October 19, 2012 7:16 pm

Lost in space in the suburbs

In Dallas, I wonder whether an urban planner would launch a rehabilitation plan and encourage more mixed developments

You’ll never guess where I’ve landed this week. Here are a few hints. This city is headquarters for one of the US’s biggest mobile and fixed phone service providers. It is sprawling, flat and has had its own TV show. In fact, the TV show was so successful that it has now been remade. Have you guessed yet?

OK, here are a few more clues. The men wear massive, ornate buckles on their trousers and don’t mind a bit of a stacked heel to go with their business attire. Women smoke big, fat cigars. It’s home to department store Neiman Marcus but, judging by some of the get-ups I saw, you’d never know it.

Still nothing?

Think cowboys, think JR, think twin city, rhymes with palace. Yes, dear reader, I’m in Dallas.

After Munich, a swing through Hong Kong and a weekend in Chicago, Dallas has been a bit of a jolt. I touched down on Tuesday afternoon on one of American Airlines’ newer, though not necessarily better, 737s. While it did have WiFi and didn’t have rows of seats that unfastened themselves in-flight, it was still a wholly charmless experience involving dreadful business class seats that no longer recline but just slide your bum along the cushion, a meal involving prawns and hot cheese grits, and ratty blankets and pillows.

Off the aircraft and down the concourse at the airport, I was met by a friendly driver, and a few minutes later we were driving along the freeway and heading towards the hotel. As it was just coming up to rush hour, I asked if we would just miss the traffic. The driver assured me it never got much worse than what we were cruising through at that moment. As we turned off the freeway and entered a business park meets golf community, I started to notice a lot of vacancy signs and shuttered businesses – a smart-looking gas station here, a whole mini headquarters there. From small strip malls to large warehouses, it seemed there was plenty of available space on offer if I ever wanted to set up base in the US southwest.

As I took in the sights and I tried to imagine life in this particular suburb, we pulled up at the hotel and I was greeted by a small platoon of bellboys in tropical colonial dress. They took my bags and disappeared with them before I could collect my passport and wallet.

At the front desk, I was given the usual spiel about the upgrade to a better room and the amenities on offer. Card key in hand, I made my way to the room and, as I wandered down the hall, I was hit by that strange stale smell unique to the US hospitality industry. Hoping that the odour was only drifting through the corridors, I was almost knocked over by the smell inside the room.

Is it that most US hotels of a certain vintage (1970s and 1980s) all installed the same cooling systems and used the same building materials? Is it the cheap furniture that emits some kind of toxic gas? Is it the mattresses? As this particular hostel bills itself as one of the city’s better hotels and is part of a respected global chain, I was surprised. I threw open the doors to the balcony in the hope that the heavy combo of unchanged air filters/tobacco/various masking agents/soiled linen/night sweats would go away. Ten minutes later, I was back in the corridor with my bags, retracing my steps all the way back to the car. The staff looked somewhat puzzled at the front desk as I returned my key and collected some packages.

“Oh dear. Is anything wrong sir?” asked a young lady behind the desk. For a moment I was going to tell her all about the odd smell that is a defining feature of most US hotels but I knew there was absolutely nothing she could do about it and her message would be completely lost once it reached corporate HQ. “I’m fine,” I said. “Just a small change of plan.”

Back in the car, the driver was also slightly puzzled by the return of my luggage. I explained there had been a logistical mix-up as I didn’t want to get into the whole story about where I think the US service industry has taken some wrong turns.

As we rolled towards the city centre, passing more abandoned strip malls and boarded-up office blocks, I tried to think about how an urban planner might pull all of these disconnected parts together. Would you knock them all down and start again? Would you launch a massive rehabilitation programme and encourage more mixed developments rather than single use? Would you ever be able to sell density to Americans, let alone Texans? Fifteen minutes later we arrived at Highland Park Village, perhaps one of America’s only historically listed suburban shopping strips. It was teeming with life and activity. Why? Because it was intimate, green, dense and had all the trappings of community comfortably squished together.

As I watched the presidential debate some hours later, I thought a candidate with a plan for the revitalisation of American cities would have been on to a winner.

Tyler Brûlé is editor-in-chief of Monocle magazine

tyler.brule@ft.com

More columns at www.ft.com/brule

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