THERE WAS A TIME I could find my way around Arlington blindfolded. It was my home from first grade until the day I left for college, and its streets, alleys, buildings, and people remain burned in my memory. Downtown was a cozy little four-block span of turn-of-the-century stores and cafes, in easy walking distance from my home on Pecan Street. Cars were permitted to park down the middle of Main Street. In the exact center of town stood an ogre-worthy hut known as the Mineral Well, an endearing landmark whose putrid-tasting water was used to haze underclassmen and where, on occasion, politicians, bands, and cheerleaders rallied the population. On one corner was Terry Brother’s Drug Store, where I worked as a soda jerk all through high school. Across the street were the B&B Café and Albert’s Pool Hall, which to this day I will deny frequenting, lest my mama’s ghost rise up and tan my worthless hide.

Given half an hour, I could ride my bike from Meadowbrook Park, on the eastern margins of town, to a place on the west side called Death Crossing, where the Texas and Pacific Railway tracks made a blind intersection with three streets, Abram, Division, and Fielder. The railroad ran like a belt across the middle of town, blocking traffic at all hours of the day; the only underpass was on West Street. Arlington High, on Cooper Street, was about a mile from the vocational-agriculture farm where I kept my three pigs. The outer reaches of my youth included a lovers’ rendezvous south of town at a bois d’arc tree, and beyond that the Mat, an abandoned landing strip where Navy pilots practiced dive-bombing during World War II and where adolescents collected unexploded bombs and dropped them off the West Street railroad bridge.

Since I moved away in the fall of 1952, I’ve been back to Arlington maybe twenty times—usually for reunions of the class of ’51 but also for the funerals of my mama and daddy and granny—and with each visit I discover that a few more landmarks have vanished. The boom that sacrificed my Arlington on the altar of commercialism and unchecked growth started in the early fifties, when the city’s young chamber of commerce president and future mayor, Tom Vandergriff, helped persuade General Motors to locate its new plant in Arlington rather than Dallas or Fort Worth. GM’s arrival prompted the Great Southwest Industrial District to build its headquarters just north of town, which in turn paved the way for the Dallas—Fort Worth Turnpike (now Interstate 30) and Arlington’s bustling entertainment district, which includes Six Flags Over Texas, Hurricane Harbor, a publicly financed ballpark for the Texas Rangers, and, starting in 2009, a stadium for the Dallas Cowboys.

In Vandergriff’s grand vision, downtowns were irrelevant. Arlington became a series of shopping villages, clustered around north-south arteries like Collins and Cooper. My cozy span of shops and hangouts was bulldozed and replaced by a sterile municipal center. In fact, there’s no central city at all. A few of the streets near what used to be downtown have familiar names, but Arlington has mutated into a disconnected clump of shopping malls, cul-de-sacs, and gated communities, faceless, soulless neighborhoods that give urban sprawl a bad name. In the memorable phrase of Paul Geisel, a professor of urban studies at the University of Texas at Arlington for 35 years, my hometown has become “the largest non-city in the world, with non-people talking nonsense.”

The city’s current mayor, Robert Cluck, is trying to correct course. He is pushing a new downtown revitalization plan, admittedly an uphill struggle. Except for sports stadiums, voters have no stomach for civic improvements with hefty price tags. Arlington is the largest city in the nation with no public transportation, but three times voters have nixed mass transit. They also voted down a proposal to build a park along Johnson Creek. I wonder if they’d get it if someone proposed landscaping the railroad. Even if the mayor has his way, the new downtown won’t have the warmth or cordiality of the place I remember. Perhaps it will have the same effect on a generation conditioned to a disposable culture, but the prospects leave me feeling more melancholy than hopeful. It’s like praying over an empty grave.

VISITING ARLINGTON ON A broiling-hot day last September, I find that the last clearly recognizable landmark from my youth is the railroad, now the Union Pacific. I walked those tracks a thousand times as a boy, often on my way to Granny’s house, on Taylor Street, which was so close to the rail bed that passing trains rattled the windows. Spending the night at Granny’s was my favorite thing to do. I’d snuggle next to her in the evening, listening to country music on the radio, hearing the trains, and dreaming of the time those tracks would take me to faraway places. Granny was the quintessential good neighbor, a lady who remembered everyone’s birthday and was quick to dig into her meager savings to help other families with groceries or rent money. Granny’s house is long gone, and so is our house on Pecan and all the other homes where my family and friends lived. There were never many fine old homes to worry about anyway. Nothing of great historical importance ever happened in Arlington.

Sharing dinner that night with a few old classmates, I listen to familiar stories, about the time the monkeys escaped from their cages at the park and how police chief Ott Cribbs knew the name and address of every boy in town. But when I ask them if Arlington is a better place to live today, they’re not sure how to answer. Our town had one high school; now it has six. Our town had 7,600 residents; now the population is 355,000. Our town was 4.6 square miles; now Arlington sprawls across nearly 100 square miles. “We have lots of restaurants and movie houses now,” says Helen Hughes Schrickel, whose parents used to teach school. “And we don’t have to go to Fort Worth to buy clothes. But there’s still only one railroad underpass in central Arlington, so we have to wait for trains just like we did fifty years ago.” Today’s Arlington is far more metropolitan, with some sixty languages spoken in the city. There were no blacks and certainly no Asians in the public schools then. The only Mexican American any of us can recall was Marshall Rodriquez. We remember him fondly, yet nobody has heard from him in years. Mexican Americans now make up 18 percent of the population, and the city has a sizable Vietnamese population. Osama bin Laden’s personal secretary lived in Arlington’s growing Muslim community until his arrest, in 1998. Rumor has it that an Al Qaeda cell is embedded in the city.

Most of my friends prospered from Arlington’s incredible boom, and even though the city is changing in ways that are not always comfortable, they stay because Arlington is home. Phyllis Hargrave Forehand, another classmate of mine, who taught journalism at Arlington High School for 28 years, tells me, “It’s still the same place, if you look at it a certain way.” Barbara Bobo Barksdale, whose father was one of Arlington’s few doctors in my day, tells about volunteering to serve Thanksgiving dinner to the downtrodden at Mission Arlington, which sits close to where my home on Pecan used to be. That’s when I remember that what this city lacks in imagination it makes up for in heart. The mission is operated by Tillie Burgin, who was Tillie Lester when I knew her, a skinny, tomboyish kid who once proclaimed that she wanted to be either a bomber pilot or a missionary. A teacher warned Tillie that her tendency to stutter could preclude her working as a missionary. What the teacher didn’t know was that Tillie had affected the stutter to discourage being called on in class. Tillie never stuttered again. Mission Arlington sits at the very heart of the city, and Tillie is as close to a saint as Arlington is likely to get.

For several decades Arlington was the template for Metroplex suburban expansion, an opportunity mill with a voracious appetite. That time has gone. Today the city is like an aging dowager with holes in her stockings, wearing fake pearls and forgetting where she hid the cat food. She is dazed and confused by newer, smarter, and wealthier suburbs like Southlake, Colleyville, and Keller, cities that invested money in quality-of-life projects rather than sports stadiums and theme parks. Affluent people are moving out of Arlington, and low- or moderate-income people are moving in. The median income has dropped 14 percent since 2000. Seventy percent of the 24,000 residents of central Arlington—the Arlington of my boyhood—are low- to moderate-income earners, and 28 percent live below the poverty line.

“Arlington is a classic victim of doing the right thing too long,” says O. K. Carter, the editorial director and a columnist for the Arlington edition of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. “With all the returning veterans after World War II, the city started building modest, single-family residences and just never stopped. Today the city has a glut of affordable housing, including 50,000 apartment units, which drive prices down and lure more low-income residents.” More and more, Arlington is a blue-collar town. There are still plenty of opportunities, but many of them are in low-salary service jobs at the theme parks or in the restaurants. Every year there is a 22 percent turnover in the population for people over the age of fifty. When my classmates and I die, even the city’s historical memory will have disappeared.

LATER THAT NIGHT I toss and turn in my motel room in the entertainment district, thinking of the weird turn of events. Arlington has become a tourist destination, second only in the state to San Antonio, but without the flavor, culture, or historical credentials. It was a tourist town of a different sort back in the thirties, when the ponies ran at Arlington Downs and the rich and famous came from all over America to gamble at Top O’Hill Terrace, a lavish precursor to Las Vegas. (Arlington has always been torn between the dictates of God and the appetites of mammon.) Owned by gambler-entrepreneur Fred Browning, Top O’Hill Terrace included a casino that pulled down $250,000 on weekends, a ballroom where performers like Jimmy Dorsey entertained, a brothel, a tea garden, and several stables. Behind the casino walls was a warren of secret rooms and passageways. An underground escape tunnel led to the garden, where the likes of John Wayne, Howard Hughes, Joe Louis, Lana Turner, Will Rogers, Bonnie Parker, and Clyde Barrow could pretend to be sipping tea whenever the joint got raided.

The stone guardhouse at the entrance is still visible from Division Street. My dad told me that the manicured grounds were patrolled by men with machine guns and attack dogs wearing spiked collars. Led by the legendary Captain M. T. “Lone Wolf” Gonzaullas, the Texas Rangers raided Top O’Hill Terrace in 1947, encouraged, perhaps, by the firebrand pastor of Fort Worth’s First Baptist Church, J. Frank Norris. His sanctimonious radio sermons drove Granny nuts. In 1956 the property was purchased by a Baptist seminary, and today it’s the campus of Arlington Baptist College. Talking to Vickie Bryant, the wife of the college president, I learn, among other things, that the brothel served as a girls’ dorm before it was eventually torn down.

The entertainment district, which sits on land that used to be part of W. T. Waggoner’s Three D stock farm, is the crown of civic pride. To me, however, it’s just a waste of good farmland, a maze of incomprehensible freeways and interchanges, clogged with traffic and packed with a jumble of franchise restaurants, cheesy motels, and theme parks that pass for family entertainment. I’d trade the whole package right now for a pasture full of cows.

Arlington treats history the way most cities treat plastic and Styrofoam. I’ll give you a fine example. When I visited the city in 1987, another classmate, Jane Mathes Kelton, was developing 340 acres along Interstate 20 between Matlock and Cooper streets, near where the old Mat used to be. It was part of 2,000 acres that her brother Charles and her father, manufacturing tycoon Curtis Mathes Sr., purchased years ago, when the boom was just beginning. She called her development the Highlands, named for the Mathes family’s Scottish heritage. The aesthetic heart of Jane’s dreamscape was a Stonehenge-style cluster of gigantic granite stones that weighed 540 tons and had been commissioned at a cost of $1 million. She called it Caelum Moor.

“We wanted something that would tie us to the past,” Jane told me. “I’m in this to make a buck. But I know one thing: Those stones are sunk in enough concrete to cover three football fields six inches deep. They’ll play hell tearing down Caelum Moor.” That day I’d learned what happened to Caelum Moor. When Jane’s development went bankrupt, in 1989, the stonework became a hangout for bikers, and the religious community was outraged by rumors that a coven of witches who sacrificed chickens used the spot as well. The new owners had no use for the Caelum Moor sculptures, however, and neither did anyone else. They now rest on their sides at the city’s water treatment plant near Lake Arlington.

SITTING IN MAYOR BOB CLUCK’S third-floor office at city hall, looking out over my old neighborhood, I begin to appreciate the dimensions—and the inherent problems—of the new downtown revitalization plan. Drafted by John Fregonese, a nationally known urban-planning expert from Portland, Oregon, the effort would slow down Arlington’s horizontal growth by encouraging people to move downtown. Fregonese envisions a high-density, pedestrian-friendly neighborhood of mid-rise buildings, condominiums, and town houses, intermingled with parks, fountains, and pavilions. Now in his second term, the popular Arlington mayor thinks the first piece of this plan could be in place in twelve to eighteen months. “Once we convince an investor to revitalize one block, the rest will follow,” Cluck assures me.

Not so fast there, Mr. Mayor. Squatting in the heart of the would-be downtown, between city hall and the UTA campus, is Mission Arlington, prompting me to ask Cluck: “How many upscale boutiques, hotels, and restaurants would be willing to locate in a neighborhood where valet-parking customers might get peed on by passing winos?” Cluck acknowledges the problem. The mission covers a full city block and is about to spill over into another one. The First Baptist Church in Arlington and the Salvation Army also own land in the neighborhood, but the mission is by far the biggest obstacle. A business group offered Tillie Burgin the gift of a $3.8 million building if she would resettle, but Tillie believes the mission is exactly where God intended it. And no one wants to tangle with Tillie.

“She’s Mother Teresa,” the mayor tells me. “People ask, ‘How can we have a classy downtown with the Salvation Army and Mission Arlington?’ I explain that these are very useful organizations. When Hurricane Katrina hit and eleven thousand evacuees poured into town, Tillie was right there with us. I can live with that.”

When I visit the mission later that day, I find that it’s not at all what I had imagined. It’s a bright, tidy, orderly space that buzzes with excitement and goodwill. Not a wino in sight. Instead, what I see drifting in and out of the reception area is a steady stream of the troubled, the helpless, the weak, and the forgotten. Young couples, children playing at their feet, wait to be interviewed. In other parts of the rambling building, volunteers of all ages and professions work banks of telephones; collect, store, and distribute food; and sort clothing and furniture. Out back, others unload donations from trucks owned by the mission. Separate medical and dental clinics are fully equipped and staffed by dozens of volunteer doctors, dentists, and nurses. The mission’s five thousand volunteers include many of my old friends.

Erman Lester’s Gulf station used to be at the corner of Abram and Pecan, a block from Tillie’s mission. She was born around the corner, on South Street, and learned about missionary work at the church down the block. The little girl who used to fake stuttering is now a skinny, seemingly frail, gray-haired 69-year-old woman. When we hug, I’m afraid she might break. Then I realize that she’s a lot like Granny, tough as boot leather, relentless, gentle, kind and caring, but, more than anything else, fiercely determined. The mission is her passion, her life. She arrives here every morning (except Christmas) at three o’clock and stays until eight or nine at night. “I used to ask my daddy why he got home so late,” she tells me. “He said: ‘Baby, there’s always one more to fill up.’ Now I understand what he was saying.”

Tillie, her husband, Bob, and their two sons were missionaries in Korea for about ten years. In 1986, with the help of Charles Wade, at First Baptist, she started her own mission in Arlington. For a while she was known as “the church lady,” traveling around town in her red Honda, talking to families who lived in cardboard boxes next to the tracks or leaning under car hoods, listening to the problems of guys while they changed spark plugs. “My strategy was to hang out and hover,” she tells me. “Take the church to the people.”

She leads me to a rear patio area where young people are painting and repairing bicycles. The mission gives them to people who don’t have cars and provides free rides to work for about one thousand workers every year. “We are Arlington’s transportation system,” Tillie laughs. She points across Oak Street to the former offices of Southwestern Bell Telephone, its parking lot already full of mission buses and trucks. “We just bought that building for two million dollars,” she tells me. And where will she get $2 million? “Oh, the bank trusts I’ll find the money,” she says, smiling sweetly. Apparently, even coldhearted bankers find it difficult to doubt this woman.

When Fregonese visited the mission a few months back, Tillie instructed her staff: “Pray that he’ll feel the presence of God.” The prayers worked. Fregonese told me in a telephone conversation that he worried at first that the mission could hurt the revitalization plan. “I thought it might drive down property values and be viewed as a canker sore,” he said. Then he met Tillie, and she knocked his socks off. “She was an amazing woman,” he recalled. “You could see that light in her eyes. I came expecting a bunch of old men on park benches. What I discovered was this amazing spirit, this dedication to make sure that people at the bottom of the barrel didn’t stay there. When you’re investing in young mothers and fathers, you’re investing in the future.”

“Arlington reminds me of Gertrude Stein’s famous description of Oakland,” I told him. “There is no there there.”

“But Arlington has good bones,” he argued.

Maybe so. Maybe that’s what Cluck was gambling on when he risked the farm to bring the Cowboys to town. Counting auxiliary costs, Arlington will spend about $425 million on the stadium. That’s enough to repave every street in town and have some left over to create a good parks system and perhaps start a zoo. Maybe the Cowboys can kick-start the Arlington economy. Maybe they’ll even resurrect mass transit. Fregonese, Professor Geisel, and other urban experts believe that downtown’s rebirth could start with a collegiate strip, something on the order of Austin’s Sixth Street. Of course there’s always the chance that voters would torch such a radical concept. Or maybe Arlington can do what Southlake did: construct a faux downtown in the style of Six Flags or Disneyland. “Southlake has a caricature of a downtown,” Geisel told me. “But it works. Thousands of people come out every night to sit in the park.” Somehow it seems appropriate that a non-city full of non-people talking nonsense should build a new downtown and make it look old and historic. I just hope they don’t forget the pool hall.