In The Midst Of A Boom, Dallas Outgrows Some Old Notions

Outdated stereotypes may have some thinking that Dallas is just a town of cowboys, highways and football. Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings corrects the record, describing the city's lively arts and culture.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel. And Melissa Block is not in our Washington, D.C. studio with me today.

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

That's right, Robert. All this week I'm co-hosting from member station KERA in Dallas. And by just about every measure, Texas is booming. Jobs, population, GDP, they are all up, and they've been up for years to levels other states would envy, but big growth has big consequences - for schools, for communities and the environment.

So this week we're going to touch on those issues with stories from around the state and we start here in Dallas. Actually, to talk about Dallas, we're going to go back to D.C. for just a moment. We went underground at a Metro stop right by the National Zoo. There on a wall we found a pair of posters tempting passengers with images of a cosmopolitan city, an upscale arts district, a modern sports stadium.

The poster's slogan is "Dallas: Big Things Happen Here." The reaction?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: I wouldn't think of Dallas as particularly glamorous when it comes to big Texas cities.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Sort of a big city with not much going on in it.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Like I said, a lot doesn't come to mind when I think of Dallas. I guess cowboys, football and highways and Whataburger's and stuff like that.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: Big steaks and ranchers. Honestly, that's it. And sports.

BLOCK: So that's just one informal poll from Washington, D.C. Big steaks, cowboys, football, highways, not much going on. Hmm. Well, time to set the record straight and who better to do that then Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings. He's a Democrat, the former CEO of Pizza Hut and Dallas booster-in-chief. Mayor Rawlings, welcome to the program.

MAYOR MIKE RAWLINGS: Thank for having me, Melissa.

BLOCK: You know, we reached out to our Facebook followers with the show and the most popular word that they associate with Dallas is - I'm going to let you guess.

RAWLINGS: J.R. or the Cowboys.

BLOCK: The Cowboys.

RAWLINGS: The Cowboys. They're younger. They don't even remember J.R. anymore.

BLOCK: Yeah. So it's not a surprise to you that that would be at the top of people's minds.

RAWLINGS: You know, we've changed a lot in 15 years. It's an amazing thing. People tell me that haven't been here for a couple of decades, they can't believe that we have the largest arts district in the country, a green space, the Trinity flood plain that is nine times larger than Central Park.

People are surprised by a lot and what we've done here in the last couple of decades.

BLOCK: Mayor Rawlings, you moved to Dallas in 1976, right?

RAWLINGS: I did.

BLOCK: What was the city like back in 1976?

RAWLINGS: You know, it was like a gallon of white milk on one side and then we had the poorest part of town, but what it drew was great business people all over the country, a lot of big international headquarters were here. I was able to have my career here. And through that time, generations took place and started to change the city.

BLOCK: That divided city that you're talking about from the '70s, there is still that element to Dallas, though, right? There's a pretty big division between the haves and have-nots, high levels of poverty and income inequality. How troubling is that to you as the mayor?

RAWLINGS: It is very troubling to me. We've got 39 percent of our population is asset poor. They only have enough money to last them for 90 days if they lost their job. Almost 90 percent of our kids qualify for free and reduced lunch, so if you look at the future of a city and say it is going to be our children - and this isn't 30 years from now - this is, you know, 10 years and 12 years from now - the predictive nature of poverty is not good. And dealing with that and you've got to deal with it through our schools to make sure these kids are ready for a college and a career, those are the tough issues that we face. And I believe, ultimately, we can make progress and I'm very hopeful.

BLOCK: You also worked as the homeless czar of Dallas. I wonder if it put a very different face on the city for you. In other words, if you can pull yourself back from the glittering towers and the big development and the oil money and everything that's fueled Dallas for years, you see a very different city.

RAWLINGS: You know, it made it a more interesting city for me, to hear the stories of our homeless and to figure out how to change their lives. It did. It made it a much more textured city and I think that's what we're seeing. We're like a young adult now as a city and we've got a lot of energy, a fair amount of testosterone, and we've got a lot of tough issues to deal with. And I'm confident we will.

But it's an interesting place. If you want an exciting place to live and work, you know, Dallas is the place to be now.

BLOCK: Well, Mayor Rawlings, thanks so much for talking with us.

RAWLINGS: Thank you so much for your interest.

BLOCK: That's Mike Rawlings, the mayor of Dallas.

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