THERE WAS A TIME I could find my way around Arlington blindfolded. It was my home from first grade until the day I left for college, and its streets, alleys, buildings, and people remain burned in my memory. Downtown was a cozy little four-block span of turn-of-the-century stores and cafes, in easy walking distance from my home on Pecan Street. Cars were permitted to park down the middle of Main Street. In the exact center of town stood an ogre-worthy hut known as the Mineral Well, an endearing landmark whose putrid-tasting water was used to haze underclassmen and where, on occasion, politicians, bands, and cheerleaders rallied the population. On one corner was Terry Brother’s Drug Store, where I worked as a soda jerk all through high school. Across the street were the B&B Café and Albert’s Pool Hall, which to this day I will deny frequenting, lest my mama’s ghost rise up and tan my worthless hide.
Given half an hour, I could ride my bike from Meadowbrook Park, on the eastern margins of town, to a place on the west side called Death Crossing, where the Texas and Pacific Railway tracks made a blind intersection with three streets, Abram, Division, and Fielder. The railroad ran like a belt across the middle of town, blocking traffic at all hours of the day; the only underpass was on West Street. Arlington High, on Cooper Street, was about a mile from the vocational-agriculture farm where I kept my three pigs. The outer reaches of my youth included a lovers’ rendezvous south of town at a bois d’arc tree, and beyond that the Mat, an abandoned landing strip where Navy pilots practiced dive-bombing during World War II and where adolescents collected unexploded bombs and dropped them off the West Street railroad bridge.
Since I moved away in the fall of 1952, I’ve been back to Arlington maybe twenty times—usually for reunions of the class of ’51 but also for the funerals of my mama and daddy and granny—and with each visit I discover that a few more landmarks have vanished. The boom that sacrificed my Arlington on the altar of commercialism and unchecked growth started in the early fifties, when the city’s young chamber of commerce president and future mayor, Tom Vandergriff, helped persuade General Motors to locate its new plant in Arlington rather than Dallas or Fort Worth. GM’s arrival prompted the Great Southwest Industrial District to build its headquarters just north of town, which in turn paved the way for the Dallas—Fort Worth Turnpike (now Interstate 30) and Arlington’s bustling entertainment district, which includes Six Flags Over Texas, Hurricane Harbor, a publicly financed ballpark for the Texas Rangers, and, starting in 2009, a stadium for the Dallas Cowboys.
In Vandergriff’s grand vision, downtowns were irrelevant. Arlington became a series of shopping villages, clustered around north-south arteries like Collins and Cooper. My cozy span of shops and hangouts was bulldozed and replaced by a sterile municipal center. In fact, there’s no central city at all. A few of the streets near what used to be downtown have familiar names, but Arlington has mutated into a disconnected clump of shopping malls, cul-de-sacs, and gated communities, faceless, soulless neighborhoods that give urban sprawl a bad name. In the memorable phrase of Paul Geisel, a professor of urban studies at the University of Texas at Arlington for 35 years, my hometown has become “the largest non-city in the world, with non-people talking nonsense.”
The city’s current mayor, Robert Cluck, is trying to correct course. He is pushing a new downtown revitalization plan, admittedly an uphill struggle. Except for sports stadiums, voters have no stomach for civic improvements with hefty price tags. Arlington is the largest city in the nation with no public transportation, but three times voters have nixed mass transit. They also