What Now, Cowtown?
A couple of months ago, I was having a beer at one of my Westside watering holes when the conversation turned to the new developments swallowing our neighborhood and the bars and restaurants that are going to be plowed under and replaced by mostly higher-end chain joints.
I was lamenting that some of the unique character – local music clubs, hole-in-the-wall joints where the bartenders know your name and your business – of the neighborhood was going bye-bye.
“It doesn’t matter,” said one of the barflies. “If you want those music clubs or a good restaurant or anything else to do at night, you go to Dallas. You go to Dallas to party, and then you come back to Fort Worth to sleep. That’s what we want, because we don’t want to be like Dallas.”
I was reminded of these comments recently by two recent stories (one of which I wrote) about this subject of Fort Worth’s identity being so connected to Dallas. Fort Worth Star-Telegram pop culture critic Cary Darling wrote a piece about the bar closings in the Cultural District, wondering if the new development with high-end condos and national chains was putting Fort Worth in danger of being like Dallas. When I wrote a profile of Fort Worth planning director Fernando Costa for this paper a few weeks ago, he made a rather interesting observation: “I think Fort Worth needs to outgrow this obsession with Dallas,” he said. “I think we can take pride and define ourselves by who we are, and not who we are not.”
As Fort Worth has grown into a very big city, the cultural identity of our fair burg is changing. City leaders like to trot out “Cowtown” and “Where the West Begins” as cultural touchstones, but neither has been true for some time. We don’t slaughter cattle for beef anymore, and I don’t know where the West begins now, but it certainly isn’t here. The slogans are OK, and I understand the city’s need to keep that heritage alive, but those words have little relevance in 2007 to how this city sees itself.
Some locals are even talking about new slogans. When the Fort Worth Architecture Forum asked its users for ideas, the results were mostly pedestrian (“Fort Worth: West in Class” and “Fort Worth, It’s ‘Worth’ It”). But some were very funny, including a couple that mentioned Dallas: “Fort Worth: The Trinity embraces us briefly and sweetly, then turns for one last look before heading slowly and sadly to Dallas” or “Fort Worth: Dallas’ hot little sister.”
Being the hot little sister can be good, but pretending to be a little town when you’re long past that creates some problems. Friendliness and being on a first-name basis with a lot of people is great. So is the low-key, we-don’t-like-to-brag approach. The problem comes when the desire to keep those good things results in a fear of embracing the big-city reality (because it’s so Dallas).
The explosion of condos and chain stores is happening in every city in the country. I may not like the fact that some local bars are closing in my neighborhood, but that’s just the way the market is playing out right now, and it has nothing to do with Dallas. It’s just part of being dragged into the big-city solar system.
Anything modern or chic in this town is often viewed with disdain as little more than a Dallas imitation. We don’t have a fun, open-all-night entertainment district because that’s what they do in Dallas. As for the remarkable job Dallas has done with mass transit and light rail system – well, that’s what big cities do, not Fort Worth. Mixed-use development – where people might actually get out of their cars and walk once in awhile – is often looked down upon because our traffic right now isn’t as bad as Dallas. Not yet.
Fort Worth needs a new picture of itself for this millennium. The cowboys are long gone, and we’re a big city whether we want to be or not. We need to find a way to build on the independence of that old Cowtown idea – a vibrancy that says we don’t care what they do to the east, because we are who we are. That’s how great cities act.
Otherwise, Fort Worth might just become a bedroom community for Dallas. But maybe some Cowtown folks think that’s acceptable. At least we’re not sleeping over there.