Dallas Part 2- Neighborhoods: Discovering who we might and ought to be

May 6th, 2015 by Jennifer Smart

Neighborhoods are one of the most important characteristics of a mature city after all, great cities are nothing more than a composite of neighborhoods and moments. Take, for example, New York City’s plethora of identifiable neighborhoods, Chelsea, Hell’s Kitchen, Spanish Harlem, the Lower East Side, the Upper West Side and Wall Street, just to name a few. In discussing Dallas, we frequently refer to ourselves as a “Great American City” and population predictors project Dallas (the MSA) will be the 4th largest city in the U.S. by mid-century. As we stand on the precipice of being one of the largest American cities, it should be a priority to also cement our status as a great American city.

The period of formative growth we are preparing to enter will more or less serve to define the face of our city for decades to come. When we look back at this period in Dallas’ history we will, I would posit, measure our civic success in terms of how successful, or not, we have been at creating a mature city fabric composed of numerous vibrant and self-sustaining neighborhoods.

As a metaphor, think of any attempt to build a great city as analogous to our collective pursuit of the great American novel. Since F. Scott Fitzgerald the desire to define the quintessential American novel has captivated us all. The pursuit is essentially the extension of our human need for definition. In this case the novel serves as the definition of our collective cultural mythology; the illustration elucidating for the world who we are (offering a polaroid snapshot, if you will) and who we want to be. It is in this space between who Americans are and who Americans may become, that the hero of the great American novel serves as the archetype for the entire population, distinguishing him or herself by his/her ability to overcome a challenge.

That pursuit is remarkably similar to that of a city, in this case, Dallas, as we evaluate ourselves against the measuring stick of the archetypal American city.

As opposed to literature, which emphasizes the individual, a city’s heroes are usually found in gatherings of individuals striving to define who they are in a collective sense. Just as in our novel, the success of the hero(es) rests in an ability to overcome imperfection, and if the Great American city consists of a collection of successful neighborhoods, it follows our heroes will have succeeded when they have cultivated a selection of autonomous neighborhoods, each of which strive individually for stability and prosperity, while maintaining a need to be inseparably bound together.

Although it is safe to generalize, cities also have their own unique mythologies, borne from the peculiar habits and traits of their inhabitants who either by nature, need or coincidence, choose to identify themselves in an uncommon manner.

So what is Dallas’ unique story? To date, our mythology has not been one based upon defining ourselves geographically but rather, we have designated our heritage as one of manifest destiny. Dallas’ raison d’etre has been nothing more than a desire to be, an idea which has proven to be remarkably powerful. Our lack of a fallback, a natural resource or other external reason for being here, has been enough to propel us to continue to always push forward. If this is who we are, then is this not how we should represent ourselves? Proudly, as a collection of individual groups, individual neighborhoods, identifiably distinctive and yet collectively pushing forward without any one cause. If that is not authentic, and authentically American, then I don’t know what is.

A large portion of our story, should we become a great American city, will commence and find its fortitude in the autonomy, originality, health, vibrancy, and integrity of our individuals, and by extension, the neighborhoods in which these individuals reside.

I have lived most of my life in this city, moving through several neighborhoods as I have moved through my life. Another function of the great American city is its capacity to support each of us individually as we find our own way through life. It is the final sign of a mature city, that it can and will fulfill an individual destiny. When Dallas can provide for an individual destiny and the destiny of a group at the same time, we will know we have been successful.

Fabric and mythology are enigmatic words. Words, which in the context of a city, serve to abstractly create the notion of a sense of place; something one can visualize. In the Design District, it was in the small amphitheater on Oak Lawn; a small stage, wrapped by apartments, restaurants and showrooms as if it were a proscenium. It is the “there there,” the place where we know to meet without discussion. It is the Design District’s Grand Central Station clock or Rockefeller Center’s Prometheus. It is the heart of the place.

As Dallas discovers who is, it will do so one neighborhood at a time. Haussman said of his great boulevard project in Paris, “Make no small plans,” a great quote, but despite its grandiosity, Haussman spent the vast majority of his career focused on the small details of individual buildings and neighborhoods. For as much as we discuss the larger moves of infrastructure, which are required to tie together the fabric of the city, it is the neighborhoods of the city where the heart and soul of its people live their lives. The more the city focuses on its neighborhoods, their individual constituents, their authentic differences, the deeper and longer the roots of its citizens.

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