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New Urbanism with a Texas Twang

Wednesday October 27: I arrive in Fort Worth grateful, after a careening 80-mph cab ride from the DFW airport. My hotel is on Main, a handsome red brick street with brick sidewalks. There are two startlingly ugly glass towers looming over the downtown, with inexplicable protrusions that make them look like cigarette lighters. These and a plethora of brutalist parking garages mar an otherwise charming human-scaled downtown, which has been largely restored and reinvented by the billionaire Bass brothers and architect David Schwarz over the past two decades. The 16-square-block area is known as Sundance Square and resembles Fort Worth's 19th-century Hell's Half Acre mostly in its quantity of watering holes.

At a lecture on urban design in Schwarz's beautiful Bass Performance Hall, a visiting new urbanist town planner announces to the crowd: "What you've done here in Fort Worth is the BARE MINIMUM."

Later I go alone to the Chisholm Club bar to watch the Red Sox win their first World Series since 1918. Everyone who drifts by is a Sox fan. The maitre d' sees my Kerry/Edwards campaign button and calls security over to have me removed from the state of Texas. We razz each other for awhile and have a great time.

I go looking for a drugstore but cannot find one. Everyone says, "The Eckerd's has closed; try the gift shop at the Worthington Hotel." This minuscule shop is hidden away inside on the mezzanine, but it does have what I seek: Post-it Notes. The NU planner's point was made, however; no Main Street downtown is complete without a drugstore, hardware store and shoe repair shop.

After dinner at the Chop House, a fine and beefy dark-paneled restaurant on Main, our group walks back to the hotel under a row of small live oaks. There is a constant chirping all around. We do not see a single bird, and the sound is so pervasive we decide it's a recording, an artist's installation to accompany the garlands of little white lights among the branches.

On my pre-dawn run through downtown, finally I see the birds. They are invisible in the trees, but as they fly off I see black wings against black sky -- hundreds of grackles. A local resident tells me later that live oaks are notorious for attracting grackles when other cities' deciduous trees lose their leaves. People seem to like the atmospheric chirping, but they do not like the residue on their windshields -- an unpleasant side effect of nature in urbanism.

During the day, the Main Street area is curiously devoid of traffic either vehicular or pedestrian. However, it comes to life on weekend evenings, and this one is no exception. It seems safe and happy. A resident tells me, "Parents drive in and drop their teenage daughters off downtown for the evening, without giving it a thought." All day we have seen police officers, mostly on bikes, in numbers out of proportion to the sparse street life. Now at night they make sense, as young people fill the sidewalks and cafes. A country rock band pounds at an outdoor patio until after midnight; I can hear it through the heavy window of my 12th floor hotel room.

Shops are open late, so I wander into a few of them. My favorite is Leddy's Ranch ("Outfitting Texans Since 1922"), an upscale establishment with a stunning collection of snap shirts and wildly embroidered cowboy boots. In a jewelry store I meet Yvonne, who shows me earrings. She seems very interested in the new urbanist workshop I am attending in Fort Worth, though she's never heard of the movement. I mention the awful parking garages and ask if there's really a parking problem when downtown seems deserted during the day. She says there is a problem because all the meters have one hour limits. We discuss the need for liner stores on the garages and infill on the surface lots.

A young couple comes through the open door and interrupts us. The guy says, "Hey, can you tell us where to get a good salad?" I tell him the food at Zoe's is good and that I enjoyed my salad. He looks at me with suspicion. "But are they FAMOUS for their salads?" he demands. After they leave Yvonne complains, "I hate it when people do that, just come in when you're with a customer and ask a dumb question about going somewhere else."

About 50 of us from the workshop board a bus to tour some TNDs and new downtowns in the outskirts of the Dallas-Fort Worth area. The bus takes us past endless miles of strip mall/big box horrors. There's another Home Depot every time I look out the window. I try not to look.

We see some interesting new urbanism at various communities including Home Town at North Richland Hills, Legacy Town Center, Addison Circle and a TOD in Plano. I am particularly taken with the high quality of the new traditional architecture in Southlake Town Center, which was conceived as the Central Business District for Northeast Tarrant County. It resembles a traditional main street more than an outdoor mall, though in its retail mix it tends to the latter function. The town square seems too big for intimate connections; it splits the shopping district in half. On the other hand, it draws large crowds for fireworks and other community events, bringing the sprawling county together at least for an evening.

I find out later Southlake is another David Schwarz project. His are comfortable places. Someone on our tour comments, "You know you have a traffic-calmed street when visitors are unconcerned about walking down the middle of it." According to a report in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, local modernist architects hate the "pastiche" traditional sensibility of some of Schwarz's buildings. All I know is, I would visit downtown Fort Worth again. It's a nice place for a walk, a meal and a conversation.

Practical Tips for Point-and-Shooters: Night Lights

For night street photography like the picture of Fort Worth, take one shot with the flash and one without. Without the flash, hold the camera very steady. Because of the slower shutter speed, you'll get blurred people and cars; the cars may even disappear. (Often that's a good thing.) With the flash, the foreground will be illuminated and motion frozen, but the ambient lights, like the ones around the building edge in the Fort Worth picture, may fade away, and the background may go dark. Hedge your bets and shoot both ways. The picture of Fort Worth was taken with a flash.