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07.25.2014
Editorial> New Cities and Old
Aaron Seward on the New Cities Summit and Dallas' urge to urbanize.
New Cities Foundation-Rachel Dare

This June, at the New Cities Summit in the Dallas Arts District, on the fourth floor of the Winspear Opera House, I had the opportunity to sit down with Maxwell Anderson, who has been director of the Dallas Museum of Art (DMA) since 2012. During our discussion, Mr. Anderson got out his smart phone and showed me an old black and white photograph of pre-war downtown Dallas: a teeming street scene bustling with hat-wearing pedestrians, trolley cars, and automobiles. The only thing that distinguished it as a city in Texas, as opposed to New York or Chicago in that period, was a sign shaped like a cowboy boot hanging over the sidewalk. “Dallas today is so spread out,” he said. “But not many people are familiar with old downtown Dallas. It was a vibrant urban place. We’re only now seeking to create that again."

That notion of re-creating a city, specifically in the 21st century, was the theme of this year’s New Cities Summit (AN was a media partner of the event), an annual convention of global business leaders, representatives of government, academics, cultural directors, architects, planners, and others concerned with the future of urban areas. It was also central to why the New Cities Foundation, a European non-profit whose founding members include technology and communications giants Cisco and Ericsson, chose Big D as a location (the previous two summits were held in Paris, France, and São Paulo, Brazil). “Dallas is a place that is eager to tell its story again,” is the way that Mathieu Lefevre, executive director of the foundation, put it to me.

Like most Sunbelt cities, Dallas sprawls out over a vast spread of land and incorporates many smaller towns and suburbs within its metropolitan area, all linked, of course, by freeways. How to go from that condition to some resemblance of Anderson’s nostalgic image of old urban Dallas is anyone’s guess, but the first thing to find out, it appears to me, is whether or not the people who live there actually want such a transformation. It’s a crazy notion, I know, and one not much entertained in urbanism circles, but there really are millions of Americans who live in suburbia and drive around in cars and actually find things to like about it—at least the current ridership figures of Dallas Area Rapid Transit make it seem so. Anderson, a native Manhattanite and “cave-dweller since childhood,” may find density completely natural, but there are still many who would not wish to give up their backyards in favor of walking to the grocery store.

But, nonetheless, Dallas is trying to create more “vibrancy” downtown; trying to attract more people and keep them there for longer. One way it is doing that is through its arts district, a truly phenomenal collection of cultural institutions housed in equally impressive buildings, which is just now completing the commercial infrastructure it believes will activate the streetscape both day and night. (Anderson, by the way, returned DMA to free general admission, an admirable policy for any great museum and yet another carrot to draw people to the district.)

Will it work? Well, not everyone thinks the strategy is foolproof, or even desirable. In the summit workshop Cultural Districts as Engines of Urban Transformation, Jamie Bennett, executive director of ArtPlace America, made his position unequivocally clear: “Stop planning cultural districts!” he exclaimed. In a nutshell, his argument is that planning “cultural ghettos,” as he calls them, only reinforces the notion that culture only happens in those places, while, in truth, culture happen all over, wherever there are people who choose to interpret their story through art: a band that records in a garage studio on a sleepy suburban street, for example, or a community theater that stages its productions in a high school auditorium.

The Chinese artist, Huang Rui, who gave the summit’s Art and the City keynote speech, furthered this point when he said, and I am paraphrasing, that you can’t build culture, it is the spontaneous expression of people in their time and place. (He knows what he’s talking about. China has been opening around 100 museums per year for the past several years, and opened 400 in 2011 alone. This museum boom, however, has not resulted in a culture boom.) Dallas’ jaw-dropping arts district, built as it is upon a blank slate, may eventually attract more people downtown, and keep them there for longer, but it is hard to imagine it ever creating the sort of unbidden exuberance expressed in Anderson’s old photo.

Aaron Seward