Friday, April 29, 2011

Identity Crisis

The burning rot beneath our roads...

...and a bit of brief rambling down allegorical culs-de-sac.

You hear this often, that Dallas has an identity crisis. It's a precept that I not only buy, but have probably helped to sell to some extent. The physical implication is that of an urban frankenstein, a monster loosely pieced together, but nothing quite like an actual human. I guess that is what happens when you try to engineer or fabricate life, particularly without the right DNA. We're not exactly technically proficient enough to engineer a robot with a heart of gold yet like Wall-E.

To mix metaphors, trying to great authentic, real, livable, walkable urbanism in DFW is like trying to run PC apps on Mac platforms. Feel free to reverse those two if that is your preference. Ya know, customize.

The deeper question is WHY does Dallas have an identity crisis. This morning, I was sitting in the Peter Walker lecture at the Nasher Sculpture Center. At these kind of events, something never feels quite right about them. The grip and grin. The glad-handing. I often feel a bit like Nick Carraway at a socialite soiree in West Egg. This particularly time thinking about the local predilection for bringing in national celebrities from the design world.

It should be stated that I like Peter Walker's design work, at least when framed carefully like photography. It lacks either a locational self-awareness or a desire to broach bigger issues (despite occasional claims to the contrary). Here's a spot, it will have a nice little design on it. It is elegant and simple. Highly abstract. It lacks complexity and works well as an object itself just like the buildings he lamented "often getting plunked" into spaces. In a way, a perfect mirror for his lecture delivery. He wasn't talking down to people, but speaking in lay terms. It wasn't overly academic, but I'm also not sure that the complexity of urbanism resides in him. He does his job, he does it well.

But when it comes to bigger, systemic issues of what makes Dallas "green," or sustainable, or livable, or resilient, these kind of out-of-town experts invariably resort to placation and pandering. "You're Dallas. You're the bees knees." What was billed as "Designing Green Dallas," or whatever, was predictably little more than green smoke.

When you love someone you're honest w/ them. You don't only tell them what they want to hear, to manipulate or use them. That's more like a hooker/john relationship. Ya know, sort of like the relationship between Highland Park and Dallas.

And there Dallas is left, on the side of the road, like a sex crime victim by its abuser who claims, "taxes are too high in Dallas." Well, they're high because the city was gutted by sprawl and the money that left the taxable boundaries yet is more than happy to take advantage of the economic engine that the core city provides.

I wonder if out-of-towners are capable of the appropriate kind of direct honesty that a broken, brittle, monoculture needs when approaching collapse. Does anybody from the outside love Dallas enough to say what needs to be heard? Or are they pandering for high fee, landscape decoration work? You're the bees knees. Please hire me.

Let's be honest, Dallas is built around the car. Not because any imaginary market demanded it, but because of the desperate grasping at federal dollars, mostly for highways, which then created markets. Value in land that had none prior. And the term, "green" implies little more than the color itself. Some grass, some trees. That oughta take care of it.

Unfortunately, that land, based on that transportation system, requires oil to be tremendously cheap. We thought that roads and houses as far as the eye could see created the middle class, forgetting about the spoils of war. Now, we're seeing the destruction of the very middle class that is now in homes worth less than what was paid, built to last only about 20 years or so, and stuck out in the middle of nowhere and forced to slurp up rising gas prices. Imagine what happens to gas prices when the economy actually picks up. Do we really want more of that kind of economic "progress?" Sex crime victim. Used.

So who loves Dallas? Are they even from Dallas? And in a city so atomized, so fractured into not just dividing into a dozen municipal boundaries, but even within Dallas, and more particularly the socio-economic stratigraphy, is it the people who bring in, or hire, or pay for Calatrava bridges, not once, not twice, but thrice, even though his first design/constructed bridge was pulled off the shelf from one of his very first bridge designs. You have an abusive spouse Dallas. One who treats urbanism like a shopping spree.

A city where much of the wealth was built on sprawl, itself cannibalistic by nature, much like the economic equation behind it, led to incredible wealth disparity. Layers so far apart they can't even relate to their needs. One side, with money keeps dropping new pyramids at the top of Maslow's hierarchy of needs. And since there is no structural foundation, those pyramids are only to fall down upon those at the bottom. Burdened, trying feed itself (in a food delivery system so abstracted beyond any nutritional content), trying to learn how to read from a school system itself broken by the economic implications of sprawl.

What's left to love? Hope, I guess. Or is the one we love still just a child that needs to fall down a few times before it learns? And do we even have the time to wait? Isn't it our job, as locals, as citizens, as caretakers, and stewards, to tell our child, not to take candy from strangers?