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To understand the real Dallas, you first have to understand the stereotype: the JFK assassination, the oil boom, the Dallas Cowboys, Dallas the television show, big hair, big boobs, and The Real Housewives of Dallas.
Now forget all that. Yes, the Kennedy assassination rocked the country and the city to its core. Despite two memorials to Kennedy and a somber, penitent 50th-anniversary observation of his death, the city had, until recently, lived in the shadow of the guilt from that era. The Dallas Cowboys, of course, are no longer America’s team; they’re not even a winning team. The CBS series Dallas aired its last episode in 1991, and the much-revered Larry Hagman, who played the dastardly charming J.R. Ewing, was fittingly born in neighboring Ft. Worth in 1931 but died in Dallas in 2012. Fine, okay, big hair and big boobs never go out of style on TV—The Real Housewives of Dallas first aired on Bravo just three months ago. But it bears about as much reality to Dallas as reality TV does to life.
The real reality of Dallas is that it’s a big city, at the core of a huge metropolis. Its 1.3 million people help it rank among the top 10 biggest cities in the United States. But Dallas is also the nucleus of a massive metropolitan area, known as the Metroplex: 9,000 square miles harboring 7.1 million people spread over 13 counties and six area codes.
Dallasites love to complain about traffic, but the fact is that Austin’s is far worse; plus, Dallas has a pretty sophisticated commuter-train system. The Dallas Area Rapid Transit authority is spreading across the region like a spider web. Once unheard of in a city of cars, the train actually deposits suburban commuters right in the heart of the city, not far from Dealey Plaza and the mammoth, Mad Men-era headquarters of The Dallas Morning News. Its giant neon sign glows through the night when I visit and stay at the little Hotel Lawrence on Houston Street. (I live in the Austin area but work as a columnist for The Dallas Morning News.)
Once terrorized by organized white violence—systematic lynching and beatings swept Dallas County in 1860 in response to insurrection rumors and suspected arson—the city is now 25 percent African American, according to Census data. African Americans have served as mayor as well as city, county, and state legislators—and, today, chief of police. Blacks from around the country are moving to Dallas and live not just in the city proper but, increasingly, in the near suburbs. Garland, for example, was once 85 percent white. Now it is 15 percent black and 40 percent Latino.
Therein lies Dallas’s real challenge: the inequality doughnut. Even as the city proper grows and the near suburbs diversify, white wealth is pushing steadily outward across the North Texas plain into new, more distant suburbs. That leaves the nearest parts of the city poorer, for the most part, with a smaller tax base for public services like education—which in turn breeds poverty. “To me, this is the big challenge for Dallas,” said Bob Mong, the president of the University of North Texas at Dallas and the retired editor-in-chief of The Dallas Morning News, in an interview with me last year. He described it as the classic story of income inequality being told elsewhere—just highly visible with the growth of the Metroplex. The inequality donut threatens to constantly outstrip the best-intentioned development and civic efforts.