This week I am in Dallas, or Plano, one of the Northern Suburbs to be exact. I doubt you have heard of it, but you probably have heard of its most famous son – Lance “I am not a cheat” Armstrong.
Plano is an odd sort of place. For most Irish people their knowledge of the US comes from the Eastern and Western coastal states, and the big cities like Chicago, which have a strong history of Irish connections. These are the older, urban, liberal parts of the country. I think to really get to know the US you also need to spend time in the centre, and in the suburbs, in places like Plano.
It is very different. I seriously doubt you would overhear department store workers in Boston happily admitting to voting for George W Bush (the younger one). And getting from DFW airport up to Plano means spending time on “President George Bush Turnpike” (the older one).*
To be fair Plano is not the most typical of urban areas. It is home to a large number of big corporate offices (like ours) and is pretty affluent. But it is an example of suburban America that has seen huge growth in recent history.
A land of squares
Plano, as the imaginative name says, is pretty flat and featureless. On Google maps you can see how it has been subdivided into a chess board of squares, and each developed according to the sort of simple plan you would get in Sim City – this square is residential, this is retail, this is light commercial.
There is some public transport, but this is where everyone, even the poor, needs a car to get around – as I discovered last year when I found myself here for 10 days with no drivers licence, and so no rental car. There are some paths, but pedestrian crossings are rare, and people look at you like you have two heads when you walk. Each road junction has a strip mall, and if you are going to go the 100m across to a shop on the other side you pretty much have to drive. I could comment on how the shops keep repeating every few miles as you drive along, but then the same is true of most of Europe these days as well – where doesn’t have H&M, Zara, Spar, Lidl, etc?
A strip mall at every intersection
Culture is a little bit lacking. A check on Trip Advisor lists things to do in Plano. The top 15 include 2 shopping centres, 3 churches, a cinema, and one listing each for “Bars and Clubs” and “Game and Entertainment” centres.
The top of the list is the Arbour Hills Nature Preserve. As I am trying to get back into hiking I got excited by this one. And apparently it has trails. Some of these are almost 4km long. Which, when I checked, is actually pretty good for the greater Dallas area. It’s somewhat different to Stockholm where multi-day walking trails wind through the forested parts of suburbs before heading off into the country side.
It is flat, far from the sea, has no culture, and is easy to mock for being soulless. So why do people flock to live here? Because they like it. There are jobs. Housing is cheap. It is relatively safe (you rarely see the police, and for all the eye rolling we do about US/Texan gun culture, I have never seen one outside of a “sports” shop). I have friends from outside the US who have moved here, and they were pretty happy with things. They get to lead comfortable lives, they can raise their children easily enough and they don’t have to worry about many of the stresses that you can have elsewhere. Part of the reason for that is because things are a bit boring. But there are stages in life, like when you have small kids, when boring actually is fine.
Would I move here myself? God no! I can see myself putting on 10kg in a few months quite easily. The car culture, the heat, and just the totally different mind set of the people would grate on me. But mostly I would go mad not having mountains or the sea the escape to.
Which is why I am off now to REI. And as well as window shopping for gear, I will be asking the locals “how far do you have to go to get to some decent hiking trails here”. I won’t be moving to Plano, but I do find myself here at weekends from occasionally. And driving around the strip malls is not the way I want to spend my time!
* For US readers this is doubly amusing to Irish people as there you can’t name public infrastructure after living people. I think the rules do say they have to be dead at least 20 years.