23 January 2022, from Writings

I fly in over vast superblocks of hip-roof houses, complex faceted crystals, arranged in whorls of roads and deadends, gridded by snaking freeways that inscribe a strange calligraphy of sprawl. Some of these suburban formations appear appear relatively alive, with greenery and blue pools; others are dead or abandoned, empty weathered gray-brown concrete pads spaced like a circuit board left in the dirt. Towards the horizon, a vague accretion of structures mark some far-off city center, part of the immense Dallas metroplex.

The light rail train jostles violently from side to side, I suppose because of uneven tracks. Through a window into the cab, I can see the driver jouncing wildly, as if he was driving a stagecoach out here under the Dallas sun. Out the dusty window, I see only the short scrub of sage and creosote bush and pin oaks, bare and scrawny for the winter, and miles of chain-link fence punctuated every hundred yards by a lonely fire hydrant.

The train lumbers through flat and featureless Irving, and then into Los Colinas, a newish growth of thousands of condos, many still being constructed. It’s generic sprawl: I could be in Phoenix or LA, or any city that rode the hypergrowth of the turn of the century. Like most of these condo masses, they serve mostly a function of being a place to sleep, eat alone, be online, and store one’s stuff. Although clearly in the category of ‘transit oriented development’ (as I whiz through on such transit), I see almost no evidence of public life, and barely any of the typical signs of American consumerism. In a singular occurrence over many blocks I pass, a ground-floor corner of one building is signed simply ‘MARKET,’ but looks less like an actual place than a notional idea of a market.

I suddenly feel like I am in the middle of a model railroad layout, with all the surrounding structures being cheap plastic kits, precisely the same, stamped out, and glued together en masse. The invisible hand of the modeler has placed here a vague blob of the landscaping material representing a tree, there a useless structure of struts and plates representing a bench, and yonder, a squeaking tram containing a tiny human figurine, gazing beyond the model’s edges into the fictional city.

I stay the weekend in Lowest Greenville, one of the many neighborhoods in northeast Dallas that cluster not far from the city center. It’s a type of vernacular I’ve seen so many times before, in so many American cities: a long-running and still-healthy main street that zips together the surrounding low-density residential neighborhoods. Often this pattern arose in clusters as streetcar lines reached out from the city center like spokes on a wheel, clusters of quasi-urban life forming regularly along the streetcars’ routes.

I lived in these kinds of neighborhoods in Seattle and Portland. On weekends in the 1990s and 2000s, I’d ride the ghost rails of the disappeared tram lines, carrying my camera and notebook and open and curious eyes, looking for haunts and souls and hidden gardens with secret flowers working their way up through the old concrete. In the cities of the northwest, most of the mystery vanished by the mid-2000s, as these places became discovered and valued and speculated and made shiny; in Dallas, it feels the same. Still, Lowest Greenville is a friendly, human place, mostly without the bland corporatist-urbanism of places that develops so much of America. People live here, know each other, acknowledge each other when coming and going, and it feels like we’re all part of a small but healthy organism.

I have dinner at the bar of the Libertine, a gussied-up dive bar. Between bites of home-made chicken nuggets and hot sauce, I ask the friendly bartenders for advice on where to see live music. Like so many places these days, I detect a tinge of nostalgia — a subtextual sigh that things are not what they used to be. In Dallas, that story may be twofold: first, the same old story of a tight music scene being overvisited and watered down; second, the inevitable damage of the Covid years. Even so, I wrestle out a few good places to go, places a bit out of the way and off the path, places that may still hold some soul among the shine.

The next day, I walk a long loop around these northeast neighborhoods. A well-to-do neighborhood of quiet Craftsman houses on large lots seem to be up in arms about short term rentals: ‘Homes not hotels,’ the numerous yard signs complain. As an Airbnb guest currently staying in this neighborhood, I am, of course, part of the problem, although I understand the conundrum from seeing the effects in other cities. I have an urge to have a conversation with one of the locals, but the streets are silent, and I see absolutely no one for blocks, not even a worried homeowner peering out a window.

Crossing a busy arterial road — Dallas, once a cow town, is now very much a car town — leads me into a very different working-class neighborhood. The anti-‘hotel’ signs disappear, and the uneasy silence is replaced by the bang of roofers’ staplers, dogs barking and humans chatting across backyards, Latin music and Spanish talk radio echoing from porches. The Sante Fe railroad used to run through this working-class neighborhood, but its rails and ties are gone, replaced by a wide pedestrian trail. Where engines and boxcars used to rattle past, now bicyclists and joggers speed. I peer through the brush into scrappy backyards that function not as the grassy moat of privacy of the anti-hotel neighborhood, but as gathering spaces, storage areas, junkyards, urban wildness.

I leave the trail and walk into the neighborhood, along small streets and small houses that jostle together like a grab bag of humanity. A woman is building a small wall out of old bricks. I comment as I walk by, admiring her work. Our talk arises out of the grounding of the bricks she’s scraped of old mortar, into the blocks of life we’ve lived: her childhood as a military brat, mine as a traveler, and our respective adventures and observations along the way. Rose is the kind of soul who sees things the rest of us don’t, for better or worse. By the time I part, we’ve veered into systems thinking, epistemics, and semiotics. I wave goodbye to her and her husband Giovanni, leaving them to continue their brick laying and philosophizing into the sunny afternoon.

The next morning, the half-hour Lyft ride to the airport disappears in a flash of a long moment of conversation, as the driver — who goes by PJ — and I discover we grew up in the same heady, sweaty, punk world of the mid-1980s. His context was the sun-dappled streets of LA skaters, avoiding the local Crips and Bloods; mine the dim-grey government city of DC, avoiding the deadly dull rumbles between politicians. We talk of punk bands migrating between cities and scenes; of the emotions of the pit where we all danced; of the symbiotic sharing of our scenes through zines, cassettes, and tales between friendly strangers; and of how that time changed us, made us so much of who we still are.