cultural innovators: Dallas vs. Austin


If you want to survey the experimental margin of our culture, chances are you don’t go to Dallas, Texas. Austin, with its aggressive food and film communities, maybe. But chances are you’ll stay clear of Texas altogether. It’s too large to be subtle, too monolithic to be interesting. I mean this is a place that worships football.

But we are learning that a number of unlikely places can play sunken ship—not the dead space that environments warned us against but a place diverse species congregate and multiply. Dallas might, I think, be one of those places.

My first clue was the galleria attached to my hotel. Extravagantly upscale shops all around and at the center of everything, a skating rink.  Witty!  In a land where summer temperature are measured in three digits, this is what “oasis” looks like. 

My second clue: one of the shops in the Galleria has a shoe store called Gregory’s that has devoted one window to the work of Ed Hardy: conventional baseball caps, heavily customized and each of them apparently unique.  One of them showed a skull and cross bones and the legend: “love kills slowly.”  I’m not sure who would wear this or where.  It’s too expensive and dramatic for private use.  So you wear it publicly—with a spouse? With a friend?  By yourself? It’s a little Darwinian possibly, but could we suppose this hat tells us there must be a time and a place where it can be worn and a group who would appreciate it? 

The third clue was the music in the elevator of my hotel, a Westin. Brazilian and interesting, I think, but out of my range. To be fair, my range is not very broad, but this is the first time the music in a hotel elevator has exceeded it.  (Yeah, I know. It is possible that I have finally achieved a complete cultural senescence.  Not recognizing elevator music, that would have to be the first symptom.) 

The fourth clue: Central Market, a food retail operation so aggressive that it makes Whole Foods and Trader Joes look completely pedestrian.  The place was packed with consumers, with variety (over 20 kinds of salsa), with experiments, free samples, exotics foodstuffs I did not recognize, and brands I have never heard of.  The only thing that was not jammed was the check out line.  What a novel idea. Dallas is a place with lots of experiments in the restaurant and food world.  The local notion is that “if you can make it in Dallas, you can make it anywhere.”

Some sunken ships works best when there is one very large, public, and well defined idea in place. As long as this remains in place, as an apparent consensus, the thing everyone KNOWS about Dallas, then everyone can go off and do whatever the hell they want.  And this might be the strategy by which Dallas makes itself more various and more interesting than a place like Austin with its self conscious feeling for the alternative.

This could be one of those cunning identity plays in which the background and foreground are switched.  (A Canadian example: Quebec claims to be a society with one language and culture, but in fact everyone there is bilingual. In the rest of Canada: a great show is made of being bilingual but in fact most everyone is monolingual.)  In this case: Austin is putatively experimental and ends up being a relatively small universe of well policed options while Dallas claims to be narrow and monolithic when it is in fact free wheeling and multiple.

A last note: I had dinner on Saturday with every thinking person’s notion of a power couple: Virginia and Steve Postrel.  I had just finished 7 hours of interviewing so I was pretty sure that my head was going to explode on several occasions.  But I came away with this conclusion. Every business school has the same problem: how to give the MBA student a cultural literacy and the strategic sophistication needed to act on it. I mean some of these kids are going to have to fight the cola wars, decide how Kroger should fight the Central Market threat, find a way to make design a standard part of the Detroit automotive product, or think about the difference between Dallas and Austin.  The b-school curriculum is way under weight on this one.   One way to solve this problem: hire the Postrels and give them the Coca-Cola, Kroger, General Motors Power Couple Professorship. 

(posted from Atlanta)

5 thoughts on “cultural innovators: Dallas vs. Austin

  1. Pingback: Davos Newbies

  2. John

    It’s nice to hear that someone else finds a glimmer of hope in the city I live in. I’ve been living in Dallas for less than 10 years, but in that time, I think it’s become a much more interesting place.

  3. dilys

    OOOuuuuccchhh! The flagship Central Market is in Austin, and it’s everything you say and more. The skating rink is a Texas cliché. Northcross Mall in NW Austin had one surrounded by boutiques when I moved here in the late 80s.

    From my peripheral knowledge of Texas Ladies, I’d say the Ed Hardy hats would serve on a girlfriends’ outing to the beach or the spa or even to the Galleria, perky/shiny blonde pony tails threaded through the elasticized strap. There’s a glamorous-women’s-uproarous-gathering culture, particularly in Dallas and Houston, for women of a certain age and income. Who are also echt Galleria shoppers. NO “love kills slowly” with your husband — visible affection and spirited deference trumps the ironic, if you’re a Wise Texas Wife.

    Dallas has the big-urban advantages, and the edgier niche cultures, because it’s big-urban and, in pockets, rich. And both Dallas and Houston are, as John notes, becoming more interesting. Official Weird Austin is a big bore, much of the film culture seems to be geared to an ageing dark-and-quirky sensibility. It is possible to live completely free of elevator music here, so I can’t address the Brazilian innovation.

    You’re right on target on one particular. The Krogers (for us, Randalls), the hereditary local garden supply, office supply, never heard of experience marketing. Customer comments or requests are met with
    “We don’t do that;”
    “You want WHAT?”
    or “Really? Next…”

    Don’t know if that’s common in Dallas too.

    /s/ Your mossy local CenTX informant, Dilys

  4. JoeM

    About Quebec and the rest of Canada and their respective bilingualisms: It’s certainly not true that everyone in Quebec is bilingual but it is true that more people there (by percentage) are bilingual than in the rest of Canada (where bilingual usually means English and another language other than French and the only English/French bilinguals are French-Canadian emigrés).

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