I subscribe to Jeff Wood’s must read Overhead Wire daily newsletter. Today I clicked on a link that looked interesting called “Making Dallas a Desirable Place to Live.” Looking at the byline, I was not surprised to see that it was written by Patrick Kennedy, who seems to write every other piece I come across on Dallas.
Kennedy is a fascinating fellow whom I met once a few years back. This blog post isn’t really a profile of him but rather a sketch of why I think he’s someone who ought to have a proper analysis done.
Kennedy is a classic carpetbagger. While he doesn’t use the term, he all but cops to the charge. In this 2015 local profile of him says:
When Kennedy finished school, he had to decide where to ply his craft. Many of his friends went to the “design capitals,” cities like Chicago, Seattle, D.C., and San Francisco, places noted for their vibrant street life and communities of designers and architects. But Kennedy wanted something else. Having seen how Lockwood had transformed places like Chattanooga and West Palm Beach, Florida, Kennedy wanted a place where he could make a big impact. He had two requirements for a city: it had to be warm, and it had to be car-centric.
“I wanted to go to the most sprawling place I could find,” he says. “Where is better than Dallas?” In 2002, Kennedy moved to the city without ever having visited it.
Patrick Kennedy moved to Dallas specifically because a) he was looking for an opportunity to be an agent of civic change and b) Dallas was everything he didn’t like.
What’s unusual is that a guy who moved to Dallas specifically because he didn’t like it managed to become extremely influential. I’m not sure I can point to exactly what policies he has influenced, but his mindshare there is very high. I had dinner with a local bigshot a while back and he was telling me things Dallas needed to do, all of which came from Patrick Kennedy. Many of the local elite are now singing from his hymnal.
Kennedy has managed to pull off a remarkable feat: he appears to be totally contemptuous of everything about Dallas while simultaneously coming across as a city booster straight from a Chamber of Commerce brochure.
I can’t help but contrast his getting traction in Dallas with the failure of any equivalent urbanist activists in Rust Belt cities. For example, Randy Simes of the now largely quiescent Urban Cincy web site is a Cincinnati native, but otherwise has some similarities to Kennedy. He’s an urban planner who has worked on elite projects at elite firms. He’s a relentless booster of Cincinnati. He wants to move it in a more progressive urbanist direction. If anything, he’s far more positive than Kennedy. He rarely directly criticized the city, and the web site founded was very positive. He’s also more realistic and less idealistic than Kennedy. Yet Simes never had the impact on the civic leadership that Kennedy did.
On the one hand, this probably says something about the cultural difference between the Midwest and Texas. The Sunbelt boomtowns have embraced newcomers and new ideas with open arms. The Midwest not so much. For example, there’s a classic book about Chicago politics called We Don’t Want Nobody Nobody Sent, which basically sums the place up.
But it would be worth doing a case study on Kennedy to see what could be learned from him that others might be able to try in other cities. A few things I note from afar are:
- He had no personal connection to Dallas and hence could see it as his project, without the emotional complications that come from trying to make an impact in your hometown. This also had the added benefit of his not being burdened by existing social ties or an existing slot in a social hierarchy, similar to a consultant.
- He’s benefitted enormously from the megaphone of D Magazine.
- He went “all in” on Dallas and by all accounts has skin the game for his preferred lifestyle (e.g., he doesn’t own a car).
- He figured out that unpleasant truth is acceptable if used in the service of orthodox urbanists ends. For example, Wendell Cox often points out the weakness of downtown job markets and population dynamics of most cities outside of a small handful. He’s roundly despised and dismissed for this. But Kennedy has used pretty much the same findings as an argument in favor of traditional urbanist policies, whereas most urbanist advocates tend to be overly pollyannish (e.g., bragging about the large number of apartments under construction downtown). Uptown Dallas has tons of new skyscrapers in it, but Kennedy says it’s not nearly enough. If anything, he overstates the negatives. For example, that piece about making Dallas a desirable place to live is ridiculous. The city of Dallas has over 1.3 million people – an all time population high. It has grown its population every single decade since 1860, yes 1860. Dallas is a very desirable place to live; Kennedy is projecting here.
- While he’s not necessarily hostile to Dallas a region, he focuses primarily on the city, and has been able to leverage the fact that the city political and business structure has interests that diverge from the region as a whole. (Most Midwest boosters heavily tout metropolitan statistics, which I don’t see Kennedy do nearly as much).
I should point out that my recent paper on ten infrastructure projects we should build included the I-345 teardown, which is one of Kennedy’s initiatives.
My impression is that Kennedy has been unusually effective in changing the urbanist conversation within the power structures of Dallas. This makes him worthy of a detailed case study or Dewar’s Profile to identify characteristics and strategies that could be tried elsewhere. As with everything, a good chunk of his success may well be random, but there’s no harm in trying to see if there are things that might be reproducible.