Brave New ‘Burbs

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

September 2003By Comments

“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, and the environment. It should greatly worry whoever’s in charge of bringing the Democratic party back from the dead. While these conservatives still loathe the environmental-protection bureaucracy and are reluctant to address the endangered-species issue, they are concerned about green space and smog in their own back yards and therefore are at least partly sympathetic to the tenets of the New Urbanism. To the extent that a place like Frisco succeeds, its example may prove a valuable way for Republicans to finally make up some ground on environmental issues.

Frisco is also a model of urban development—a place that welcomes growth but insists that it be done right. Through a mixture of smart planning and an ingenious use of tax-incentive schemes, Frisco is both liquid and blessed with low taxes. And everywhere you look, there is evidence of large-scale, high-speed growth. In addition to the Stonebriar Centre, Frisco has a shiny new baseball stadium for its newly acquired minor league baseball team, the Frisco RoughRiders. Soon there will be another new stadium for the Dallas Burn professional soccer team, training facilities for the Dallas Stars hockey team, more retail and condo developments, and a hotel and convention center. Frisco is also reviving its sleepy downtown. A planned development will restore the town’s historic Main Street, add four million square feet of office and residential space designed, in an architectural style reminiscent of the twenties, by one of the state’s most prominent architects, David Schwarz (the Ballpark in Arlington, American Airlines Center in Dallas), and throw in new municipal buildings for good measure. High-tech companies such as EADS Telecom have begun to move to the city’s Hall Office Park, where Dallas developer Craig Hall has created an instant landmark using parkland, water, and sleek corporate architecture.

The willingness of Friscans to pitch in and help with some of the heavy lifting is also rapidly becoming a community trademark. The Bush push for volunteerism may have been swallowed by war and recession at the level of national policy, but in Frisco, citizens are practicing what the president has been preaching. The city has a taxpayer-supported volunteer coordinator whose work is viewed as being every bit as important as that of the economic-development office. The Frisco Family Services Center, which provides food and other essentials to the needy, is entirely funded by local donations and relies heavily on volunteers, and has proved especially valuable during the present recession in the tech sector, which has tripled the unemployment rate in many parts of Collin County. Each spring, thousands of residents turn out to clean up litter in the city.

And then there is the sheer, unbridled optimism. Everywhere I went in Frisco, people said they felt lucky that they’d found this place. Unlike many booming suburbs, its traffic is not yet chaotic, and a morning spent riding with a police patrol yielded no problem greater than the officer’s occasional inability to figure out where the dispatcher was directing him. There is a particular lift to the gait of denizens here that is reminiscent of the president’s jauntiness when he takes a stage, a certain body language that seems to say, “Ain’t no big deal.” Even through the tech recession, few folks here have bailed out and discarded Frisco for the next more affordable boomtown up the line. As Emily Mitchell, the president of the local Republican Women’s Club says, “This is a happy town. People really like the way things are going. If we have any problem, it’s that not enough of them turn out to vote.”

Aaron and Rebecca Hensell are among the satisfied customers. They didn’t consider leaving Frisco when he got laid off from his high-paying job at Nortel in early 2001. They just cut back from two expensive cars to one, scaled down the vacations, and concentrated their efforts on expanding a Web-site business that they’d been developing on the side.

“We had networked a lot in Frisco,” says Aaron, 35, “because it’s the sort of place where you can do that. We liked that. So we just grew our Web-site business, beginning with contacts we’d made here.” The couple’s DellaMark Web-site development company, which they started in their spare bedroom, has become one of many entrepreneurial success stories to emerge in the New World north of Dallas. They also run the popular Frisco-Online.com, a combination gossip forum and guide to local events and services.

It took a lot longer for their friend Mike Eveland to find steady work. After being laid off twice in a year and a half and sending out four thousand résumés, he finally found work in August as a salesman at CompUSA.

“We love it here so much, I’d really have hated to leave,” he told me. “We’re dug in. I went to church and I talked to my pastor. I just knew there was a job there for me. I had that faith.”

A LOT OF OTHER PEOPLE IN COLLIN COUNTY have that faith too. Like California’s Orange County, if Collin County is a place founded on big shopping centers, big office parks, big freeways, and big demographics, it is also a place founded on big churches. Frisco hasn’t been booming long enough to grow a megachurch yet (though the Stonebriar Community Church, with 2,200 members, is emerging), so many of its faithful still flock to the biggest of them all—the huge Prestonwood Baptist Church.

This 21,000-member church, which rises improbably out of the prairie near the Denton-Collin county line in north Plano like a recently landed spacecraft, is as resonant a symbol of the power shift from city to suburbs as one could hope to find. Prestonwood used to reside in North Dallas, but in the mid-nineties its leadership and congregation decided to move farther north because, like the developers of Stonebriar Centre, they saw that north was the future.

It is a different, more casual sort of religion that is practiced out here, but there is no questioning the enthusiasm for it. On entering the foyer of Prestonwood—which reminded me very much of entering the American Airlines Center for a Mavericks playoff game—I was immediately accosted by one of the greeters, who squealed, “We just found out! Right over there, on that side of the building, we’re going to have Starbucks!”

Inside the seven-thousand-seat theater, my wife and I listened to an eight-piece, eight-voice ensemble grind out a couple of rap-metered hymns. Pastor Jack Graham then celebrated his fourteenth year as head of the operation with a preachment on “Discerning Your Culture.” It was obvious that Graham and his staff were trying hard to be hip. The contemporary music and choreography, the big screens on each side of the dais, the casual, vernacular tone of Graham’s sermon—soon, a caffè latte afterward!—all seemed calculated to give this church service an ambience basically indistinguishable from that of the average well-behaved rock concert.

Graham’s message tracked the sort of practical and populist Christianity that Bush has referred to when speaking of his faith. It was a plainspoken rumination on “Judge not lest ye be judged,” in which the pastor—who, with his deep tan, white teeth, and short-sleeved shirt looked like an assistant golf pro from the nearby Stonebriar Country Club—warned his congregants to not ever believe that they “have the gift of criticism” and to leave the big judgments to God.

His church is astoundingly successful. Its huge membership continues to grow. It raises about half a million a week just from passing the plate. If you peruse the length and breadth of its counseling and outreach programs, you discover an assortment of faith-based initiatives, including post-abortion recovery groups called “Forgiven and Set Free.” There are “City Missions,” wherein these suburbanites venture into the city of Dallas to help and, if possible, convert the lost and destitute, as well as the usual vacation Bible schools and summer sports camps.

George W. Bush may be in some trouble in certain parts of the country and the world, but here in this Republican enclave, he’s wildly popular. Just a few minutes into his lengthy sermon, Graham invoked the Bush name—as if invoking Luke or John—and commented on how impressive it was that the president regularly read Scripture for “focus.” As he finished this statement, I happened to glance back at the pew behind us and noted that a young man in his twenties, with ragged facial hair, frayed shorts, and flip-flops—the sort of fellow who might be expected to vote the Nader-LaDuke ticket—was nodding vigorously as he thumbed through his Bible to the next passage.

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