“I want to be a part of that story — to walk the downtown walk as I talk the downtown talk.”
by MARK LAMSTER
illustration by TROY OXFORD
A few months ago, at a cocktail party in a capacious Highland Park manor, I found myself chatting with a steely eyed magazine editor when talk turned to the fact that I live downtown. Why, she wondered, would I — or anyone, really, but especially someone with a young family— want to live in downtown Dallas?
Because I hear this question so frequently, I am generally prepared for it and have stock answers at the ready. Downtown, contrary to popular belief, isn’t a “dead zone,” though it sometimes seems that way. (The subterranean pedestrian network — those restaurant- and shop-equipped tunnels that connect 30-plus blocks of downtown — doesn’t help on this front.) I like apartment living, and the freedom of not having to worry about mowing the grass or fixing a roof. I enjoy, and don’t take for granted, the convenience of being able to walk to work or to a museum. It’s especially handy to live right along the DART line, both because I believe in public transit and because I try to avoid driving at night. Study after study tells us high-density urban living is the most sustainable way to live, and a requirement for the urban future. I believe downtown is having a resurgence, if a halting one, and, as the architecture critic of Dallas’ daily newspaper, I want to be a part of that story — to walk the downtown walk as I talk the downtown talk.
These responses are generally sufficient to satisfy skeptics, or at least convince them to change tack, but my new acquaintance, to her credit, was not going to be so easily put off. Why, she wondered, would one move to Dallas, a prototypical automotive city, and not embrace the strengths of its car culture? Why not have a house and a yard in one of the city’s many historic neighborhoods? Downtown Dallas, she noted frankly, does not provide the amenities that typically attract families to downtowns — convenient shopping, schools, pedestrian-friendly streets — so why pretend that it does? Oh, and it’s not always attractive. Just look at all those parking lots and garages and derelict buildings.
I was nonplussed, surprised to hear such pointed arguments coming from an urbane young professional, someone I had figured to be sympathetic to the idea of downtown living. The problem: She wasn’t wrong.
I will admit that the idea of moving out of the downtown loop is appealing. My daughter would like a yard for gardening and our own pool in which she can cool off on those days when the mercury hits triple digits. My wife shares many, if not all, of the concerns so frankly adumbrated on that pleasant evening in Highland Park. When we chose to move to Dallas from New York City, one of the selling points was that we would be able to have a house of our own, whereas that idea was unaffordable in New York City. From a purely architectural standpoint, the thought of a house where I might develop (and demonstrate) my own ideas about the built world is especially alluring.
Above all, there is a tremendous appeal to the comfortable Dallas lifestyle that you acquire when you move out of downtown. Ask a native what they like about Dallas and they will tell you that living here is “easy.” The car takes care of a lot of that. (Though it creates hassles and expenses of its own.) It’s nice to have space. Large closets. An extra bedroom for guests. And bathrooms? For a Northeasterner, the Dallas master bathroom is a revelation, it being inevitably equipped with his-and-her sinks and enough counter space between them to comfortably land a 727. Environmentally sensitive? No. But it sure is nice.
All of which is to say downtown has a ways to go before it becomes the vibrant, diverse, family-friendly community it could be. An elementary school would help. But things are getting better. As for my family? For the moment, we’re comfortable where we are — and inertia is a powerful force. But we’re looking.
MARK LAMSTER is the architecture critic for The Dallas Morning News and is on the faculty of the David Dillon Center for Texas Architecture at the University of Texas at Arlington. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.