Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Big City Lite

As a closet urbanist, I found an article on DallasNews.com today amusing.

Writer David Flick, of the Dallas Morning News, reports that people who grew up in the suburbs and are now living closer-in to downtown Dallas are having to re-learn urban survival skills. Usually, these are the same skills their parents abandoned when they also abandoned urban cores four decades ago or more, taking their families to the brand-spanking-new suburbs.

However, now that career professionals and empty-nesters have re-discovered the energy, efficiency, and convenience of city life, they're moving back into town in droves. They're paying premium prices for new lofts carved out of old warehouses, old office towers turned into condos, or new apartments erected on what had been abandoned lots. Abandoned, ironically, back when middle America couldn't move out to suburbia fast enough.

For suburbanites who keep moving the other way - not back to urban centers, but to the new frontiers of exurbia, only the nasty problems of urban decay can be seen: bad schools, crumbling streets, high crime, no backyards, few big-box stores. But moving downtown instead of further out of town isn't as dangerous, dirty, and confining as people think. Unfortunately for Dallas, whose crime rate has been notoriously high for years, one does need to be more careful in Uptown than in Frisco, but things aren't nearly as bad in Oak Lawn as they are in Oak Cliff. And by all accounts, Dallas is still much safer than downtown LA or Miami.

Faced with a daily commute from the exurbs to Big D, which can sometimes take 45 minutes to an hour one-way if there's a wreck, many logical people from the suburbs sit in gridlock and start thinking. About how all the freeways start looking the same. About why they're living so far away from their job. About how their new subdivision is aging faster than they thought it would.

As soon as the kids are in college - or before they decide to have any, lots of people have realized that setting up one's abode ten minutes from major employment centers literally means time added to your day. Even if you buy a condo on Turtle Creek and work near LBJ & Central, your commute is against traffic, which keeps it shorter than if you had to drive in from north Plano. And if you home-school your kids - another pro-urban trend - it doesn't make any difference if you like the big-city school district or not. Which in Dallas' case, leaves homeschooling as the only way upwardly mobile parents who don't want to pay for private school will settle in town.

Indeed, young families have begun taking advantage of all that can make big cities great places to raise children: existing park infrastructure, multi-cultural neighborhoods, legacy museums and concert halls, and other social institutions that pop culture has made suburbanites forget about.

Urban Living Takes Practice

Yet, as Flick points out, all is not rosy on the new urban frontier. For one thing, higher-density populations generate higher-decibel noise. Street parking can also become an issue, since people moving downtown from the suburbs have never made mass transit a part of their lives. Where can you fit all of those BMW's and SUV's without the acres of concrete parking lots the suburbs boast?

I've seen more than my share of laugh-out-loud examples of really bad parallel parking. You know - the one thing you probably flunked on your driver's test, but that even the DMV official figured you'd never need to know. At least Dallas drivers try to not hit the cars they're squeezing between. I remember watching careless drivers in New York City parallel parking - by bumping their vehicle back and forth between the fenders of vehicles in front and in back of them, working their way into their space one bumper-bump at a time.

Sometimes I get downright angry when I see enormous pickup trucks hogging two "compact car" spaces, or full-sized SUV's squeezed into one space - but with wide-angle rear-view mirrors that render the two spaces on either side unusable. This being Dallas, however, it's not just drivers of oversized vehicles that hog parking spaces. Along Oak Lawn's Lemmon Avenue, I once saw the prototypical urban vehicle, a SMART car, parked over the line, in a compact car lot - a true testament to either the driver's incompetence or narcissism. How can there be an excuse for not being able to fit a SMART car into any parking space?

Sure, it's Big D, but...

The more I read of Flick's article, the more I chucked about how good urban Dallasites have it here. For one thing, housing costs in most inner-city Dallas neighborhoods pale in comparison to those in places like San Francisco, Boston, Chicago, and New York City, where big city life can only be afforded by super-wealthy elites and welfare recipients. Dallas also doesn't have Manhattan's 18.25% parking tax or monthly garage rates that can exceed your monthly car payment. There's also no alternate-side-of-the-street parking here.

Dallas' new urbanites can choose from a good stock of relatively-new, amenity-choked apartments, townhomes, and condos that, although smaller than the sprawling homes in the 'burbs, don't lack any of the creature comforts they've come to expect. Meanwhile, back in New York City, many older apartments don't have dishwashers, the only air-conditioning comes from noisy window units, you're fortunate if your building has a washing machine in the basement, and those fancy doormen all belong to a union.

Yes, if you live in urban Dallas, you're living with over a million other folks in one of the Lone Star State's signature cities. I suppose there's some cachet in that. You're close to everything the tourists come here to see and do. And chances are, you're a lot closer to work than your office buddies who drive in from Collin County. If gasoline prices rocket past $4 a gallon again and stay there, you'll also be the envy of every poor schlep driving their Chevy Suburban back and forth from Allen every day.

Parallel parking may still be a challenge, and street noise much more noticeable, but take advantage of the fact that in Dallas, urbanity is a lot less expensive and challenging than it is in other big cities around the country. It's also a lot less crowded, as a friend of mine who lives across the street from the flagship Neiman-Marcus downtown can testify. Even though several office buildings have been converted into condos, and some restaurants and hotels attract big business, street life after dark is still nil.

Town and Country

When I drive to Dallas from my humble, aging, first-ring suburb of Arlington, sure, I enjoy the world-class concerts and chic restaurants that never seem to make it west of Stemmons Freeway. I marvel at the skyscrapers, people-watch all the hipsters and yuppies, and drool over the ultra-luxury foreign cars worth more than many homes in Arlington. But I also enjoy the fact that I can come home to a simple house with trees towering overhead and a creek in the back yard, where foxes and raccoons raise their own families. Last night, a possum waited for me to get out of its way when I got home after my walk.

I've done the urban thing already, and maybe I'll do it again someday. For now, however, at least I know that whenever I need my urban fix, Dallas is just down the freeway, ready to oblige. Even if it is only big city lite.

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