Public ice-skating rinks in a land lacking natural ice, “heritage” fairs in subdivisions with saplings still sprouting guy-wires, Connecticut-green lawns whose ruler-sharp edges strike a property line against spare buffalo grass, much of our area is forcibly contrived into being. A Trinity River re-fashioned as lakefront property sporting Calatrava bridges only accentuates this point in exclamation.
Yet for all this, the Synthetic metaphor conveys deeper, more positive connotations too.
To synthesize means to absorb, to infuse what emerges with novel and often superior properties. It implies adaptability and relevance, a capacity for assimilation. Dallas certainly has that...IS that. As case in point, here we were discussing Dallas as synthetic, a couple of immigrants: I, born in Boston, he from North Carolina, at a party hosted by a couple of musicians from Maryland and Georgia respectively, at a home in Plano that only 30 years ago was surely a cotton field.
Dallas synthesizes alright, largely people, and the ideas and vitality they bring. And despite our snarking at its synthetic character for cocktail-hour sport, our real vote is cast with our feet, not our mouths. Many of us who come never leave.
Perhaps it is the flipside of what we mock that attracts us.
Man-made has meant “self-made” to many, and legions here have made something from next to nothing. Texas Instruments, mainstay of the Dallas economy and emblematic of its rise, was among the first to transform raw silicon into high-valued components—a synthetic process if ever there was one. On an individual level, people like Ross Perot and Harold Sammons converted ideas, work and ambition into billion-dollar dynasties. Norman Brinker started restaurants from ideas on napkins. Mary Kay and Ebby Halliday blazed new business trails for women. They and countless others have achieved stupendous success here by synthesizing what was available to them into something more. Chances are that most of us, you and I included, can tout successes made possible through the synthetic potential of this diverse, expanding region.
Where long history and unique geography confer identity, they also constrain it. For its millions of newcomers, the Dallas experience is about transformation. It’s often why we came and what we seek. Our lack of long tethers here can leave an impression of shallowness, but it also leavens our possibilities. Artifice, contrivance and guile, ugly themselves, are perhaps inevitable handmaidens to the restless energy and aspiration that fuel them. It is unsurprising that their stark features shape the bland face of a region like ours, many of whose inhabitants are so newly-arrived, striving en masse to forge new lives.
Synthesis may even prove our salvation, technologically and culturally, elevating “synthetic” from 20th century pejorative to 21st century virtue.
“Sustainability” is said to be key to our future survival, and as Herman Daly explains, true sustainability requires shifting our consumption from finite stocks of resources to self-renewing flows in our midst. This conversion will necessarily involve various synthetic processes. Chief among them is photosynthesis, which makes virtually all other life possible, and provides not only our food, but increasingly our fuel too. Since nearly all of our energy derives ultimately from the sun, some form of photosynthetic bio-mimicry or novel synthetic processes are sure to provide the fulcrum on which a sustainable future rests.
Likewise, cultures develop by synthesizing their endowments: natural, human, financial, technological, to become what they are. But not all do so equally well. A 21st-century of global access favors the truly universal culture. Those that welcome and assimilate newcomers, that fully synthesize their contributions, will prove the most attractive, vibrant, and resilient. This has been key to America’s success generally, and to California’s in particular. As Texas swells into a “super-state”, the Dallas region too can shine among the stars.
Good and bad, wince or smile, an honest identity must ring true. To me, the synthetic city sounds utterly improbable, just like Dallas itself. So live large. Think big. Synthesize the life you want from all that’s available here in Dallas—the Synthetic city.