Why the Fixation on Downtown is Wrong

D Magazine , May 2002

The skyline of downtown Dallas is beautiful at night, even more so in the late evening when just enough hidden sunlight lingers to turn the sky a deep blue. Outlined in green or blue, marked with X's, topped with flying horses or giant spheres, the buildings of downtown promise a special place. Convention organizers, hotels, real estate companies, and corporate recruiters use that image to sell the area.

Those of us who live here, of course, know downtown is not what the pictures promise. It's almost empty after dark, and even in the daytime its buildings aren't nearly as appealing as they look from afar. The streets are a confusing tangle, with one-way traffic flows assigned in what seems like a random fashion. Even the more attractive vistas, like the one from the steps of the Morning News building, lack the normal signs of urban vitality. The little park is nice, but where, you find yourself asking, do people who work here buy lunch?

Dallas movers and shakers are always trying to fix downtown. All right-thinking Dallasites must affirm that downtown is as central to the city's fate as it is to its geography, that in some real and important way downtown is Dallas. No one can suggest in polite company that the city's strength, vitality, or urban image might lie somewhere outside the bounds of the freeways that ring those skyscrapers and civic monuments. It's an unchallenged assumption that with the right plan and enough subsidies from the rest of Dallas, downtown will reassume its rightful place as the center of metropolitan life.

"A great city requires a sense of unity," wrote David Biegler, chairman of the Central Dallas Association, in the February 10 Morning News section kicking off the paper's eight-day series on revitalizing downtown. "An urban fabric requires a vibrant center. There are no great cities without a unifying common ground, and for this city and region, it still is downtown Dallas."

This conventional wisdom is based on a complete misunderstanding of how and why cities evolve and what makes cities great. Biegler has good intentions (who could be against a vibrant downtown?), but his claim, which sums up establishment thinking, proves just how immature Dallas really is. As a factual assertion about great cities, it is total nonsense. It would be more correct to say there are no great cities with a unifying common ground.

Los Angeles obviously falsifies Biegler's statement, but so do New York, Chicago, San Francisco, and Boston. Once you get to know it as something more than a tourist, so does Washington, D.C. Great cities aren't great because they have vibrant centers. These cities are great because, as a friend of mine says of his own particular favorite, "San Francisco is a city of great neighborhoods."

Neighborhoods, diverse and nearly self-contained, neighborhoods with distinct personalities, neighborhoods that grew without a common purpose or central plan. My San Francisco-loving friend rattles off names: North Beach, Russian Hill, Chinatowns old and new, the Marina, Richmond, Sunset, the Haight, Cole Valley, the Castro, Noe Valley, the Mission. Downtown San Francisco, the place where you'll find the Transamerica Pyramid, is just a bunch of financial-service buildings, empty after dark. San Francisco has no center. It has neighborhoods. That's true of all great cities.

Tourists may flock to Broadway and Times Square and make pilgrimages to what was once the World Trade Center, but none of those places is the "vibrant center" or "common ground" of New York City life. New Yorkers love their city for its variety. It is vibrant because it has no single center.

Great cities work because they draw people who have their own purposes, find or create their own communities, and contribute to the urban fabric in unexpected ways. A great city doesn't require a unifying common ground. It requires just the opposite: lots of centers, each with enough amenities to support its own little world.

There's a phrase for a city with a unifying common ground: small town.

And there is a desperate, small-town quality to the Dallas conventional wisdom. It expresses a simplistic faith that civic greatness is something that can be planned by a tiny elite--the sort of civic directors who can exist only in a place that is either tiny or politically oppressed, neither of which describes today's Dallas. Great cities are much too complex and, yes, too vibrant to submit to the plans of editorialists and self-appointed leaders. Great cities have a way of producing surprises.

One of the biggest surprises in recent years is, in fact, the rebirth of center-city neighborhoods. "The most striking thing about American central cities in the very late 20th century is that contrary to everything people were saying in the '60s and '70s, they have roared back," says Robert Bruegmann, an architectural and urban historian at the University of Illinois, Chicago.

That recovery didn't start downtown, and many of the most vibrant areas aren't, in fact, the old downtowns. The Back Bay isn't downtown Boston or even adjacent to it. The Magnificent Mile shopping district on North Michigan Avenue isn't downtown Chicago; the Loop is.

The big-city neighborhoods that Dallas opinion leaders mistake for downtowns attract people who like the stimulation and convenience of urban density more than the privacy and space of the suburbs. They offer a specialized lifestyle, not an economic or cultural center and not a model for the entire city. And they're relatively recent phenomena.

"Chicago downtown doesn't at all look the way it did in 1972, when the Hancock building went up," says Bruegmann. "At that point, if you were up at the top of the Hancock building and looked down, you just saw a sea of parking lots. Half that area was parking lots."

Sound familiar?

"It's only within the last 10 years or so," Bruegmann says, "that almost all of those parking lots have disappeared finally." The parking lots didn't go away because the Chicago Tribune launched a campaign to seize them through eminent domain to build parks and civic monuments. The parking lots disappeared because economic growth from outside downtown created a demand for urban amenities, especially among young, affluent people. Land prices rose, and all of those empty lots became valuable again, recycled into new, hitherto unimagined uses. "These are places where the prosperity of the last 20 years has started to infill back into the city," Bruegmann says.

Bruegmann, who's a student of urban evolution, is bullish on downtown Dallas. Just wait, he says. What seems like an eternity is only an economic upturn away. "Once the economy picks up," he predicts, "downtown Dallas could take off and create situations that no one could imagine right now."

Downtown boosters can't see the process because they're fixated on grand plans. They equate urban life with what they can see from their office windows. They say they want, in the words of a Morning News editorial, "a more livable, culturally sophisticated" city like Chicago, but they insist that the livable, culturally sophisticated place must start downtown.

In their rush to plan and control, they ignore the process by which the new form of urban life is evolving. That evolution is starting not in the old business center but, as in Chicago, on its edges, moving from Deep Ellum, Uptown, and other fringe areas inward. Downtown may come last in the process but it will come eventually, unless its possibilities--all those parking lots and empty buildings--are forced to take on new identities too soon.