texasmonthly.com: Did you have an idea of how to approach your article before you visited Arlington this past September?
Gary Cartwright: I had written about Arlington for Texas Monthly two previous times, in 1974 and again in 1987, so I knew that landmarks were steadily vanishing. I was a little shocked, however, to find nearly everything that I remembered gone. Once I was on the scene researching this current story, I asked people the same question, Was Arlington better back then than it is now? It wasn’t a fair question, but it did open up some dialogue. People who had lived in Arlington continuously didn’t see the same stark changes that I saw. They seemed a little taken back by my criticism of their town. That’s when I realized that it was their town, not mine. Not anymore.
texasmonthly.com: One aspect of Arlington that you focus on is its lack of history, saying, I believe, that while you were growing up, part of the city’s lifeblood was its commonality. Do you feel the city suffered because there was no great happening, because there was nothing of note for people to take note of?
GC: The Arlington that I remember was a small farming community but it was also a bedroom community for Dallas and Fort Worth. The college had always been a focal point and something that set the town apart from other small places in North Texas. In the sense that the college dated back to the late 1800’s, Arlington did have a history, but there were no monuments, nothing set in granite that generations could share. The landmarks that I mention in the story—for example, the Mineral Well—weren’t really historical but gave the place some character. I hated to lose them.
texasmonthly.com: Now that there are entities in Arlington that people recognize—Six Flags, the Rangers, Hurricane Harbor—you seem to say the city has no sense of place, quoting Gertrude Stein’s “There is no there there” when discussing today’s Arlington with planning director John Fergonese. Was there a there there when you were there?
GC: Arlington had a downtown, a central core, a place where people could gather and share the happenings of the day. That’s gone. Shopping malls just don’t do it for me.
texasmonthly.com: While reading your article, I got the feeling the Arlington of your childhood was a friendly and warm place to live, and that the city today is far less so. I also couldn’t help but notice that the city’s racial makeup has shifted dramatically since the fifties. This may be a reach (and a mildly politically incorrect question), but do you feel Arlington’s racial diversification has impacted its neighborliness?
GC: Arlington is still a friendly place, at least as far as I could determine, but I wouldn’t call it warm or cordial or inviting. My Arlington had no racial diversity to speak of. The only blacks most of us saw were maids or guys who came around to mow the grass. In my preteens, I had a paper route that took me to the north side, and there I discovered a neighborhood of shanties and small shops, clustered along unpaved streets. That was where the black people lived. Years later I learned that the city bused the blacks to a county school south of town. Blacks and Mexican Americans were largely invisible back in the fifties. Today some of the more interesting neighborhoods are in East Arlington where blacks and Mexican Americans gather in community centers and markets.
texasmonthly.com: You say your Arlington was “sacrificed… on the altar of commercialism and unchecked growth…” Do you feel there is a time and place when cities should give up on luring new businesses in the interest of its residents?
GC: Is the business of the city business (to paraphrase Calvin Coolidge)? Or is it to provide a good place for people to live? I guess it has to be both. But Arlington began to change in ways that made my friends and me uncomfortable when the General Motors plant was built. Change may be inevitable, but that doesn’t mean you have to like it.
texasmonthly.com: What would you have liked to have seen the city do differently in its development?
GC: Arlington could have kept its downtown, spruced it up, maybe, but kept the core of small, family-owned shops and restaurants and movie houses that smelled like stale popcorn—preserved the smells, the shadows, and the living ghosts of lost loves and things that really happened.
texasmonthly.com: Arlington has grown exponentially in big-city amenities—shopping centers, fun parks, movie houses—but is still burdened by some small-town inconveniences, such as having only one railroad underpass (in central Arlington) and no mass transit system to speak of. What went wrong?
GC: In a word, “sprawl.” That’s what always goes wrong when there is no central plan except to grow. Arlington’s young mayor, Tom Vandergriff (now the county commissioner for Tarrant County), had discovered runaway growth while studying at the University of Southern California and returned home believing that downtowns were irrelevant, which was true in Southern California but didn’t work in Texas.
texasmonthly.com: Now that the city has had its run as “the template for Metroplex suburban expansion…,” it looks like its taking a turn toward becoming a facsimile of downtown revitalization projects. Do you find your hometown’s seemingly constant permutation off-putting? And is there an end in sight?
GC: I think (or at least I hope) that Mayor Robert Cluck will prevail and push through his downtown revitalization plan. Arlington’s current downtown is a disgrace: There is not a cafe (okay, there is a convenience store) for blocks. No playgrounds or ponds, nothing for people except maybe to get hit by a passing train.
texasmonthly.com: You talk a lot about Arlington’s “Mother Teresa,” Tillie Burgin. Did she have an opinion on today’s Arlington as compared with the one of y’all’s childhood?
GC: Tillie loves Arlington, old and new. But for her, Arlington is the mission. Understand, the town where I grew up—the neighborhood where the mission is centered—is today a cluster of old, rundown homes, occupied by unemployed or low-wage residents, most of them minorities. In that sense, the mission is the very heart of town. During our talk, Tillie told me, “Try to imagine what this neighborhood would be without the mission.” Good point. It would be living hell. The mission saves Arlington from itself.
texasmonthly.com: If you could transform one place in Arlington from what it is today into what it was when you were a kid, what would it be?
GC: Meadowbrook Park. There used to be a swimming pool in the park, the only pool in town. I don’t know why, but they destroyed the pool. Kids of my generation spent their summers in that park. I don’t know where they spend their summers now. Surely not at Six Flags.