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 voted down a proposal to build a park along Johnson Creek. I wonder if they’d get it if someone proposed landscaping the railroad. Even if the mayor has his way, the new downtown won’t have the warmth or cordiality of the place I remember. Perhaps it will have the same effect on a generation conditioned to a disposable culture, but the prospects leave me feeling more melancholy than hopeful. It’s like praying over an empty grave.
VISITING ARLINGTON ON A broiling-hot day last September, I find that the last clearly recognizable landmark from my youth is the railroad, now the Union Pacific. I walked those tracks a thousand times as a boy, often on my way to Granny’s house, on Taylor Street, which was so close to the rail bed that passing trains rattled the windows. Spending the night at Granny’s was my favorite thing to do. I’d snuggle next to her in the evening, listening to country music on the radio, hearing the trains, and dreaming of the time those tracks would take me to faraway places. Granny was the quintessential good neighbor, a lady who remembered everyone’s birthday and was quick to dig into her meager savings to help other families with groceries or rent money. Granny’s house is long gone, and so is our house on Pecan and all the other homes where my family and friends lived. There were never many fine old homes to worry about anyway. Nothing of great historical importance ever happened in Arlington.
Sharing dinner that night with a few old classmates, I listen to familiar stories, about the time the monkeys escaped from their cages at the park and how police chief Ott Cribbs knew the name and address of every boy in town. But when I ask them if Arlington is a better place to live today, they’re not sure how to answer. Our town had one high school; now it has six. Our town had 7,600 residents; now the population is 355,000. Our town was 4.6 square miles; now Arlington sprawls across nearly 100 square miles. “We have lots of restaurants and movie houses now,” says Helen Hughes Schrickel, whose parents used to teach school. “And