Tuesday, December 12, 2006

A tale of two cities

When my friends in Seattle found out that I was moving to Dallas, most of them said “it’s a different country.”

Now, I was quite familiar with a small college town in Texas, and I’d visited Austin as well. Austin actually seems to be a rather nice place. So, though I knew the red small town heartland of Texas was a place I’d rather not be in, I figured that since Dallas is a big city, it can’t be all that different from any other American city, even if it couldn't come close to matching the natural beauty of the Pacific Northwest.

But having been here a few weeks now, I’ve come to find the city to be rather dramatically different. Almost a different country. So, I thought I’d write about some of my first impressions here.

Geography has played some part in this difference. Seattle is nicely located between a big lake, the ocean and mountains in the East, North East and South East. So, the city remains fairly compact. Even the suburbs (that make up the greater Seattle area), Redmond, Bellevue, Kent and the likes were never more than 15 miles or so from the city itself. Dallas is true unbridled urban sprawl. The city sprawls endlessly (there is no ocean or mountain to block it’s expansion) and extends in to one mega city as it merges seamlessly in to Fort Worth, Plano, Frisco and many other cities. It goes on for ever, with highways crisscrossing through the city.

The city (like many others in Texas) is built for cars and driving, but for some one like me (who doesn’t drive much, and likes public transport); it is rather difficult to get by. In Seattle the bus service is reasonably good, but more importantly, just about anyone takes the bus. During typical office hours, buses are filled with students, working professionals, professors, tourists, old people, disabled people, poor people, black, white, Asian…..just about any one. It isn’t uncommon to see some one fidgeting with an iPod or Blackberry or laptop. The drivers are friendly and courteous, and taking the bus is never too hard (even to park and rides way out beyond Redmond). Dallas is mostly contrasting. I haven’t taken the DART trains yet, but there seems to be a distinct class separation between those who take the bus and those who don’t. Most of the commuters in buses are obviously poor, and mostly black or Hispanic. Just about any one who has a car drives everywhere. And very few people bike or walk to work, with most streets being quite unsuitable for biking. That is a fairly dramatic change for anyone used to biking everywhere in Seattle (where buses have bike racks for bikers to place their bikes).

The city neighborhoods too are strikingly different. In Seattle, most neighborhoods were pretty uniform (I’m somewhat undecided if it is a good thing or not). There were many middle income neighborhoods (Ballard, Wallingford, Green Lake), a few very expensive neighborhoods (Mercer Island), some neighborhoods with a unique feel or group of people living in it (Fremont), and some poor neighborhoods (a good part of the Central area). The middle income neighborhoods were white (with some Asian populations), the really expensive neighborhoods were white, and the poor neighborhoods were predominantly black. Dallas contrastingly has some really expensive neighborhoods (like Highland Park), which are pretty much white. But most other areas are surprising in their layout and demographic. It is hardly uncommon to see some streets with nice houses, or fairly luxurious apartment complexes, but just two streets away the houses could be a little run down, or trailer houses, and low income apartments. The demographics haven’t changed too much. Poorer neighborhoods seem black or Hispanic, the more affluent neighborhoods white with some Asian (I’m only talking about the city here and not the outer suburbs). But what is different is that at least every one is on the streets “together”. Also, most people know that in the 60s, most middle income Americans (read white) moved to the suburbs, leaving the cities filled with offices, and the poor. The reverse is true today, with people flocking back in to the city, leaving the poor hanging. This is dramatically visible in Dallas, and many neighborhoods are changing rapidly (with new luxury condos, apartments or houses coming up in neighborhoods that just a few years ago were considered undesirable). I have a bad feeling that the poor will have to move out, and given poor public transport and high fuel costs, they’re screwed.

A last dramatic difference between Seattle and Dallas (for now).


Seattle (the country’s favorite granola city) recycles with relish. Trash is neatly segregated by everyone in to plastic cans and bottles, cardboard and paper, glass and aluminum, yard waste (yes) and trash. In Dallas, except in some areas, it remains mostly simple. See trash can. Throw all trash. There are some feeble attempts to recycle in the Medical center, but that seems to be about it. And that is pretty difficult for me to come to terms with.

The city will take some getting used to. But it is quite affordable, (surprisingly) tolerant and liberal, with excellent food choices. There’s something to this city.


Anonymous said...

Does this mean your PhD is done? If so, congratulations!

How is the climate in Dallas? Probably, it does not permit much biking or waiting for buses.

Sunil said...

yes Srikanth...I finished my phd a couple of months ago, and moved here a few weeks back. It is quite a change....and there is little biking to be done here.

Patrix......do write about your study. It will be well worth a read from an expert's point of view.

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