Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Dallas Redux and Reality


C'mon, y'all! Thar fixin' ta do a remake 'a Dallas!

(Translation: Ya-hoo! They're going to do a remake of Dallas, the 1970's television show.)

By now, you've probably heard that cable station TNT has commissioned a new show based on the prime-time soap opera Larry Hagman and Linda Gray made famous a generation ago.

And here in north Texas, where Dallas is still the largest city, some civic hand-wringing has begun as local leaders wonder how Hollywood executives will portray Big D this time around.

Back in the original show, Dallas was broadcast to the world as an oil baron's cutthroat battlefield filled with big cars, big houses, big hats, and big hair - even for the guys. And while, yes, that image wasn't entirely unjustified, it wasn't completely reality.

My family had just moved to north Texas from upstate New York when Dallas premiered, and like a lot of other "Yankees" who'd begun flooding the state from "up north," we couldn't tell if the city was following the show's lead, or the other way around. These days, we're told that initially, local Dallas boosters weren't impressed with the trite gaudiness with which Hollywood cast the city. But after tourism to the area and Dallas' international recognition took off, they learned to live with it.

Like almost anybody wanting fame, free publicity can cover a multitude of sins.

Except this time, California's television folks need to understand two things. One, not only is Dallas definitely not what the original series' producers envisioned it as being, but two, it's become a far more diversified place with surprisingly individual neighborhoods that may not exactly transition well into television.


What used to be one of the most WASP-ish of towns has had two female Jewish mayors since the first TV show, hosts one of the largest gay communities in the country, and has become white-minority.

Indeed, Dallas essentially exists as two distinct cities. There's the relatively white, relatively upper-middle-class North Dallas, and the mostly minority, mostly poor South Dallas, with a bit of a mix scattered throughout its eastern neighborhoods.

North Dallas sits mostly east of Marsh Lane and north of I-30, while South Dallas takes in everything else. Downtown is kind of the anchor of the split, and the closer you get to Downtown, the greater the mix between whites and minorities, and rich and poor.

The wealth of north Dallas starts with the supremely exclusive and virtually all-white enclaves of Highland Park and University Park, both of which share their own elite school district, and are surrounded by Dallas proper. Then comes Preston Hollow, where some of Texas' largest and most impressive estates sprawl behind towering walls, along winding lanes lined with towering trees. More money is tucked into gentrifying neighborhoods east of Central Expressway.

South Dallas' poverty doesn't really start until after you get past a couple of trendy inner-city districts, the sprawling freeway interchanges, and the softly-worn yet attractively venerable North Oak Cliff and Kessler Park neighborhoods, where some houses rival those of Highland Park.

Then the poverty hits you, with block after block of overgrown lots, crack houses, liquor stores, dilapidated apartments, pawn shops, and taquerias (Mexican restaurants). Hispanics comprise the largest group of minorities in Dallas, which sometimes agitates blacks who, along with many whites, have grown frustrated with the city's large population of illegal immigrants. Significant pockets of Middle Easterners, Asian Indians, and Hispanics live along the northern LBJ Freeway corridor, and east of the city's recreational White Rock Lake area. To this day, blacks stay pretty much south of Downtown, where they were segregated not so long ago, and where housing values remain the lowest.

Whereas the original TV show tried to claim Dallas' suburbs for the city itself, these days, most of the suburbs in Dallas County have their own identities and don't want to be lumped in with the identity of their larger neighbor, the county seat. In particular, Plano and Richardson are home to many "silicon prairie" firms and even have their own fine arts organizations. Irving and its master-planned Las Colinas district, snuggled up next to our bustling international airport and home to some of the world's biggest corporations, is a bitter rival of Dallas' when it comes to businesses relocating to the area. And Frisco, one of the blandest new exurbs you'll ever visit, isn't even in Dallas County, yet that's where most of the middle-class whites from Dallas are flocking these days.

Livin' Large in Big D

Since this new show will likely follow the same path as the original and feature modern power brokers squabbling over money and sex, the producers should understand that money in Dallas has gotten old enough that it's starting to look a lot like it does on the East Coast. That means expensive foreign cars, yes, but a surprisingly understated wardrobe, where the label speaks louder than the design. Money has also become much more discrete in Dallas, where smallish houses in the Park Cities can command hefty premiums simply because of their address, not necessarily their built-in amenities.

Of course, discrete in Dallas still isn't the same as discrete in Manhattan, Short Hills, or Westport. Bling still counts for something in Dallas, as does perfectly-styled hair, even if it isn't big. Make-up, too, has to be flawless, whereas in Manhattan, you never know if the unadorned face walking towards you on Madison Avenue belongs to a housekeeper or a hedge fund manager.

Nevertheless, Dallas is home base for Neiman-Marcus, one of the most under-stated fine retailers in the country, and also boasts a staid Rolls-Royce dealership. It's difficult to tell whether Lexus, Mercedes-Benz, or BMW is the official car of Dallas, since so many models of each prowl the city's streets. And they're almost all black - a beastly color, considering how hot our summers get here.

Ahh, yes: summers. If Dallas were a truly well-rounded city, it would be located near an ocean or one of the Great Lakes, or maybe some mountains. As it is, Dallasites have to make do with some man-made reservoirs, private swimming pools, and relatively inexpensive airline flights to Colorado. Some people insist on baking in the heat by jogging in wilted parks, sweating on water-sucking golf courses, or gasping in open-air patios at prestigious restaurants, but most simply hit the many local malls or multiplexes for stuff to do indoors.

The world-renowned Dallas Symphony Orchestra plays in the equally-impressive Meyerson Symphony Center, and a historic trolley rattles through a newly-trendy Uptown restaurant district. One of the area's most successful shopping center moguls built a remarkable sculpture palace, the Nasher Sculpture Center, and an increasingly popular light rail system continues to spread through the city.

Its school district may be in shambles, and its crime rate sagging only by degrees, yet Dallas still manages to hold its own in terms of desirability against the brand-new gated communities popping up in what was only parched farmland when the original Dallas aired.

"Where the East Begins" Doesn't Have the Same Ring

Perhaps much to its disappointment, however, the search for an identity - which has so far confounded Dallas - inevitably brings up the subject of Fort Worth.

Thirty miles to its west, and home to a legitimate cowboy heritage, Fort Worth proudly claims to be "Where the west begins" and "Cowtown." With the bona-fides to back it up.

Even Big D's fiercely beloved Dallas Cowboys play outside the county now, here in Arlington, right next to Fort Worth. Convention-goers staying in Dallas routinely board buses to Cowtown where they can watch a real cattle drive in the old stockyards, party at the "world's largest honkey-tonk," Billy Bob's Texas, and dine at what is probably the most famous Mexican restaurant in the state, Joe T. Garcia's (although I don't particularly care for it myself).

Fort Worth may not have the reputation for wealth and ostentation that Dallas does, but it's got enough energy industry tycoons to fund a far more diverse and internationally prestigious arts and cultural district than Dallas has. Its municipal politics are far less corrupt and divisive that those in Dallas, and its cross-cultural civic life much more cohesive.

Perhaps that mix doesn't make for as provocative a television show as someplace like Dallas, but interestingly, I don't hear many folks in Fort Worth complaining about all the attention their neighbor to the east may be getting from Hollywood.

After all, Dallas' most famous resident is probably Jerry Jones, owner of the Dallas Cowboys, while Fort Worth's is probably Van Cliburn, the acclaimed concert pianist.

Which, in a way, says a lot about each city, doesn't it?

Boy, howdy - now ain't that sum'um?

(Translation: My goodness, you're right!)

Chances are, you could probably tell whether somebody will bother to watch the new Dallas based on which one of those wealthy locals they'd want as a neighbor.

As for me, I haven't cared much for the Cowboys since Tom Landry was fired.

Oh yeah - that's been since the original Dallas, too.

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