Can a list of the most beautiful homes in Dallas include McMansions?

An earlier article I published suggested McMansions are not viewed as negatively in Dallas compared to New York City. The list of “the hand-down 10 most beautiful homes in Dallas” from D Magazine includes two references to McMansions:

Each year of the last decade, the editors of D Home have canvassed the city to bring you a list of “10 Most Beautiful Homes” that hopefully appeal to every taste. While on the road, we’ve spilled endless Diet Cokes due to sudden stops, exposed ourselves to the occasional McMansion, and risked looking like embarrassingly low-tech private investigators snapping photos with our iPhones. We do it all for you!…

We once named Tokalon Drive the most beautiful street in Dallas, which we suppose makes this 4236-square-foot dwelling the most beautiful home on the most beautiful street in Dallas. Plus, it reminds us why turrets are actually totally cool and not just something that just gets thrown on a McMansion. All that’s missing is a moat.

Yet, the list of 10 homes includes no McMansions. While these are large and expensive homes, all were constructed prior to World War II and have an architectural coherence that many McMansions lack. However, homes on this list for previous years did include newer homes and I would guess some of these 2017 selections have had major work done to them which might also negate some of their old-image charm.

Even in Dallas, such lists may not be able to select or trumpet McMansions as beautiful homes. If you run in certain circles – particularly when your readers are educated and wealthy – McMansions are a dirty word. A magazine like this that considers itself “a member of the original generation of city magazines: New York Magazine, Washingtonian, Philadelphia, Boston and Chicago” could likely not support such as crass consumer item as the McMansion.

McMansions as status symbol in Dallas

Leave it to Richard Spencer to describe the place of the McMansion in the Dallas area:

“My upbringing did not really inform who I am,” Spencer said with a shrug. Then he reconsidered. “I think in a lot of ways I reacted against Dallas. It’s a class- and money-conscious place—whoever has the biggest car or the biggest house or the biggest fake boobs,” he told me. “There’s no actual community or high culture or sense of greatness, outside of having a McMansion.” He emphasized culture in a way that evoked a full-bodied, Germanic sense of Kultur. In fact, Spencer has joked that he would like to be the Kulturminister of a white “ethno-state.” He imagines himself having a heroic role in the grand cycle of history. “I want to live dangerously,” he said. “Most people aspire to mediocrity, and that’s fine. Not everyone can be controversial. Not everyone can be recognized by a random person in a restaurant.”

I have some familiarity with how the McMansion is described in Dallas – see my published article on the use of “McMansion” in the New York Times and Dallas Morning News – and Spencer sounds about right. In a sprawling suburban setting, what sets people apart? One trait can be the ability to own an impressive looking home.

Additionally, Spencer utilizes some of the familiar critiques that the suburbs lack interaction or anything beyond mass or lowbrow culture. Of course, these concerns lead him to a different place than many suburban critics; Spencer advocates for an ethno-state and most suburban critics make a pitch for diverse urban settings. More broadly, this is a reminder that disliking the suburbs doesn’t necessarily have to lead to visions of pluralistic large cities.

Three reasons for opposition to a proposed Dallas-Houston private high-speed rail project

Eric Jaffe categorizes opposition to a proposed high-speed rail project between Houston and Dallas. First, a brief description of the project:

A quick recap: Texas Central Railway, a private firm, is pushing a very promising proposal to link Dallas and Houston with a Japanese-style high-speed train capable of doing the trip at 200 mph. By relying on investors rather than taxpayers, the plan seemed poised to avoid a lot of the fiscal (slash ideological) squabbles that have plagued its federally-funded counterparts in California, Florida, Ohio, and Wisconsin.

And a little bit about each ideological camp:

Metcalf isn’t alone in this sentiment. Another elected official, Ben Lehman of Grimes County, has questioned whether the train will attract enough riders. He’s also been quoted as saying that the 18 million people who drive between Houston and Dallas each year have “gone through this decision-making process” and concluded “it’s more feasible to drive.”…

Other local officials are pushing a bill that “would strip firms developing high-speed rail projects from eminent domain authority,” reports the Texas Tribune. Fears of misused eminent domain are both valid and welcomed in any democratic setting. But what’s strange here is that the bill targets high-speed rail despite the fact that lots of private firms in Texas can wield eminent domain for the greater public good…

Which leads to the final major criticism of the privately funded Texas Central plan: that it won’t actually be privately funded. Or, rather, that it will start out privately funded but fail to meet its ridership goals and call on the public for a subsidy.

Three separate issues: is there enough demand? How much can a project like this exercise eminent domain? Would taxpayers ever be on the hook for such a project? My thoughts on each one:

1. On ridership. This may be a valid question but perhaps it matters less if this is a private project. If a company wants to spend the money, isn’t this their responsibility? Perhaps the real concern here is what happens if the project fails – what would happen to the infrastructure or the land that was taken?

2. On eminent domain. This gets at a classic American question of property rights versus the common good. Not easy to solve, particularly in a place like Texas.

3. On taxpayers left on the hook. This fear would seem to have some basis with large corporations or development projects (think sports stadiums) often using or having to use public money to close the gaps.

I would also be interested to see how these arguments are made together; a cluster of arguments could be more convincing than a single concern. Throwing up lots of negativity about the project can go a long ways in today’s media (traditional and otherwise) driven world.

Crediting New York if this year’s Super Bowl goes well, blaming New Jersey if it does not

Gregg Easterbrook points out the interesting game of geography playing out in the upcoming Super Bowl to be played in New Jersey in a stadium used by two New York teams and with lots of media coverage of the Super Bowl happening from Manhattan:

This year’s Super Bowl will be played in New York, which, for NFL purposes, is located in New Jersey. Since the media, politicians and celebs will downplay the New Jersey angle, TMQ will play it up. In solidarity with the state of Thomas Edison, “The Sopranos” and toxic waste, TMQ will offer a weekly Road to the Swamps item during the runup to the game…

Both of the NFL’s “New York” teams not only play in New Jersey, they practice there and are headquartered there, too: neither the “New York” Giants nor “New York” Jets has the decency so much as to maintain an office in the Empire State, which today has one NFL team, the Buffalo Bills. NFL officials, media types, club-goers and politicians love New York and look down their noses at the Garden State. Should all go well, New York officials will take the credit. Should the game or the bus-based logistics be a fiasco, New Jersey will be blamed.

Three years ago, the Super Bowl was held in Dallas, which for NFL purposes is in Arlington, Texas, and ESPN’s local set was in Fort Worth, 35 miles distant. These things happen in modern life. But the “New York” Super Bowl will take cartographic challenges to an extreme. Though the game will be held in New Jersey, all three networks will report on it from across the Hudson River in Manhattan. The ESPN local set will be at Herald Square, the Fox and NFL Network local sets at Times Square. For media purposes, New Jersey will be located in New York.

Officially the Super Bowl will be played at a field called MetLife Stadium located in a town called East Rutherford, N.J. In order to encourage tourism, that town should change its name to The Swamps of Jersey, New Jersey. Springsteen fans would flock. The stadium should change its name to Somewhere Field, which has a nice numinous quality. Then as the big game begins, broadcasters could say, “Welcome everyone to tonight’s Super Bowl from Somewhere, in The Swamps of Jersey.”

The real issue here is that the game and media coverage is all happening within one metropolitan region surrounding New York City. Plenty of stadiums are located outside of the central city and media facilities are located all over the place. (Think of the world’s media sports center in Bristol, Connecticut – home of ESPN.) Yet, this particular metropolitan region crosses state lines. Yes, Fort Worth is not the same as Dallas which is not the same as Arlington or Irving but at least they are all within the same Metroplex. Moving between New Jersey and New York City (and also Connecticut – though there are no sport facilities there, perhaps for the same NIMBY reasons that didn’t allow the United Nations to locate in suburban Connecticut – and upstate New York, which probably has the same relationship with NYC as downstate Illinois has with Chicago) is a big deal. New York City, particular Manhattan, is the number one global city in the world. It is the center of media, entertainment, and the financial industry. In contrast, New Jersey is industrial, working-class, and The Sopranos.

One other question: can Chris Christie take some credit for this New Jersey Super Bowl or do the New York politicians get to take all the credit?

Texas is America’s future?

A libertarian economist argues Texas is a bright spot for America’s future:

Since 2000, 1 million more people have moved to Texas from other states than have left.

As an economist and a libertarian, I have become convinced that whether they know it or not, these migrants are being pushed (and pulled) by the major economic forces that are reshaping the American economy as a whole: the hollowing out of the middle class, the increased costs of living in the U.S.’s established population centers and the resulting search by many Americans for a radically cheaper way to live and do business.

To a lot of Americans, Texas feels like the future. And I would argue that more than any other state, Texas looks like the future as well — offering us a glimpse of what’s to come for the country at large in the decades ahead. America is experiencing ever greater economic inequality and the thinning of its middle class; Texas is already one of our most unequal states. America’s safety net is fraying under the weight of ballooning Social Security and Medicare costs; Texas’ safety net was built frayed. Americans are seeking out a cheaper cost of living and a less regulated climate in which to do business; Texas has that in spades. And did we mention there’s no state income tax?

There’s a bumper sticker sometimes seen around the state that proclaims, I WASN’T BORN IN TEXAS, BUT I GOT HERE AS FAST AS I COULD. As the U.S. heads toward Texas, literally and metaphorically, it’s worth understanding why we’re headed there — both to see the pitfalls ahead and to catch a glimpse of the opportunities that await us if we make the journey in an intelligent fashion.

Joel Kotkin would likely agree. A few thoughts after reading the full story:

1. There are several examples of people moving to Texas from California or the Northeast and finding that they really like Texas. But, the examples tend to emphasize Austin, a city known for plenty of cultural amenities. With its culture, UT-Austin campus, and tech companies, Austin looks like a cool place for the creative class. What about the other major areas in Texas? Why not stories about moving to Houston and Dallas, bigger cities and metropolitan areas with their own industries (oil, etc.)? How representative of Texas is Austin?

2. There is little discussion in the story about Latino residents. The primary focus in on Americans who have moved to Texas from other states but what about the influx of immigrants from Mexico? How are they doing? Are there some differences in their experiences as a whole versus those who are held up as successes in the article?

3. This is another article in a long line of opinions about which American state best represents the country or provides a glimpse into the future. What about California, a more progressive melting pot? What about the Washington D.C. metropolitan area, home to a number of the wealthiest counties in the United States? How about Illinois, held up in a more negative light in recent years for pension woes, too many governments/taxing bodies, bullish politicians, foreclosures, and violent crime? Perhaps we should look to Florida, specifically at the diversity in the Miami area or the aging population throughout the state? I realize people are interested in spotting trends but it is hard to select ideal types from 50 states and hundreds of big cities.

4. The story plays out Texas’ connections to the American pioneer and frontier story. This works but there is also a different culture and set of social norms in Texas. Even if business is thriving and people are moving in, does this necessarily mean many Americans would want to act or live like Texans? Is it all simply about a decent job and affordable housing? Yes, everyone may be American but outsiders and Texans themselves will tell you that the state is a land onto itself.

Countering blanket statements about cities and suburbs

A Dallas columnist argues typical views of the city and suburbs are outdated:

Yet we seem to cling stubbornly to outdated city-vs.-suburb cliches and mutual suspicions that serve no purpose other than to make people think ill of one another.

On one side are quasi-racist Dallas baiters for whom “urban” is thinly veiled doublespeak for poor, minority, crime-plagued neighborhoods where government is unfailingly corrupt and public schools actually make kids stupider. It’s a segregationist stereotype that by now should be eroded by three decades worth of urban revitalization, crime reduction and development of spectacular public spaces.

On the other are sanctimonious hipsters who use “suburban” as an insult that describes selfish, conformist commuters who drive everywhere in super-sized SUVs, spend their leisure time at the mall, vote like the people next door and think “art” is a Thomas Kinkade print. It’s a myopic definition that hasn’t budged since Richard Yates wrote Revolutionary Road in 1961.

The truth is that the places we live are as individual as we are, and we choose them based on our individual priorities — entertainment, safety, good schools, friendly neighbors, what we can afford, what we want to see when we look out the window.

I agree with one conclusion but not the other. First, individual communities, whether they are urban neighborhoods with a sense of place or far-flung suburbs, are unique and have different characters. This is particularly true for a number of the people who live there and buy, in terms of housing but also symbolically and culturally, into the place. Both cities and suburbs are assumed to be all alike and this is simply not the case. There are distinguishing differences between these different types, such as population density, the number of nearby jobs and business, the kinds of housing, the history, etc. but it is silly to lump them all together.

On the second conclusion, it isn’t quite as simple as suggesting people make individual choices. This may feel like it is the case, particularly for those with means (money, status), but even those people are constrained by the lifestyles they desire. But, people with less means have fewer choices and then are restricted by cheaper housing options or what is close to jobs. In other words, residential choices tend to fall into patterns based on class and race, whether in the cities or suburbs.

Dallas Morning News covers my McMansion study

This seems appropriate: after I examined all the mentions of the word “McMansion” in the Dallas Morning News from 2000 to 2009 (while also doing the same in the New York Times), the Dallas Morning News covers my findings:

In researching issues related to housing and suburban development, Miller “began to notice that the term McMansion was being used to describe wildly different things.”

To some, a McMansion is simply a big house. (But what constitutes “big”?) To others, it’s an excessively big house. (But what constitutes “excessive”?) To others, it’s a big, garish house. (But who’s to say that a certain design is “garish”?)…

The sociologist analyzed each appearance of the word, and concluded that its usage tended to imply “one of four general meanings: a large house, a relatively large house, a home with bad architecture or design, or a symbol for other issues, especially sprawl and consumerism.”

The use of “McMansion,” he concluded, “is often a judgment call, and almost always negative.”

Not a bad summary. It would be interesting to hear reactions of people in Dallas to my findings.

Characters on GCB have taste because they don’t live in McMansions

I was amused to run across this description of the homes for the new ABC series GCB. While the women may be gossipers, at least they have good taste and don’t live in McMansions:

The production team spent four days scouting historic and modern houses in Texas, soaking up local color in the tony Dallas enclaves of Highland Park, Preston Hollow and University Park. “We visited homes, churches, country clubs, offices, stores, etc., and immersed ourselves in everything Dallas,” says Dugally, an Emmy nominee in 2004 for Arrested Development. The pilot was shot on location, though Los Angeles doubles for Dallas in the series. “It was not an easy task as Dallas is known for its large expanses of property, many without high fences or security and lots of brick architecture,” she adds. “Los Angeles is full of palm trees that don’t do well in Dallas. We were able to find several wonderful houses and a great church in the L.A. basin that serve as the exteriors for our show.”

Although Dallas certainly earns its bigger-is-better notoriety — Aspen’s housewife character has a French Country-style kitchen with a countertop deep fryer and three double ovens — Dugally notes that the houses they saw there weren’t McMansions. “Dallas is the most cosmopolitan city in Texas. Most of the money is old money,” says the designer. “I said, ‘Let’s give our characters taste.’ We made a very conscious decision that the look be over-the-top but still elegant.”

For the home of Amanda’s colorful mother Gigi (Potts), production designer Dugally wanted the interiors “to remain very upscale but traditional.” Front and center is the ornate, winding staircase with a landing topped by a gold leafed dome. Asian accents, custom-designed wallpapers by Astek in Los Angeles and white wainscoting are just a few of the design elements used for the warm gold- and cream-toned decor.

Gun-toting Gigi gets her own rifle-display room. “It’s completely taken from memory from a house I saw in Dallas,” says Dugally. Among the animal trophies is a mounted javelina. In high school, Bibb’s Amanda character had branded ugly-duckling Carlene as one of the creatures, a relative of the pig that’s native to the Southwest. Says Dugally, “Our executive producer Robert Harling wanted a javelina wherever we could get one, and he was so thrilled we found it. It’s so ugly.”

Read on for descriptions of some of the other houses.

Perhaps the characters on the show have some reason to have more taste – perhaps they are educated and/or have money. The inspiration for the fictional Hillside Park is supposedly Highland Park, a well-known Dallas suburb that is quite monied (a median household income of about $150k). If you have enough money, you don’t need a “traditional McMansion” to impress people because you don’t want to look like the nouveau riche and would prefer to show your wealth through refined and expensive accoutrements.

But the decision to have them avoid McMansions is still intriguing, particularly if they wanted the houses to be over-the-top. Even diva or “sassy” characters on TV can’t have McMansions because this would reflect badly on them.

Quick Review: The Sixth Floor Museum

During a short trip to Dallas, I had a chance to visit The Sixth Floor Museum in the Texas Book Depository. This is, of course, the site from where Lee Harvey Oswald assassinated President John F. Kennedy. A few thoughts about this intriguing museum:

1. There is a lot of interesting material about the event including photographs, videos, models, and artifacts. I have read multiple books on the subject and there were a number of features of that day that I had forgotten. It was a nice mix of media through which to explore that fateful day.

1a. One video featured the national TV news coverage in the days after the assassination. From what I saw, it looked like those few days were a quick foreshadowing of the 24/7 news we have today. After the shooting, the major news networks had live coverage for much of the next few days and NBC even captured the shooting of Oswald by Jack Ruby live on a Sunday.

2. It was hard not to feel a sense of sadness when hearing about the death of a President. This sadness was not just limited to the feelings of people at the time (and there was a 10-minute video showing the somber scenes in Washington D.C. as JFK’s body was led through the streets) but it was noticeable among those in the museum. There was a guestbook at the end of the museum and a number of people had signed it and expressed their condolences and emotions. I was not alive on that day but I could see why it was a momentous day for many Americans.

3. The museum had more than I expected about the possible conspiracies. I would be curious to hear how the museum decided to present these – they can’t really be ignored and this is why many people are interested in the event but many of the conspiracies have a limited basis in facts. One of the more interesting displays in the museum was one that showed the numerous governmental commissions that examined the issue between 1963 and 1980.

3a. One thought I had when standing next to the recreated corner where Oswald shot from was that it would have been a difficult shot to hit a person in a moving vehicle with trees in the way. There is some dispute about how good of a marksman Oswald was. I’d like to read more about how difficult of a shot this really was.

3b. One area where there was less information regarded the backstory of Lee Harvey Oswald. While they hinted at his convoluted story of defecting to the Soviet Union and then returning to the United States, there is a lot of other curious information they could have displayed.

4. The museum was quite positive about JFK’s legacy. Perhaps they are simply reflecting the positive way in many Americans view JFK (more info here).

5. I have mixed feelings about having a gift shop at the end of such an experience.

Overall, I imagine this would be an intriguing museum for many Americans and not just those interested in history or Presidents.