6/26/2012

"Dallas" vs Dallas


"Dallas" was a hit tv show in the late 70's and is experiencing a second 15 minutes of fame in the latest iteration, a summer replacement series (which should be your first hint that this is not serious drama). It was originally billed as the first nightime soap opera, a description that seems to be forgotten whenever I talk to people who are not from Dallas about what it is truly like to live or be from here. People seem to be able to watch "Days of Our Lives", "All My Children" , "Dynasty" or "Falcon's Crest" for years and realize that few people in real life experience the travails of Erica Kane or Crystal Carrington (and not be committed to an insane asylum as a result); yet otherwise intelligent folk from both East and West Coasts and places abroad for some reason take every aspect of "Dallas" to heart in some oil well-owning, pickup truck driving while fur coat wearing family-scheming Texas fantasy of what life is like in this seemingly glitzy modern city. I'm here to set you straight.

Growing up as a child in Dallas in the 1960's, my hometown was forever burdened with the moniker "the city that killed JFK". This was a colossal shame, but as a child, I was mostly only vaguely aware of the implications. All I knew was that it was hellishly hot in the summer, cold and windy in the winter, there were miles and miles of sprawling suburbs with very few trees, lots of churches, and our cultural experiences were very milk-toasty. Segregation ruled schools, movie theaters, courthouses and many public places until the 1970's. Movies that opened locally typically went up one degree of restricted rating: PG's went to PG-13 or R, R's went to X, etc. due entirely to the local movie rating board which pretty much did whatever it wanted. We had "blue laws" that forbade retail sales on Sundays, and liquor laws that forbade the selling of alcohol (either in stores or by the drink) in all but a few small areas (which were havens of iniquity) tucked away in "bad" parts of town. (Of course, this sort of zoning made it easier and more desirable for us to frequent these areas, as teenagers!) Our restaurant choices were pretty much limited to Tex-Mex and southern- there were no other sorts of ethnic eateries. Fresh seafood was unheard of until the late 1970's- after the building of DFW airport opened this city to the world. The only really fashionable, world-class tasteful thing we had going for us was the brilliant retail vision of Stanley Marcus and the luxury store his family ran, Neiman -Marcus. Dallas was, and still is, pretty much in the middle of nowhere and has little, naturally, to recommend it. Founded as a trading post on a largely unnavigable Trinity River (what other climes would call a creek), Dallas grew initially as a banking, finance, and retail center, and was a very conservative culture as a direct result. (In contrast to Houston, founded on a bay estuary and home to the oil industry/NASA/the Medical Center, which draws people from South America and the Middle East into a diverse cosmopolitan stew.) The added fact that for some reason, Dallas is the buckle on the Bible Belt, home of more Baptists per square mile than anywhere else on this planet, only adds to the overall conservative tone. (Classic joke: The Jews don't recognize Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior. Protestants don't recognize the Pope as the spiritual head of their faith. And two Baptist in a liquor store don't "recognize" each other.) My childhood friend Monica was sent home the first day of elementary school for wearing pants. Her mother was from Germany and never heard of such a thing; we girls weren't allowed to wear pants to school until the early 1970's, around the time I was in the 5th grade.

The building of the DFW "International" airport in 1972 really opened up this city to the world, and nowadays Dallas (and Ft Worth, all surrounding suburbs, and most Texas cities) function pretty much like any major city in America- but more like L.A. than NYC. DFW is now the fourth largest metropolitan area in the USA, according to the latest census information. (link at bottom of this post). It is a young city, only really growing since the invention of air conditioning post WWII. With unlimited land and a hot year round climate, it is more like Dubai than Chicago or Atlanta. Buildings are cement and glass or brick- we have too much rain/hailstorms/tornadoes for that charming stucco and red tile look found in other southwestern cities.

I have lived in suburban and urban areas in New York, Washington DC, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Houston, and can tell you the key similarities/differences: Commuter traffic is pretty much hideous everywhere, (but Washington is the worst). Nowadays we have the same chain stores and restaurants in Texas as anywhere else- boring! But we do have our own southwestern cultural flavor that shapes our music, food, arts, and way of life. Housing and the general cost of living is so cheap in Texas in general, compared to cities on the east and west coasts, that people live in much larger homes on much larger lots. We have more disposable income, as a result of our low cost of living, so we do shop more (there is very little else to do, esp when the hot weather sets in), eat out more, go to movies/arts/take vacations more, remodel our homes more, have maids and gardeners, etc (due to our inexpensive labor sources, mostly Mexican, and unlike Arizona, we don't complain about it), and drive more expensive/newer cars. This tends to foster a consumerist culture that is vapid and superficial, unfortunately. (That's why there are so many "blondes" with perfect teeth and boobs here, too!)

We do have many museums, theaters, and a great flourishing of the arts in general. LGBT individuals and PFLAGG members are welcome, unlike when I was a kid and diversity of any kind was kept hidden. We are still overly Baptisty but other religions have started a toe-hold. A tremendous influx of Asians from a variety of nations in the 1980's greatly enhanced our local culture, arts, restaurants, and are driving up the educational expectations in local schools, which remain fairly low compared to national norms.Texas remains at least mythically in thrall to "Friday Night Lights" football and a sort of generalized "good old boyism"-just look at the stellar performance our governor gave in the 2012 Republican debates for a shining example of what the Texas educational system can produce- that precludes the advancement of the intellectual in our local public schools. Great disconnect exists between the needs of our growing semi-conductor and other high tech industries and the educated manpower these same industries will need to draw from the local public.

There are a few trees now, mostly ones that were planted by people like my parents, 40-50 years ago. Don't expect forests or mountains like you find in Ca or NY/Pa/Va/NC- it's pretty much flat for 1000 miles in any direction. The weather is still hideous, hot six months of the year, and we tend to leave town as often as possible to get away from it. The land in north Texas is flat and ugly, and spreads forever in endless suburbs, many of which look exactly like each other. (Parts of east and south Texas actually are rolling and do have trees, if one is fortunate to live there.) One's neighbors in any urban or suburban neighborhood are just as likely to be from California, Illinois, Michigan, New York, China, or England as from Texas. The diversity of folk has brought in a wide array of restaurants and grocery stores, just like shopping (what used to be) the lower east side in Manhattan or San Francisco. People in Dallas have jobs in banking, IT, semi-conductors, finance, personnel, computers, education, health sciences, and work at a diverse array of corporations from Peterbilt to American Airlines to Sally Beauty Products to ExxonMobil to Texas Instruments- just like they do in all the other major U.S. cities. Pretty much no one owns an oil well or a ranch, drives a pickup truck while wearing a mink coat and cowboy boots. (Oil industry jobs tend to be centered in Houston.)

What have I missed the most, when I lived away from Dallas? The classic Tex-Mex enchilada plate, available at so many Dallas and Ft Worth area restaurants. Even living in Houston (home to a fajita-centric Tex-Mex variational cuisine) didn't satisfy that need and I had to come back and visit several times a year just to get my fill. It sounds silly, I know, but think of the word "home" and you will often think of special dishes that are meaningful to you. This lure pulls several childhood friends of mine, who live now far away, into this forgotten wasteland known as north Texas, just to eat our favorite, special foods. Did I move back to Texas, from points east, just so I could eat Mexican food? No, I did not. I moved here to have a life my husband and I could afford, so we could raise our kids in a middle class way on the pitifully low salaries we make as educators. But knowing that plentiful Tex-Mex would be available, sure sharpened the trade-off. I do miss the culture, the seasons, the many other beautiful parts of this country I have lived in. But I missed Texas cuisine, more, when I lived away.

Do I hang out with people like the ones in the the "Dallas" tv show? I can categorically and honestly state that I have never, in all my life, known anyone like the characters on that show. Being a sixth generation Texan, I do know some true characters. Some have owned oil wells, some have been wealthy, many have been eccentric in one way or antoher. Where does "Dallas" get all it's family-fighting drama? There really is nothing new under the sun: these are just old plot episodes resurrected from Shakespearean plays. "Hamlet", "King Lear", "Othello", "Coriolanus" , "All's Well That Ends Well" anyone?

Census data:
 http://www.census.gov/newsroom/releases/archives/population/cb12-55.html

 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Metropolitan_Statistical_Area#Leading_population_centers

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