I AM NOT “ OLD HIGHLAND PARK.” Old Highland Park is much too genteel to call attention to itself in print. A friend who grew up here says, “It used to be that if you wanted to show off, you had to move to Preston Hollow.” I’m not even a Republican, although the Republican National Committee seems to think my ‘05 zip code entitles me to a steady stream of solicitations, certificates, and fine eight-by-ten color photographs of the Bush family and, before them, the Reagans.
There are much grander places to live with more acreage farther north in Dallas. During the real estate boom of the seventies, mansions built in new suburbs boasted enormous walk-in closets and Roman spa bathrooms, which made Highland Park’s once elegant third-floor ballrooms seem merely quaint. A recent article about “downsizing” due to the economy suggested that one might consider jettisoning the mansion for a more modest place in Highland Park. Still, there is an aura about the tiny island city that everyone here calls “the Bubble,” 2.2 square miles surrounded on three sides by Dallas and to the north by sister city University Park. In Dallas’ growth years following World War II, most of the downtown business leaders lived in the Park Cities. Important people flew in to Love Field, just a mile from Highland Park. They might have lunch in a downtown club, but in the evening they were frequently entertained in Highland Park homes. Visitors accepted this place as the face of Dallas, until the image was supplanted by J. R. Ewing and Southfork.
When we moved to Dallas from Austin, in 1969, my husband, John, was a young lawyer and I was a schoolteacher. For $150 a month we lived in a post-war upstairs duplex on Hawthorne in the Oaklawn area, just one block from the millionaires of Armstrong Parkway. Sometimes our evening’s entertainment was a drive through Highland Park. With their draperies drawn back, candles lit, and chandeliers gleaming, these houses seemed charmingly hospitable, sophisticated, and gracious, and we enjoyed imagining the graceful lives of people living there.
We did not aspire to live in Highland Park, even after our first child was born. Public schools in Dallas were holding their own at the time. We simply found a two-bedroom, two-bath Tudor cottage we liked and could almost afford on Normandy, a block from McCulloch Middle School. The “location, location, location” that real estate people scream about was perfect: ten minutes from John’s office, four blocks from the elementary school—and a neighborhood swimming pool, tennis courts, and small public library were only a bike ride away. The libraries, musical offerings, and theater performances at Southern Methodist University were within walking distance. Some old friends from our University of Texas days who, like us, would eventually have three sons, lived just down the street. Our house even had nine-and-a-half-foot ceilings, which accommodated the early parsonage Victorian furniture we had inherited from my husband’s grandmother. Hot and sweaty from the move into the little house with window-unit air conditioners, I shared a Coke with one of the young men who helped us move. “This is Highland Park, isn’t it?” he said. “Can I ask you something?”
“Sure, though I probably won’t know the answer.”
“Don’t you have to be somebody special or get approved by someone to live here?”
We struggled to meet the house payment in our cute redo, unredone. I sold my piano to buy a more useful washing machine. John parked his car in our narrow little garage; my lumbering old Chevy Caprice, which from our years of uncovered parking had a slightly peeling vinyl top, remained on the side street. The doorbell rang one evening, and I was met by a Highland Park policeman, who asked if he should call for a tow truck to remove what he took to be an abandoned vehicle. We figured our shabby auto was the first item in our Highland Park police dossier, along with a note that recorded our failed attempt to use the Highland Park swimming pool in 1969, when we were still living on Hawthorne.
Life was good. We gained all of the advantages of a small town with the cultural amenities of a large city. The crossing guard knew our kids by name. When our move to a larger house in the neighborhood, in 1978, coincided with the first day of school, the same crossing guard saw that my first- and third-grade little boys found the new route home. Armstrong Elementary School was an all-embracing school, where principal Kenneth Thomas stood at the front door greeting each child by name every morning. Block parties were an established tradition. The town still provides sawhorse signs ready to detour traffic when a “community event” is in progress. Kids with no bicycle helmets rode free as the wind to the swimming pool in the summer, stopping off coming or going for a 25-cent Coke from the “nonprofit” machine at the town’s fire station. I tried to upgrade their summer experiences with trips to the library, art classes, and swimming lessons, but most of the time my boys lived what they now call “the Last Great Childhood,” swarming in and out of neighbors’ back doors, lightly supervised, building forts with construction scraps, damming up parts of Hackberry Creek, capturing crawdads, and declaring water balloon wars that sometimes added reports of “collateral damage” to our HP police dossier.
AS OUR CHILDREN GREW UP, the neighborhood gradually became more affluent and more monolithic. It was becoming the ritzy, country-clubby neighborhood its founders had envisioned. Cottages like our first Highland Park home, which was built during the Depression, were never a part of developers Flippen and Prather’s original plan. I noted the changes in a 1978 piece for this magazine called “Love Thy Neighborhood.” Middle-class traditions so well established by women who swept their own walks and minded each other’s children were less appealing to a new generation with more cash. Mexican men with roaring leaf blowers took over