Hill, Patricia Everidge. Dallas: The Making of a Modern City. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1996.
In, Dallas: The Making of a Modern City, Dr. Patricia Hill challenges a long standing myth in Dallas that big business had always held undisputed sway in urban development. Accordingly, Hill argues in contrast to the popular myth that during the Gilded Age and Progressive Era, cooperation and competition characterized the politics of urban development, not control and promotion as it had after 1920s. Prior to World War I, a diverse coalition of “city builders” cooperated and worked towards a common goal favoring growth (xiii-xiv). But significantly, this general consensus contained a dialogue of competing interests, short-term coalitions, and contrasting strategies for urban development. The result between 1880 and 1920, was a coalition of clubwomen, populists, socialists, trade unionists, and municipal reformers into what Hill terms a “commercial-civic elite.” This elite social group was able to direct city building by framing growth and urban development in the shared political language of “producers,” including all the inherent racism (xiv).
After World War I however, and particularly after the formation of the Dallas Citizens Council in 1937, private cooperation and public debate between the commercial-civic elite was replaced by private debate and public unity. The rise of a “new generation” of business leaders convinced that the “unruly nature” of urban politics was hindering growth, led to a very different group of commercial-civic elite. This new coalition, embodied by the Dallas Citizens Council, relied on civic boosterism, the control of the media, and the mythology of the frontier capitalism to “isolate and marginalize those who challenged its hegemony” (xiv) It is this strategy of control and promotion emerging in the inter-war years and after World War II, that reveals the historical legacy and myth of big business in Dallas of the late 20th century.
Hill’s work provides first, an efficient framework for investigating the political and social dynamics of urban development, but also how to structure an argument against scant historiography. Tthe fact that few scholarly histories had been written on Dallas before the World War II, forced Hill into a dialogue with myths rather than historians. As Hill describes in the introduction, Dallas, or “Big D,” had little historical civic memory of a time before the business of Dallas was business (xiii). Besides being a symbol representation of urban politics at the time, the city’s origin myths that emerged in Dallas after the 1940s became an important component of both Hill’s methodology and narrative, posturing her work towards the deconstruction of these myths and interpret their survival.
While successfully demonstrating that the origin myth was just that – a myth – Hill also demonstrates an import elaboration of the term “commercial-civic elite” first coined by David Goldfield in, Cotton Fields and Skyscrapers: Southern City and Region. By demonstrating the continued utility of the term, particularly its ability to offer a narrative construction of any socially powerful group, Hill strengthens its legitimacy as a descriptive device.