Brave New ‘Burbs

Maybe you've been wondering what happened to the old, ultraconservative Dallas. Look north.

ARE YOU A TOURIST?” ASKED the pretty young salesclerk at Candy World in the massive Stonebriar Centre mall in Frisco.

It’s always a little embarrassing to be asked that, but I tried to muster my best patronizing, big-city smile.

“Well, yes, I’m from Dallas,” I replied.

She seemed thoroughly unimpressed. That’s the way it is in the suburbs these days. People have gotten downright disrespectful of their urban neighbors. Twenty years ago, when I was researching a book in the then-nascent suburban sprawl north of Dallas, folks seemed pretty interested in the hipster journalist from the city, with his black jeans and jogging shoes. Now I’m a “tourist.” Maybe that’s because it’s harder to be a hipster at 53 than at 33, but it’s also because, during the past two decades, the axis of commercial and political power in metropolitan Dallas has shifted unmistakably northward. Those of us from Dallas are not only old guys, but old guys from the Old World.

The New World is Collin County, a collection of once and future suburban boomtowns just north of Dallas that includes Plano, Allen, McKinney, and Frisco. Each one has reenacted the Dallas success story: A little town with no reason for being—no port, no river, no founding industry—but its own ambition and pluck suddenly finds itself growing exponentially. Plano, which was mostly prairie only twenty years ago, now has a population of 285,000 and is nearly completely “built out.” It is no longer merely a bedroom community but a commercial hub in its own right, which companies such as J. C. Penney, Frito-Lay, Electronic Data Systems, and Alcatel call home and where residents can dine at second editions of almost all of Dallas’ finest restaurants. A decade ago, Frisco was a wheezing old farm town (population: 6,138) of the sort that you passed through when trying to avoid construction on the interstate and admired for its quaint grain silos. Today it is the fastest-growing town in the fastest-growing county in the state, a bustling suburb of nearly 60,000 mostly college-educated Gen X’ers whose median age is thirty and whose average annual income is $80,000. At current rates of growth, in 25 to 30 years Frisco’s population will be a quarter of a million and Collin County’s a million and a half or so—about 70 percent of Dallas County’s, assuming the Old World doesn’t lose population, which it probably will.

But Collin County is about more than just demographics. It is also one of the most intensely Republican habitats in America, a place where Republicanism is not just a political philosophy but a lifestyle, where the virtues of limited government, low taxes, volunteerism, optimism, and born-again religion are woven deep into the social fabric. These are new Republicans—Bush Republicans—more middle class than country club, more activist than aloof. If the sprawling subdivisions of Orange County in Southern California came to represent the Reagan Revolution back in the eighties, then Collin County may be seen as ground zero of the George W. Bush insurgency.

It has already proved this on the political bottom line: Collin County is now considered the sort of impervious GOP bulwark that Dallas County once was. The latter has recorded entirely too many Democratic votes in recent elections (mainly a result of its swelling Hispanic population) to be trusted anymore. Dallas elected two Democratic mayors in a row (Ron Kirk and Laura Miller), and in the 2000 election, a mere 54 percent of its voters supported the Bush-Cheney ticket—an unthinkably low majority for what was once one of the most Republican urban counties in the nation. Collin County, on the other hand, went three to one for Bush and, perhaps more important, fully 41 percent of its 300,000 voters voted a straight GOP ticket—by far the highest among the state’s larger counties. To its critics, Collin County and its boomtown du jour, Frisco, may appear to be unexceptional suburban expanses of freeways, malls, and McMansions occasionally interrupted by bright green pastures with grazing cattle and goats. But they are quite exceptional indeed in the political sense—there is perhaps nowhere in the country that is quite so attuned to the current Republican zeitgeist. Collin County is as important to the Republican party as Detroit—with its steelworkers and autoworkers and big unions—was to the Democratic party in the fifties.

THE VERY EXISTENCE OF COLLIN COUNTY is, of course, sharply at odds with the notion, espoused by former vice president Al Gore and others, that suburban sprawl engenders little more than ennui, foreboding, and disconnectedness. Seven years ago, when the boom in Frisco was still a gleam in developers’ eyes, city fathers actually began planning to make Frisco a different sort of ‘burb once the inevitable northward migration crossed into their city limits. The centerpiece of the effort was the Millennium Plan, which argued that all housing in the suburbs needn’t be so stultifyingly uniform, that developers should be encouraged to provide residents with adequate common parkland and with homes constructed of eco-friendly materials, that pedestrian movement has a place in the land of the car, and that the city needed to create “neighborhoods” instead of “subdivisions.” The scenario painted is of a kind of touchy-feely, classless utopia where modest “starter” homes rub elbows with elegant executive homes in the half-a-million-dollar range, where classes are limited in population by law so that “no child is left behind,” where every family has its personal bit of green space for a Sunday picnic.

On a tour with the current mayor, Mike Simpson, I saw enough unexpected greenbelts and ponds and fountains among the unfinished roads and houses and office parks to envision a finished product that would satisfy the most hardened environmentalist. Not that anyone here is inclined to use that term. What I kept hearing was that this is a community that is sensitive to “quality-of-life issues.” This is what the conservative journal of record, National Review, has labeled “granola conservatism,” a variation on the ideological beast that lists slightly leftward on matters of lifestyle, popular culture,

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