The Most Perfect, Charming, Elegant, Graceful, Cozy, Genteel, Affluent 2.2 Square Miles in Texas

My thirty years in Highland Park.

September 2003By Comments

I AM NOT “OLD HIGHLAND PARK.” Old Highland Park is much too genteel to call attention to itself in print. A friend who grew up here says, “It used to be that if you wanted to show off, you had to move to Preston Hollow.” I’m not even a Republican, although the Republican National Committee seems to think my ’05 zip code entitles me to a steady stream of solicitations, certificates, and fine eight-by-ten color photographs of the Bush family and, before them, the Reagans.

There are much grander places to live with more acreage farther north in Dallas. During the real estate boom of the seventies, mansions built in new suburbs boasted enormous walk-in closets and Roman spa bathrooms, which made Highland Park’s once elegant third-floor ballrooms seem merely quaint. A recent article about “downsizing” due to the economy suggested that one might consider jettisoning the mansion for a more modest place in Highland Park. Still, there is an aura about the tiny island city that everyone here calls “the Bubble,” 2.2 square miles surrounded on three sides by Dallas and to the north by sister city University Park. In Dallas’ growth years following World War II, most of the downtown business leaders lived in the Park Cities. Important people flew in to Love Field, just a mile from Highland Park. They might have lunch in a downtown club, but in the evening they were frequently entertained in Highland Park homes. Visitors accepted this place as the face of Dallas, until the image was supplanted by J. R. Ewing and Southfork.

When we moved to Dallas from Austin, in 1969, my husband, John, was a young lawyer and I was a schoolteacher. For $150 a month we lived in a post-war upstairs duplex on Hawthorne in the Oaklawn area, just one block from the millionaires of Armstrong Parkway. Sometimes our evening’s entertainment was a drive through Highland Park. With their draperies drawn back, candles lit, and chandeliers gleaming, these houses seemed charmingly hospitable, sophisticated, and gracious, and we enjoyed imagining the graceful lives of people living there.

We did not aspire to live in Highland Park, even after our first child was born. Public schools in Dallas were holding their own at the time. We simply found a two-bedroom, two-bath Tudor cottage we liked and could almost afford on Normandy, a block from McCulloch Middle School. The “location, location, location” that real estate people scream about was perfect: ten minutes from John’s office, four blocks from the elementary school—and a neighborhood swimming pool, tennis courts, and small public library were only a bike ride away. The libraries, musical offerings, and theater performances at Southern Methodist University were within walking distance. Some old friends from our University of Texas days who, like us, would eventually have three sons, lived just down the street. Our house even had nine-and-a-half-foot ceilings, which accommodated the early parsonage Victorian furniture we had inherited from my husband’s grandmother. Hot and sweaty from the move into the little house with window-unit air conditioners, I shared a Coke with one of the young men who helped us move. “This is Highland Park, isn’t it?” he said. “Can I ask you something?”

“Sure, though I probably won’t know the answer.”

“Don’t you have to be somebody special or get approved by someone to live here?”

We struggled to meet the house payment in our cute redo, unredone. I sold my piano to buy a more useful washing machine. John parked his car in our narrow little garage; my lumbering old Chevy Caprice, which from our years of uncovered parking had a slightly peeling vinyl top, remained on the side street. The doorbell rang one evening, and I was met by a Highland Park policeman, who asked if he should call for a tow truck to remove what he took to be an abandoned vehicle. We figured our shabby auto was the first item in our Highland Park police dossier, along with a note that recorded our failed attempt to use the Highland Park swimming pool in 1969, when we were still living on Hawthorne.

Life was good. We gained all of the advantages of a small town with the cultural amenities of a large city. The crossing guard knew our kids by name. When our move to a larger house in the neighborhood, in 1978, coincided with the first day of school, the same crossing guard saw that my first- and third-grade little boys found the new route home. Armstrong Elementary School was an all-embracing school, where principal Kenneth Thomas stood at the front door greeting each child by name every morning. Block parties were an established tradition. The town still provides sawhorse signs ready to detour traffic when a “community event” is in progress. Kids with no bicycle helmets rode free as the wind to the swimming pool in the summer, stopping off coming or going for a 25-cent Coke from the “nonprofit” machine at the town’s fire station. I tried to upgrade their summer experiences with trips to the library, art classes, and swimming lessons, but most of the time my boys lived what they now call “the Last Great Childhood,” swarming in and out of neighbors’ back doors, lightly supervised, building forts with construction scraps, damming up parts of Hackberry Creek, capturing crawdads, and declaring water balloon wars that sometimes added reports of “collateral damage” to our HP police dossier.

AS OUR CHILDREN GREW UP, the neighborhood gradually became more affluent and more monolithic. It was becoming the ritzy, country-clubby neighborhood its founders had envisioned. Cottages like our first Highland Park home, which was built during the Depression, were never a part of developers Flippen and Prather’s original plan. I noted the changes in a 1978 piece for this magazine called “Love Thy Neighborhood.” Middle-class traditions so well established by women who swept their own walks and minded each other’s children were less appealing to a new generation with more cash. Mexican men with roaring leaf blowers took over lawn work previously done by teenage boys. A kid-friendly neighborhood store behind McCulloch Middle School, which had supplied children with after-school candy and mothers with a ready stock of milk and bread, was bulldozed. The small, uncommercialized Fourth of July parade for our three-block area on Normandy—a color guard of Boy Scouts, decorated bicycles, some horses, and a patriotic speech by our very own federal judge, Sarah T. Hughes—was forgotten one year and never revived. More and more mothers went to work. The gathering of young moms late in the day to watch the tricycle traffic and commiserate over the frustrations of their day dwindled.

In 1976 developer Henry S. Miller bought the historic Highland Park Village, built in 1931, and transformed it into Rodeo Drive. The useful stores—a dime store, a hardware store, a bookstore that rather absurdly had a lending library, a dry cleaner, and a drugstore that once had a soda fountain—were later replaced by Chanel, Calvin Klein, Ralph Lauren, Williams-Sonoma, Bottega Veneta, and most recently, Jimmy Choo’s as well as the ubiquitous Banana Republic and Ann Taylor. A favorite Tex-Mex place and the staid old S&S Tea Room, where everything on the plate except the chicken à la king jiggled, gave way to sleeker restaurants. Kids can still get a hamburger at the new Who’s Who Burgers, where one of the choices is a $9.75 bacon cheeseburger made of Kobe beef. The old movie theater, made into two small theaters, survived and offers Paciugo’s Italian gelato downstairs. A see-and-be-seen Starbucks allows beautiful people, fresh from their workouts, to sit with their laptops and stylish dogs all day. Only Cooter’s Village Camera shop, the St. Michael’s Woman’s Exchange, a charitable gift shop and gift-wrapping service run by volunteers, and Deno’s shoe repair shop remain. We break a lot of Manolos in this neighborhood.

The changes in Highland Park Village were inconvenient for those of us who wanted to pick up a loaf of bread without feeling that we had to be groomed for a movie set, and now we find the same changes occurring within our neighborhood. Highland Park’s notoriously strict building codes suddenly seem completely ineffective at reining in the steroidal structures that are replacing older, more modest homes. Building to the absolute limit the codes allow makes good financial sense to speculative builders. Good architects, however, advise their clients of the impact a design will have on the surrounding neighbors. Homeowners shouldn’t have to apologize after the fact—”I didn’t know it was going to be so big.” But affluent two-income home-buyers don’t come here looking for cute redos.

Noble efforts by Park Cities Preservation and the Park Cities Historical Society to identify landmark buildings and keep the character of the old neighborhood intact are garnering publicity but not much ground. When homebuilders purchased a noted stone-and-glass Howard Meyer house on Rheims Place and announced plans to raze it, preservationist groups expressed outrage and mounted a grassroots campaign to save it. Ventura Custom Homes responded with an unprecedented offer to resell the house at the price they’d paid for it ($1.6 million) to anyone willing to restore it. No valid offers appeared. According to the Dallas Morning News, Ventura then offered to give the house to anyone willing to move it to another lot and pay up to $3,000 in moving costs. No one stepped forward. After many extensions, the house was bulldozed in June. A red-tile-roofed Spanish Revival house, which seems to be the mansion of choice these days, is now rising on the lot.

THE BIGGEST DRAW FOR THIS NEIGHBORHOOD is the Highland Park Independent School District, which covers Highland Park, University Park, and a small portion of Dallas. The district appears on almost any short list of the best public schools in the country. Parental involvement and pride in the schools are legendary. Mothers and, now, more fathers, continue the tradition of serving lunch in the cafeterias to all twelve grades. Teachers and principals, some of whom were once students in the system, came and stayed their whole careers, sometimes teaching a second generation.

The good schools keep our neighborhood young. Consequently, Highland Park schools are at capacity. Ugly portable buildings have taken up permanent residence at all four elementary schools. People who make the expensive decision to buy here are sometimes dismayed to learn that public school is no longer free. Participating in school sports now costs $250 per student. Fundraisers and parent support groups have multiplied since the advent of Robin Hood, the now-notorious school-finance law that diverts a percentage of our school taxes to needier districts.

With their revenue capped, Highland Park schools are scrambling to trim budgets. The HPISD has never received federal funds, a peculiar point of pride that may stem from the fear of outside interference fostered in the Bubble in the desegregation days. A former school-board member says that the small amount of federal money for which the district might qualify has never seemed worth the administrative costs or restrictions that might follow. The current belt-tightening, however, may force the board to take another look at federal funds for special education and girls’ athletics. The next thing you know, we’ll put fluoride in our water supply.

The struggles with Robin Hood have made statewide inequities in education, which previously did not affect us, hard to ignore. Recent budget cutting means that English teachers at Highland Park High School, who once taught four classes of 20 to 22 students, now have five classes of nearly 30. “It takes at least twenty minutes to mark an essay thoughtfully,” says an English teacher with nine years’ experience who is departing for a private school this fall. “I can’t be the kind of teacher I like to be with thirty kids.”

EVEN THOUGH I THOUGHT MY CHILDREN’S elementary school in the eighties was cozy and academically excellent, I worried that the excessive homogeneity of skin color (only this year did Highland Park get its first African American resident homeowners) and socioeconomic background was giving them a distorted and obsolete view of the world they would have to live in. We took some comfort that Armstrong Elementary drew from SMU’s married-student housing, which had a sizable number of kids whose first language was not English. Attending birthday parties for children at Hawk Hall, which housed SMU’s Perkins Theology School’s married students, was reassuring evidence of our multiculturalism and diversity.

But a copy of a letter in my files suggests that the brief “global” exposure may not have been enough. In middle school, my youngest son and some classmates were assigned a project to write a skit about knowing right from wrong. My son brought home their effort for me to type. (“My mother is a typist!”) The sixth graders had chosen to write the entire skit in black dialect. The plot involved knocking off a liquor store. I typed the skit verbatim and attached a letter to the teacher indicating my dismay and suggesting that the racist skit offered an excellent opportunity for talking about the problems inherent in growing up in a neighborhood so devoid of other races. “From a writer’s standpoint,” I said, “they need to know that they will write a better skit if they use the dialect they know best, their own middle school slang. Has Eddie Murphy taught them that one has to be black to be funny?” If I was a bit zealous, it was because earlier in the week, I had attended a high school basketball game at which our students, the host school, had chanted “White trash, white trash” to the visiting team, students, and parents from an outlying suburb. Our kids needed to learn that they too were ripe for stereotyping.

In 1981 a couple of enterprising Highland Park seniors, Philip Chalk and Evan Wyly, did just that with a clever satirical poster titled “Do You Belong in Highland Park?” The poster displays a pair of bored, preppy-looking teenagers with a sporty red Mercedes parked in front of the school. They are attended by servants in livery (one being the popular high school chemistry teacher) who are bearing silver trays of gifts and their schoolbooks. A list of questions on the poster purports to determine whether you belong in Highland Park: “Do you . . . Love things, use people? Have cyclical genes: HPHS-UT-HP? Refer casually to ‘The Club’? Dash off checks at age eight? Scamper off to Young Life camp, forget your Bible, and never notice? Find everything sooooo tacky until someone else says otherwise?”

Arrows pointing to the girl’s head list its contents as “the Dallas Country Club menu memorized, otherwise empty.” Her glove compartment contains 27 casually misplaced parking tickets for Daddy to take care of, a deposit on her room at Hardin House, near UT, and the rush guides for SMU and UT.

The boy is wearing Ray-Bans, rose-tinted, of course. His wallet contains “nine gas cards, seven spare fifties, and four phone numbers: Pop’s lawyer, Ruby’s Bail Bonds, Rolex repair, and Carlos, who sells . . . well, anyway, Carlos.”

In the past decade, required community service at the high school and mission trips sponsored by local churches have aimed to right the balance for kids in a neighborhood where being mindless of the needs of others is so easy. But political issues seldom intrude on everyday life. Our town, ever mindful of appearances, actually had an ordinance on the books prohibiting political signs in yards until someone pointed out that while it might keep things tidier, it is also unconstitutional.

YEARS AGO DALLAS USED TO BE described as “the city that works.” Highland Park is “the city that works the way Dallas used to work.” That is a compliment and an indictment. The planting and maintenance in our parks and common areas are creative and flawless. Emergency response time from our public safety officers is two minutes. Roadwork, sidewalk repair, tree trimming, recycling, and trash pickup are handled promptly, with the least inconvenience to the resident. My discarded Christmas tree disappears from my parkway only minutes after I drag it there. Crews in Highland Park often work around the clock to minimize disruption, unless the noise involved is of a higher decibel than creek frogs or our summer cicadas. The small public library, with its helpful staff and online accessibility, invariably has the books I want to read.

Local elections in Highland Park are rarely contested. The occasional school-board controversy gets everybody out to vote, but for the most part, this neighborhood deplores confrontational politics. It’s not that politically powerful people don’t live here; it’s just that when everyone is presumed to think alike, political expression seems to be beside the point. One of the things people give up by choosing to live here is personal political clout in the city of Dallas. I lift my pen to address some outrage in Dallas and then put it down, realizing that I can’t even vote in a Dallas election.

Town council meetings are rarely attended by anyone other than an occasional Boy Scout fulfilling requirements for a merit badge. The affable good-old-boyism of our town council, a trusteeship usually held by men who grew up here, is called into question only when tricky zoning issues and odd construction variances arise, turning neighbor against neighbor. Most of the time, we are grateful that someone is willing to preside over aging sewer lines and infrastructure repairs without bothering us. The story is told of Mrs. Rose Lloyd, the wealthy Highland Park widow who, on receiving a copy of the town budget in the mail, thought it was her tax bill and sent the city a check to pay it. Perhaps the story is a metaphor for the oblivion brought on by the civic pampering citizens receive here.

The mayor, Bill White, a handsome, genial man in his late sixties who grew up in the neighborhood (of course), says, “We have nine thousand citizens here, and many of ’em believe they’re living in a five-star hotel. When anything goes wrong, they call the hotel manager. That’s me.” Inscribed on the town council chamber wall is this statement: “A haven for home and fireside—undisturbed by conflict of commercial or political interest. The function of government in HP is protection of the home. Citizens who cherish their homes will vigilantly preserve their heritage of self-government.” I’m not sure what that means. I think perhaps it could be reduced to the sign that hangs on most hotel doors: “Do Not Disturb.”

My husband can attest to the fact that no complaint is too small. He often comes home early to sit in the back yard and do more contemplative law work while smoking a cigar. He once complained to his good friend on the council that the town needed to do something about the roaring helicopters that veer from their traffic-reporting corridors on Central Expressway to interrupt his train of thought. Our councilman friend rushed right over to present my husband with a set of earplugs. When I jokingly mentioned the incident to our public safety director, Darrell Fant, he responded quite seriously, “You know, I worked on that problem for several weeks, and I’m sorry that I haven’t been able to get the matter resolved.”

Highland Park residents often call on the city for help. A variation on the old lightbulb joke comes to mind. “How many Highland Park residents does it take to replace a lightbulb? None. The police do it for us.” Fant admits that residents call the police the minute anything goes wrong. “If the lights go out, they don’t call TXU. They call us.” The police get calls to cut off the water when a sprinkler system breaks. They locate fuse boxes, relight water heaters, and even respond to “birds in the chimney.” Neighbors on my street spend fortunes hiring crews to create exquisite Christmas light displays that are turned on Thanksgiving evening and then call the police to complain that they can’t get out of their driveway because of the traffic created by holiday gawkers. Fant also confirmed that the legendary story of the Highland Park widow who called 911 when the zipper stuck on her ball gown is not apocryphal.

“What do you do to keep from getting bored?” I asked Fant, who oversees a force of 54 men and women who serve as police, firefighters, and paramedics. He admits that he has a Disneyland dream job. Only applicants with college degrees are considered for these positions. Highland Park’s police force has become a test laboratory for cutting-edge crime-fighting technology, such as Global Positioning System equipment (for 2.2 square miles!). The myth continues to circulate that HP residents never receive DWI’s; they are cited as “DIC,” “Drunk in Car.” But Fant denies that residents are given any leeway when it comes to breaking the law. He regards as a matter of personal pride that the neighborhood no longer dismisses teen drunkenness as a “rite of passage.”

The police force has occasionally been accused of racial profiling on traffic stops, but Fant says, “I know people think we do, but we don’t. This neighborhood discriminates economically but not racially. We just know our people and their habits. We know who belongs here and who doesn’t. For example, our residents do not jog in the alley at three in the morning.” I wondered if I should warn him that I have been known to climb out the window of my attic office to sleep on the flat roof on a cool spring evening. Perhaps he already knows.

AFTER THIRTY YEARS OF LIVING in this peculiar neighborhood, it is home. My sons imprinted their names and small hands in the fresh cement behind our house on Normandy 24 years ago. I never take for granted the brilliant fall color or the spring display of pear blossoms, daffodils, azaleas, tulips, and wisteria, and the lush summer expanses of St. Augustine banked by impatiens and cool caladiums. Nor do I take for granted the longstanding comfortable friendships that grace my day.

The Bible Belt habit of churchgoing in this neighborhood continues unabated. Jesus and Saint Paul are regular invitees at fantasy dinner parties, according to the resident profiles in our weekly newspapers. The churches, however, are not in Highland Park. Highland Park Presbyterian is in University Park and Highland Park United Methodist straddles the border between the two towns. At the outset, developers of our suburb surmised that churches would contribute nothing to the tax rolls and create parking problems. We have the liquor stores.

We keep up appearances here. My own personal trainer, a chocolate Lab named Cisco, and I walk every day. The Lab and the golden retriever are the official pets of Highland Park. We have laws about pet poop, so my walks take me down alleys in search of a garbage can to dispose of Cisco’s double-bagged contribution. Even the alleys are lovely. Our own alley is the only sunny spot for my husband’s seldom-weeded summer garden, but on my forays to fancier blocks, I have found latticed compost bins and built-up garden boxes in the alley, spilling over with rosemary and mint or filled with plants relegated to the alley because, even though they are perennials, they do not die back as beautifully as they bloom. Antique roses in search of more sun than tree-shaded yards offer climb over the alley fences. Garbage cans are elevated in racks or in tiled enclosures and generally kept tightly lidded. The Bubble is not without varmints.

I once sat in a town council meeting where one of the neighborhood complaints was careless garbage collection that left litter and cans askew. Even before I walked these alleys redolent of roses, I knew that being a garbage man in Highland Park was not all bad. One resident raised her hand in the council meeting and confessed, “I’ve never had any problems with trash in my alley. I guess it’s because whenever the weather is especially hot, they honk and I or the maid runs out there and gives the men a beer each.”

All of this striving for perfection and niceness can sometimes be overwhelming. How can people who receive so many catalogs have such uncluttered houses? Why are kitchens so well equipped for cooking so free of the signs of use? How can these hordes of pre-dawn joggers keep their discipline season after season? I nod to neighbors walking their dogs and I expect them to say, “Be seeing you,” as village residents responded in Patrick McGoohan’s television cult classic The Prisoner. I get restless and escape to Austin, where spontaneity and stirring things up a bit are not anathema. After a few days of battling Austin traffic, however, I am relieved to head north again, happy to catch sight of the Dallas skyline and even happier to feel the stress of the highway fall away as I bump across the old Katy roadbed and tumble into the tranquillity of the Bubble. My 75-year-old house, with its messy attic office overlooking the street, is shaded by fifty-foot pecan trees. When I pull into my driveway, I am seduced again by the slogan that first attracted buyers to this suburb: “It’s ten degrees cooler in Highland Park.”

Last fall I had the privilege of introducing Ann Richards at the Texas Book Festival in the House chamber of the state capitol. I had been up late the night before, and my notes were a little blurry. Among many accolades I recounted was the governor’s giving the keynote address, the famous silver-foot speech, at the Republican Convention. I caught my blooper immediately and bowed my head to the podium. Without missing a beat, Richards responded, “If Prudence thinks I gave the keynote address at the Republican Convention, I’d say she’s been living in Highland Park too long.”


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