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Episode Transcript

Stephen DUBNER: Oh my gosh! My son is texting me, “Enjoy Sonny Bryan’s.” He has access to my Uber account.  

Ryan KELLEY: That’s pretty good. It is just absolutely pouring. Does this normally happen in Dallas?

UBER DRIVER: The rain?

KELLEY: Yeah.

UBER DRIVER: No.

KELLEY: No?

UBER DRIVER: This is, like, waiting for you guys, you know? 

DUBNER: Yeah, thanks a lot. 

UBER DRIVER: They say, “Yeah, New York coming. You get some rain.”

That was me, and our producer Ryan Kelley, and an Uber driver in Dallas, Texas, late one night in the middle of what felt like a monsoon. We were creeping along a waterlogged highway, heading toward a barbecue place called Sonny Bryan’s Smokehouse. Why? Okay, let’s back up a few weeks. I had read an article in City Journal called “Big D Is a Big Deal.” The authors, Cullum Clark and Joel Kotkin, wrote that more Americans had moved to the Dallas–Fort Worth metro area over the past decade than anywhere else in the U.S. In another decade or so, the area will reach 10 million people, surpassing Chicago as the country’s third-largest metro area. And I thought… really? I’d been to Dallas a couple times; and it never struck me as “the de facto capital of America’s heartland,” as the Clark and Kotkin article put it. So, we called up Cullum Clark:

Cullum CLARK: Most of what you love about city life, you can have to a greater degree than you ever imagined in the Dallas area.

We called Joel Kotkin too:

Joel KOTKIN: Dallas appeals to people for specific reasons, and it’s appealing to a wider and wider group. 

And then we called this guy:

Eric JOHNSON: Eric Johnson, I’m the mayor of Dallas, Texas. 

I told the mayor right up front that I’m a New Yorker and therefore a wee bit skeptical that a city like Dallas could be some sort of model for the 21st century.

JOHNSON: I mean, you can’t replicate New York. But what Dallas offers — I don’t think there’s a city in the country where you can have the quality of a dining experience and take in an off-Broadway performance or go and hear a symphony or an opera performance at our Symphony Hall, which is one of the 10 best symphony halls in the world. Now, are there cheaper places to live in the United States than Dallas? Yes, but you won’t have what I just told you about. Are there places where you could have access to first-run Broadway productions on Broadway? Yes, but you’re going to pay more. This is the best deal in the country. 

DUBNER: That’s a pretty compelling argument. If we come visit, can we knock on your door and say hello? 

JOHNSON: You should. And in fact, I’ll be hurt if you don’t. I’ll come get you from the airport, in fact.

When the mayor of a major American city says he will pick you up at the airport if you come visit — well, you get on that plane. So, after exchanging emails and calendar invites with the mayor’s team, that’s what Ryan and I did. But then, at the last minute, we got the news: the mayor had an urgent family matter. No airport pickup. No mayor at all! It was too late to change our plans. So we got on the plane, landed just in time for that torrential downpour, and by now we were really hungry — because not only was the mayor supposed to pick us up at the airport, but we were supposed to have dinner with him, too. Which is how Ryan and I found ourselves in the back of that Uber, slightly despondent, and questioning our decision.

DUBNER: We weren’t planning to come until he said, “If you come, I will pick you up at the airport.” Whoa! Now we’re like in a submarine. I have to say, you’re a good driver.

KELLEY: That was a little scary.

UBER DRIVER: I saw it coming. 

DUBNER: You saw it coming? 

UBER DRIVER: I saw it coming, said, “Oh sh*t.”

The good news is that our Uber driver was heroic, and he got us to our destination. We did not come all the way to Dallas to drown on a highway.

DUBNER: Thank you so much. You did a great job navigating the flood. 

UBER DRIVER: The water?

DUBNER: Yeah, the water. If I could give you 10 stars, I would, but I’ll give you five.

UBER DRIVER: Okay. 

DUBNER: All right, have a good night. Be safe.

UBER DRIVER: All right, thank you. 

The other good news is that Ryan had found the only 24-hour barbecue place in Texas: Sonny Bryan’s Smokehouse. We were practically the only people there, but they had food.

DUBNER: Hi, how are you? What’s your favorite, very favorite thing to eat? 

CASHIER: I personally like the chopped beef. 

DUBNER: How do you feel about the meat potato? 

CASHIER: Potatoes are really good also. 

DUBNER: And if you had to compare meat potato to Frito pie? 

CASHIER: I would go with the potato. 

DUBNER: All right. I’ll have the meat potato.

A meat potato is a gargantuan baked potato stuffed with barbecued beef brisket. We also got some onion rings.

DUBNER: Wow, those are —

KELLEY: Those are the real deal. That is just actual onion dropped in a fryer.

Every onion ring in our basket could have collared a mid-sized dog. It’s true, I guess: everything really is bigger in Texas. But is it also better? Today on Freakonomics Radio — the first installment of a two-part series on Dallas because, y’know, it’s big. Today, we start with: what’s Dallas doing right?

CLARK: Every single city in America would benefit from more permissive land-use policies, more predictable real-estate development processes.

We encounter Texas hospitality.

Brent HARMAN: It’s a really friendly place. I mean, noticeably friendly.  

Nicole MYERS: It really is sincere. It’s a way of life.

And we make a list of Big D’s big problems.

KOTKIN: Crime and crappy schools is probably a good start. 

Crime and crappy schools — that would make a New Yorker feel right at home. So, should I move? Mmm — not so fast.

Stacy BOWERS: I still sometimes cry myself to sleep because I live here. 

*      *      *

Americans don’t move nearly as much as they used to. In the 1980s and 90s, more than 6 million people moved each year from one state to another. These days, it’s usually around 4 million a year — as was the case in 2020, when 4.3 million Americans moved to a different state. Some of that was plainly driven by the pandemic.

CLARK: We’re in a time — it’s always been this way, but especially now — where places are competing ferociously for human beings based on quality-of-life considerations.  

That, again, is Cullum Clark, one of the two authors of that City Journal article that got me interested in Dallas.

CLARK: All over the heartland, there are relatively unglamorous places that are trying really hard to step up their game in the competition for talent. They may not say they’re imitating Dallas–Fort Worth, but in effect, they are.

Clark is an economist at the George W. Bush Institute and at Southern Methodist University; he is also a fifth-generation Dallasite. Lest you think Clark is just a booster, consider this number: from 2010 to 2020, the Dallas–Fort Worth metro area grew by around 1.3 million people. About 40 percent of that was from domestic migration, 20 percent from international migration, the rest from natural population growth. Demographers do not expect this trend to stop: by the mid-2030s, they predict, the biggest metro areas in the U.S. will be New York, then Los Angeles, and then Dallas. What’s attracting so many people to the Dallas area? Think about all the reasons you might move from one place to another. A job opportunity; maybe you move for love, or to be near family; maybe you’re just sick of shoveling snow. Whatever the reason, when you’re considering a move, there is one metric that usually takes precedence over the rest: cost of living. And if you’re thinking of moving from a place like New York or California to Dallas:

CLARK: You will be in shock at how much less you will spend on a home.

Rents in Dallas are about half what you’d pay in New York. Groceries are about 40 percent cheaper. Downtown Dallas, not surprisingly, is among the most expensive areas in the region, and it does feel like a real city, even if you’re coming from a place like New York — although it is significantly less dense, and the density fades fast as you leave the city center. As you head north, towards Oklahoma, you get into what used to be small towns and suburbs.

CLARK: Plano, Frisco, Allen, McKinney, Denton.  

But they’re not small anymore. The population of Dallas itself grew 9 percent over the past decade, to 1.3 million people — which sounds impressive until you compare that to the counties up north, Collin and Denton Counties, which include Frisco and Plano and the other cities Cullum Clark just named. Their population grew 36 percent. Those two counties now have a combined population of around 2 million people, which is more than all but four cities in the U.S.

CLARK: All of these cities have daytime populations roughly equal to their nighttime populations. In some cases, bigger. So what that tells you is people are busily working there every day — they’re big centers of business.

DUBNER: And what do you call that, when you’ve got a huge metro area made up of a bunch of emerging cities as opposed to just a central downtown and the suburbs? 

CLARK: Well, I think urban economists like me are wrestling to name it. What I tend to like as a way of describing it is kind of an emerging, polycentric metropolis. We’ve oftentimes had this idea that you have the central business district — when you say “downtown,” there literally is only one of them. That model is breaking down all over America. The question is, then, to what degree do you really have strong, alternative downtowns — really strong job centers, commercial centers, lifestyle centers emerging in far-flung places? And Dallas has done that, in some ways, better than anywhere.

Okay, so let’s put aside the polycentric metropolis for now and focus on the city of Dallas. Before flying down from New York, back when Mayor Eric Johnson was still speaking to us, I had asked him to describe the Dallas neighborhood where he lives.

JOHNSON: I live in East Dallas. East Dallas is really beautiful. We’re near White Rock Lake in an area where our city’s arboretum is located, so there’s a lot of natural beauty. It’s not where I grew up, but it’s where I live now and I’m raising my kids and I’m married, and we have lived there about eight years or so.

DUBNER: And you live in a house on a lot with lawn and stuff like that?

JOHNSON: Yeah, I live in a single-family home on a decent-sized lot, so it’s pretty cool.

DUBNER: And is it walkable or not really?

JOHNSON: The area where we are is very walkable and the lake is right there, and it’s got a great trail system.  

DUBNER: Right, but if you want to go meet a friend for lunch or have coffee in the morning with a colleague, are you typically getting in your car, walking, on a bike? 

JOHNSON: Dallas is more of a driving town than maybe some of the cities that you might be used to if you’re a New Yorker on the east coast. Car is pretty central to the culture here, but it’s a city that has made a concerted effort over the years to become more walkable. But I still would say, if you’re going to go meet a friend for lunch, you probably would get in your car.

DUBNER: And then describe the neighborhood where you grew up.

JOHNSON: I grew up in an area called West Dallas. So basically, that area growing up was really rough — a lot of violent crime and drug-related crime — and it’s changed a lot, it’s gotten a lot better. But there’s still some issues.

We should say, while most big cities had significant increases in violent crime in 2021, the numbers in Dallas fell, by nearly 10 percent. Some of the credit has gone to new police chief Eddie Garcia, who’s an advocate of using data analytics to deploy police more efficiently. It’s worth noting that the crime drop in Dallas was accomplished with fewer arrests. So, that’s a positive. I asked Cullum Clark to take a step back and look at the even bigger positives — to state his case for why the Dallas–Fort Worth region has been drawing more people than anywhere else in the country.

CLARK: I would suggest that there are three things that have made all the difference. One is offering relatively affordable, high quality of life. Secondly, being an exceptionally welcoming place to newcomers of all kinds. That’s a really important thing for a city to get right, but so often they don’t. And third, operating more or less commerce-friendly, growth-friendly policies, particularly in the suburban areas. 

DUBNER: So let’s say we take those three major factors, and I want to steal from Dallas. Give me one specific for each of the three factors.

CLARK: On the affordable-quality-of-life front, I think every single city of any size in America would benefit from more permissive land-use policies, more predictable real-estate development processes. We have snarled up our whole home-building industry in red tape in America, and it’s strangling our cities.  

DUBNER: Now, the downsides of that permissive housing policy is what? I know that Dallas and Texas in general have relatively lenient labor laws, for instance. So do you have a much higher rate of workplace injuries in the construction industry? 

CLARK: No, I’ve never seen any evidence of that. But I think that on the land-use front, the single biggest reason why land-use rules are too strict in too many places around America is that the sentiment among local people against change is typically strong. So you could say the downside of relatively permissive rules is that change, in fact, will come.  I think it’s possible to persuade people that when change comes to their city, it will fund quality-of-life improvements — new amenities, new parks, and new arts facilities and so on — and they will benefit. And that’s an issue of communication, leadership, helping people to see the big picture. That’s hard work, but it seems to be doable. 

DUBNER: Let’s go to your second point: welcoming newcomers. That’s a nice slogan — to make people feel welcome even in a place where they might feel out of step with the established mores. But how do you actually do that? 

CLARK: One issue is really cultural, attitudinal. And I think nonprofit organizations, civic groups, business associations, all can just sort of decide that they really like to bring in the new folks and give them responsibility. Then there’s an issue of public policy. And I am inclined to think there that getting the policies right is a game of singles and doubles, not home runs. Things as simple as: print your city forms in a lot of languages. A lot of it can be kind of little things, but they do seem to add up.

DUBNER: Your third factor: commerce-friendly. What does it mean, specifically, to be commerce-friendly?  

CLARK: All over America, we have overly restrictive occupational- licensing rules. We make it too hard to start a hair-braiding salon, to use arguably the most famous example. This happens everywhere, but there’s a lot of variation across places, and it probably won’t surprise you to know that the Dallas–Fort Worth area scores better than most in terms of ease of starting a new business.

One recent study ranked the Dallas metro area the 18th-best place in the U.S. to start a business, out of the 100 largest metros. L.A. was 52nd and New York, 60th. One big factor Clark did not mention was taxes: in the state of Texas, there is no state or local income tax. You may have heard about that in all the news coverage about why people like Elon Musk and Joe Rogan have been moving to Texas from California. Texas relies primarily on a 6.25 percent sales tax, and federal funds, to balance its books. Texas cities, including Dallas and its suburbs, also rely on property taxes, and many of them tack on an additional 2 percent of sales tax. Overall, the average Texan spends about 8 percent of their annual income on state and local taxes; in California, it’s 9.5 percent and in New York: 13 percent! But taxes, of course, pay for public goods and services: schools; police and fire and hospitals; transportation. So how does low-tax Texas balance that?

CLARK: We need to wrestle a little bit with the tradeoff between maintaining relatively moderate taxes and seeing good investment in public goods. Sky-high tax rates will kill an economy. Total failure to invest in public goods will kill it just as well. America has lots of big cities that have the worst of both worlds — high tax rates with supposedly the promise of good public goods, and yet the public goods don’t deliver.

DUBNER: Go ahead, point at New York.

CLARK: So New York has gigantic efforts to use taxpayer dollars to create affordable housing for lower-income people. And yet it succeeds less than most cities at that. There are a number of cities that are higher-than-average taxes and have below-average educational attainment levels — schools that underperform even by the standards of big American cities. So I also don’t think it’s accurate in Dallas–Fort Worth to think of us as having an extreme position of very low taxation and very low investment in public goods. I would say it’s below average on those two things. But the question is, what exactly are we failing to do? Public transit is not at all a strength here. And yeah, we have lots of things we could do on the education front that we don’t have the money to do.

When people are thinking about moving, it’s hard to overstate the appeal of good public schools.

GLAESER: Oh, look, it’s always about the kids. It’s always about urban education. 

That’s Ed Glaeser, an economist at Harvard who studies cities.

GLAESER: It is by far the most important thing. Now, unfortunately, it’s the hardest thing. If you asked me which one I know how to fix — I mean, I don’t know how to fix the politics of housing supply — I know how to make New York affordable. You build 100,000 new units a year. There’s a technological fix. Whereas the schools, they’re a living, breathing organism with teachers and kids and kids from troubled backgrounds. And it’s just really hard. But if you gave me a magic wand to fix, I would fix those schools.

And the public schools in the city of Dallas indeed need fixing. When I asked Cullum Clark’s co-author Joel Kotkin for his list of the biggest problems with Dallas, here’s what he said:

KOTKIN: Crime and crappy schools is probably a good start.  

And I asked Mayor Eric Johnson, who grew up in Dallas and started out in public school, if the schools have improved since he was young.

JOHNSON: They are better. We still have a lot of challenges, though. It’s a school district that’s a poor school district. It’s a school district where non-native English speakers are a large portion of the district, and so there are extra costs and challenges to achieving educational superiority in that respect. So it’s a challenge. It’s hard. 

The mayor himself had an unusual trajectory in school. He grew up with working-class parents, both of whom had multiple jobs. He shared a bedroom with three siblings. He went to the public elementary school through first grade, where he had a teacher named Miss Ferris. And here’s how he recalls what Miss Ferris saw in him:

JOHNSON: “Wow, he really seems to get it and really wants more, and wants to do more.” And then for her to go the extra mile to not just go, “That’s neat,” and then just give me a bunch of A’s. But she said, “Not only do I see potential there, but I feel like I’ve got to go do something about this.” 

What she did was get him placed in a scholarship program, through the local Boys and Girls Club, to attend a prestigious prep school called Greenhill.

JOHNSON: She went and found a program that literally took kids like me, paid for them to be tested, and if they did well enough on these admissions tests, to place them in a prep school and then provide the transportation and the scholarship money for them to go. 

Johnson graduated from Greenhill and went on to Harvard for undergrad, then got a law degree from Penn and a master’s degree in public affairs from Princeton. Given his background, Johnson calls himself a “unicorn.”

JOHNSON: I’m a unicorn in the convergence of some amount of academic ability in a tough circumstance and someone identifying that, and then matching that with the resources that were necessary to take advantage of it.

DUBNER: Meaning there’s a lot of kids with that potential who just aren’t identified or given the opportunity? 

JOHNSON: Correct. I don’t think that the talent and the desire part is as rare. I don’t think it’s every child, but I think there’s plenty of children in every neighborhood, in every city in this country, who’ve got plenty of academic ability and plenty of desire. But what you don’t have a ton of are my first-grade teacher, Miss Ferris.  

As mayor, Johnson is trying to make unicorn stories like his less rare — not just in education but in the labor markets too.

JOHNSON: More and more now, I’m talking about workforce development and upskilling, where people whose skill set is not really a great match for the jobs of tomorrow. If we focus on giving people the means and the ability to fill these jobs that exist but are going unfilled, because people really aren’t prepared for them, then to be honest with you, a lot of these problems really will solve themselves. We talk about affordable housing, for example. Housing becomes more affordable when your income goes up. So we need people to make more money. We need people to have more wealth. And those are the types of things that happen when people get a better education and have better skills.

How much leverage does the mayor of Dallas have to push this kind of policy?

Laura MILLER: Dallas is a wonderful place to live with a totally awful city government. 

What does it mean for a big city to have a form of government where the mayor is weak? Also: how did the Dallas Museum of Art just get hold of an exceptionally desirable painting?

Agustín ARTEAGA: This was a painting that since inception basically was promised to the museum. 

And: it was lunchtime in Dallas, so guess where we went to eat?

HARMAN: Sour cream, onions, cheese, chives, chopped beef, and barbecue sauce.

DUBNER: It’s really good.

*      *      *

As with anywhere, to understand the present of Dallas, it helps to understand the past. For much of its history, the city had racism baked into its policies and its neighborhoods. In 1916, Dallas became the first city in Texas to impose housing segregation by law. In the 1950s and 1960s, black neighborhoods like Deep Ellum and Stringtown were practically destroyed by the new interstate that plowed through them. In the 1970s, the city of Dallas seized black-owned homes to expand a parking lot that’s used three weeks a year for the State Fair of Texas.

CLARK: We still very much had the legacy of Jim Crow. We had all kinds of ugly racial policies.

That, again, is the economist Cullum Clark. 

CLARK: The Kennedy assassination in November 1963 led people to develop this idea that Dallas was, “A city of hate.”

Walter CRONKITE: Here is a bulletin from C.B.S. News. In Dallas, Texas, three shots were fired at President Kennedy’s motorcade in downtown Dallas.

CLARK: People looked in the mirror, and there was a lot of aspects of the city that people didn’t entirely like, and this business and political establishment, really at that moment, said, “We are going to modernize the place dramatically.” And they did. In the years after that, Dallas became about the most un-nostalgic, forward-looking, ahistorical city you could imagine.

DUBNER: In the process of becoming “ahistoric,” as you put it, and especially in dealing with the ugly racial policies, were there specific measures meant to correct those policies? Or was it more of a, “Let’s change the business environment and then hope that the ugly racial history can fade into the past?”

CLARK: I think there was a typical set of policies, but an atypical set of attitudes. The standard policies the city went through — bussing, school desegregation, implementation of the 1968 Fair Housing Act — all of these things were standard. I think what was a little atypical was this very concerted effort on the part of the business leadership to dramatically change the tone — to really incorporate a Black voice, and then before long a set of Hispanic voices. It wasn’t long after the ’60s before Dallas had two Jewish women who were mayor, and not so long after that, the first Black man to be mayor. And today’s mayor, Eric Johnson, is also a Black man who grew up in Dallas. So there were pretty fast changes on that front. The spirit of the business community — in fact, my grandfather was a Dallas businessman and was very involved in a lot of those discussions. So I grew up as a kid around the dining-room table hearing about everything that I’m describing right now. 

That said, the Dallas metro area today is still quite segregated. One recent study found it to be the seventh-most economically segregated of 53 metro areas in the U.S. that have more than a million people.

CLARK: The southern part of Dallas is an area that’s physically bigger than the entire city of Atlanta. Very large majority Black or Hispanic. And in this vast area, the total number of homes and jobs has gone down this century, not up. It’s a difficult story.

MILLER: We’re talking about a very large part of the city. 

And that’s a former mayor of Dallas, Laura Miller.

MILLER: You know, it’s 60 percent of the city of Dallas landmass, but it only provides 10 percent of the property tax revenue. So that gives you a sense right there about how upside-down things are. 

There have been repeated efforts to boost South Dallas, but it’s hard. One big reason: for a city this big, Dallas has an unusual system of city government.

JOHNSON: The two basic types of city government in this country are council-manager and mayor-council. 

That, again, is the current mayor Eric Johnson.

JOHNSON: We have council-manager here, and the hallmark of the council-manager form of government is that you have placed in an individual who is not elected, but who is appointed by the City Council — you’ve placed within that person operational control over the city. And that person is what we call a “city manager.”

While some other big U.S. cities do have council-manager governments, the five largest — New York, L.A., Chicago, Houston, and Philadelphia — all use a mayor-council system, which gives the mayor much more leverage over policies, budgets, and so on. In Dallas, Eric Johnson does not have that.

JOHNSON: We essentially created a structure where the city council functions as a board of trustees, and the city manager performs as a C.E.O. And so the mayor in a council-manager form of government will often be more like the chairman of a board. And of course, across corporations, chairmen vary in their amounts of power and influence, depending on how well they can control their board, how visionary they are, and that’s sort of similar here. 

That was a pretty diplomatic description of Dallas government by the current mayor. Former mayor Laura Miller is less diplomatic.

MILLER: Dallas is a wonderful place to live with a totally awful city government.  

DUBNER: Can you expand please, or show your homework perhaps? 

MILLER: Yes, yes. The problem is when you have a weak-mayor form of government, and then you couple that with mostly single-member districts — we have 14 single-member districts — and we have one person elected at large, the mayor, who has no more power than the 14 with single-member districts, you are in a completely dysfunctional environment where there is zero accountability for anything that goes wrong. 

DUBNER: But you just said Dallas is a great place to live with a terrible government. That suggests that maybe a good city government isn’t that important to having a good city? 

MILLER: Generally, if you pick up the trash and pave the streets, you can be fine. But it’s really unfortunate because half our city is undeveloped and low-income. So if we had a strong mayor, I really believe — no matter who it was, I wouldn’t even be picky — I think that they could make a substantial difference, instead of just limping along. 

DUBNER: And is the reason that the development is not happening in the way that you’d like it to happen because of this weak-mayor government? 

MILLER: Well, the problem is the developers have the upper hand all the time at City Hall, and so they come in and they pick all the choice places in the city to develop, and they leave all the places that are rough. 

The council-manager form of government practiced in Dallas does have at least one advantage: a recent study found that the cities with so-called weak mayors are more likely to stick to their budgets than when there’s a strong mayor. But Miller argues that in Dallas, at least, the weak-mayor setup has made it hard to address big problems.

MILLER: When I was first elected mayor, I said, “Our No. 1 problem is our housing department, it’s broken.” So I got McKinsey to come in for free and tell us how we could build affordable housing. And the city manager said, “Thank you very much.” And put it up on a shelf and it never happened. So the huge disconnect in Dallas is you have one person, one, who’s elected citywide, and they have ideas and they’re ready to go, and they can’t execute. I get an email almost every day from Eric Johnson, the current mayor, just as a constituent, saying, “Oh, the council is doing the wrong thing, and the city manager won’t call me back,” and I’m like, “Oh my God.” And he’s baring it all out there that it’s dysfunctional.

DUBNER: Sounds like high school. 

MILLER: It needs to change.

DUBNER: In that particular instance, who are you blaming more: Johnson or the city manager? 

MILLER: You know, I blame them both. They’re two strong men who are fighting publicly, which is not good. But I certainly relate to the current mayor, who was elected from a very vast field of people with a vision. Let him do the vision.

Back on the ground in Dallas, it’s lunchtime. We returned to the scene of last night’s pig-out: Sonny Bryan’s Smokehouse. We invited Cullum Clark, the economist who’s been explaining Dallas to us. We also arranged to meet the owner, Brent Harman.

DUBNER: Brent, I’m Stephen. Nice to meet you. Thanks so much for being here.

HARMAN: Stephen, nice to meet you. 

CLARK: Hey Brent, I’m Cullum Clark.

HARMAN: Brent Harman, nice to meet you.

DUBNER: Do you know each other at all?

CLARK: I don’t think so.

CLARK: So I’m an economist. I work at the George W. Bush Institute leading the domestic economic-policy program there and at S.M.U. I work a lot on economic development issues around cities, including this city, and through that wrote about Dallas and got introduced to these guys. How about yourself?

HARMAN: I’m just a barbecue guy. But it’s a family business. So I went to Baylor and got an accounting degree and realized that I didn’t want to be an accountant. So I was like, “What the heck am I going to do now?” And so at the time, we had a couple of restaurants and Dad said, “Hey, come help us out at the restaurant.” And 25 years later, I’m running the company. So it was never the plan, but it turned out to be the best plan.

Sonny Bryan’s, I’ve come to learn, is a Dallas classic. This location opened in 1958 and hasn’t changed much since. It was built on farmland, a few miles from downtown. Now this area is a busy and still-growing hospital district. Late last night, in the driving rain, it was nearly empty. Today, bright and sunny, it’s full of people from all over.

HARMAN: What’s really powerful about this particular restaurant, but I think barbecue in general, is it appeals to the masses. It’s the oil men and the oilfield workers sitting side by side, it’s the doctors and the ambulance drivers, it’s teachers and executives. And there may be a limo that pulls up, and the limo driver is going in to get food for some rich dude.

I asked Harman why he thought Dallas has become such a magnet for people moving in from out-of-state.

HARMAN: It’s a really friendly place. I mean, noticeably friendly. I remember going to visit my brother when I was in college and after three days, I was like, “I got to get out of here.”

DUBNER: This was where?

HARMAN: New York City.

DUBNER: I’m taking that personally, just a little bit. And what about running a business here? How does Dallas and Texas do generally in terms of making it viable for businesses to open, to grow, to thrive? Because New York famously is difficult.

HARMAN: Yeah, yeah. I have friends that operate businesses in other states, and I hear their stories, and I can’t believe what they have to go through. 

DUBNER: Give me an example of something that they have a hard time with that’s easier here.

HARMAN: Simple things we could do to sort of modify our business that in California might require two permits and four inspections and a six-month waiting period. And here you just do it.

DUBNER: All right, let’s talk about the food here. Cullum, describe your food there?

CLARK: I’m having the combo plate with pulled chicken, pulled pork, and cheddar jalapeno sausage.

DUBNER: So I was thinking, you know, barbecue is one of those foods that began out of necessity and it’s cheap — it’s the cheap cuts, right? But then it becomes a thing. And I’m probably reaching here, but I was wondering if there’s any metaphor between the barbecue idea, and Texas, or Dallas, which is you take something that’s not the prime cut necessarily and find a way to fix it up in a way that makes it very desirable.

CLARK: I think you’re onto something. I think that can be said of, in some sense, the whole state, right? Whoever has settled here always found it difficult. The native populations were very thin here. They did not find it very appealing. The Spanish empire never really did much succeed in getting very many people to colonize the place, hence they couldn’t hold on to it. And then once the westward expansion of the United States came here, I mean, it was a dreadful place to be, right? Really, really hot. Mosquitoes.

DUBNER: Man, you’re really a good salesman for Texas.

CLARK: And yet, as you say, they figured out how to actually make it a thing.

DUBNER: So Texas is the barbecue of states.

CLARK: Well, I like your metaphor. Dallas isn’t on the coast, and it’s not on any navigable rivers, so it doesn’t have a lot of reason to exist historically. And Dallas was never a huge oil town. It exists where it does because of modern transportation, because first they laid the transcontinental railroads, they chose this as a junction. The place really got going because it was at this transportation junction as a cotton trading entrepot, like cotton farmers could bring their products here and find a market for it. So cotton was big. Early on, it developed as really the financial center of the state. So you got the banking and insurance and so forth. And then what was the real breakthrough, the thing that really made the city work, was tech. A little bit different than the tech of the west coast. You had the semiconductor chip. Texas Instruments was an oilfield-services company with Jack Kilby and a few other engineers experimenting with this integrated-circuit idea.

It’s some story: a town without a port or even a big river, without many natural resources, scratching and clawing its way to what will soon be the third-largest metro area in the United States. And it feels like that, a metro area, more than a city. Which is fine — just not what a New Yorker like me is used to. We’re used to walking places, maybe jumping in the subway, popping out at Times Square or maybe a museum. When I mentioned this to Cullum Clark, he offered to drive us back downtown to the Dallas Museum of Art. We got in his car and drove back towards the city center, past a renovated version of Parkland Hospital, where John Kennedy died in 1963.

CLARK: So we are just now alongside Clyde Warren Park, and we’re basically approaching downtown Dallas and also approaching the Arts District. Dallas has built this really fabulous Arts District with, you can see right in front of us, the Dallas Museum of Art and then going that way to the east, the Meyerson Symphony Hall, a relatively new Opera House, new theater. And all of these things are in close walking distance to each other.

DUBNER: So you’ve made part of Dallas walkable?

CLARK: We are becoming more walkable all the time, but starting from a very low base.

We had called ahead and arranged to visit with the museum’s director, Agustín Arteaga, who’s originally from Mexico. He met us at the museum’s front door. As it turned out, the museum director and the economist know each other.

ARTEAGA: Good to see you. 

DUBNER: Very nice to see you.

CLARK: Augustín.

ARTEAGA: My friend.

CLARK: How are you? Good to see you.

We chatted about our favorite art museums in New York — the Met and MoMA, of course; the Frick and the Whitney; the Guggenheim and the New Museum…

ARTEAGA: If somebody wants to see something that there is not in New York, you have to come here. We have 13 Mondrians in the museum. And that name that this gallery is named after, the James and Lillian Clark, may sound familiar to you two.

CLARK: My grandparents.

DUBNER: Get out of here. Really? That must be so exciting for you to come see this. 

CLARK: All my old friends that I grew up with in their living room that I was in as a kid all the time. 

That’s right: Cullum Clark, mild-mannered economist, is the grandson of art collectors whose paintings by Piet Mondrian now hang in the Dallas Museum of Art.

CLARK: They just threw themselves at it, and they traveled the world and read very sensibly and met a lot of living artists and built quite a collection.

DUBNER: Do you know anything about the particular attraction to Mondrian?

CLARK: I think that Mondrian made sense to my grandfather. I think he was a very analytical, abstract, elegant thinker, my grandfather, and I think that, of course, Mondrian himself was that.

DUBNER: So when your family was getting ready to make the donation, did you grab a few for yourself, I hope?

CLARK: Oh, the Mondrians that are in the closet that Nicky and Augustin don’t know about?

ARTEAGA: I know everything.

CLARK: There are elements of their collection in our house today, yes.

DUBNER: Good. I have to say, all of a sudden, Dallas feels like a very small town.

CLARK: Oh, it is. It is.

And then we round a corner and come across this:

ARTEAGA: This is the famous Basquiat that just came to the collection.  

DUBNER: It’s so stunning to see one hanging on a museum wall because it’s just so —

ARTEAGA: Rare?

DUBNER: Yeah.

ARTEAGA: Yeah.

DUBNER: It’s very exciting. And this was a local — he was here for a time, right?

ARTEAGA: He came to visit.

Jean-Michel Basquiat, one of the best-known painters of the past half-century, died at age 27 of a heroin overdose. His work became phenomenally expensive and, as a result, most of it owned by private collectors who routinely outbid museums. If you want to hear more about how that works, we recently put out a series called “The Hidden Side of the Art Market.” Anyway, it is rare to see a major Basquiat in a museum, and this one, called Sam F., is a beauty: it’s a portrait of a Dallas art collector named Samuel Feldman, painted on a wooden door.

ARTEAGA: He was very interested, attracted, and felt so welcome that he decided — being very energized to paint — so they went down the basement and found the door. And this is the door where he decided to paint.

Sam Feldman and wife Helga gifted the Basquiat to the Dallas museum upon their deaths. Sam died in 2001; Helga, just last year; the painting was installed over the summer. The museum has also just opened a special exhibit of ten Van Gogh paintings, of olive groves in the south of France. They were made as part of a series but had never before been exhibited as a group. This show was the result of a 10-year project led by the Dallas museum’s interim chief curator Nicole Myers.

MYERS: So nice to meet you! Welcome!

Myers walks us through the exhibit.

MYERS: I think one of the most surprising things for me was that one of these olive grove paintings is pretty much a pendant to “The Starry Night.”

“The Starry Night” is Van Gogh’s best-known painting.

MYERS: He mentions them in the same breath, in the same letter to his brother, Theo, where he announces that he has finally a study of olive trees and a study of a starry night. One of them is worldwide famous and the other is equally interesting, really accomplished, stellar painting that’s less well known today.

DUBNER: I’d never heard that word applied in that way, “pendant.” That means what?

MYERS: Pendant, a pair. They were meant to go together. So all throughout his career, he just has a penchant to produce works in decorative ensembles or groups. Whether it’s a pendant or a pair, a triptych. He was very practical. He knew a lot about the art market. In fact, in a prior career he was a dealer. So in many ways, he saw this as an opportunity to place artwork of his in the homes of upper middle-class collectors in Paris. Maybe you couldn’t buy a series of 10 paintings, but maybe you could afford to buy a triptych from within that series. So it was always a marketing strategy from the beginning.

DUBNER: Okay, so this is a terrible question to ask you, but I’m going to ask it anyway. Pretend that you had to persuade me that this is superior to “The Starry Night.” Go!

MYERS: I think I would lose my stripes as a curator if I tried to use superlatives like that. For me, what’s fascinating is that they are quite literally day and night. They are both paintings that have a lot of spiritual symbolism, and that symbolism is tied to the trees. So in “The Starry Night,” there’s a giant cypress tree that connects Earth with sky, with the heavens. Cypress trees in the Mediterranean being symbols of immortality. The olive tree has also a deeply spiritual meaning. In the Judeo-Christian tradition, of course, it’s in the Garden of Eden; it’s in the promised land of Canaan; and it’s the setting for Christ in the Garden of Olives. But in classical antiquity and in the ancient Mediterranean world, it was a symbol of peace and abundance, but also renewal and rebirth, because olive trees, you can cut them down, you can burn them, and they regenerate from their roots. They’re adapted to thrive in really poor conditions, so they become this symbol of life and reemergence.

You can cut those olive trees down,” Myers says, “and they’ll regenerate from their roots” — just like you have to regenerate your roots if you move from one place to another, like so many people have been doing with Dallas. “They’re adapted to thrive in poor conditions,” she says — like Dallas itself, without many natural resources. And like a New Yorker, perhaps someone who’s thinking what it would be like to move to Dallas. As it happens, Nicole Myers lived in New York for several years. She got her Ph.D. in art history at N.Y.U., and she worked at the Metropolitan Museum. I asked if she had any advice for someone who might be thinking about moving to Dallas but worried they might have a hard time acclimating.

MYERS: I think I would say to not be afraid of the unknown. I think if you’ve never been to a place, there could be a lot of assumptions, everything from pop culture to politics. And I would say: withhold judgment until you come. You hear different languages on the street, all throughout the galleries of the museum, incredible universities. There is something for everyone, so I would hope that they would be open to the idea and not shortchange what they think they might know about Dallas. It is a fantastic place to live.

I told Myers how Brent Harman, the owner of Sonny Bryan’s Smokehouse, talked about the extreme friendliness of Dallas. And look, I like friendliness; I am friendly, sometimes. But when you’re a stranger in a strange land, how can you trust that friendliness? How can you learn to believe the warmth is real?

MYERS: You have to let your guard down. It is actually sincere. When I first came down to this area, you go to even just a convenience store and the person behind the counter is so nice to you, that I would sort of clutch my purse, thinking they’re up to something. “I’m going to get mugged at the C.V.S.” Not the case. It really is sincere. It’s a way of life. And it’s lovely.

DUBNER: All right, but you have an appropriate level of cynical expectation coming in — 

MYERS: I do.

DUBNER: If I move here, I need you to help me get over my — 

MYERS: That’s a deal. When are you coming? 

DUBNER: We’ll see how the rest of our tour goes.

MYERS: We can start talking neighborhoods.

DUBNER: Okay, all right.

The tour continues next week.

*      *      *

Freakonomics Radio is produced by Stitcher and Dubner Productions. This episode was produced by Ryan Kelley. We had help this week from Jeremy Johnston and Zorric Sia. Our staff also includes Alison CraiglowGreg Rippin, Zack Lapinski, Mary Diduch, Rebecca Lee Douglas, Morgan Levey, Jasmin Klinger, Eleanor Osborne, Emma Tyrrell, Lyric Bowditch, and Jacob Clemente. Our theme song is “Mr. Fortune,” by the Hitchhikers; the rest of the music this week was composed by Luis Guerra. You can follow Freakonomics Radio on Apple PodcastsSpotifyStitcher, or wherever you get your podcasts.

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Sources

  • Cullum Clark, professor of economics at Southern Methodist University and director of the Bush Institute-S.M.U. Economic Growth Initiative.
  • Joel Kotkin, professor of urban studies at Chapman University.
  • Eric Johnson, Mayor of Dallas.
  • Edward Glaeser, professor of economics at Harvard University.
  • Nicole Myers, interim chief curator and senior curator of European art at the Dallas Museum of Art.
  • Agustín Arteaga, director of the Dallas Museum of Art.
  • Brent Harman, owner of of Sonny Bryan’s Smokehouse.
  • Laura Miller, former Mayor of Dallas.

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