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D Magazine Devotes An Entire Issue to the Arts… District

by Jerome Weeks 21 Sep 2009 11:04 AM

A month before the new double-barrelled AT&T Performing Arts Center officially opens, D Magazine has released its October issue online and on the newstands. Think of it as the starter’s gun going off for Big, Anticipatory and Celebratory Ruminations and Evaluations on All Things AT&T PAC-Related, Local Media Division. Yes, we’re preparing our own gigantic […]


A month before the new double-barrelled AT&T Performing Arts Center officially opens, D Magazine has released its October issue online and on the newstands. Think of it as the starter’s gun going off for Big, Anticipatory and Celebratory Ruminations and Evaluations on All Things AT&T PAC-Related, Local Media Division.

Yes, we’re preparing our own gigantic parade float, thanks for asking. If you must know, we’re thinking pink carnations.

At any rate, the new issue offers six feature stories on the PAC and the Arts District in general, plus an editor’s column by Wick Allison on how the PAC is a Good Thing for Dallas and for Dallas Arts Patronage, despite the economic beating the arts are getting.

To save you all the wade-through, wade through these highlights:

1. Although it’s a bit premature for passing judgment on the architectural value of the not-yet-finished AT&T halls, it was a smart move getting San Francisco Chronicle urban design writer John King to evaluate what’s up and what’s going up. (Bonus point: King is a former Dallasite.) A smart move because he’s a smart writer, and one suspects the News may fly in its former, highly-regarded architecture critic Dave Dillon to do the critical overview honors next month (although Scott Cantrell has been handling the brick-throwing chores quite capably since Dillon’s departure), so what could D do to match that?

Well, this. King argues that for all of their conscious attempts to become  icons, both of the performance halls — the Norman Foster-designed Winspear Opera House and the Wyly Theatre,  Rem Koolhaas and Joshua Prince-Ramus’ aluminum-skinned baby — will not succeed in globally re-defining the city. Which is pretty much what everyone wants these days from starchitectural monuments like the Guggenheim Bilbao. It won’t happen because — as Peter Simek of Renegade Bus more or less agrees in his own story — the Arts District hasn’t really changed downtown, let alone the city at large. All it’s done is add more individual eye-poppers to the mix. Real dazzlers, to be sure, but they haven’t even transformed their own immediate area into a desirable, Jane Jacobs-like urban neighborhood.

What Simek and King don’t address is the fact that — because of the city’s early and ongoing unwillingness to do much to direct or shape the Arts District (developers don’t like government doing that sort of thing around here) — the individual arts groups and private landowners concluded that it was  “every man for himself.” Hence, the profound lack of coordination and  “connective tissue” in what isn’t a “district” so much as a random gathering of show-offs and who-cares-about-the-next-guy officer towers.

But the ‘failure’ of the two latest icons-to-be can be seen as a good thing, King argues. If what we want is transforming downtown Dallas into a livable, appealing, culturally rich and pedestrian-friendly city, we do not need yet another Big Exciting Dallas Dream Project to do it. Or even two of them. Real city neighborhoods take time to grow, they require “in-fill” — all those ordinary drugstores and cafes and shade trees and pleasant street-level attractions — to achieve the kind of population and interactive density that the best urban neighborhoods have. Which is what, very belatedly, the Woodall Rodgers Park and Veletta Forsythe Lill’s Dallas Arts District group are trying to provide, as Simek reports. (See our report on DAD.)

Well, good luck with that. It’s worth noting — at least in the self-congratulatory vein — that King agrees with me. The  promoters of Woodall Rodgers Park should stop selling it as our version of Chicago’s Millennium Park: “Not likely, since that capped railway yard is hemmed tight by blocks far denser than any in Dallas, with the added bonus of a lakefront on one side.” More importantly, perhaps, it’s going to be very hard to counter the very powerful economic forces that have kept any significant retail from moving into the Arts District for more than 20 years, plus the traffic flow and the Dallas-style pedestrian-hostile thinking that keep Flora Street — supposedly the “backbone” of the District — pretty much an afterthought, compared to Ross or Pearl.

The two best things to happen to the Arts District recently — in the way of making it a real neighborhood — never get touted here: a) the Booker T. Washington Arts Magnet High School, which brings an influx of hundreds of student artists every day into the area and which has caused arts organizations to set up student-friendly programs and visiting artist exchanges, and b) the terrific 7-11 outlet at the architecturally undistinguished One Arts Plaza. Anyone for an apres opera Slim Jim?

2. Check out the name. In what must surely count as a bit of competition-nose-tweaking, D Magazine thumbed through the archives and re-published a 1982 story on the original efforts to start the Arts District. What produced a raised eyebrow (or a startled snort) is the author: George Rodrigue, current managing editor of The Dallas Morning News.  The snort came from those of us who worked at the News. Mr. Rodrigue endeared himself to the arts staff when he opened his first meeting with us by declaring he had no idea what arts critics did. Yes, at least he’s honest. But imagine the surprise reading his in-depth report on the early hopes and back-scene quarrels among the city’s developers and arts patrons.

131_standard13. In a droll provocative stunt-experiment, SMU prof Willard Spiegelman armed himself with helium and a red balloon to demonstrate that the planned, 42-floor Museum Tower will indeed intrude on James Turrell’s site-specific, sky-viewing chamber, Tending (Blue) at the next-door Nasher Sculpture Center.

A tidy metaphor in general for real estate development and the arts in Dallas? Perhaps we should just re-think the Turrell as a performance piece and re-title it, Tending (Blue – and Waving at the Folks Up in the Luxury High-Rise  Looking Down).

4. The Arts District seems curiously elastic. Different stories report it as 60 acres, 65 acres and 70 acres. If you include the Woodall Rodgers Park, that would add five acres. So some discrepancy is understandable. But what’s with the other five?

5. Hey, D didn’t do all this for Jonestown, the Cowboys’ new stadium. Let us all ponder what that must mean. The apocalypse? Something worth happily touting? Anyone?

  • Joe Blow

    That sort of anti-Dallas commentary is exactly what we expect from Jerome “I hate Dallas” Weeks.

  • Jerome –

    We currently count it as 68 acres. That number does not include “The Park,” but does take into account the 2005 annexation of the land from Routh to Central., when the city expanded the Planned Development District.

  • Rawlins Gilliland

    Joe, I certainly never thought Weeks ‘hates Dallas’. What am I missing here?
    I too am excited and proud and rather shocked at all the new and wonderful things consolidating in the district. I hate to use the words ‘world class’ but hey. This one’s for the books, beginning with the Meyerson and on the the Nasher and all else piling on to this climax. Nope, it ‘ain’t’ the Dallas I grew up wanting to see. Can it be true the future is this bright?

    The answer to #5 I hope is that: This is actually about Dallas rather than the ‘Dallas’ area including Tarrant County where, as you call the new stadium in Arlington) ‘Jonestown’ resides.

    Loved the irony of #2. It was also a very ironic and intriguing 80s time capsule.
    ( A time when in no small way(s) Dallas faced far more challenges than it is in this mess of a ‘downturn’. Oil prices plummet. Savings and Loan meltdown. Real Estate dbl. digit drops. Even Clint Murchison’s home became a flea market estate sale auction. etc.)

    I have not yet read the ‘D’ issue cover to cover but it’s impressive. And so is your taking the time to support it. Meanwhile, props to Velleta F. Lill. She’s been a positive Dallas mover and a shaker enough to be given her own seismic chart.