The Glory of Old Bones

Once or twice a week, a few friends and I will make the short hike to Deep Ellum for dinner, beers, concerts, or whatever else we’re currently lacking in downtown Dallas. There’s something exciting about walking east on Main Street where the city begins to disintegrate, almost literally. All of a sudden the I-345 overpass rises noisily, almost violently, as our dream for mobile freedom rings aloud. Beneath the thundering slabs and girders, a cathedral of concrete and steel spans for quite some distance. Of course it’s not always so sacred; there’s broken glass, rocks, vagrants, and any other urban insecurity one might experience, even cars. Still, I-345 stands as a symbol of our Dallas heritage, an Oregon Trail for those seeking individualism in the invented places of Richardson, Frisco, or Irving, especially ones simply passing through.

With the city awaiting additional pricing from TxDOT to repair or demolish the elevated highway, and pending information from the varied politics at play, it could all be gone much sooner than we think. Real estate groups, developers, city planners, and bloggers have initiated a coup to blow it up, ready to light the fuse with each opposing hesitation of its removal. In their defense, the argument for tearing down the mile and a half stretch of highway, which connects I-75 to I-30 and I-35, and revitalizing nearly 250 acres of prime real estate is largely legitimate—and has been well tested in such cities as San Francisco, Portland, Toronto, and Milwaukee, to name only a few.

On the other hand, the projected successes ($4 billion in improvements, $110 million in annual tax revenue, and 25,000 new residents in the downtown area) contain similar consequences of gentrification and relocation similar to those warranted by highway construction, only this time disguised as walkable streets, small businesses, community, or the idea of urban living. As most in Dallas will remember, Victory Park also was marketed as a diverse, hyperpedestrian dream.

Absent from the predictable highway removal conversations about investments, bonds, and alternative routes of transportation, are ideas for saving the existing highway infrastructure and formal organization, as a catalyst for design. That’s right. What if we didn’t tear it down? Why has so little been offered in the way of reusing the existing infrastructure for developing unique models of urban development; allowing new and existing structures to create something worth having. New is not always better, contrary to popular Texan belief. If anything, such a disposable mindset is far more dangerous. Remember that this conversation is about more than cars
and money, as difficult as that may be.

This debate is about the inevitable clash between the Baby Boomers and the Millenials, and the desire for new individual freedoms, for a creative and useful urban resurgence. If there is a pent up demand for identity, proximity, and amenity, then a resourceful built environment plays an imperative role in defining it. There is an opportunity here to break free from quantifiable residential and commercial consumer models, New-Urbanist ideals, and gentrified enclaves for the privileged. In order to reform our isolated desires, an acceptance and cultivation of a common history must occur.

While the architectural history of Dallas may not be as rich as, say, Boston, it doesn’t make its metropolitan infrastructures any less significant. To replace I-345 with another Uptown would be an insulting and unsustainable blow. What about a park large enough to effectively exercise in? What about affordable housing, public restrooms, baths, gardens, markets, or theaters? Isn’t there something more valuable and dramatic in the natural reconciliation of generational histories? Piece by piece, in parallel with the divine opportunity of chance, such a montage is worth investigating, no matter the cost. Do what you want with the skin. Keep the bones.