Dallas

Did you ever see Dallas from a DC9 at night? Oh Dallas is a jewel, Dallas is a beautiful sight.

Dallas is the second largest city in Texas, and lives to some extent in the shadow of the largest, Houston. But from afar, say from the city hall in Detroit, it may look, as Jimmie Gilmore's hauntingly melodious song says, "a beautiful sight."

Unemployment in the midst of this recession hovers around 4 percent, although the rate for unskilled newcomers is much greater. The central city is a sea of construction sites, with foreign money generating a renaissance of the downtown's uninspired architecture.

Dallas continues to attract new industry because of a reputation for having one of the most hospitable business climates in the nation. And despite continuing expansion in population, it has not yet begun to experience the severity of growth-related problems that now plague Houston.

But it is useful to see cities like this close up. Not because that wipes out all those happy statistics, but because it is a reminder that all the talk about regional warfare is much more complicated than the differences that show up in the census figures.

It also helps guard against the tendency to lump all the cities of the fast-growing sections of the country into one pile and those in the decaying industrial belt into another.

For example, despite their proximity and booming economic climates, Dallas and Houston could not be more different.

Houston is a testament to unfettered capitalism, a city defined by its lack of zoning. In contrast, Dallas is taut, orderly, a manager's paradise. For years it has been controlled by the business establishment whose agent was a group known as the Dallas Citizens Council.

It is the largest city in America still run by a city manager, and Jack Evans, the new mayor and a product of the business community, shakes his head over what might happen if the residents decide to scrap the Letter From Texas essentially unpaid city council and mayor with backgrounds in business in favor of full-time, fully paid politicians.

What we saw were enormous disparities of wealth: inner-city neighborhoods in transition, just like you find in Washington, D.C., or Chicago; sections of black-owned housing destroyed with the unfulfilled promise of a magnet school that some city officials hoped might help circumvent a federal desegregation order; a vast sea of new apartments built on land that was considered the country and now houses Yankee migrants.

But what is often forgotten in the debate over regionalism is the extent to which the fast-growing cities are being forced into an accommodation with new ideas and different values.

We talked of a budding neighborhood movement that is changing the equation of power in the city, having helped block the construction of a new freeway favored by a few of the city's most powerful citizens. Inevitably, the northerners who have made the trek south seeking employment will impart a sense of themselves on what have been historically insulated cities.

A close-up view of a city like Dallas is also a reminder of how these migrations are making American cities more homogenous. In New York that means cowboy boots and hats; in Dallas it is the strips of fern bars and boutiques in the close-in singles neighborhoods, the lines of franchise food outlets along shopping strips farther out, the condo craze, the guerrilla wars over preserving historic buildings that lend continuity to a changing city.

Some of these changes lag behind what has happened in northern cities, but others are indicative of where even some of those cities may be heading. There is no doubting the momentum they carry here. A close-up view shows the leveling has begun. Ultimately it may prove wrong Jimmie Gilmore's characterization of Dallas as a city "with a steel and concrete soul . . . a rich man with a death wish in his eye."

Lyrics from "Dallas" used by permission of Prize Music Inc. and Urn Music. Copyright (c) 1973.