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How the Arts Are Transforming Dallas

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Photo: Martha Camarillo

That encounter proved to be a good introduction to an afternoon with now-ex Dallas mayor Laura Miller; before, by some miracle, winning the 2002 election as a Democrat in a longtime Republican stronghold, she had worked as a tough investigative columnist for the free alternative weekly Dallas Observer. As mayor, she was a polarizing force, always up for a good scrap in the contact sport of local politics, sparring with the media—which quickly descended on one of their own—as well as with the good-ol'-boy network in Dallas. "It was always the same six rich guys getting around me," she says. "Some women at City Hall actually kissed them when they walked in." She decided not to run for a third term—making way for the election of Tom Leppert, a Republican and the former chairman and CEO of the Turner Corporation, one of the largest construction companies in the world. Miller left office last summer with an idea for a juicy novel about her tenure.

Miller's custom tour begins, as everything seems to in Dallas, at fashion Lourdes, the original Neiman Marcus on Main Street. (Miller is a product of old and new Dallas: her father, Philip Miller, left Lord & Taylor in New York to become the president of Neiman Marcus in the late 1970's.) In the store's Zodiac Room—famously presided over in the 50's and 60's by the imposing Miss Helen Corbitt, Texas's first authoritative chef and cookbook author—the ladies who lunch still savor complimentary popovers with strawberry butter. And cocktails are still served on the ground floor, near the Epicure department. "Honey, this is Neiman's," the woman behind the counter says, "of course we've got liquor. We've got everything."

The invincibly charming store launched a corporate behemoth now controlled by the privately held Texas Pacific Group and Warburg Pincus LLC. But Neiman's opulent early history and the lifelong influence on the city of the late Stanley Marcus—an unofficial mayor who died in 2002 at the age of 97, long after pioneering integrated sales staffs, fighting the John Birch Society over John F. Kennedy's fateful visit, and teaching Hubert de Givenchy to square-dance—are indivisible from the story of Dallas.

In a way, Dallas was founded on retail, when John Neely Bryan imagined a trading post on the Trinity River in 1839 and returned two years later to map out a town. Over the ensuing decades, Dallas rode successive waves of money, much of it made after the 1930 discovery of the East Texas Oilfield, then the biggest on earth. Its wealth and central location made the city a capital of banking, insurance, and regional trade. (The cattle business always belonged to Fort Worth, despite the herd of 40 full-size brass longhorn steers and cowboys on Dallas's Pioneer Plaza—the city's nod to Tourists-'R'-Us Texas.)

A century after Neiman's pioneered Main Street, the thoroughfare and a few surrounding blocks have become the Main Street Initiative, a public and private development. It's an effort in sync with the American mantra of revitalized urban cores lousy with loft lifestyles and free-spending youth. Down the block is a new Adam D. Tihany–designed boutique hotel, Elan, and some beautiful old office buildings ripe for fresh ideas, such as the apartment building DP&L Flats, housed in the august 1932 headquarters of Dallas Power & Light, also home to Fuse Restaurant & Lounge. Miller envisions a downtown for people who, as she puts it, "don't like Dallas," referring to the kind of city where 1.2 million people are sprawled out over some 343 square miles.

Dallas does have the unfortunate American knack for creating an absence of place, a blur of strip malls and freeways that could exist anywhere. But it also has true neighborhood gems. Miller's driver takes us to the Bishop Arts District, a quaint little village that includes assorted antiques shops and the down-home-clever restaurant Hattie's, then over to the Oak Cliff neighborhoods of Kessler Park and Winnetka Heights—20 square blocks of Craftsman-style bungalows. The Bishop was restored in part by gay entrepreneurs; Dallas has the country's sixth-largest population of same-sex couples. The next evening, at the beyond-glitzy Black Tie Dinner in the Adam's Mark Hotel downtown—an annual gala that raises millions for gay and lesbian support organizations—I was greeted by a hearty round of applause. Miller was on stage with Geena Davis and Alan Cumming in a showbiz moment, rhapsodizing about taking me to the Bishop and the Black Tie Dinner, and showing me the real Dallas.

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