Dallas is a great place to live, but I wouldn’t want to visit here. I don’t blame tourists for not flocking to our sights. I don’t blame those who do find themselves here with time to spare for trekking to Southfork Ranch or JerryWorld or spending more time in the Fort Worth Stockyards than in downtown Dallas. Because, besides Dealey Plaza’s infamous history, what have we got to boast of that they can’t see more impressive versions of in any number of other cities?
When a fellow gets only a couple weeks paid time off a year (and he’s not a JFK nut), are you honestly going to urge him to spend those days here? I mean, really? (Assuming your name’s not Phillip Jones)
And that lack of cachet with the tourists must have some effect on our ability to attract corporate leaders to want to live here, and thus to want to move their companies here, bringing jobs. That was a big reason local leaders cited for why hosting a great Super Bowl in 2011 could have had long-lasting impacts on our region. No corporation is going to move just because its CEO had a fun time at a football game, but one that’s considering a move may well give extra consideration to a place that feels as though it’s brimming with energy and is a great place to raise a family, with many cultural and entertainment offerings. (Best not to think of what impression visiting executives were left with following last year’s Super Bowl snow-and-ice storm.)
So, yes, I’m talking about Dallas’ quest to be a “world-class city,” or put another way, its attempts to re-imagine itself beyond its stereotypes. Like by building a fancy new Arts District, a fancy new bridge, or resurrecting streetcars. Â Will Doig wrote about the pitfalls of city branding on Salon over the weekend. He cites Dallas as a place that’s always had a big personality (“Dallas has always been DALLAS!”), but otherwise doesn’t mention us.
Yet I think we should consider the caution he urges against trying to transform a city into something that it isn’t. He cites urban analyst Aaron Renn’s case-study of Chicago, which in the last decade has been widely praised for its civic projects like the wonderful Millennium Park but also has been losing ground in terms of population and economic activity:
Chicago’s mistake was chasing a standardized formula for success, says Renn. “There’s this tremendous fear of doing anything that’s out of the ordinary. Whenever some fad gets hot, whether that be ‘creative class’ or streetcars or bicycles, everyone jumps on it. Every city says they want to be the No. 1 bicycle city in America – whether or not that would actually work for them. They’re all trying to check the boxes of what they think makes a world-class city instead of thinking of how they can add some new boxes.”
Nashville and Indianapolis get praised for building upon already established brands – country music for Nashville, the Indy 500 and sports events for Indy – rather than trying to ditch the identities they already have in an effort to satisfy the current favorite trends of the “global elite.”
“What leaders can do is spend some time thinking about what the Gestalt of all their good attributes are,” says Renn, who’s lived in Indianapolis and thinks the city has plenty of brand potential. “No one’s going to believe that Indianapolis is super-fashion-forward, and that’s fine. What are the unique values, history and culture that make up your brand? Because you have one, whether you know it or not. Every city’s got a story to tell.”
Ah, so what is the gestalt of Dallas’ attributes? Â How do we build upon our stereotypes/reputation – oil-town full of Stetson-wearing businessmen, the big-haired hypocrites of GCB, the city that killed JFK, plus a low-cost business-friendly place where the word “entrepreneur” is uttered in reverent tones – and turn those to our advantage?
Should we have built a giant cowboy hat on top of the Winspear Opera House? Should Big Tex spend his off-season greeting the cars that drive across Large Marge? Â Are we getting away from ourselves with our flirtations with bike plans and food trucks? Are we merely checking off the same boxes as everybody else?