Thursday, January 13, 2011

Land of the Automobile

I spent last week in Dallas. The first question many people asked when I mentioned this before going was "what are you going to do in Dallas?" which seems a bit unfair to poor old little Dallas. The answer was that I went to geek out with friends who I see rarely who were all there by an unlikely series of coincidences. And geek out we did. Pizza was eaten, dice were rolled, cards were tapped (unnecessarily considering the game in question, but they were tapped nonetheless). That we didn't play any video games is frankly remarkable.

But the disproportionate excitement as one face of a plastic cube (or tetrahedron or dodecahedron) came up instead of another is a tale for another time, a more distant blog. Today I want to discuss how damn alien Dallas felt as a city.

When Dallas was planned, it wasn't designed with pedestrians as a secondary consideration, or even an afterthought; it was designed by someone who believed that the basic unit of humanity is the car. Getting from place to place by car in Dallas is easy, easier than the inner city of Paris or London must be, so if you assume there are only noble car drivers and worthless hobos not worthy of your consideration then the city planning is a success. However if you assume one day a person might want to get from point A to point B on foot, the large stretches of road with no footpaths at all and the seemingly random placement of businesses looks less inspired.

I'm not sure if it is a corollary of the fact that nobody is ever moving slowly enough to appreciate the outside of a building before pulling into the car park, but the buildings in the non-residential areas of Dallas are an ungracious, grudging concession that perhaps the malls, eateries and light industry should be housed in something. The standard seems to be a gravelly pink-brown oblong shape with maybe some narrow windows near the top of the building. On foot, outside these buildings, it feels as though the city is saying "what are you doing outside? Don't you know that people belong inside buildings, where there's air conditioning? At least get in a car where you can watch a movie in the back of the seat in front of you." Even the pubs and restaurants, which have the same level of uniqueness and atmosphere you'd expect in any other city, have great chunks of their personality sucked into the utterly unremarkable buildings in which they are placed.

I am a pedestrian. Don't drive, can't drive. Dallas is the first place I've been under the impression that not being able to drive is an embarrassing pathology rather than a handy skill I should get some day.

1 comment:

  1. When I flew out to Austin to interview, I was in the same situation. I had to walk about 3 miles from my hotel out into the middle of a ridiculous megalithic strip mall in order to eat.

    Then I lived there, for an entire year, without getting a car. The nearest place I could get groceries was about 8 miles away down the highway; the nearest restaurant, about 15. I mooched a lot of rides, and ordered a lot of delivery food, but somehow I survived.

    This is one of the reasons I don't want to leave the east coast again. While I have a car now, I really enjoy the fact that I don't *need* a car.

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