Thursday, August 22, 2013

THINK and Thinking Some More

Yesterday, I had the pleasure of being on THINK with Krys Boyd talking about Deep Ellum's past, present, and future as well as ANewDallas, which would have a direct impact on Deep Ellum (it was also concocted partially in response to the need for affordable, walkable urban housing in support of both downtown and Deep Ellum businesses.

It was a great treat as I've listened to Think for a long time, a show that could and should be considered a Dallas treasure.

However, I can't possibly listen to it (you can get the podcast here).  I detest listening to myself.  It's agony and I'm not so in to S&M.  If I were to listen to it, I would constantly be thinking of how and what else I could've said.  For example, as I was having lunch after the show I thought of a joke I could have included with the discussion about third places being places of both social AND economic exchange rather than pure economic exchange.  You don't go to Walmart to become buddies with the greeter (even if the Costco greeter loves you).

The history of Deep Ellum has always fascinated me, specifically its etymology.  'Ellum' referring to Elm Street and 'Deep' being the far side of it as Dallas's natural growth pattern was away from the railroad hub (which creates an edge and thus a natural sociofugal force which pushes people towards centers or the creation of centers away from edges).

It was also interesting that Elm would be the primary driver rather then Main.  Perhaps because the Ross angle was the other primary direction of early Dallas expansion thus putting Elm as the spine of the Elm-Main-Commerce trivium that served both.  It became the seam of Dallas north and south and thus was home to many important buildings historic architecturally and culturally.

This concept of a street as a seam is important, particularly in relation to segregation, both in Dallas and in general.  There are three ways segregation occurs.  The first is through policy, such as Jim Crow laws, repealed in the 60s.  Another way is through physical barriers, borders, or boundaries.  And the last is by natural self-selection and self-organization, which is the one I primarily want to focus on with regards to urban form and how people interact or are allowed to do so (see: point 2).

Self-organized segregation is not the worst thing in the world when it is indeed by choice, however it can be indicative if inherent biases and prejudices.  In other cases, it can simply be a case of people wanting to be near those more like themselves (did I move to downtown 6 years ago (and stay ever since) because I was looking for diversity or looking to be around others like me who also value diversity?), particularly when it comes to language in multi-lingual places.  Not being able to speak the language can be tremendously isolating and disempowering, so in highly multi-cultural places, there tend to be self-organizing clusters of ethnic and racial similarities.

A demographic map of New York City is highly illuminating on several levels:

There are actually very few places that are highly inter-mixed.  Perhaps the most heterogenic mix is along Jamaica Ave area of Queens.  Reading between the lines however is even more telling.  There are two primary types of boundaries between the surprisingly homogeneous pockets of NYC: physical water bodies and city streets that actually function as seams, blending the cultures, and cauldrons of cultural and intellectual fusion, which is exactly what the city does, brings us together to expand our horizons through interconnection with each other, particularly those different from us with different backgrounds, histories, and approaches to the world around us.

The homogeneous pockets become more like a necessary evil.  A transitory phase of acclimation for newcomers, the fearful, etc.  The heterogeneous seams are then the baby steps for individuals to step out of the Applebee's and into a Pan-African fusion restaurant, so to speak, and experience new things.

In terms of Dallas, this is what Deep Ellum was (even though there was legislated segregation) and could be again, the seam between North and South Dallas.  The form of the city allowed for more intermixing then than it does now.  The self-selection and self-organizing process is limited by our transportation network. Choice is limited, therefore making an extremely fragile monoculture of neighborhood type and transportation mode.

Our physical barriers are constructed.  The highways are the walls between us, but also the reason to leave.  Not only has Dallas experienced white flight, but also black flight.  The highway network has carved the city into isolated pockets and undermined the grid as a system of seams, of intellectual and cultural foment.  It has undermined interconnectivity and walkability.

Without those things, living in or around the urban core loses its primary advantage, which is proximity and walkability.  So if you have to have a car, rich or poor, black or white, why would anyone stay in the city if you have the opportunity to not do so?

The only choice is and has been to leave central portions of the city and that's a sign of a dysfunctional system.