Big Bad D

Jim “Hoss” Brock, ever the PR man, never let Dallas’ sometimes-miserable January weather get in the way of his Cotton Bowl Classic, the big New Year’s Day college football game he ran from 1979 to 1992.

“We’d tell ’em the weather is great. Just bring a light jacket or maybe a sweater,” Brock recalled to a reporter at the end of his reign. Brock was selling “good ol’ Dallas hospitality,” as he put it. So what if it sleeted now and then?

In the increasingly media-saturated world that eventually supplanted Brock’s heyday, CBS pulled the plug on the Cotton Bowl parade, and college football’s powers-that-be decided that yes, Phoenix really is nicer than Big D in the dead of winter. The Cotton Bowl had fallen from the top ranks of the sport by the 1990s, but not before Dallas had presented itself as a pseudo-Sunbelt destination to a national audience for nearly 60 years.

Brock’s salesmanship, its just-sign-here audacity, is so much part of Dallas’ genetics that the traditional view of the city’s history is easy to digest, and the idea that Dallas sprang from the black dirt of North Texas through the sheer will of its civic leaders has been a common theme of most city histories. Dallas, the theory goes, has no ascertainable reason for being, set as it is by no navigable waterway, lacking environmental amenities, and possessing none of the natural resources that spurred the development of other Texas cities.

Harvey J. Graff’s The Dallas Myth, a dense read in the academic mold from a former University of Texas at Dallas professor who now teaches at Ohio State University, attempts to blow holes in the creation story of one of Texas’ more-difficult-to-define cities. His revisionist history argues that Dallas sprang into existence along early trading routes near the Trinity River and that the city has a richer early history than it tends to acknowledge. Instead, Dallas prefers to think of itself as a city with no history, a place exceptional and different. As longtime civic leader, banker, and Mayor Robert L. Thornton (1953-61) put it, “We didn’t have any history in Dallas, we had all the other ingredients of 100 years of progress.”

The Dallas Myth

Though Graff ultimately fails to explain why Dallas became a major American city while so many other trade-route towns fell short, he does provide an interesting discussion of how Dallas’ foundational myth was harnessed in the mid-1900s to justify the heavy-handedness with which business leadership ran the city. Ultimately, Graff’s attempt to tie Dallas’ political conservatism, racial segregation, and even present-day attempts at downtown redevelopment into his thesis sours into a broadside that’s likely to resonate only with the city’s most devoted critics. After 388 pages of listening to Graff grump about everything from the city’s skyline to the quality of its art collections, one can only conclude that he thoroughly hates the place.

That Dallas has been dubbed “The Purple Heart of Texas” for its large and politically forceful gay community, and at the same time remains a hub of Baptist rectitude, suggests a modern-day Dallas more complicated than Graff has been able to discover. As journalist Molly Ivins once said, “There is a black Dallas, there is a Chicano Dallas, there is a Vietnamese Dallas, there is a gay Dallas, there is even a funky-Bohemian Dallas. But mostly there is North Dallas, a place so materialistic and Republican it makes your teeth hurt to contemplate it.” Graff’s chompers fairly scream in pain.

There is an early Dallas history, though hardly an exciting one, and it centers on trade and commerce rather than culture, which begins to explain why Dallas lacks the soulfulness of say, New Orleans, or even Fort Worth, with its roots in the American West. Following the establishment of Preston Road between the Brazos and Red rivers, John Neely Bryan settled along the route in 1841. He named his outpost Dallas for reasons that remain unclear. (Maybe Big Bob Thornton was on to something.) Longhorn drives traveled the Shawnee Trail, but cattle never played an important role in Dallas. Instead, the frontier town hosted sawmills, a brick plant, a brewery, and, in 1867, a bank. It thrived as a market for hides from the exterminating buffalo hunts on the Great Plains to the north and west.

In 1870, Dallas began forming itself much as its legend suggests. When the Houston & Texas Central Railroad planned a line between Corsicana and McKinney that would have bypassed Dallas, city businessmen paid the railroad $5,000 and donated 115 acres of land and three miles of right-of-way to get the line routed into the city. Two years later, a Dallas lawyer in the Texas Legislature added a clause to the Texas & Pacific Railroad charter requiring its new line to pass through the southern part of Dallas. A hefty $100,000 bonus and a gift of 25 acres brought the tracks into the center of town.

With the rail lines came merchants like the pioneering Sanger Brothers, cotton traders, saddle makers, insurance companies, a cotton gin manufacturer, and a cement plant, followed by urban amenities such as gas lighting, telephones, public and private schools, an opera house, and baseball. By 1890, Dallas was the largest city in Texas, and by the turn of the century, less than three decades after it had lured the railroads, the city hosted nearly 43,000 residents, a medical school, a university, a golf club, a symphony orchestra, and a growing red-light district north of present-day downtown.

From the 1930s into the mid-1980s, when the city transformed itself into “Big D,” Dallas’ political life was dominated by a tight-knit oligarchy of business chieftains who forwarded the city’s creation story as a way of justifying their dominance. “If Dallas had no reason to exist and no history, then its great achievements depended mainly on its leaders,” Graff asserts. Rich, white, older men ran city government as they ran their businesses. It was “the Dallas way” to assume that their decisions were made “for the good of Dallas.”

Some of the best writing in The Dallas Myth belongs not to Graff, but to the historians and journalists he quotes at length. Longtime Dallas reporter Jim Henderson, writing in the Dallas Times Herald, observes of his town’s “plutocratic” version of democracy: “Dallas had always belonged to the men who built it, men who did not need zoning laws to tell them where to put skyscrapers or which pastures to subdivide. … At-large elections kept the process relatively simple. Members of the old Citizens Charter Association would gather in some male-only, high-rise enclave, pick a slate of candidates, pony up campaign funds, and retire to the bar for a pre-victory celebration. From 1934 through 1985, the establishment candidate for mayor was defeated only once.”

Although the city’s political system has changed in recent decades, Graff suggests that “reports of the Dallas way’s demise may be premature.” Single-member districts giving the city’s sizable black and Hispanic communities more power have created at least one counterbalance to the city’s still-powerful business cabal. But Graff fails to acknowledge the increasingly frequent and public rifts within Dallas’ modern-day business community. This fall, for instance, petitions were circulated asking Dallas voters to block city plans to build a $500 million convention center hotel. The petition campaign was headed not by grassroots neighborhood types, but by real estate developer Vance Miller and the Trammell Crow family, owners of the rival Hilton Anatole. Similar feuding among business interests attended discussion in the late 1990s of tax breaks for development around a new basketball arena. Real estate interests in other parts of the central city howled at subsidies propping up the competition. This hardly holds up as a system in which “whatever Dallas needed in order to grow-freeways, sewers, reservoirs, airports-got financed and built with barely a whisper of opposition.”

Author and journalist Lawrence Wright, who grew up in Dallas in the 1950s and 1960s, relates in a memoir cited by Graff that Dallas is well aware of “this legend we told ourselves,” that there is no reason beyond boosterism for the city’s existence. “And because there was finally no reason for Dallas, there was anxiety among its citizens. It might all disappear tomorrow. Dallas was a fire that might go out at any time. To keep it alive the citizens advertised it far and wide. And even to ourselves; it was ‘Big D, my oh yes!’ the city that works et cetera. We were blowing on the coals.”

If there is a symbol suggesting how alive that spirit remains today-and how earnestly citizens try to make up for Dallas’ existential shortcomings-it is the city’s current effort to build three soaring bridges across the Trinity River floodplain. Designed by Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava, the proposed spans have come to be known as “signature bridges” for the way they will redefine Dallas’ skyline and, supposedly, the city itself. Former Mayor Laura Miller, once a firebrand alternative-weekly columnist who campaigned on an anti-establishment, power-to-the-neighborhoods platform, became one of the bridge project’s most enthusiastic supporters after a year or two in office.

“Today we break ground on our Eiffel Tower for Dallas. … Our project has arrived,” she trumpeted at a ceremony in late 2005. Two years later, after budget issues delayed construction, her successor, Mayor Tom Leppert, was hitting the same notes, fanning the same embers: “It’s hard to imagine … San Francisco without the Golden Gate Bridge … Sydney without the Opera House.” The bridge project, he said, “will be the catalyst that puts Dallas on the world stage.”

It would be hard to imagine a Dallas, 50 years ago or 50 years from now, without that kind of talk.

Dallas freelance writer Thomas Korosec has been a Texas journalist since 1984. He has won numerous state and national reporting awards as a staff writer for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, the Dallas Observer, and the Houston Chronicle.

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Published at 12:00 am CST
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