Once upon a time Dallas was the biggest city in Texas. Then it began to get small. New people stopped moving in. Old people began moving out. The city kept shrinking in population. For a while, they continued to call it Big D. Then, they had to start calling it little d. Now they just call it little. In a few more years, they won’t have to call it at all.
Fortunately, the joke is for real. According to U.S. Census Bureau figures, the city of Dallas has been losing population at an astonishing rate. In the last seven years, over 30,000 Dallasites have simply (and wisely) picked up and left. Today, less than 813,000 die-hards remain, and their numbers are dwindling.
Dallas now faces the beginning of the end. Contrary to some press reports, it has not yet slipped to third in population among Texas cities, but San Antonio is catching up fast. If present trends continue, by the end of this summer, the Alamo City will be bigger than Dallas. By the end of the century, the likes of Denton, Diboll, and Daingerfield will be vying for the title of Big D. Best of all, by the end of the twenty-second century, about which there are already movies and songs, Dallas will finally run out of residents, and thus, mercifully, will cease to exist.
Several years ago, Houstonians would have volunteered to turn out the lights. Today, most people in Houston don’t care what happens to Dallas. Having once competed for size and supremacy like the rival city states of ancient Greece, Dallas and Houston are no longer in the same league.
All comparisons of size show Houston’s superiority. Houston now has over 1.5 million people in its 600-square-mile incorporated area and continues to attract newcomers at the staggering rate of a thousand persons per week. By the end of the century, Houston will be home for over three million people. By the middle of the next century, Houston will probably be one of the four largest and most important cities in the world. One can certainly argue that bigger is not the definitive measure of better. (The Dallas of days past and the San Antonio of days soon to come are both fair examples.) However, the simple facts of migration patterns and size speak for themselves. People are taking to Houston like ants to an overripe apple. They are leaving Dallas. Clearly, Houston is turning people on; Dallas is driving them off.
Refusing to admit defeat on the critical issues of comparative size and continued growth, its defenders argue that Dallas must be defined as including Fort Worth, or, more precisely, the Dallas-Fort Worth Standard Metropolitan Statistical Area. This is a long name for a 2.8-million-person, 8360-square-mile government-invented area encompassing dozens of much healthier cities and towns that are legally and physically separate from Dallas and populated primarily by people who moved to those places because they do not want to live in Dallas. Those who see clearly find it hard to permit such noble and distinct environs as Arlington, Grand Prairie, Corsicana, and Waxahachie, not to mention poor Fort Worth and brave Midlothian, to suffer under the ignominious name of Dallas. Perhaps sensing this, the defenders of Dallas refer to their ridiculous fabrication as the “Metroplex.” But then it is like Dallas to try to use such aliases to pass itself off as something it is not, for Dallas basically is insecure. It is simply not happy with what it is.
From the beginning, the whole conception of Dallas was cockeyed. The obscure Tennessee real estate speculator who established the place platted the streets of the new city on the north bank of the Trinity River atop some low bluffs. However, when the river flooded, the bluffs proved to be a little too low, and Dallas got swamped. After suffering through this sort of thing for many years, Dallas decided to rechannel the river a few hundred yards to the south and cordoned off a wide no-man’s-land on either side. At first, Dallas thought this little hydrological project was as nifty as Niagara Falls, but it soon proved to be the height of idiocy. For one thing, the plan cut off any access to the water and thus sacrificed a municipal resource of incalculable value. After moving the river to the south, Dallas grew north and east. In so doing, the city grew away from the best trees, the most beautifully curving hills, the most impressive views, in short, the choicest and most interesting land in the area, which was on the south bank of the river in what is now called Oak Cliff. Soon even the most single-minded devotee of Dallas could not fail to recognize the stark truth: the city was developed on the wrong spot. It should have been built in Oak Cliff.
Dallas addressed this problem in characteristic fashion. First, it annexed Oak Cliff, then it pretended that Oak Cliff was not really a proper part of the city. The rich huddled together well north of the river along the more manageable banks of Turtle Creek. The upper edges of the middle class then fought tooth and nail for the unoccupied parts of Highland Park and University Park; the losers were exiled to bake in the treeless expanses further north. Meanwhile, these uneasy Dallasites of the north bank began rumors that Oak Cliff was nothing but an extension of the South Dallas slums—hovels for the poor and a harbor for the déclassé—and before long, as if by magic, parts of Oak Cliff became that way.
Unfortunately, Dallas did not learn from its mistakes. Instead of aggressively annexing other areas that might provide opportunities for a new start, Dallas clung fast to its old ground and allowed itself to become ringed by separately incorporated suburbs. Like the country’s dying cities in the Northeast, Dallas found it had no place left to grow. The city’s self-tied noose began to tighten. In a universe punctuated by the mysterious shrinking suction of black holes in space, Dallas seems the converse—a kind of white hole on earth, a strange and seemingly unnatural force that repels instead of attracts as it grows smaller and smaller toward the point of disappearance.
Much of the blame for this white hole derives from the fact that Dallas was ruled for many, many years by an archconservative white oligarchy. The male members of this clique were organized into a tight little civic and political action club called the Citizens Council. The men on the Citizens Council made all the major decisions for Dallas. They elected all the important politicians and told them what to do. They promoted the city with their own time and money. They, in turn, were dictated to only by their wives, the true behind-the-scenes powers in Dallas. They held final dominion over the city by controlling its high society, its marriages and divorces and debutante balls.
Although the goal of the Dallas nabobs has been to make Big D get bigger, their actions had the opposite effect. Their aristocratic airs did not come off as cool, but cold; their search for status closed the city to newcomers instead of opening it. Unlike Houston, where the leaders are lawyers and industrialists, Dallas is ruled by bankers. Professionally unaccustomed to taking risks, they are limited in their friends, their associations, and their capacity to deal with change. Ultimately, they have been left behind by the times.
So has Dallas. Great homegrown institutions like Neiman Marcus and the Dallas Times Herald have been sold to out-of-state chains. Dallas’ most ambitious undertakings have become its most egregious embarrassments. When Dallas tried to build its own international airport, it was told it would have to share, of all things, a regional facility owned and operated jointly with its old rival Fort Worth. When the airport was finally finished, nobody wanted to use it unless he had to. When Dallas attempted to create a city center for itself at One Main Place, it found that its great center could not even hold the water from its own fountain. Not long before, in a pitiable attempt to imitate Houston, Dallas declared it wanted to dredge the Trinity River 250 miles to the Gulf of Mexico so it also could have a deep-water port. The idea was laughed right out of existence.
Today, Dallas, rather than being a port, is adrift. No one knows what is going on. Nothing ever really works. There is no sense of collective direction. The only thing that everybody agrees on is the Cowboys, but alas, poor Dallas is unable even to build them a stadium with a proper roof over their heads: the roof, naturally enough, has a big hole in the middle.
It is not surprising that Dallas has turned increasingly to Jesus. Headquarters of the Baptist General Convention of Texas for many years, Dallas is now the home city for hundreds of different Gospel Retreat Convention Temple Conference Revival Revelation Pentecostal Proof Redemption and Glorious Miracle Healing Centers. With no apparent reason for its origin and little excuse for its continued existence, Dallas has nowhere else to turn.
One could begin the case for Houston by citing a few examples from the long list of good and important things Houston has that Dallas doesn’t. First, there are the obvious—the Astrodome, NASA, the petrochemical complex, surgeons who transplant hearts, sculptural glass office buildings with great artistic value, an international airport, a major league baseball team, an NBA basketball team, Galveston, Galleria, the stop-action TVs at the Summit, and the Ship Channel providing access to the sea.
Then there’s the matter of culture, which is how Houston gets Dallas where it hurts. Houston has a fully functioning symphony, a touring-quality professional ballet company, a world-renowned opera that twice in the last two years has taken New York by storm and that last year produced, in Porgy and Bess, one of the most highly acclaimed recordings of 1977. Houston also has the Alley Theatre, which besides its own fine productions will host the debut of Russian theater in America. That adds up to four fully professional companies in the major arts. No city outside New York has such across-the-board talent. Dallas, on the other hand, while it has always presumed cultural superiority to Houston, can really only claim equality with its theater; it barely keeps its symphony playing, while its ballet is nonexistent and its opera struggles against the annual tours of the Met to keep its head above water. Houston is growing its culture right here; Dallas keeps on importing most of what little it has.
And, there are the not-so-obvious things—the Rothko Chapel, Jeff McKissack’s Orange Show, Miss Ima’s collection of Early American decorative arts at Bayou Bend, import shops like the British Market, the wine cellar at Maxim’s, breakfasts at the Avalon Drugstore, evenings at La Bastille, and a whole range of visual opportunities, like watching a harvest moon drop behind the funnel-shaped space between the towers of Pennzoil Place with the knowledge that several people in town have been both to the buildings and to the great orange ball behind them.
Houston’s boom has taken the city beyond bigness. Dallas is sometimes personified as a woman and Houston as a man, but Houston, in achieving prodigious growth, has become not only richer, more powerful, more masculine, but also more feminine, more subtle, more diverse. In Houston, size has transcended measure. It has become both sensual and powerful, the force that animates the city and makes it flourish. Corny as it may sound, Houston is getting better and better simply by getting bigger and bigger. Every day there are more things to do, more places to go, more people to do things with. While Dallas becomes drained and pale from loss of population, Houston gains in whites, blacks, browns, and yellows, Arabs, Iranians, Pakistanis, South Americans, Britishers, and Vietnamese. It gains in culture, in knowledge, and in sophistication. It becomes a more interesting place to be, which, in turn, is why people keep coming.
Unable to defeat the city on its present terms, Houston’s detractors sometimes accuse it of having no history. It is really a silly thing to say. Houston’s history began in the glad days before there ever was such a thing as Dallas, back in the Eocene, when huge river deltas supported whole empires of shellfish. These good animals were generous enough to die, decompose, become pressurized, and form the basis of Houston’s wealth: oil. It is staggering to contemplate each step in the progression from the Eocene to the politicking at the Saturday night dances in the Petroleum Club on the forty-fourth floor of the Exxon Building, but this great distance shows the true scope of Houston’s history.
What nature did not give to Houston, its people have provided. When the Allen brothers founded Houston in 1836—some five years before the unfortunate birth of Dallas—they envisioned a great forty-mile commercial link to the Gulf via Buffalo Bayou. Eighty years later, the people of Houston dredged out the bayou and made that dream a reality. When oil was first discovered, cities like Beaumont were fast becoming the capitals of the new industry. Houstonians promoted their city and brought the oil company headquarters where they now belong. They conquered their climate with air conditioning. They set up the best medical center on earth. They established airline links with the capitals of the world.
Meanwhile, Houston grew toward perfect symmetry. Loop 610 circled the inner city, freeways branched out in seven main spokes. The people clustered along the arteries and beneath the trees. The city spawned not one but six major city centers, a new, more manageable concept for urban development. The city fathers guarded against zoning restrictions and preserved Houston’s annexation powers. The city had no shackles on its future, and in larger numbers than ever before, the people prospered. Houston came to symbolize a postindustrial dream, an entire way of life.
Much of the secret of this success is to be found in the attitude of Houston’s leaders. For many years, there was a “Mr. Houston,” the late, great Jesse Jones. A financier, builder, banker, lumberman, publisher, and public servant, Jones ran the city and personified its individualistic, entrepreneurial spirit. Jones and some of his associates—men like George and Herman Brown, Gus Wortham, Judge James Elkins, and others—came to be known as the 8F Crowd, a name derived from the hotel suite where they used to meet regularly. On the surface, the 8F Crowd seemed even tighter and more oligarchic than the Citizens Council in Dallas, but their net effect was much different. Instead of closing their city, they tried to open it. Instead of snubbing people, they welcomed them. Their philosophy was to help themselves by helping the city, and they often produced remarkable results for all concerned.
The Astrodome is one example. Judge Roy Hofheinz was never a mainstream member of the Houston establishment. Neither was his wealthy former buddy Bob Smith. In Dallas, the Citizens Council would have probably chained them both to a tree. Houston, however, was at least willing to listen.
Today, much of Houston is run by lawyers and real estate developers.
On the whole, they are a tougher, better educated, more aggressive group than bankers, and they make for a more ambitious and more competent city. At the same time, Houston is friendlier and more liberal-minded than Dallas. The men are simply not as uptight—perhaps because they don’t feel they have to prove themselves. Houstonians seem to know that sooner or later everyone’s going to make it and that if the past is any indication, the more Houstonians there are, the easier making it will be. It’s just that kind of place. Houston thus produces men with the courage of Red Adair, the tenacity of A. J. Foyt, and the integrity of Walter Cronkite.
Houston’s most unsung attribute is its women. For many years Houston women took a backseat while misguided people praised the attention Dallas women pay to themselves, their catty strength of character, and their Neiman-Marcus style. It is time to set the record straight. Today Houston has a lot of pretty faces—South American heiresses with nothing to do but fall in love, small-town girls whose husbands are rich enough for them to entertain princes and kings, big-city models who wander about like stiff-kneed birds—but it also has women who do things. Houston’s women do not live and die with the debutante season. They are doctors, lawyers, and businesswomen. While Dallas produces Total Woman Seminars, Houston produces total women, ranging from the late Miss Ima Hogg, Oveta Culp Hobby, and Barbara Jordan to Dominique de Menil and the city’s former women’s advocate, Nikki Van Hightower.
None of this warrants the conclusion that Houston is perfect. The same corporate powers who have propelled the city’s growth have choked it with foul air, defiled its water, and aggravated subsidence to such an extent that some parts of the city have already been reclaimed by the sea.
For the time being, Houston continues to face problems that come mostly from the fact of being big and getting bigger. Growing pains. As the spark dies in Dallas, Houston’s lights burn brighter into the night. The city still nurtures a sense of unquenchable hope. Houston does not really worry about its impending problems and doesn’t expect anyone else to, either. Houston feels it can face the future on its own. And so far, it appears to be right.