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Book Review: The Dallas Myth

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Categorized Under: Books, History or Science

Dallas skyline, 1913

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Harvey Graff’s new book, The Dallas Myth: The Making and Unmaking of an American City, is a thorough and devastating examination of how Dallas developed its larger-than-life image, its aggressive business culture, its ambitions, its conformity and fearfulness – and, especially, its malign neglect of the past.

A history and English professor at Ohio State University, Graff lived here for more than 20 years, teaching at the University of Texas at Dallas and eventually teaching a class on Dallas’ history. In doing so, he discovered how ignorant his students were about Big D. The bus tour of the city that his class would take often was the first time many had ever visited downtown.

Why should they? And why should anyone care about Dallas’ past? This, as Dallasites know, is the city without history. It’s almost a boast: Because it has no natural attractions and the Trinity River is not navigable to the Gulf of Mexico, the city has no apparent reason to exist.

Actually, those are myths that were invented in the ‘20s and ‘30s. There were perfectly practical reasons to build a city here. Dallas stood on trade routes and was surrounded by great land for cattle , wheat and cotton (and later, oil). That was how the city first sold itself to people headed west. It was only when hard times hit and the Dallas labor market began turning to unions that the city began promoting our lack of history or natural resources.

Why? Because, Graff says, if there was nothing here, then our city leaders and businessmen must have been visionaries, building all this from scratch. It makes them look particularly heroic. And if there’s no historical significance to anything, everything is up for grabs — anything can be bought, bulldozed and redeveloped. Dallas is constantly reinventing itself like this in the hopes that the next big project will change everything (while fearing that it won’t). Simultaneously, it’s constantly trying to bury the past – such as its history of racial violence.

Dallas skyline, 1935 (Davenport & Wiggins)

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In much of this, Graff notes, Dallas is not unusual. The ruling business interests, the hunger for outside approval, the fabrication of historic-looking buildings: These are true of many American cities. We may brag about our independence, our free-market faith – but Dallas, like many cities, has depended on government handouts, from the deal that got us the Federal Reserve Bank back in 1912 and the defense spending that helped the city boom during World War II up to today’s government contracts in medical research and telecommunications.

Nevertheless, Graff concludes that Dallas truly is different — because of the Dallas Way. The Dallas Way is our city’s tradition of weak democracy, of letting commercial interests commandeer city government. Private profit-making and public policy blend in Dallas in ways that would set off alarms in other cities, Graff writes. But the tradition has been that Dallas’ great business leaders set aside personal gain for the good of the city. Graff points out, however, that their idea of what constituted Dallas managed to leave South Dallas and West Dallas off the map. Even at its most enlightened, the Dallas Way was mostly the North Dallas Way.

This general mindset — mixing the ideology of the free market with the reality of a well-connected business oligarchy — has given us the kind of city one might expect, Graff says. We have corporate skyscrapers like giant jewels, monumental developments like Victory Park or the Trinity River project – and we have a starving infrastructure. We have a school district whose white, middle-class tax base abandoned it when desegregation was ordered, and we have a half-billion-dollar Arts District that can’t keep people downtown after the symphony’s over. The long-term work of forging a real community or a cultural audience or a top-notch research university doesn’t attract many captains of industry.

Dallas skyline from dallassky.com

Graff declares that, in effect, the Dallas Way has failed Dallas, and he offers a long list of charges, including the way it stalled the 14-1 council reform out of a fear of losing control to democracy and, more recently, how it frustrated Mayor Laura Miller’s attempt to re-focus the city on small-bore “livability” issues. Graff gives special emphasis to the 2004 Booz Allen Hamilton report commissioned by The Dallas Morning News (“Dallas at the Tipping Point”) — which found city leadership seriously wanting when it came to today’s challenges in urban development, particularly the city’s “legacy of racism and neglect.”

It’s not as if Graff were breaking news on much of this. As he himself indicates, The Dallas Myth builds on the work of historians Patricia Hill and Michael Phillips and journalist Jim Schutze. Perhaps their revisionist approach is finally gaining traction.

The Dallas Myth may advance this approach, but it also hobbles it: Reading much of the book is a chore. The preface and introduction hooked me, but the book becomes grindingly repetitious, and its prose style often slips the surly bonds of English to soar into the academic lingo of “dichotomous portrayals” and “formative interrelationships.”

Graff is dogged. Such thoroughness is admirable in a historian. In a writer, it can read like overkill. As he demonstrates our city’s lack of real identity by going through songs about Dallas, novels about Dallas, every major Dallas building, it feels more like he’s settling a grudge.

It’s frustrating. At one point, Graff notes that part of the Dallas Way is the belief that you’re either with us or against us. With Dallas, there’s no complex middle ground. It’s frustrating because The Dallas Myth makes it too easy for many Dallasites to decide just where Graff stands – so they can safely ignore him.

[A minor point but in the interests of full disclosure: Michael Phillips, author of The White Metropolis, is my brother-in law.]

  • Bill M.

    Interesting in light of Dallas’ compulsive forgetfulness that local media have largely overlooked this book. You can’t say that they’ve ignored it completely. There has been a mumbled comment here and there. But in other cities citizens would be locked in debate by now.
    I doubt if many Dallas residents even know the book exists, much less what it says about their city.
    It might help if the book were better written. But it’s an academic work, with all that comes with that mode of writing.

  • http://musea.us Tom Hendricks

    The Dallas Way is hopefully on its way out! Dallas deserves better and needs better to grow.