Episode 41: D Magazine Publisher Wick Allison

George Mason sits down with D Magazine publisher Wick Allison to discuss what he sees as essential features for a flourishing city, like great restaurants, city transit and highway planning. Some of these features were strategically planned decades ago.

Listen to their conversation, read along in the transcript below, or watch the full video episode here.

George: What are the things that stand in the way of Dallas becoming an even greater city, and what are the things that we can do together to make it possible for all people to flourish in Dallas? We'll be talking with Wick Allison, publisher of D Magazine on Good God. Stay tuned.

George: Welcome to Good God, conversations that matter about faith and public life. I'm George Mason, and I'm delighted to be able to welcome to the program today Wick Allison. Wick, thank you for coming to join us.

Wick Allison: My pleasure.

George: Wick is the publisher of D Magazine and an influential voice in the City of Dallas and abroad. From here as well, Wick is a Catholic Christian and Wick, part of the work of this program is to help tie together, for the general public's interest, how people of faith connect who they are in their faith commitment to what they do, their sense of vocation. Can you tell us some of your own story about that?

Wick Allison: Well, when you find yourself in the media, and in my case, founded a magazine that is solely about Dallas, the mission becomes ... It's unlike what happens when, and I have been head of national magazines later in life, after I started D magazine. National magazines, you are, you can be engaged in a mission that's beyond yourself, but you're, not putting aside my non-profit activity, but just basically commercial activity, it's strictly a business. I find myself as publisher of a city magazine when I came back, well during my first tenure and when I came back, and there's an intimate tie between the city itself as your subject matter, and where and how the city develops itself. We have always striven to be a magazine that makes Dallas better.

Wick Allison: Years ago, during my first tenure, maybe the magazine was three years old, and I was listening to Dr. Louise Cowan, she's doing this huge seminar. She was at the University of Dallas and she founded the Dallas Institute of Humanities. She was a remarkable woman, but she was giving a lecture on the city. I was in the back of the room. There were about 500 people. Because I was, and I'm always perpetually late, I was at the back. And she was going through Athena, the founding of Athens, the city and myth, and how a city needs myth.

Wick Allison: She's going through this exposition, a fascinating exposition on the city. Toward the end, she's saying, "Now, looking at Dallas, here are the steps that go to the creation, recreation of a city," she said, "And D Magazine." And I perk up and she says, "Let's just take the very simple matter of restaurant reviews. Restaurant reviews are a form of high criticism." I'm going, "They are?" She said, "What D magazine has brought to Dallas is a summons to excellence. And you cannot have a great city without great restaurants."

George: Right, right.

Wick Allison: "Because the restaurant is a family communal experience. Frankly, Dallas has been lacking just very simple and necessary component of city life. But when D Magazine came along," now remember, we're only three years old, "We started seeing new restaurants popping up."

George: Interesting.

Wick Allison: "And trying to make their way into the culinary, upgrade the culinary experience of the entire city, and with D magazine, both promoting but critiquing so that they go forever higher standards." Then she went and moved on to another subject. Of course I was just, I've never thought about it in that kind of overall huge way, but it is. That's basically true of what D Magazine.

George: Part of what you're saying, then, as far as the restaurant reviews are concerned, it's driving towards the lived experience of people in everyday life in Dallas. More than commercial enterprises, restaurants are commercial, but in a deeper way, D Magazine and your sense of contribution, then, is about how we live together, the quality of life that we have. More than just the success of our businesses, or the places we live and whatnot. So culture ...

Wick Allison: Right, culture.

George: ... Is a real key to quality of life, to a sense of the rituals of the way we live in our neighborhoods, the way we care for one another. If you were making an assessment right now and you were to say, ""This is my world, this is what I do." What's your assessment of the culture of Dallas today?

Wick Allison: Much improved. Much improvement needed. I'm more impressed, my opinion matters less to me than my daughter's, I have four daughters, opinion. To have one of them actually move back from New York because on a visit here, she was gonna live in New York for the rest of her life, she found that there was so much potential, and so many seedlings, and so much good will, and desire to work together to build a city. She just called one day to say, "I'm moving home because things can be done there."

George: Ah, good, okay.

Wick Allison: I think that's actually something I've picked up in 30 years of being here in Dallas, too, is there is a sense in Dallas that there is a blank slate out there that we can write on that we're not, our culture is not finished, it's not established. It's still something. Maybe that's partly because we built a city on a prairie. We don't have this sort of natural resource, this sort of East Coast kind of history of how we came to be. There's always this sense of what can be in Dallas. All cities are ongoing enterprises. George Bernard Shaw famously said, "London would be a great place, if they ever finished it." I think every city has got part of that, it's just that we here, we suffered at our very beginning, the devastation wrought during the 1970s by central planning.

George: Yes, okay.

Wick Allison: That tore up our city. Now, it also tore up Detroit. It's always good to recall that in 1948 Detroit was the richest city in the world.

George: Wow.

Wick Allison: But Detroit at least had been there for more than 200 years, or 180 years. We were just getting, we're always just ... In Dallas, to your point, we're always just getting started. It can be four generations ago, three generations ago, we're always just getting started. That gives a kind of excitement to being able to paint on a new surface.

George: Well, so today we find ourselves, again, just getting started, but we're having to undo some things that you spoke of in order to redo. You're on record as feeling as I do that there are some decisions that were made in the 1970s that structurally changed Dallas in ways that had been devastating to the wealth inequality, to the accessibility of prosperity of all our citizens and residents of Dallas. Among which are the highways, for example, the division neighborhoods and whatnot. We have the desegregation process in the schools that led to white flight and the like. Things are beginning to move, I think, in directions where people have a sense that, yes, we need to take those honestly and look at them and ask, "How can we do better? How can we restructure that?" What's on your list of things that would be, here's what has to happen in order for us to bring the city back together.

Wick Allison: Well, let's start with perception.

George: Okay.

Wick Allison: When I got deeply involved in this, about four years ago, it's because over the previous three to five years people have been bringing me data. I would go, "Okay, well, yeah, that is terrible, how would that happen?" Or, yeah, that's amazing. I didn't have any idea. The most startling piece of data was that in, it's now 15 years, but at that time it was in the last 10 years, when I was presented with this the median household income in Dallas had fallen from $56,000 per household. That's okay, 56 is okay, Texas was 57 at the time. To $34,000, well, I'm sorry, $42,000 in 10 years, now to 37.

George: Really?

Wick Allison: In the city of Dallas. Now, I'm sitting in a very nice office building, and when I get in my car, I now drive to uptown, but previously to Highland Park. It was hard to grasp. My first meeting with Mayor Rawlings, we had lunch. He'd just been elected, talking about what he wants to do. I told him some of these data points, and he frankly just did not believe them. Well, I understand that reaction. Look, look, we were having lunch in uptown, look around you, things are going great.

George: Right.

Wick Allison: Well, no, they're not. We know the sources of the problem, you've just named them. But the fix is not as simple. But I know for one thing, I mean, for example, we can take the area around South Dallas. This is the reason I say this is not so simple. You take the area around below Fair Park, traditionally called South Dallas, even though it's in East Dallas.

George: Right. It's a strange way we talk about Dallas.

Wick Allison: That just means it's black.

George: Yeah, that's right. Exactly.

Wick Allison: Anyway, so at this black neighborhood, Don Williams has had people track every project that's gone on in the last 30 years for improvement, try and salvage that neighborhood. It goes from St. Philips Academy to public school here to Parkland Clinic to Sheff's Dairy going in over here to, and hiring people. Every single project. Count up each one of those projects, and it's about 250 million in public, private money has been devoted to South Dallas. This one little neighborhood. During that period, 50,000 people left South Dallas. As soon as you get a postal job, you leave. You're gone, because you're now middle class, because you have a pension. So obviously there's something structural. This is what, I had long conversations with lots of people of goodwill like yourself, and there's something fundamental that we're not addressing. All our do good projects, all these good intentions are ... Of course, if they save one life, it's the most important thing in the world, but there's a structural defect, and the structural defect is the design of our city, and, as you mentioned, the highways.

Wick Allison: Can I tell you some stories about highways?

George: You can, but hold that thought. We're gonna take a break, and promote a nonprofit in our community, and we'll be back in just a moment, we'll pick up with the highways.

Jim White: The Society of St. Vincent de Paul offers emergency assistance to people in need, including financial help with rent or utilities, food and clothing. Every day in 38 communities throughout nine counties in North Texas, 1,000 volunteers provide personal assistance along with caring, compassion, and hope. It's all about neighbors helping neighbors. For more information visit svdpdallas.org.

George: We're back with Wick Allison, and we were just talking about the structural challenges of prosperity and sharing that prosperity in Dallas. How highways, for example, something that many of us wouldn't look at as being so strategic as it is socially, we think that just in terms of getting people from one place to another, but it has had a deep structural impact on the life of Dallas, leading people, in fact, in South Dallas in underserved areas to leave as soon as they get that job that allows them to do so, because they don't feel like there's a lot of hope in their community. Talk a little bit about the decisions about highways, and about decisions that can be made.

Wick Allison: Well, the history of highways is obviously it's the interstate highway system, but when that was created President Eisenhower was very firm that it was to connect cities, not to go through cities. Soon as he's out of office, especially during the Lyndon Johnson area, there's a notion around that you save people in poverty by, for some reason, wiping out where they live. It was called, as you know, the Urban Renewal. Highways played a part in that. In 1964, Eric Johnson became mayor of Dallas in April of '64. He asked for, as you know, he was the chairman of TI, but what you may not know is he was one of the most famous businessmen in the world at the time, because it was the spur of the technological revolution, and he was at the prow of the ship. So he came in to be mayor of Dallas and he asked for, first thing he wanted was, "What are ongoing projects I need to know about?"

Wick Allison: They gave him a list, and at the top of the list is interstate 30. He said, "Oh my god." They said, "Where's it going?" 'Cause he was up at TI and lived at North Dallas, he had no idea. Well, they're building it through East Dallas. He said, "Show me the plan." He looked at the plan and he said, "Let's go get in the car." Got in the car, went to look at the highway. He came back to city hall with the city manager and assistant city manager of transportation and said, "This is gonna destroy East Dallas for at least three generations. We have to stop it." He said, "Sir, you saw it, it can't be ... I mean, it's almost done." He got on the phone to the governor, the governor has no power in something like this. At that begin ... He got on the phone to the transportation commissioner, there was only one in those days, and that began a very fractious relationship with the highway commissioner, but bottom line was, there was nothing they could do about it. As a matter of fact, that highway was finished in December of 1964.

Wick Allison: Next on the list, Woodall Rodgers. He built, he said, "An elevated highway that's gonna cut off downtown from the rest of the city."

George: It's gonna kill downtown.

Wick Allison: It'll kill downtown. And it means that the other side of downtown, it will not be developable. So, once again, there he goes. But this time, can't be stopped, money's funded, sorry mister mayor, it's just a done deal. This time he said, he said, "Show me the contract." To the city manager. The city manager said, "Sir ..." The mayor was worried about money. He said, "We're only providing water." Eric Johnson was an engineer, and he said, "Oh, we're only providing the water for that project?" They said, "Yes, sir." He said, "Cut off the water." I have this from the people who were in, the assistant city manager who was in the room. They said, "Sir, we can't ..." He said, "Cut off the water." Now, this was Eric Johnson. They did cut off the water.

Wick Allison: Woodall Rodgers stood, then there was a standoff for 18 months until the highway commissioner was replaced. It was Eric Johnson. The new highway commissioner agreed to put it underground. Eric Johnson, if you look at the actual memos, envisioned a park over.

George: No kidding.

Wick Allison: Connecting.

George: No kidding.

Wick Allison: 60 years ago. Then as soon as Eric Johnson leaves office, here they come again. They begin with elevating 45, and then building 345 to connect to central expressway, elevated. To elevate 45, and we have the clippings from the Dallas Times Herald, Dallas Morning News, they are going to ... Well, as the Reverend Peter Johnson who led protests down to Austin to try and stop it said, "You are going to destroy a wonderful community of modest shotgun houses, and the 100 to 200 businesses that live off that community and serve it. You're gonna leave in its place crack houses and liquor stores."

George: Right.

Wick Allison: Prophecy became reality. Then they keep going to build 345, which nobody knew what this section going through downtown was called until it became controversial. They destroyed 52 blocks, bulldozed 52 blocks of Deep Ellum.

George: A treasure of Dallas, historically.

Wick Allison: A treasure. And left us what we have.

George: So let me give you an anecdote to support what you're saying about the nature of the change in those communities. About 13 to 14 years ago I started a nonprofit called Faith LEAP, which was intended to use an early childhood reading curriculum, acronym LEAP, to help mothers of children in underserved areas and at risk areas learn to read to their children and how to help them get ready for school. We used the faith aspect of it because we thought, "We'll go to the churches in these communities and provide these materials, and staffing and training and all those sorts of things, give those materials to the mothers because we know that if a child is ready to read when he or she starts school, their chances of success are exponentially better."

George: Well, now, of course the early pre-k movement is taking hold, and that's a tremendous positive, but you need to start reading to children when they're in the womb, and we all know that sort of thing. So we decided to create this, I worked with Don Williams about it, and we were working in South Dallas in the Fairpark area and whatnot, and here's what we, we eventually folded after about two years. Not because it wasn't a good idea, but because church after church that we went to said to us, "We don't know our neighbors." Our church consists of people who once grew up in this neighborhood, but they drive in now from other places because of the very thing you said, once they get their jobs, they get some education, they move out. They're still loyal to their church, but there's no sense of community.

Wick Allison: Exactly.

George: There's this disconnect that happens in the very institutions that are supposed to give life to neighborhoods.

Wick Allison: Yes. And I know people who do that, and virtually every black person in Dallas does it. It's a ... But there is a seed for hope. When we first started, I guess this, on the I-345 thing, which I won't go into detail about, except we are going to tear it down.

George: Yay! Good.

Wick Allison: TxDOT has already agreed, but don't say yay too fast, because TxDOT will try and replace it with central expressway, instead of the restoration of community, which is what we will do. So it's a good five year, five left. But the tear down will be in the transportation plan for 2050. When we first got involved in this, one of my bureaucratic opponents, knowing how to turn little switches, press little buttons. It was against, dickering with his highways, accused us of being racist. Front page of the Dallas Morning News.

George: Racist?

Wick Allison: Yes.

George: But that's exactly the opposite.

Wick Allison: But politically. So, there we were on the front page of Dallas Morning News, a racist group because we were white. So I happened to be meeting with the county judge that day. He got furious, next day there's a retraction, the guy had to call up and apologize to me. But it did stimulate me to do something that was extremely valuable. That's why one of my spiritual teachers says, "Being opposed is like peppering the soup. It makes you appreciate the soup more." It made me say, "Okay, look what I haven't done. I haven't actually reached out." So I asked my editors for a list of the 30 top young African American professionals in Dallas. My poor editors. Anyway, they came up with the list, so I just started calling people. Everybody came in to see me, sometimes in groups of two or three, but mostly one at a time. Out of 30, about 23 were from Dallas, and other people were from Kansas City, or whatever.

George: Okay.

Wick Allison: I asked each of the people who were from Dallas where they lived and where they would like to live, and unanimously on where would they like to live, it was South Dallas.

George: Wow.

Wick Allison: Maybe they're tired of driving to church.

George: Maybe.

Wick Allison: But I see that as an enormously positive sign that if we can restore, if we can have a plan to repopulate the area by destroying the barriers, physical barriers that prevent the restoration of community. First, we have to take care of those. There are also institutional barriers. The city of Dallas, not the city of Dallas, but Dallas as a whole has operated with, legally, a separate DISD, a separate transit system, a separate housing authority. Therefore city hall has been very complacent about all these things. One of our missions was, not only battling TxDOT, but tearing down the institutional barriers. Having boards on these outside agencies, and the school district is in, by the way, great shape, we don't have to worry about the school district, they've got great people. But the others, we had to bring under control and point in the same direction so we can relieve the barriers to human flourishing, and once we're there, by combining all these agencies into a common purpose, neighborhood by neighborhood, we can recreate the whole neighborhoods that once existed. When I say whole neighborhoods, school, housing, libraries, park.

George: Recreational.

Wick Allison: Transit is absolutely critical.

George: Right, right.

Wick Allison: To get to jobs. That can all be done. It's not that hard. As you introduce this segment by, it's getting to the point where you can start to do that.

George: Well, and I think, as we wrap up, I think the people who had the power to create the problem also have the power to undo what they did and to create opportunity there, but in doing so ... My sense in terms of my relationships with faith leaders, especially, in these areas, is the caution is that we have to watch that we don't then, just after removing those barriers, seize upon those areas for gentrification purposes, for our own sort of business interests, and not listen to the actual neighbors who want to have their own communities, and the things they need in those communities. If you talk to people in some of these areas, they want grocery stores. They want basic things that allow them to determine their life on the ground without necessarily having a lot of the glitz and whatnot that a lot of the people want to put into the investment in their community. So how we do that is, I think, important, too.

Wick Allison: I don't think it's a matter of glitz. A grocery store is a matter of having a dry cleaner. If you have a dry cleaner, especially if you have two dry cleaners, you're gonna get a grocery store. You don't get a grocery store by just wishing for it. You get a grocery store by having the demographics of people who will pay for the groceries.

George: Right.

Wick Allison: You have to encourage not, and gentrification, you're going to have gentrification. It has to be turned into a positive good. There are legal ways to do that for people who are now residents, which we can accomplish through the legislature. The people are, lobbyists I talked to, are confident that could easily be done.

George: Okay.

Wick Allison: So it's in motion, but gentrification means restoring the middle class who left back to their parents and grandparents home territory. You have to have an amount of density to get a dry cleaner. You can't do it without middle class people wanting to move back there, or moving back there. If you have no dry cleaner, this is just true of the entire culture, by the way, of America. If you don't have a dry cleaner, it means you're not going to have any amenities. Think about it.

George: Yeah, yeah.

Wick Allison: Those young professionals I visited with, none of them live in South Dallas.

George: Right.

Wick Allison: Why?

George: Right.

Wick Allison: There's no services.

George: Dry cleaner, yeah, right.

Wick Allison: How do you build your law practice, or how do you go to the accounting office without having a dry cleaner? You don't.

George: Well, let's put a pause button on this for right now. We've got another episode, we can keep probing this. I really want us to keep talking about Dallas in the way you're leading us, and so thank you for all you're doing, Wick, and for this first episode together. Really excited about the prospects of Dallas, and thank you for your contributions to them.

Wick Allison: Well, thank you for having me.

George: Absolutely.

Jim White: Good God is created by Dr. George Mason, produced and directed by Jim White. Guest coordination and social media by Upward Strategy Group. Here's grateful appreciation to Evolve Technology for location production facilities. Evolve Technology for home, audio, and lighting design. Enjoy more, think less with Evolve. See their great work at evolvedallas.com. Thanks to Wendy Crispin Caterers for guest parking accommodations.

Jim White: Good God: Conversations With George Mason is the podcast devoted to bringing you ideas about God and faith and the common good. All material copyright 2018 by Faith Commons.

Jim White: The Society of St. Vincent de Paul offers emergency assistance to people in need, including financial help with rent or utilities, food and clothing. Every day in 38 communities throughout nine counties in North Texas, 1,000 volunteers provide personal assistance along with caring, compassion, and hope. It's all about neighbors helping neighbors. For more information visit svdpdallas.org.

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