A couple of months ago, an editor pulled me into an office at the Dallas Morning News, anxious to show me his latest find on eBay. For a pittance, he had acquired a few minutes of film shot in downtown Dallas in 1939. Here was the city, in the glorious saturation of Kodachrome, as I had not seen it before: streets crammed with men and women going about their business, streetcars jockeying for space, blinking neon theater marquees, vistas so dense with buildings they could easily be mistaken for Manhattan.
Dallas doesn’t look like that anymore. In the postwar years, those crowds seemed less a sign of urban vitality than a lethal hindrance to efficiency, and, in the name of progress, the city devoted itself fully to the automobile. If you look at a map of the city today, you will see the result: Downtown Dallas is now enclosed by a ring of highways, a concrete noose that has choked off its once-lively streets, replacing them with a checkerboard of parking lots, garages, and vacant buildings.
Almost two years ago, when it opened a deck park over a sunken stretch of that highway ring, the city got an idea of just what might happen if you were to cut this noose. Klyde Warren Park—named for the adolescent son of a local billionaire, who paid for the privilege—gave Dallas a new front lawn, one that sutured the city together and proved a boon to the burgeoning neighborhoods beside it.
The success of Klyde Warren has served as the backdrop to an even more audacious proposal, one that would knock down a segment of the highway noose rather than cover it over. The idea, developed by Brandon Hancock and Patrick Kennedy, a pair of New Urbanist planners, would dismantle a dilapidated section of elevated highway, IH-345, that cuts off downtown from Deep Ellum, a historically black commercial and entertainment district, and residential East Dallas beyond.
The proposal was prompted by the precarious state of that elevated stretch of road. According to the Texas Department of Transportation TxDOT, its repair will cost roughly $100 million. Why spend all that money when a teardown would leave some 187 acres free for development, a potential windfall in tax revenue? Why not reknit the city fabric by removing an impassable stretch of on-and-off-ramp spaghetti?
Downtown Dallas is now enclosed by a ring of highways, a concrete noose that has choked off its once-lively streets, replacing them with a checkerboard of parking lots, garages, and vacant buildings.
Last October, with TxDOT still dithering about its plans for the road—a tear-out was not an option it was even considering—I wrote a long article in support of the tear-out for the Dallas Morning News, knowing full well that the idea of removing a highway in Dallas was still something close to apostasy. The car here is understood as an instrument of personal freedom and independence, even as we often find ourselves at its mercy, and never mind that its infrastructure requires enormous public spending and debt.
That article received upward of 140 comments, an impressive number for a story in the arts section of the paper. Most gratifying was that there were as many in favor of the proposal as there were opposed to it. Dallas, it seemed, was ready for a serious conversation about its infrastructure, and how it shapes the life of the city.
Managing that discussion has proven a distinct challenge. I am by nature and profession a critic and a historian, not an activist, and it has been a curious experience to find myself somewhere near the front lines of a cause, and stranger still, being a Modernist, to be stationed at the barricades alongside local champions of the Congress for the New Urbanism.
But one of the first rules of politics is that you take your allies where you can find them, and, in cities today, New Urbanists and Modernists are not such strange bedfellows, despite years of rhetorical jousting. The progressive dream of a pedestrian-friendly, dense urban core with an active street life is one shared by both of those constituencies, and achieving it requires cooperation.