Monday night, the Dallas chapter of the American Institute of Architects made it pretty clear to about 200 people that the proposed Trinity Tollway or Parkway or whatever it is will be a huge eyesore on Dallas.
Or, shall I say, another huge eyesore.
Sadly, there were no city councilmen or women at the Sixth Floor Museum to enjoy an “ah ha” moment, though there were a few folks attending from the planning commission.
The AIA offered a screening of a film produced in 1967, created from 8,000 slides of downtown Dallas. The project was a venture between AIA Dallas (then, in 1967) and the Greater Dallas Planning Council. Narrated and directed by writer & photographer Rob Perryman of Austin, the film’s goal was to create awareness of an immediate need to make Dallas a more attractive place to live, with synchronizing design, livability, walkability, public transportation and attractive development of the Trinity River.
Gosh that sounds familiar, and it was 48 years ago!
The film was released and shown to hundreds of civic and community groups, and covered in the press.
Then, after 1967, it sort of went away.
A few weeks ago the AIA Dallas hinted that it found something in the archives, but wouldn’t confirm what it was. Until now: The Walls Are Rising will make be screened January 19 at the Dallas Center for Architecture.
And it’s just about the best thing ever — a year-in-the-making art-house warning delivered to a “young, vital, industrious” city in danger of dooming itself to the “plague” ruining every other major American city. (It was screened at the same time regional leaders were fomenting their Dallas Fort Worth Regional Transportation Study, the first-ever mention of a proposed Trinity River freeway.) The narration is scant, just a few words here and there to augment 8,000 or so photos of a car-crowded, billboard-slathered, concrete-covered City of Excellence scored to, among other awesome things, Die Walküre, Saint-Saëns’ “Symphony No. 3 in C minor, Op. 78″ and Tom Jones’ theme song to Thunderball.
I had to see it. I was just a kid in 1967 (really, a baby) but seeing this flick was like deja vue of the TV shows my parents and older sister watched, like “77 Sunset Strip”, the theme song from Fireball, and the Sinclair dinosaur. (I had a blow-up Sinclair dinosaur in our pool.) It wasn’t scary at all, as Wilonsky had warned (or to be more precise, as some said it was) — all TV in the 1960’s was very dramatic. Does anyone remember “The Edge… of Night?” Oh and Tareyton cigarette smokers were so dedicated to their brand, they would rather fight than switch.
Not a bad slogan: “we’d rather fight than have a dang tollway.”
The film was almost clairvoyant. It was fascinating for someone who did not grow up here, but rather in the strip-center laden outposts of another major metropolitan area, to see if I recognized anything. Just the State Fair, Six Flags, K Box Radio and Inwood Bank. Except for the Neiman Marcus building and a library, Dallas was not a very pretty city in 1967. The film illustrated the mess that design can become without planning by having us listen to an orchestra tuning — that moment when everyone is tightening strings and testing pitch and it sounds disjointed, jarring.
So, too, is a city without design guidance and planning.
Message received loud and clear. If Dallas is to grow into a beautiful, vibrant city, it needs design help.
The film tells us that neighborhoods should be centered with a neighborhood school and a grocery, all within walking distance. Downtown living in the core should be encouraged. Pedestrians are people, too, and the automobile — well, it was just taking over. We need to implement a hike-and-bike trail from Turtle Creek to Reverchon Park, a rapid transit system called DART, and downtown parks and streets with awareness of the pedestrian foremost.
Autos, said the narrator, were even dominating apartment communities!
The film ended with a sort of crash, saying we are all just living in one big accident mess, to the Supreme’s Motown label, “You just Keep Me Hangin’ On.”
What does the unearthing of this film mean to us today? That the very same urban issues we struggle with today are nothing new. It made me both happy and sad — happy in feeling a bit of common kinship with the movers and shakers of 1967, and happy that we have adopted some of their suggestions, like a hike-and-bike trail from Turtle Creek to Reverchon Park, a rapid transit system, and Klyde Warren Park.
But it was a little depressing to see us stuck in the same ruts. In nearly 50 years, Dallas has not been able to plan freeways better, make downtown more walkable OR driveable, and the Trinity River still sits, looking more like a cesspool than an aquatic wonder.
The panel discussion that followed featured three distinguished architects who may have been AIA presidents at some point: Larry Good, FAIA, Howard Parker, FAIA, and real estate developer Jack Gosnell. Parker, an adorable 86-year-old who does not fancy protests, was pretty blunt: he linked the Trinity Tollway to the Berlin Wall, but after he said:
“If we had built it in the late 40’s and 50’s, what was considered a river road, we’d be talking about demolition today,” he said. ” I just don’t know how we could have possibly come to this discussion.”
The panel criticized Trammell Crow for building that big box Sam’s Club across from Cityplace, as another example of the real estate community’s focus on economic development at any cost. I think it was Larry Good who warned that the real estate community and economic development is voting with dollars to develop projects across Dallas neighborhoods like Deep Ellum and the Design District, yet this tollway/parkway thingee will come in and just, well, just create another big huge wall.
A Berlin Wall slicing Dallas in half.
Oh yes: apparently in Oak Lawn in the late ’60’s, some wore tee shirts that read, “Shoot a Developer”. Yikes!
Seeing this film made me only want to delve more into this Trinity enigma. I cannot seem to wrap my head around how such a short piece of parkway will alleviate traffic all that much. I don’t think it’s a particularly attractive idea, and I am concerned that it could impede the real estate progress we have started to see. Someone on the panel said — Jack Gosnell perhaps — that in 2005 there were 350 people living in downtown Dallas. Now there’s 10,000 and in LA, when the downtown hit 15,000, within a year or two that number had doubled.
The Dallas North Tollway certainly has contributed to the behemoth growth of all points north. But the Tollway replaced a railroad track, not a body of water.
If we could make the Trinity a beautiful, vibrantly green park with ponds and lakes and trees, we could indeed fish there, as the film suggested. Or how about a place for people to paddle board when they come home from work like they do down on Lake Austin?
A couple of things went off like lightbulbs as I listened: one, the narrator talked about the importance of communities having a school and grocery within walking distance. This is a cornerstone of New Urbanism, the Seaside/Celebration communities that have achieved these goals. It’s great for communities.
Sometimes the best planning is mucked up by federal mucking.
And America’s love affair with the car. Not going to change, though I think millennials spent more time as children around technology and computers than tinkering with autos, like kids did in the 1960’s. Therefore autos are less important to them, but still seen by many as a huge status symbol. So gripe all you want about the harshness of the automobile —
Says the narrator, more than half the city center is already “devoted entirely to the automobile,” which means “there is no relief for the pedestrian from the harshness of concrete and the domination of the automobile. There is nowhere to stop, to rest …”
Dallas has a huge car culture, second only to that of LA. What could change that is the proliferation of technology car services like Uber and Lyft, at least until mass transit rises to the occasion. The Urban Land Institute says the jury is still out on whether millennial buyers will stay downtown where they love the single (or young married life), but from whence they flee once the babies come. Cars are also more handy for transporting tots to soccer games and music class.
Of course, maybe this time they may just rent them.
And finally, will someone please tell me why Dallas has so few sidewalks north of Northwest Highway, and why so many fences? In fact, that is the most common question newcomers pose to me when they move here. Every home has a fence barring them from their neighbors, and no place to walk where you can meet neighbors. Unless you walk in the street. Which belongs to the cars.
Which brings us right back to 1967 again.