Published in the Dallas Morning News, Oct. 2, 2006
Style, I have come to believe, is not necessarily a superficial matter. It exists on many levels. Style is an attitude of the spirit. Style, when it works, mocks fate, keeps fate at bay. So where, I wonder, do we go in search of the Dallas style?
For years, there was no question. It was Neiman Marcus. Neiman’s meant more than fashion. It signified the striving of a prairie settlement, perched on the black-lands of nowhere, to civilize itself, to become a place. Later, the Cowboys said a lot about the city, proclaiming its power, energy and drive, only to give way to Southfork, a synthetic diversion from the horror of November 22, 1963, a celluloid substitute for genuine expression.
This was because there was too little that could be expressed. Lee Harvey Oswald shattered not only a presidency but the composure, even the soul, of a city. Mayor Erik Jonsson did his best to restore it, with I.M. Pei’s City Hall and DFW International Airport. Both were important, life-saving in fact, in the case of the airport, but something, nonetheless, was slipping away.
It was the old ease of doing business in Dallas, with deals sealed by a handshake– nothing more was needed — and “character loans” from banks where lenders forgot about collateral and relied instead on their hunches, placed their bets on people with unproven possibilities.
Willie Morris once called Dallas a “city of bank vaults and choirs.” He saw the Dallas style in its religiosity, and understood too well that piety sometimes was masking rampant materialism, with some in Bible study classes, others courting indictment, and some doing both. There were churches built in the 1980s that looked like fortresses. “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God” certainly was the theme. But what were those walls designed to keep out? What was the thing to be feared? In those days it was loss — loss of money made too soon, loss of status, loss of self. Today it is the velocity of shifts in human relations that are said to be unscriptural, unacceptable, impossible to bear. Yet they must be borne.
Whatever the turmoil, Dallas has at its core, and always has had, a remnant of extraordinary citizens who build houses for the poor, flock to book clubs, prepare papers on Shakespeare, scoop up tickets to Arts and Letters Live and sacrifice endless hours to extend the community beyond its own conception of itself.
What is emerging is a new Dallas style, with different accents and views of the world. People like Joe Chow, mayor of Addison; Tom Kim, school trustee in Lewisville and Prasad Thotakura of the Indian American Friendship Council are creating a variation on the southern city of 100 years ago that talked about cotton or the western metropolis of 50 years later that sought prosperity in banking and insurance.
They are pointing the way toward a broader intelligence, a deeper experience that surely will be seen in landscapes, institutions, and settings both public and private. The thing now is to open the fortress, let them in and learn to be not only a city of strivers, always the primary melody here, but also a paradoxical place of repose and adventure, keeping the old courtesy (they may cut you off at the knees in Dallas, but they’ll be very polite) while embracing an earthiness that can make this a saving culture. After the Kennedy assassination, Dallas opened up to the country. Now it’s time to open up to the world.