What I had to offer was a FREE EXHIBIT PASS for a workshop in computerized investing. At first this predicament struck me as very unfortunate especially when I, wearing over my coat a ridiculous yellow T-shirt that said CALL NOW on the back, spotted one of my peers from college walking toward me in a three-piece suit. That first day was like hitch-hiking: you would stick your arm out and traffic would whiz right by and your attitude would get worse and worse. Soon enough I began to realize that the art of leafletting is the art of learning the rhythms of the street. You , move with the crowd; you step in and out; you whirl and twirl. When the motion was graceful, few pedestrians would interrupt the flow. Their hands went up like mannequins’ . You would notice other rhythms as well; you would get to recognize the men who spent their days idly walking the streets. The lost and the drunk would come, to you for direction. Once an earnest and hard-driving messenger stopped his bicycle to critique my style. “Maybe if you said Gitcher free pass’ more people would take one,” he offered. That kept me laughing the rest of the day. Some pedestrians were polite, but one old man steamed by me, head bent down, and swatted viciously at my flyer. All I remembered was his plaid pants. One poor old fellow with coke-bottle spectacles reached to take my leaflet and his hand glided by, snapping shut like a turtle’s jaw a full six inches above the target and he shuffled right along without looking back. What you had here was the full human parade. I wished I had more to offer than news of computerized investing. I began to daydream about launching a Streetcorner Free Press, to be distributed by sidewalk dancing. But when the leafletting job ended I got called to other work. What I am now asking is: how long would a sidewalk dancer last in Dallas? Would there be a clientele on the streets? Would the public respond to the motion? And how long would it be before official strong arms put a stop to the whirling and twirling? After all, leafletting is illegal in Dallas. p ART OF THE story of the Sunbelt cities is that they came of age in the 1970s, a time when the culture went flat. “Houston is a tight town,” wrote Jan Morris in 1981. “. . . hard though I tried, I could find no outrageous exhibitionists. The sixties were so long ago by Houston’s calendar that they seem never to have happened in this city at all.”‘ But as far back as 1961 Lewis Mumford was attributing cultural stagnation to the corporate control of the cities. “The whole organization of the metropolitan community is designed to kill spontaneity and self-direction,” Mumford wrote. Dallas cannot here let itself off the hook by saying that its sole purpose is commerce, and thus its people have been too busy and industrious for art and culture. Commerce is at the heart of all cities. Chicago is a city of trade and industry and yet it has produced at least a few works of literature. What has been happening in American cities, and especially in Dallas and Houston, is that commerce has taken on a distinctive dominance; it is the dominance of the giant corporation. Everywhere are the chains of hotels and restaurants and stores run from centralized corporate headquarters. Always the banks are getting bigger, the corporations merging. Every city seems to have the same strip the K-Marts and the Wal-marts, the Wendy’s and the Pizza Huts, the Midas Mufflers and the Sears Automotives. Endless suburban tracts stretch in all directions. There is a sameness creeping more steadily over the land with each passing year. Everyone recognizes this aesthetic of urban America, to the point that it seems almost too obvious for comment. There is a resigned uneasiness about modern development. Yes, we say of the parts of the city we care about, this will probably be ruined some day. The essayist William Gass has noted that the average alley has more interest to the eye than most of our avenues. “To recover our sense of surface,” he wrote, “the Russian formalists recommended ‘de-familiarization,’ the re-creation of strangeness.” But the strangeness has gone out of the urban landscape; we’ve seen it all before. What will inspire art and thought in the modern city? Can anyone imagine something like Nelson Algren’s prose poem Chicago: City on the Make coming out of one of the new “urban villages” with the plethora of office buildings? Here is Algren: “Cruising down Milwaukee Avenue on any Loopbound trolley on any weekday morning, the straphangers to Success who keep the factories and the ginmills running stand reading the papers that could as well be published in Israel or Athens, in Warsaw or in Rome. . . . Between stops stretch the streets where the shadow of the tavern and the shadow of the church form a single dark and double-walled dead end. Narrow streets where the summer sun rocks, like a Polish accordion, with a louder, shinier, brassier blare than American music anywhere. Churches that look as though they’d been brought over whole, without a brick missing, from Stockholm and Lodz, Dublin or Budapest: from all the old beloved places. . . .” Will inspiration arrive in private autos on the Katy Freeway now that no one rides trolleys and rubs shoulders with the real city? If we suspect that cities are worse now than they used to be, it is not necessarily a nostalgic illusion. In the days of corner grocery stores and ice houses and neighborhood cafes and bars, the city supported a more intricate web of producers and suppliers and small entrepreneurs. The city had more individual life then. If the city is to thrive again, both culturally and economically, it will have to turn away from giantism and back toward diversity. The kind of dream worth dreaming is not how to build a mile-high skyscraper, but rather, how to weave together a new texture of small companies perhaps some worker-owned or cooperatively run that would repair the social fabric of the city and bring some measure of selfdetermination to the corporate metropolis. D.D. Lis a Kir kp a tr ic k THE TEXAS OBSERVER 7
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