New Orleans is Unlike Anywhere Else

New Orleans Street Life

Compared to New Orleans, Dallas is lacking continual fabric and vernacular spirit.

I have been in Dallas for about five years and so far have had the problem coming up with simple and effective verbalization to express what the city lacks. It’s “all corporate, too many big buildings, too many highways, too many parking lots, too focused on the automobile,” all sound like complaining. And as Texans like to say, if you don’t like it, leave. But today I think more and more Texans, or Dallasites in particular, don’t like it this way either.

A day trip to New Orleans and a vintage video of Jane Jacobs talking about Toronto have made that verbiage clear to me now. I think it will be more effective to describe the problem with Dallas as lacking continual fabric, and vernacular spirit.

Continual Fabric
At this point in Dallas, we have several well-designed areas, including West Village, State Thomas, and the old Downtown. While West Village and State Thomas are connected, there are areas where the fabric weaves are larger in between. Most of the city has very wide or erratic fabric weaves. Another way to say this is of course that it lacks density.

It’s not only density, however. Large single-use buildings also interrupt the fabric. If not designed right, they can be a big obstacle. Consider that a block has four sides and a major office building has but one entrance. Without shops and other uses on the ground level, it’s not able to interact with the street. There isn’t much texture, which translates into “things to look at” when you are walking by.

Bicycles in New Orleans French Quarter

If you’ve ever been to New Orleans, you know it’s all texture. It’s very easy to stay stimulated. You can keep walking and walking and looking and looking and never become bored. It’s easy to walk. Sidewalks are wide, and vehicle traffic is everywhere. Despite the heat, bicycle use is common. Fixed-guideway public transit is readily available in the form of streetcars.

The detail on the buildings, shop windows, doorways and signage, along with street artists, musicians, and vendors- even professional loiterers keep you from ever getting bored. My phone has an app that tracks how many steps walked. Both on my New Orleans trip and a recent visit to Vancouver, BC I noted how easy it was to rack up 20,000 or 30,000 steps in a day when in Dallas it takes conscious effort to walk 10,000.

The continual fabric also builds on itself. The more neighborhoods are connected with this continual fabric, the easier it is for commercial, pedestrian-oriented businesses to survive. Natural centers, crossroads, or hearts as Jacobs calls them, form. These natural centers are much more resilient when they form on their own than when forced.

One side note is the idea of historic preservation and its impact on the fabric. In New Orleans, the historic buildings are all close together abutting a sidewalk. That’s true for Downtown Dallas, and undoubtedly preserving these buildings will support the idea of creating a continual fabric. Many of the older buildings in Dallas, however, have large setbacks or are on large lots. If they don’t fit into the tight weave, their preservation is unlikely to help, and in effect could hinder the creation of a walkable, lively city.

Small Business in New Orleans

Vernacular Spirit
What exactly does that mean? If you’ve ever felt that Dallas is corporate, having a top-down city is the opposite of having a city rooted in the lives and doings of everyday people. One example is the Asian festival that happens in the Arts District. I want to be careful not to criticize the event, as it is important. But it is an event that I assume is organized by an art museum which reaches out to the scattered groups around the Metroplex and brings them together. Compare this to say the Chinese New Year Festival in San Francisco which has its roots with people who live, work and play in a culturally rich place.

Just so I am clear, the event in Dallas is great and very important. There is no way to turn on a dime and trade what we have now for something else.

The architecture is partly to blame. While the areas around large buildings may be walkable, they most often do not support the individual efforts of ordinary people. I’m talking about art galleries, Indian restaurants, vintage stores, small businesses and so on. Often we find if there are storefronts incorporated into large developments, they are filled with chain restaurants. A local franchisee may operate one, but being a franchise, local personality incorporation has been voided.

This is one reason many of the good restaurants, and immigrant neighborhoods, seem to be in the DFW suburbs. That’s where the affordable spaces ripe for new businesses are. Irving, Richardson, Arlington are all examples. How much better Dallas would be if those neighborhoods existed in a concentrated form with the urban fabric.

Jacobs also spoke about the importance of buildings being able to find re-uses easily. While if abandoned, a rowhouse or even small factory building can easily find a re-use as a store, office, shop or residence; that’s much more difficult for a large office building. While a large residential high-rise could be beneficial to an area, at least while it is in fashion, the existence of too many large structures in an area can be a hindrance because at any given time a certain number is sitting empty, waiting for the large investment needed for demolition or finding a re-use.

As Jacobs said it:

“The district must mingle buildings that vary in age and condition, including a good proportion of old ones so that they vary in the economic yield they must produce. This mingling must be fairly close-grained.”

That goes back to the importance of saving old buildings, or at least not clearing large swaths of neighborhoods. It’s not because we want to preserve a particular period for eternity. Rather it’s because the buildings, whatever their style, provide the necessary affordable spaces to incubate small businesses that naturally extend from the local vernacular.

This is what makes all the cities we like to visit, New Orleans, San Francisco, Savannah– or just cities we like to live in, Philadelphia, Brooklyn and Vancouver, exciting.

About Eric Miller

Rick and I started this web magazine as The New Colonist back in 1999. I was in San Francisco, and he was in Los Angeles. We had a common interest in sustainability and city life. We're still at it. Today I am happy to have lived in both New York, San Francisco and Pittsburgh and to now reside in Dallas. Find more at ericmiller.me