It rises four hundred feet above the grassy channel of the Trinity River: a single, dramatically sculptural white arch, the six-lane roadway far beneath it suspended by a delicate-looking spiderweb of massive steel cables. Designed by renowned Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava, the Margaret Hunt Hill Bridge bears the name of a historic Texas fortune—Hill’s father was oilman H. L. Hunt—and spans the river less than a mile from the original Trinity crossing, now on the west end of downtown, where Dallas began. Envisioned as the “signature” of the twenty-first-century city, the elegant arch is a letterhead-ready icon of soaring aspirations. Already as you drive by the futuristic, shimmering fractal construction (the oft-delayed project won’t be completed until next year), it’s hard to escape the metaphor of Dallas’s ascent, in little more than a century and a half, from a lone log cabin on the Trinity to a metropolis intent on becoming one of the world’s great places.
On the other side of the river, however, the $117 million metaphor plunges abruptly to earth. The bridge ends in what is often seen as the graveyard of Dallas’s ambitions, a low-rise landscape of block-long rusting warehouses, abandoned factories, and storefront auto garages. Bound by the looping river on the north and east and an interstate highway on the south, this is West Dallas, where the glittering city on the opposite bank has historically dumped its most needy citizens and most toxic industries. Once home to the notorious West Dallas public housing project, the area’s air, soil, and children were poisoned for half a century by a lead smelter that was finally closed in 1985, leaving as its legacy one of the nation’s largest Superfund environmental cleanup sites.
Nevertheless, it is this forsaken neighborhood—more than Calatrava’s gleaming arch—that could realistically become the symbol of twenty-first-century Dallas. In March the city council unanimously adopted a one-hundred-page urban design manifesto drily titled “West Dallas Urban Structure and Guidelines.” Crammed with “new urbanist” ideas about encouraging bicyclists and pedestrians to take to the streets and urging the reuse rather than the razing of discarded buildings, the guidelines are something of a Whole Earth Catalog for the city of the future—which would look less like the sci-fi metropolis evoked by the bridge and more like a late-nineteenth-century Main Street. A renewal of West Dallas, in other words, wouldn’t begin with bulldozers, cranes, or deep-pocketed developers but rather with neighborhood associations, mom-and-pop retailers, and cottage-industry entrepreneurs. And as heretical as it sounds for glitzy, growth-worshipping Dallas, these guidelines are being widely received as a prophecy of the city’s resurrection.
After a decade in which Dallas’s population increase lagged far behind Texas’s other major cities’, some municipal soul-searching might be expected. But Dallas—which plans obsessively yet builds with don’t-fence-me-in abandon—has experienced similar flowerings of civic idealism before, only to see them wilt in the next boom cycle. Even the profound shocks of the Kennedy assassination and the eighties real estate bust, which led to interludes of introspection, hardly deflated Big D’s blustering egoism; few except hoary elders remember the sixties’ “Goals for Dallas” or even the nineties’ “Dallas Plan.” So will the guidelines join the dozens of past and present comprehensive city plans, land use plans, environmental study plans, and neighborhood revitalization plans eventually tossed into the dustbin of civic indifference? Or is it just possible that a city whose official slogan is “Live Large. Think Big” is on the verge of fundamentally rethinking itself?
The answer to that question lies so deep in Dallas’s collective psyche that you have to go back a hundred years to excavate it. The city’s first professional plan was completed in 1912 by George Kessler, a German immigrant who grew up in Dallas before going on to change the face of places as far-flung as Shanghai and Kansas City. Kessler clearly understood his client’s insecurity-driven ambitions, challenging Dallas to “lead her competitors” in a no-holds-barred contest for metropolitan excellence. His game plan had two components, the “city beautiful,” which would feature leisurely boulevards beside green-swathed, meandering creeks, and the “city practical,” which would consolidate railroad lines and contain the flood-prone Trinity with levees. However, this two-pronged approach gave the rapidly growing city a choice Kessler never intended. The city beautiful was soon kicked to the curb in favor of the city practical, and even that took long enough; the levees weren’t finished until the thirties. But what might be called Kessler’s Choice became a haunting dilemma that wouldn’t go away.
For a generation, Dallas occasionally attempted to draw up plans to fully implement Kessler’s original plan; instead, the pedestrian-friendly greenbelt parkways he had envisioned came to life as unadorned freeways that sliced the city into inchoate chunks and eventually hemorrhaged its vitality into the suburbs. But the city practical grew and prospered: In the sixties legendary mayor Erik Jonsson, a brilliant engineer who had co-founded Texas Instruments, urged Dallas to “dream no small dreams” and promptly collaborated with Fort Worth’s mayor to build the Mid-Cities DFW Airport. By the late seventies, Dallas was a booming international gateway.
A city that now aspired to be “world-class” suddenly found itself critically deficient in the requisite cultural life and institutions, the long-forgotten city beautiful stuff that had seemed nothing but a distraction from growth and profit. Dallas addressed this shortcoming with blunt-force pragmatism, placing designer buildings here and there amid depopulated deserts of concrete and asphalt, just like all the rapidly proliferating, reflective-glass office towers and big-box retailers that lined its freeways—buildings that looked, as architecture critic Ada Louise Huxtable complained, as if they had been dropped by helicopter. Dallas could fill its spaces with auto-friendly infrastructure like no city in the world, but it had never learned how to preserve or create the distinctive, people-friendly places that make a city great—or competitive, as it soon discovered when relocating corporations became increasingly attuned to quality-of-life issues.
As time went on, the legacy of Kessler’s Choice became only more onerous. During the nineties the city approved hundreds of millions in bonds to turn the Trinity