The Mighty Metroplex

Dissed for decades as a colorless, conformist jumble of cities and suburbs, it has become a roaring engine of economic growth—and is reigniting Dallas’s fading star.

There was a time when no sober-minded Dallasite could utter the word “Metroplex” without an ironic smirk. A catchall for Dallas, Fort Worth, and the dozens of lesser municipalities around and between them, the term was coined in the seventies to boost the region’s new centerpiece, the sprawling Dallas—Fort Worth International Airport. But DFW was the progeny of a forced marriage (the federal government, weary from maintaining separate airports for the bickering burgs, held the shotgun), and its arrival hardly augured a big happy regional family. On the one hand you had booming Big D, which by the early eighties had become the glittering star of the world’s most popular television series, and on the other the rest of the Metroplex, home to a lot of envious goobers who didn’t know Anne Klein from Calvin Klein. As recently as 2000, federal officials tried to classify the entire twelve-county Metroplex as nothing more than a giant statistical suburb of Big D; only the howls of pain from Fort Worth and nearby Arlington (a city with a population of more than 350,000) persuaded the feds to back off calling the whole thing the “Dallas combined area.”

But that was then. For the past several years Dallas has been in an uncharacteristic funk, its population growth flat and its leaders lamenting its vanishing middle class, troubled schools, dysfunctional government, and chart-topping crime. Distracted by all the hand-wringing, few in Dallas seem to realize that they’ve suddenly become part of a bigger and more compelling urban success story. Call it the Revenge of the Metroplex: Just a few years after nearly being written off the map, it has become a roaring engine of growth and social transformation. And its improbable rise promises to not only reignite Big D’s fading star but also reset our nation’s political and cultural compass.

How is a region dissed for decades as a colorless, conformist lightweight going to do the former, much less the latter? For openers, with a population that has ballooned to nearly six million, the Metroplex has quietly become a demographic heavyweight. While Dallas is distressed to find itself drifting down the list of the ten largest American cities (seventh in 1980, ninth today), the Metroplex, now dubbed by the chastened feds as the Dallas-Fort Worth-Arlington Metropolitan Statistical Area, is currently the nation’s fifth-largest MSA but closing so fast on the Philadelphia area that it has almost certainly passed it already. That leaves just the giant Chicago, Los Angeles, and New York metropolitan areas remaining; while they’re still a lot bigger, during the past five years the Metroplex has gained more total new residents than any of them. Among the nation’s largest metro areas, only Atlanta and Houston have had comparable double-digit growth.

Stuck in the middle of flyover America, the Metroplex has transformed itself into a globalized, fly-to destination, with the world’s third-busiest airport as its entrepôt and a cosmopolitan population that stands on its ear the oft-heard, covertly racist rubric that our nation’s multicultural coastal metropolises aren’t the “real America”—the implication being that a more homogeneous heartland presumably is. Yet here in the heart of real-deal Texas, the nation’s largest red-state megalopolis is actually a showcase for all-American diversity. Its most populous county, Dallas, voted blue in November, and compared with its closest statistical peer, the Philadelphia MSA (which spills over four blue states), the Metroplex is notably less lily white, at more than 42 percent African American, Asian, or Hispanic, versus the Philly area’s 30 percent. Belying another stereotype—or two—the Metroplex also has a higher percentage of college graduates.

While Dallas is already a minority-majority city, all that diversity is hardly ghettoized within the city limits. Of the Metroplex’s million and a half Hispanics, two thirds of them live outside Dallas—as do all but an eighth of the area’s 250,000 Asians. The bedroom communities that surrounded Dallas a quarter century ago have become midsize cities with prominent minority and immigrant populations; Plano, just north of Dallas, has metamorphosed from a farm town of 3,695 residents in 1960 to a wealthy city of 250,000 people today—and 40,000 of them are Asians. From mom-and-pop Salvadoran restaurants to Korean shopping centers and Mexican supermarkets to the Iranians and Indians who started up some of the area’s most heavily capitalized technology firms, immigrants are embroidered throughout the Metroplex economy. Dallas has long boasted of its ambition to be an “international city,” and it most certainly has become one; the irony is that it’s surrounded by a ring of former suburbs that have become international cities as well.

Large or small, more or less diverse, all of the Metroplex’s cities and towns are locked in mortal combat, a Darwinian struggle for a life-sustaining share of a highly fluid and entrepreneurial economy. Traditionally, prosperity has gone to the outermost, as affluent suburbanites search for those coveted “better schools” and “safer neighborhoods.” During the eighties Plano kick-started its economic ascendance by poaching major Dallas-based corporations like Frito-Lay and Ross Perot’s EDS. But as newer, more-pristine exurbs have marched farther north, Plano’s high-flying economic indicators have taken a dive. Most of the Metroplex’s maturing suburban cities are already feeling a similar pain, as they deal with the same sorts of problems that plague Dallas: aging infrastructure, rising crime, maintaining the quality of public education while absorbing all those non-English-speaking immigrants. To stay alive, the suburban cities are turning to urban models for their renewal, embracing once-scorned mass transit, stressing downtown redevelopment, and getting into the culture business with art centers and concert halls. Even the upstart exurbs are starting to make sure their virginal turf has a certain metropolitan veneer, as developers increasingly sell new homebuyers on townlike complexes influenced by the “new urbanism.”

If this race to urbanize wasn’t competitive enough, there’s also Fort Worth. At about half the size of Dallas, it’s now the nation’s nineteenth-largest city—bigger than Boston or Seattle—and, unlike Dallas, still growing at a rapid clip. The grudge match between the two cities predates the Metroplex

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