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How can we assess the essence of a city? It is to be found, I believe, in two  aspects that never can be disguised–the quality of its cultural life and the care with which it ameliorates the plight of the poor. The two are not unrelated.

Some will argue that the projects now pursued by Dallas–Norman Foster’s opera house, the theater by Rem Koolhauss or Salvatore Calatrava’s duet or trio of bridges–will do nothing to salvage education in the city’s public schools or redeem the lives of those lost to a dreadful poverty not only of resources but, I’ve heard it said,  of rights and opportunities. The connection between art and the rescue of the destitute is not direct. That’s true. But properly conceived, one is derived, at least in part, from the other.

A great building can change your opinion of a city. I found this to be the case in Milwaukee, where I once spent three weeks. I arrived not expecting much but was pleased to find that I could walk back to my downtown hotel each evening,  and feel safe. I also was astonished to learn when I went to interview an elderly woman  in a pleasant apartment building nearby that she was living in public housing. But the emblem of the city,  the talisman that told me Milwaukee meant had a new sense of itself was Mr. Calatrava’s addition to the art museum, a  soaring white structure (I thought it resembled a sailboat, he says it’s bird)  jutting out over Lake Michigan to announce the intentions of a people determined not to be confined forever by a reputation for German beer. I changed my mind about Milwaukee.

The same thing happened in Denver. I attended a conference in a suburban hotel at the intersection of two frantically busy throughways distinguished mainly by a shopping area a few blocks away. Before I left, however, I went downtown and was entranced by the new wing of the art museum, designed by Daniel Liebeskind, a master of the acute triangle, who also is doing  high-rise condominiums across the street. One block over there’s a fantastic library, suffused with wit and rollicking style, by Michael Graves. They made me change my mind about Denver.              Some will point out that Norman Foster’s pavilion at the British Museum has not mattered that much to London. Maybe not, though it is superb. The important point is that London has long been established as a great city that requires no fresh appraisal. But to second, third and fourth tier cities,  evidence of creative ambition could be crucial. Norman Foster, to a city like Dallas, could make the difference in whether a company decides to move here or not. It’s a question of wealth, innovation and jobs, and we need all three.

The hope of the poor does lie, inescapably, in a growing economy, though social services cannot be disregarded, as Texas all too often has been prone to do. The Oak Cliff side of the Calatrava territory is shocking in its radical deprivation. If bridges are built to that site of sadness, surely good things will follow.

But more is needed than development, and one who understands that is County Judge Margaret Kelliher.  This month she hopes to bring before Commissioners’ Court a plan to lease some property at Carroll and Central and there build apartments for foster kids who are kicked out of the program at age 18 with no place to go. Eighty percent of the building would be available to the general public at market rates, and this would generate enough income to provide living arrangements for a number of barely-grown children who account for 25 percent of the homeless in Dallas County. With some equity financing from Bank of America, the enterprise would generate over $1 million a year in eight years. Also, it would be only eight miles from the Transitional Resource Action Center started to help these young Dallasites. It’s an imaginative approach, endorsed so far by Commissioner John Wiley Price along with Judge Kelliher. One more vote is needed.

Another shelter for the homeless is in the works at City Hall, and Ray Hunt’s Dallas Medical Resource group has done a lot to put Parkland Hospital back together again. But all this is stop-gap without a steady inflow of sensible, morally awake CEO’s who recognize that people must have full-time jobs with serious benefits and a salary schedule  so fair, as Robert Townsend once said, that it could be posted for all to see. A rising tide really must lift all boats, not just a few yachts. That is the civic culture worthy of the high arts.

So how do I assess Dallas? As a city of promise if we don’t lose our passion, or our nerve