Most mayors bubble over with praise for new development, but that’s not Dallas mayor Mike Rawlings’s style. At an event launching a digital-innovation initiative for the city’s West End in late June, the mayor praised the effort but then offered: “I don’t want to worship at the altar of technology for technology’s sake.” He’d judge the work, he said, on how well it creates “a better quality of life” for residents. His point was hard to miss. Technology is great, but only if it addresses real problems. Otherwise, it’s just a new expense.
Rawlings’s comments offer insight into why Dallas has been an urban success story and will likely remain so, even in the aftermath of the massacre of five police officers in July. Yes, Dallas boasts a strong economy—even in an era of cheap oil, its unemployment rate fell to 3.5 percent in May—but more important, its pragmatism has fostered a collaborative civic culture focused on improving lives, not pursuing pet projects. In 2012, for example, Klyde Warren Park opened over a highway that cut through the city, changing the feel of the Dallas downtown by creating something crucial for urban life: common outdoor space. The park was made possible by $50 million in private donations, as well as public dollars. Other private dollars funded the Perot (a dynamic new museum that opened in 2012) and the George W. Bush Presidential Museum (opened in 2013). Each draws hundreds of thousands of visitors every year. (See “Big Philanthropy,” Spring 2013.)
More change is coming. The Dallas Holocaust Museum is working on a new facility, and new residential units are breathing life into downtown, helping bolster the city’s arts district. Bridges are going up across the Trinity River, which, along with new parks and other investments, will tie traditionally neglected South Dallas more closely to the city’s core.
Dallas’s secret sauce is its dynamic social-entrepreneur community. The metro area is home to nonprofits such as the American Heart Association, the Boy Scouts, and the AT&T Foundation. In total, the metro area has approximately 28,000 nonprofits, or about 42 for every 10,000 residents (Houston and San Antonio, by comparison, each have 35). Dallas’s 501(c)3s alone control assets that exceed $50 billion. An array of charities does everything from helping local sex-trafficking victims to aiding veterans and others through horse therapy. The result? A powerful sense of community, exemplified in the moment, captured by CNN shortly after the police assassinations, when Black Lives Matter protesters and counterprotesters, along with a cop assigned to keep them apart, all joined together for a group hug and prayer.
Dallas has its challenges, hinted at by the mayor’s reference to South Dallas as “the city’s greatest untapped resource.” But none of the elements that have propelled the city forward is going away. Unlike urban disturbances that emptied other cities decades ago, the horrors of July only seem to have strengthened the ties that bind Dallas together.