Babes in the ’Hoods
Everyone said the rivalry between Texas cities was overï¿½but when my daughter was born in Dallas and a friend’s was born in Austin, the bottle lines were drawn.
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I NEVER PAID MUCH ATTENTION to the Austin-Dallas lifestyle rivalry until my daughter Tyler was born earlier this year. I live in North Dallas, a few blocks from where George W. Bush lived before he became governor. A couple of weeks before Tyler’s birth, Evan Smith, the deputy editor of this magazine, also became the father of a newborn daughter. Evan lives in the center of Austin, a few blocks from where the alternative rocker Bob Mould lived before he moved back to New York.
“I assume you’re buying the Neiman Marcus baby furniture for your child, all painted white,” Evan sniped. “And what are you dressing her in, Baby Armani?”
Evan informed me that his daughter, Carson, was sleeping peacefully in a crib purchased at an Austin store that specialized in what it advertised as “organic beds and beddings.” The blond-wood crib, Evan said with a certain smugness, contained no dyes, no paint, and no varnishes—implying that while Carson would not be poisoned in her infancy, Tyler quite possibly might be. Furthermore, Evan announced, Carson would be wearing mainly cloth diapers—“We don’t like the idea of having plastic on our baby’s bottom,” he said—and she would be draped in baby clothes made of natural fibers. “And have I mentioned that Carson will never be seen in clothes with corporate logos?” Evan asked. “That means anything with the words ‘Christian Dior’ or ‘Ralph Lauren.’ We’re not going to put her in Mickey Mouse or Bugs Bunny outfits, either. We don’t want this baby to be part of the materialistic logo culture.”
For a moment, I thought about Tyler’s nursery. She sleeps in a gleaming white crib from a baby store that serves coffee and croissants to its customers, and her closets contain outfits by every designer you can name—all gifts from Dallas friends. On one shelf are three pairs of inordinately cute Dior baby booties (I can’t help it—every time I see those damn things I have to buy them), and she owns a pair of handmade white leather Mary Janes, a gift from a former Dallas model. “You know,” our friend told my wife, Shannon, and me, “a girl can’t have too many shoes.”
“Oh, that is so Dallas,” a gleeful Evan said when I told him the shoe story.
“Hey, they were a nice gift,” I snapped. “Didn’t you get gifts too?”
“As a matter of fact, we did. A married couple we know gave Carson a pair of baby Birkenstock-type sandals.”
“Your daughter can’t even walk, and she’s already a parody of a hippie!” I crowed.
“Nonsense,” Evan said. “She’s serene. She’s growing up naturally.”
By now you would think we would all be bored with this old battle: Dallas versus Austin, chic versus counterchic, Star Canyon versus Threadgill’s, blond hair versus dreadlocks. Today you can find pockets of Dallas that are just as hip as Austin’s warehouse district, and you can drive through Austin neighborhoods populated with just as many button-down baby boomers as there are in Dallas’ Preston Hollow (which, as it happens, is my neighborhood). A rational person might assume that there is nothing more to fight about.
I am here to inform you that not only is the battle still raging but two little girls, recently emerged from the amniotic deep, are already being armored to carry on the rivalry well into the next century. Soon Carson will be told that God has blessed her by keeping her out of Dallas—the home of the shallow and superficial, of show-offs and status seekers who know of no way to express themselves except through the purchase of more and more expensive things. Meanwhile, Tyler will learn to give thanks that she will not have to spend her childhood among that overbearing, self-satisfied group of Austinites who spend their evenings in coffeehouses and dimly lit bars listening to obscure music and telling themselves between sets how wonderful their lives are.
If you look at the way their parents are raising them, the girls seem destined not to have much in common—except that both of them were named after Southern novelists (Tyler for Anne Tyler and Carson for Carson McCullers). Evan and his wife, Julia, have been subjecting Carson to a children’s album made by the drummer who played with the Grateful Dead, who mixed music with his wife’s heartbeats and womb sounds. Shannon and I have been playing Lullabies of Broadway for Tyler. Carson’s stroller has French words printed all over it (“In case it’s possible to learn French by osmosis,” explained Evan). Tyler’s stroller has a sunroof. On the wall of Carson’s nursery is a folk art painting of a large white dog with huge teeth done by an artist who is a drug user. On the wall of Tyler’s nursery is a painting of a sweet dog named Spot.
Our children’s births were even announced to the world in absurdly opposite ways. Evan and Julia have a Web site (www.mediatruck.com/carson) that features a photo of a rapturous Evan holding Carson in his arms. Tyler’s birth made the society column of the Dallas Morning News. In my excitement, I also placed a wooden stork in our front yard along with a sign, about the size of a one-car garage, that proclaimed, “Welcome Home, Tyler!”
I am well aware that no Texas city is ridiculed the way Dallas is. Everybody makes fun of our ostentatious love of big hair, glittery clothes, and expensive restaurants; our great mansions with no front porches; our blinking, phallic Reunion Tower; our bad television shows (the most recent being Walker, Texas Ranger); our professional football team; and of course, our professional football cheerleaders. If Tyler turns out to be a blonde, my wife and I will have to sit her down and solemnly inform her that even if she ends up teaching at Harvard, it won’t matter; she will forever be labeled a blond Dallas bimbo by the rest of the country.
Of all the Dallas haters, however, Austinites have a particular antipathy toward us. They see us as Antichrists who are out to ruin their picturesque little world. Riding through Austin with Evan one recent afternoon, he pointed out a stultifyingly bland new apartment complex that consumed an entire city block. Although he had no idea who had built the complex, he declared, “You just know that a developer in Dallas came down here to do that.” One night last summer, he and Julia visited a new downtown Austin jazz club. “It was filled with businessmen hiding their wedding rings and women in tight skirts,” Evan said. “We ran out of the place screaming. We thought we had been invaded by Dallas!”
In the five years that they have lived in Texas, Evan and Julia have been to Dallas fewer than half a dozen times, and only once did they stay overnight. “Why would we want to stay there?” asked Julia, who is a pleasant and charming woman except when the conversation turns to Dallas. “It’s the yuppie pinhead capital.” Julia told me that she thought it was strangely appropriate that the children’s television show Barney and Friends—which she labeled as “brainless”—was created and produced in Dallas. “Carson will never watch that show,” Julia said.
Some outsiders might find it puzzling that Evan and Julia could become such fierce Austin loyalists after a mere five years in the city. Before their arrival, they were your basic bright, neurotic New Yorkers who were consumed with advancing their careers. According to Julia, Evan’s idea of interior decorating was to stack five hundred magazines against one wall of his tiny New York apartment. Now they live in a ninety-year-old house that is painted teal on the outside and has a hallway that’s the color of lox. (Their next-door neighbor is a bohemian artist who has turned her front yard into a vegetable garden.) They have a Eugene McCarthy anti-war poster on one wall and a John Coltrane Blue Train poster on another. Evan has become a vegetarian. His backyard barbecue pit has two grills—one for cooking meat, the other for cooking vegetables.
What urban sociologists have yet to understand, however, is that the attitude of a city is embodied more by its transplants than by its natives. I was raised in Wichita Falls, the son of a Presbyterian minister whose idea of luxury was a washing machine from Sears. Growing up among a bunch of rough-and-tumble West Texas boys, I didn’t expect much out of life. One of the highlights of my youth was when a classmate brought a chainsaw to show-and-tell and turned it on. But today, after fifteen years in Dallas, I have to confess that I have become the classic North Dallasite. I have bought a house with a swimming pool. My next-door neighbor is a doctor who drives a Porsche. I have bought a new Ford Explorer to be our family car. (Evan, meanwhile, has spent months looking for the perfect used Volvo.) My wife has asked me to stop going to Toys ‘R’ Us, where I have been buying expensive and complicated toys for Tyler that she cannot possibly use for another five years. “You know what I fear?” Shannon told me recently. “I am afraid that the day Tyler turns sixteen, you’re going to bankrupt our family by going out and buying her a BMW.”
I think it is entirely fitting that Shannon—who was born and raised in North Dallas and went to a private North Dallas high school—would love nothing more than to move. Every few weeks, after leafing through travel magazines, she gives me a wistful look and tells me that I could become a world-famous novelist if I would just quit my job and move the family to a small town in Colorado, where I could write in a cabin. When I tell her about Evan and Julia’s life, she sighs. I sometimes think she wishes that she had married Evan.
What I have tried to explain to her is that Evan and I—and Austin and Dallas—are far more alike than we care to admit. Just as Dallas works at being upscale and socially acceptable, Austin works equally hard at being the opposite. If Dallas is the repository of snobbery, then Austin is a case study in reverse snobbery. By acting relentlessly egalitarian, residents there bond together as an exclusive club with their own well-established routines that are designed to make them look like enlightened individuals on the cutting edge of Texas culture. They troop en masse to Whole Foods, they stand reverently before the dying Treaty Oak, they throw Frisbees to their dogs, and they swim laps at Barton Springs, covering up their pasty white bodies as soon as they are finished so they won’t get a tan (tanning, of course, being the kind of narcissistic endeavor favored by people from Dallas).
Just as Dallas social climbers like to be seen eating at the Mansion on Turtle Creek, Austin counterculture climbers make sure to be seen at El Sol y la Luna, a calculatedly unpretentious Mexican restaurant downtown that will serve vegetarian Mexican food without cheese to customers like Evan. There they discuss new bands, and woe be unto you if you have not heard of whatever band they are talking about. Your ignorance will blackball you forever from the Austin club. Evan told me that he and Julia were taking Carson to hear a band called Cake at Austin’s South by Southwest music festival in March. “It’s kind of Carson’s debutante ball—her coming-out party,” Evan said.
“Who’s Cake?” I asked.
Evan stared at me in silence. “You’re kidding, aren’t you?” he asked.
You have to wonder if Austinites would love their city so intensely if there were no Dallas. Without the counterweight of the great corporate behemoth two hundred miles to the north, Austin might be just another pleasant place to live. Similarly, if there were no Austin, Dallas might have a different personality altogether. We would not be so insecure as a city, feeling that we have to celebrate our possessions as a way of competing with Austin’s natural beauty. But alas, as long as Austin is there to sneer at us, we will continue to do the only thing we can do—circle our wagons (well, our German-made cars), build bigger houses, and wear even bigger hair.
For now, Carson and Tyler are oblivious to what lies ahead of them. If all goes according to stereotypical plan, Carson will star on her soccer team, become an outspoken liberal, and end up as the editor of Mother Jones. Tyler will at least be well dressed for her soccer games, and she will end up as the first Texas girl to be named the editor of Vogue.
Julia and Evan hope that Carson will be schooled in the East and then travel widely and experience the world. Which leads to an interesting question. “Have you considered the possibility,” I asked them, “that Carson might visit Dallas and fall in love with its money-making spirit?” Evan and Julia nearly rose from their chairs. “Never,” Evan said.
“Hey, it won’t surprise me if Tyler goes to the University of Texas and stays and becomes one of you,” I said.
“Dear Lord,” said Julia, “the only time Carson had better be in Dallas is when she has to make a connecting flight.”