It’s Time to Stop Hating Dallas

Photo by  Jakob Owens .

Photo by Jakob Owens.

If I were to ask you how you feel about Dallas, what would you say? If we met at a party, and I told you I think Dallas deserves a place in the pantheon of great American cities, what assumptions would you make about me?

When I asked my friend Russell how he feels about Dallas, he says, “Dislike. Dislike Dallas because it’s strip malls with people who value fancy cars, money and mega churches and who feel superior to you. Not an endearing combination.” When Russell and I worked together as corporate drones in NYC we passed the time debating relevant merits of cities. London, the most diverse, New York, the most surprising, Dallas, the worst on every level. We both had to travel to DFW for work on a monthly basis. I ask Russell how he feels about Dallas because I remember we used to hate the place but I'm having a hard time remembering why.

To love New York City and hate Dallas is so expected of the left-leaning, white, artistic, intellectual elite it’s become cliché, but it’s a cliché with legs. Every year, a swarm of new TV shows and movies and novels arrive on our screens to tell the well worn story of scrappy young people just trying to make it in New York City. When was the last time you encountered a narrative set in Dallas that wasn’t Dallas? As the fourth largest metropolis in the country, shouldn’t that be surprising?

Maybe you’re thinking Dallas deserves its bad reputation for being the center of everything wrong with this country, a hot bed of white, bigoted, me-first cowboys. But Dallas has a Democratic mayor and votes blue in every election. Dallas is the fifth most diverse city in the country, more diverse than Austin (#18) and much more diverse than Portland (#56). Let’s not forget which city made Trump.

Russell’s wife Leticia, who’s from Puerto Rico, says she likes Dallas because it’s full of showy judgmental religious people who have big hair, big heart, and big attitudes. And so it reminds her of her hometown.

My friend Will is the first lefty intellectual I’ve met who loves Dallas and hates New York city. Will grew up in rural Texas and went to college in Dallas and it’s his favorite city. We met when we both left our respective favorite cities to study writing in Tucson, Arizona and he introduced me to Sichuan peppercorns and Jasper Hill Harbison and now I trust him implicitly when it comes to food and a few other things too. Food is the reason I travel, so when Will asks me if I want join him on a road trip to Dallas, I say yes, of course. When I tell my friends from New York I’m taking a road trip to Dallas, they say, “Dallas? Really? Why Dallas?”

I recognize the tone. It’s the tone my music snob friend used when he found out I like Ke$ha, unironically.

“But I like you and I can have a conversation with you,” he said, mystified.

It’s the tone native New Yorkers used when I told them I was leaving New York. You’ve made it to New York City, the tone said, the end goal of any intelligent, artistic soul. Why would you leave New York City?

It’s the tone I heard when, while visiting L.A., I told someone I had just moved from New York City to Tucson.

“Why would anyone move to Arizona?” he said with disgust.

It’s not New York City the place Will hates. He’s been once, on a school trip, he liked it fine. It’s the way people talk about New York City. The way one native New Yorker said to him, with genuine surprise, “There’s architecture in Chicago?”

Or this:

As I navigate a smooth web of highways pulling me towards the soaring Dallas skyline, Will tells me about the city’s inferiority complex, how the mayor is always talking about transforming Dallas into a world city.

“Dallas would love to get the respect of at least, like, a Chicago,” he says.

“There is a statue in the Nasher Sculpture Center in downtown Dallas that seems particularly fitting for this particular city,” former Dallas local Mimi Swartz wrote in the New York Times. “Called ‘The Age of Bronze,’ it is by Rodin and happens to be the oldest piece in the collection, a life-size, perfectly formed male nude in a pose that is both pensive and slightly pained.”

On our first night in Dallas, Will takes me to his undergrad hangout, the Meddlesome Moth. My undergrad hangout was Grassroots Tavern on St. Marks, where every surface was sticky and every beer was Coors Light. The Moth is a sleek gastropub whose ambiance merges hipster cocktail speakeasy with cheerful Munich Beer Hall. The pewter bar top sits in elegant contrast to the dark Brazilian wood walls. The endless tap row, overseen by two of Texas’ four accredited cicerones (beer sommeliers), is framed by a back splash made from $1,250 in quarters submerged in epoxy. As I tell Will how it compares to the shitholes I hung out at during my NYU days, I watch him smile a small, satisfied smile.

Seated at the bar, Will and I begin to drink. I start with the Aecht Schlenkeria Fastenbier, from a brewery active since 1405. The current brewmaster, Mattias Trum is the sixth generation in his family to grow up and live above the tavern. Fastenbier is a Lenten beer, like those consumed by 17th Century German Monks during their “liquids only” Lenten fast. The beer was brewed as a sort of liquid bread, rich in carbohydrates and other nutrients, crafted to sustain them during the long hungry days of Lent. It tasted like a campfire on a bright gray winter morning.

Our food arrives, and it’s thick cuts of smoked pork belly floating on a cloud of maple Hollandaise. Our bartender recommends we get it with ice cream, and who were we to blow against the wind? The barbequed bone marrow is luscious, grassy fat, fragrant with black pepper and molasses, adorned with golden slivers of fried onion. If you think it all sounds too rich, it is, and it’s glorious.

Photo by  Eneida Hoti

Photo by Eneida Hoti

“As New York enters the third decade of the twenty-first century, it is in imminent danger of becoming something it has never been before: unremarkable,” writes long-time New York City resident Kevin Baker in Harpers. “It is approaching a state where it is no longer a significant cultural entity but the world’s largest gated community, with a few cupcake shops here and there. For the first time in its history, New York is, well, boring.

According to the latest New York Housing and Vacancy Survey, the typical New York household spends at least a third of its income on rent. Three in ten renter households pay 50 percent or more. Baker lays the blame at “development schemes that are so exclusive they are more destructive than all they were supposed to improve.” The picture he paints is creepy: a dystopian city made mostly of empty glass towers owned by absentee billionaire playboy real estate speculators. New York City, it seems, is getting too expensive to be lived in by anyone interesting.

The Meddlesome Moth, aka my new favorite bar, was started by Shannon Wynne, who like Dallas, evades easy stereotyping, because he’s neither hipster nor hayseed. He doesn’t reject his Texas roots and he doesn’t resist progress. Wynne’s father founded Six Flags. His grandfather was the first President of the Texas Bar Association. His uncle Bedford helped found the Dallas Cowboys. He didn’t have a career until his favorite bar in Dallas burned down, and he and his friends chipped in to open what would become the much loved 8.0 Bar. Wynne now co-owns and operates restaurants in six states and 14 cities, including his popular Flying Fish and Flying Saucer fried fish and beer chains. In interviews and public speeches, Wynne gives the sly impression of being the family fuck-up, his success accidental.

“I didn’t know what I was doing,” he said, speaking of his early days to the Fort Worth Chamber of Commerce. “I drank and did drugs. How many people here drank and did drugs?” The crowd laughed, lightly.

“I’ve never had a business class before; I’m just basically winging it.” After building that first bar into an empire of Dallas nightclubs like Neemo, The Rio Room, and Tango, he lost everything in the mid-‘80s Savings and Loan scandal.

“By the time I got around to asking my partners how the numbers worked, the economy had crashed,” he told D Magazine. He quit drinking in 1988 and slowly rebuilt. Now, investors receive earnings every four weeks. He signs all 750 checks personally. He tells his managers that working for him is like getting an MBA.

“If you can [work as a] general manager in our stores, you can run anything.” When asked what he would pick for his last meal, Wynne said, “It would be black-eyed peas, okra, and a real crispy, unhealthy, pork chop.”

To get inspiration for the Moth, Wynne and his captain of beer Keith Schlabbs travelled to gastropubs in England, Belgium, New York, and Los Angeles.

“I feel Dallas has matured. People have traveled and would appreciate this style of food with high quality beer,” Wynne said. “I wanted to do something that had not been done in Dallas. A real gastropub, not one of those joints that serves food and Stella Artois and thinks they are one.”

In 2014, New York Times reporter and self-proclaimed proud Texas native Robert Draper went on a mission to investigate a Texas “no longer what it, and we, think it is.” As a part of his investigation, he had lunch with Wynne at the latter’s “splashy new dining spot” at the edge of Klyde Warren, Lark on the Park.

“When [Wynne] commented, ‘Dallas has matured more in the last five years than in the past 25,’ I asked him why this was,” writes Draper. “He guffawed in reply, ‘Well, it certainly can’t be the locals.’ He added that the city had benefited greatly from new blood, and that they in turn had emboldened establishment Dallasites to reconsider the city’s possibilities.”

D Magazine owner Wick Alison described Dallas population growth as “the tsunami coming right at us.” Last year, DFW was the fastest-growing metropolitan area in the country. “Either we direct this growth to more efficient land use or we let inefficient sprawl exhaust our resources and burden our future. We either ride the wave or we will be engulfed by it,” said Alison.

From 2010 to 2016, 902,616 Americans left New York City. In 2017, Brooklyn experienced a net loss of 40,797 residents. As white people pour into Bed-Stuy and Crown Heights, the once-strong black middle class is leaving. As vacant-eyed glass towers sprout across Greenpoint, Williamsburg, and Bushwick, like mushrooms after rain, lower-income Latinx residents are moving out.

The out-of-hand rejection of a “millionaire’s tax” to fix the maddeningly broken New York City subway system by the state’s Democratic Governor Andrew Cuomo offers a telling lesson, says Baker: “a tax on the wealthiest New Yorkers to restore even the most vital public good cannot be so much as entertained.”

“Cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody,” wrote  Jane Jacobs in her groundbreaking book The Death and Life of Great American Cities.

 “We took the modernist idea and proposed these highways that broke through the city,” Wick Allison said about the Dallas of the past, “We destroyed neighborhoods, we ripped out history, and took us out to the suburbs. What we do have is fragmentation and isolation, economically and in other ways. We have pools of injustice all around us. It is design and a return to the ancient principles of what makes a city that will bring back the kind of justice that allows people to have their own place and participate in the life of the city.”

In the 1970s and 80s, Dallas became a poster child for the economic promise of government-subsidized suburban sprawl. The wealthy moved north and everyone else was left with underfunded schools and entrenching poverty. Even today, writes Peter Simek, “in the fourth largest metropolitan region in the country, there are hardly any neighborhoods that function like the kind of urban neighborhoods Jacobs and her cohorts championed.”

What kind of neighborhoods did Jacobs champion?

“To generate exuberant diversity in a city’s streets and districts, four conditions are indispensable,” Jacobs wrote.

“1. The district, and indeed as many of its internal parts as possible, must serve more than one primary function; preferably more than two. These must insure the presence of people who go outdoors on different schedules and are in the place for different purposes, but who are able to use many facilities in common.

“2. Most blocks must be short; that is, streets and opportunities to turn corners must be frequent.

“3. The district must mingle buildings that vary in age and condition, including a good proportion of old ones so that they vary in the economic yield they must produce. This mingling must be fairly close-grained.

“4. There must be a sufficiently dense concentration of people, for whatever purpose they may be there. This includes dense concentration in the case of people who are there because of residence.”

“We now have 40 partner organizations involved in this plan,” said Kourtney Garrett, president of Downtown Dallas Inc., speaking about The 360 Plan, which seeks to implement Jacob’s principles of “exuberant diversity”, creating “a complete and connected City Center that provides an enriching urban experience for area residents, workers, and visitors.” 

“The community interest, the activism the partnerships, some new vision at City Hall both at the council and management and staff level—what we’ve seen just in the last 12 months in terms of new thinking and shifting the whole thought and culture around planning in Dallas has been just remarkable,” says Garrett. “It’s not just a few of us singing these songs anymore.”

In 2001, Boeing chose Chicago over Dallas for its new corporate headquarters. It was reported that the wife of the CEO called Dallas’ downtown a cultural backwater. Last year, DFW saw average job growth of 3.1 percent, compared to New York Metro’s 1.3 percent. This was due in large part to very intentional work being done by urban developers to attract major corporations to the area. Recent wins include the relocation of Jamba Juice’s headquarters from the Bay Area, and new local divisions of Toyota and Boeing.

The average rent for a two-bedroom apartment in Manhattan is $3,895, roughly equal to the monthly household income of a typical U.S. worker. In Dallas, a two-bedroom rents for an average of $1,433.

The next day, still a little hungover, I follow Will to Molto Formaggio, Italian for “a lot of cheese.” It's the cheese shop Will worked at before he moved to Tucson. His time there left him with an encyclopedic memory of cheeses of the world, so that in graduate school he was frequently cajoled into playing what we called “The Cheese Game,” where we demanded he tell us what cheese corresponded to our essential natures. Will grew to hate this game, because of the way his uncanny ability to perfectly align human characteristics with those of aged dairy products inevitably offended sensitive, artistic souls who resented being cast as a clothbound cheddar or a goat cheese with high acidity.

Molto Formaggio is in Highland Park, a toney part of Dallas. I'm expecting to find Dallas the TV show style displays of wealth, snakeskin boots, big hair, molto silicone, but actually it’s just a beautiful old shopping center full of well-dressed, diverse, attractive young professionals. Swartz said, “you really can't associate Dallas with big, brassy blondes or J. R. Ewing anymore, much less with Lee Harvey Oswald and the Kennedy assassination. Nor can you equate it with the stuffy, post-oil-bust, shame-cycle city of the late 1980s and ‘90s. Dallas hasn’t lost its passion for getting it right — this is still a city where a fashion stylist can be described in a news story, without irony, as an ‘avowed minimalist’ — but the earnestness that can easily be mistaken for pretension has softened.”

Dallas has become “a place you can't not go.”

 Molto Formaggio is simply but tastefully decorated, high quality polished wood and carefully displayed items of great flavor and value, a mosaic of deep reds, pale grays, and throaty oranges that leaves me weak in the knees. I’m a big fan of fancy cheese shops. I’ve spent a lot of time and money at Murray’s in the East Village, Bedford Cheese in Williamsburg, Stinky in Carroll Gardens.

Photo by  Alice Donovan Rouse  

I’m drawn to fancy cheese shops because of the way they’re more than places to buy food, more like secret invitations into a parallel dimension of sensory delight. Maybe you’ll eat your cheese in a park, on a worn wool blanket, soft gold light filtering through tall oaks. Or maybe you’ll bring your cheese and a nice bottle of red to the house of someone you hope to have sex with later that night. Or maybe you'll bring it to bed alone and eat it while you watch Lifetime movies about innocent looking blondes who turn out to be murderers with secret families and sugar daddies. It doesn’t matter, because the moment will arrive when you will open your neat wax paper packages and lose yourself in the decadent rot of Époisses or the earthy salt of Idiazabal. You’ll take a sip of wine, leather, clove, and tannin. You’ll cut yourself a sliver of bright, fatty Olympia provisions Loukanika salami seasoned with orange peel, garlic, and cumin.

Molto Formaggio is fancy, but it’s also a labor of love. Dallasite Michael Perlmeter’s devotion to the craft is clear from his deftly curated selection. It’s a place with no filler, a place you could buy from at random and trust your purchase will be excellent. The sort of place you can bring a social need, third date, dinner at the boss’s house, night alone in bed watching Lifetime movies, and leave with just the right chords of flavor. And where the selections at the more famous NYC joints sometimes feel influenced by fashion and pretense, Molto Formaggio is a cheese shop in the European mold, simple, living proof of a local proprietor’s excellent taste.

Perlmeter got the idea for the place after culinary school in Florence made him want to be the Florentine cheesemonger of his home town. What he’s created is a place that lives to cultivate and share a sophisticated understanding of the good life. As we talked, he kept interrupting himself to shave us off a sliver of this, a small scoop of that, saying, “Try it. You have to try it.” He was right every time.

After Molto Formaggio, Will takes me to the NorthPark Center Mall, which he says represents how Dallas wants to see itself. Right away I can see what he means. Huge museum quality modern art pieces dominate every open space. A highlight is Mark di Suver’s imposing  48-foot-tall, 12-ton sculpture Ad Astra, whose jubilant orange industrial I-beams stretch joyfully up into the mall’s second story. It’s a good mall. As we walk by Warhols gracing the entrances to Wolford and Versace, I think, this is how New York City wants to see itself, too. A place that understands how to balance art and commerce.

“There is nothing economically or socially inevitable about either the decay of old cities or the fresh minted decadence of the new unurban urbanization,” Jacobs wrote. “On the contrary, no other aspect of our economy and society has been more purposefully manipulated for a full quarter of a century to achieve precisely what we are getting. Extraordinary governmental financial incentives have been required to achieve this degree of monotony, sterility, and vulgarity. Decades of preaching, writing, and exhorting by experts have gone into convincing us and our legislators that mush like this must be good for us, as long it comes bedded with grass.”

For most of my childhood and young adulthood, I was obsessed with New York City. This was the city where Stacy, the coolest girl in the Babysitter’s Club, had grown up. It was Carrie Bradshaw’s city, and, as my taste matured, it was the city of Joan Didion, Alan Ginsberg, Patti Smith. All the heroes of my loud young heart. A city whose every stinking alley and stained avenue had been made famous by a song or a movie or a TV show or a book I loved. A corollary to “If I can make it there I’ll make it anywhere” is there is only one place worth making it. I’d be lying if I said that wasn’t part of why I went.

During my first year in New York, I went to hear Joan Didion read at a Barnes & Noble on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. She had just published Where I Was From.

“You’re the reason I became a writer,” I said, as I got my booked signed, trying and failing to keep my cool. She sat back and looked at me, appraisingly. That famous sharp gaze.

“I’m not sure if that’s a good thing or a bad thing.”

I left New York for more than one reason, but mostly I left because I was exhausted. Because figuring out how to feed myself and pay the modest-by-New-York-standards rent on my Kensington studio was a struggle always verging on the impossible. Because all I did was work and sleep and worry about money. Because I hadn’t stopped wanting to make art, and New York didn’t seem to have space for me to do that anymore.

“Urban planners and policy shapers who are inspired by Jacobs and her ilk are attempting to accomplish something that has never been attempted in human history: they are trying to shape urban environments that forgo the possibilities of technological potential in favor of focusing on more humanistic design considerations,” writes Peter Simek in D Magazine’s recent special issue on urbanism.

Will and I went to Lark on the Park on a misty Friday night, when the city was bathed in that sultry noir vibe only real cities can pull off. They sat us by the window, where we could soak up the soft blue and purple glow from Klyde Warren Park. We sipped our cocktails, which were herby and briny, which were called Smart Blondes, and which featured Roxor, Texas’s “first artisan gin.” I was filled with a comforting strangeness, the potential energy the air takes on when millions of people are close together in limited space.

“It seems rather small-town to boast about having an ‘urban experience’ at any Dallas restaurant, let alone one perched on the edge of downtown,” writes Todd Johnson in his review of Lark on the Park. “Certainly, ennui-swathed Manhattan crowds never coo over that heady feeling one gets when cars buzz by a packed street-side patio as glowing skyscrapers set an enchanted backdrop. No, citizens of world-class cities rarely coo.”

We split the Texas Beef Tartar, sweet and tender, with dainty slices of hazelnut hiding in its slivers. I had the Pork Jowel Ragu with house made saffron pappardelle, guanciale, and ricota salata. The noodles were fresh and bright with saffron, a perfect background for the crisp fat of the pork jowel and the creamy salt of the riccotta. Will had the Gulfport Flounder with herbed gnocchi, chard, and caramelized lemon. It was playful, perfectly executed food.  This was Dallas, and it felt like a secret.

“By its nature, the metropolis provides what otherwise could be given only by traveling; namely, the strange,” wrote Jacobs. 

During interviews, John Darnielle, lead singer of the Mountain Goats, has said he avoids listening to Dylan while he’s writing music because every folk singer who listens to Dylan has to contend with Dylan’s  influence. When a fan on Tumblr asked Darnielle about Dylan’s influence on the Mountain Goats, Darnielle said, “I don’t think you can really write verse-chorus-verse songs on an acoustic guitar without Dylan having some impact, he’s a huge presence… I’m always a little more interested in the lesser voices though, the paths that didn’t become the main paths.”

The Dallas Observer's list of “50 Reasons We're Thankful to Live in Dallas,” includes:

“Corruption at our City Hall is pretty easy to expose and generally involves fairly small amounts of theft, so it’s more entertaining than chilling.”

“You seldom have to wait much more than 40 minutes for a seat at a good restaurant on a weekend.”

“Klyde Warren Park at 10 p.m. on a Friday welcomes all comers, whether they’re wearing $6,000 suits or $6 sweatpants.”

After dinner, we stroll through Klyde Warren Park, because it feels like the urban thing to do. The lush, beautifully lit 5-acre park was created “out of thin air” over the sunken eyesore of a concrete freeway. It was designed by renowned landscape architect Jim Burnett, who has made his life’s work the transformation of American cities through the creation of active public spaces. By all accounts, Klyde Warren is a wild success, so much so that planners around the country are holding it up as a shining example of the new urbanism and looking to replicate it.

“They say, ‘We want our own version of Klyde Warren Park,’” says Burnett. “It’s gotten to the point where if you’re going to build a new highway through a city, you have to include a deck park.” In 2018, Klyde Warren won the American Institute of Architects Collaborative Achievement Award. The secret to Klyde Warren Park’s success, Burnett believes, “is that it’s not a one-liner. It’s not just one big ‘insta-moment.’ It’s a whole series of outdoor rooms and program ideas. It’s an active park where everybody feels welcome. Everyone has a reason to go.”

Late Saturday night, we go to Velvet Taco on Henderson. It’s packed with a vibrant, diverse crowd of young people hanging out, drinking beer, and eating tacos with their friends. We fall into the long line to order the Cuban Pig, gruyere cheese, slow roasted pulled pork, shaved ham, peppered bacon, grain mustard, and house brined pickle. We wash it down with a local Ft Worth Gose called the Salty Lady. We sit outside on the patio, which perches on the corner of a busy intersection. We laugh. We eat tacos. We sip our beers. We watch the bright lights of the big city slide by. 

“Urbanism works when it creates a journey as desirable as the destination,” is a quote from New Yorker architecture critic Paul Goldberger that gets used as a rallying cry by the new urbanists.

Photo by  John Baker

Photo by John Baker

On Sunday, Will leads us to the suburb of Richardson, to the lunch buffet at the Chennai Cafe, a modest strip mall restaurant proudly serving the cuisine of Southern India. The food is extraordinary. Heaps of dosas, golden and buttery, crispy fried vada lentil donuts with spicy coconut chutney, big pans of tender fish swimming in fragrant crimson curry. Fresh roasted cumin, black pepper, and fenugreek explode across my tongue. Will and I sit among throngs of well dressed Indian-American families and eat until we can’t. The last time I had Indian food this good was when my friend Christine took me to Flushing.

 “At 4:32 p.m. Tuesday, every single resident of New York City decided to evacuate the famed metropolis, having realized it was nothing more than a massive, trash-ridden hellhole that slowly sucks the life out of every one of its inhabitants,” wrote the Onion in a story titled “8.4 Million New Yorkers Suddenly Realize New York City A Horrible Place To Live.”

The Onion goes on to explain, “incidents that prompted citizens to pick up and leave included the sight of garbage bags stacked 5 feet high on the sidewalk; the realization that being alone among millions of anonymous people is actually quite horrifying; a blaring siren that droned on and fucking on; muddy, refuse-filled puddles that have inexplicably not dried in three years; the thought of growing into a person whose meanness and cynicism is cloaked in a kind of holier-than-thou brand of sarcasm that the rest of the world finds nauseating; and all the goddamn people.”

Will has to fly back for work on Sunday evening, so I’m on my own for dinner. I order in from Sumo Shack, a hot dog topped with miso chili, queso, scallion, onion, and furikake, an “Angry Bird Bao” with Sumo hot fried chicken, American cheese, and pickles. The next morning, on the recommendation of a couple of Will’s hip Dallas friends, I take myself Spa Castle, a maximalist Korean spa featuring a traditional Asian bath house, endless saunas made out of everything from charcoal to Himalayan pink salt to gold, a full bar, and some of the best Korean food I’ve had, ever. I walk out so relaxed I’m not convinced I still have bones.

“‘I always had this perverted sense of pride because I was managing to scrape by here,’” the Onion quotes fictional but relatable Brooklyn resident Andrew McQuade as saying. McQuade, “who, after watching two subway rats gnawing on a third bloody rat carcass, finally determined that New York City was a giant sprawling cancer,” went on to say “‘Well, fuck that. I don’t need to pay $2,000 a month to share a doghouse-sized apartment with some random Craigslist dipshit to prove my worth. I want to live like a goddamn human being.’”

All I’m saying is it’s time to stop acting like interesting lives can only be lived in New York City. It’s not a good look. Let’s stop talking about boroughs already. New Jersey has never been that interesting.