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What ‘world class’means for Dallas

The Dallas Morning News, May 14, 2002

What is Dallas to do with its worldly ambitions? Is it to be an “international city” or not?

First, we must understand what we mean by “international city.” If we mean a number of foreign nationals enlivening the atmosphere with their own food, inspiration and energy, we have them in Dallas. If we mean Dallas people doing business all over the world, that is happening too, full throttle.

If the idea is to draw commerce from abroad, that also is under way, though some say it is more difficult than it should be.

-Lee Cullum

The truth is that when we yearn for Dallas to be a world-class city, what we really want is another Paris, London or Rome.

But what makes Paris a great international city? It isn’t the obvious influx from other nations or cross-border financial transactions. It isn’t multiculturalism either. What makes Paris a supreme experience is French culture, French taste, French intelligence and French investment, over hundreds of years, in arts of all kinds. This has required huge aggregations of people and wealth as well as the determination of kings and governments. The same could be said for London or Rome.

Tokyo, Hong Kong, Shanghai, Sao Paulo and Los Angeles are important, but they cannot be called works of art. They have power and excitement, but not soul.

In the United States, there is only one city that ranks with the three great European capitals, and that is New York. Washington, Chicago, Boston and San Francisco are close behind, just as Berlin, Brussels, Vienna and Prague are on the continent. But it’s with the third tier of American cities that Dallas should concern itself – Seattle, especially, also Denver, Atlanta and Houston – because that is where it has a chance to shine.

As we struggle to gain ground in this competition, we must recognize that the first place to take our stand is buildings. “Architecture is our public art,” said Dallas real estate operator Douglas Newby. The projects to build the Nasher Sculpture Garden and the performing arts center are central to our future. So are the Santiago Calatrava bridges. (If you don’t agree, look at the museum he’s done in Milwaukee, jutting out into Lake Michigan in a flight of high drama.)

Much that’s good already has happened. Mockingbird Station is dynamite. West Village, between McKinney and Cole, is lively too and due to expand. Both have changed Dallas from a good city in which to work to a happy town in which to play. They’ve accomplished exactly, on another level, what the Dallas Museum of Art and the Meyerson Symphony Center have done. They’ve made Dallas a different place to live.

The Palladium project has an opportunity to do the same. So do City Center’s plans for old downtown. The City Council should look favorably on these projects.

This is not an argument for style over substance or structure over content. It’s clear that the Meyerson must make beautiful music and the Magnolia and Angelika film centers cannot offer grade B movies and expect to succeed. But it must be remembered that style is substance and structure becomes content. The two are inseparable. Dallas cannot grow into the city we want it to be without both. Arts and Letters Live would be terrific in any setting, but that it has a home at the Dallas Museum of Art multiplies its impact and importance.

Dallas cannot be Paris. But it can be the premier American city between the coasts (besides Chicago). Why not try for it?

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