“Where is the Final Four?” sounds like a headline handcrafted for SEO. It’s actually a question that’s been haunting the NCAA tournament all weekend. In a break during Saturday night’s Wisconsin-Kentucky game, Common stood at half court of AT&T Stadium and yelled, “Where you at, North Texas?” The big sign posted outside contained the same vague term. North Texas?
North Texas is the Sun Belt’s answer to New York City’s tri-state area, a nonplace referred to by weather forecasters and auto salesmen (“your North Texas Chevy dealers”). The real site of the Final Four is Arlington, a little big city, as one resident called it, of 375,000. Arlington is worth studying. It’s the new sports capital of America.
Somehow it was decided — without any of us fans getting a vote — that just about every big game would happen in Arlington. In the last five years, Arlington has hosted a Super Bowl, a Final Four, two World Series, an NBA All-Star Game, every Dallas Cowboys home game, two Manny Pacquiao fights, the Cotton Bowl, some big “neutral site” college football games, and the Texas high school football state championships. The first college football playoff championship game will be played here next year.
Yet no one raised outside “North Texas” knows much of Arlington — nor do they seem eager to find out. The NCAA’s parties during March Madness took place 20 miles east of Arlington, in Dallas. ESPN built its open-air set in Fort Worth, 15 miles west. These slights activated Arlington’s inferiority complex, as if the city were a puny referee throwing a tipoff between two all-conference centers. A former Arlington mayor once declared, “We’re nobody’s damn suburb.”
“Arlington’s always had an identity crisis,” said Allan Saxe, a UT Arlington political science professor. “It has been on the psychiatrist’s couch for 100 years. You know what they say when you go to a psychiatrist: ‘Find out who you are.’”
All right, doc: What is Arlington?
I put the question to Vinnie Paul Abbott — Arlington resident, strip club magnate, and founding member of the metal band Pantera. How would you describe Arlington?
“Very convenient,” Abbott said.
That’s an unintentional echo of the answer once offered by Arlington’s legendary mayor from 1951 to 1977, Tom Vandergriff: “We think of ourselves as the dash between Dallas–Fort Worth.”
Arlington was bound to grow because of its location. But its place at the center of the sports universe came thanks to an inexplicable faith in its own destiny — a belief that Arlington wouldn’t just be a nice place to put stadiums but a nice place in and of itself. In 1950, Arlington was a town of 7,600 people. It had a lot of car lots. You could get a car for a few hundred bucks cheaper than in the big cities, the ads boasted.
Vandergriff was the son of a Chevy dealer. He was small, with slicked-back hair and a soothing baritone. (He had once tried out to be a sports broadcaster.) Vandergriff heard that General Motors was looking to build an assembly plant in the area. So he got himself elected mayor, went to Detroit, and wooed GM “on bended knee,” he said later. It would become Arlington’s signature pose, at least when it came to moneyed out-of-towners.
Last week, I hopped in a truck with two locals to take a look at the GM plant. There was Saxe, the political science professor and also a noted mensch — you can find the Allan Saxe Parking Lot at a local Catholic church, complete with a rendering of Saxe with a halo and wings. And along with him was Charlie Parker, an Arlington city councilman. His district contains AT&T Stadium, Globe Life Park, and Six Flags Over Texas.
We drove under the tracks of the Judge Roy Scream roller coaster. “I think of this as downtown Arlington,” said Parker, gesturing at the tourist magnets around us.
The GM plant is a long, low-slung building that sits about half a mile from AT&T Stadium. It began producing cars in 1954. Six decades later, it is still turning out Tahoes and Suburbans. Whenever GM made noise about closing the factory, Arlington’s knees bent. The plant stayed open.
Snaring GM gave Vandergriff’s confidence a boost. In the 1950s, he and a local developer named Angus Wynne decided Arlington would be the perfect spot for a Disney park. Walt Disney responded with the obvious question: Why? So with Vandergriff’s support, Wynne built Six Flags Over Texas — the first Six Flags amusement park.
“Angus Wynne,” Saxe said. “I love that name. I want that name! ‘Angus Saxe.’ They’ll respect me more.”
By 1971, Vandergriff was really feeling his oats. He started wooing MLB’s Washington Senators. President Nixon fought the move. But Texas banks gave loans to the cash-strapped Senators owner, and Arlington’s citizenry, in the first of many sports-related votes, passed $10 million in tax bonds. The newly christened Rangers played their inaugural season in Arlington in front of just 8,600 fans per game.
It might have been easy for Arlington to go the way of, say, Irving — a suburb that lost the Cowboys when the next suitor came along. But when the Rangers began making noise about a new stadium, in 1990, Arlington was back on bended knee. The City Council approved a half-cent sales tax hike and put it before residents in a special election. It passed 65-35. “More people voted in that special election than voted in the Democratic and Republican primaries combined,” said Tom Schieffer, who later became president of the Rangers.
Globe Life Park — as it’s been known since February — has the red brick and cattle-horn accents of a New West McMansion. If the park’s retro interior is a symptom of Camden Yards chic, it still looks good 20 years after its construction. “It had a tremendous psychological impact on the club itself, but also on the city,” Schieffer said. “When you walked in there, you said, ‘Now that is the way it is in the major leagues.’” By 1990, Arlington’s population had grown to more than 260,000.
That might have been the end of Arlington’s dazzling run if not for Jerry Jones. In 2004, when Jones was planning to leave Irving’s Texas Stadium and he began shopping around for new locations, the city of Dallas balked at providing more than $400 million in public funding for a new Cowboys stadium. Other nearby suburbs had already spent sales-tax increases trying to fight crime, or on other matters. Arlington still had its money. The irony of Arlington is that its generosity with sports owners doesn’t always extend to its own citizens. Until recently, Arlington was the largest city in America without public transportation. It has now installed a small bus system.
For the Cowboys, another half-cent sales tax hike — to raise $325 million for the new arena — was put on the ballot. Jones described the election as if he were running for office. The tax passed again. As we drove around AT&T Stadium, Parker noted that the only downside was the corporate lettering, which had been stuck on the roof for the inevitable blimp shot.
Vandergriff’s giddiest dreams had been realized. Arlington was no longer just a dash between Dallas–Fort Worth. It was Anaheim East. And this only made Arlington’s search for an identity more acute. “You know those T-shirts Austin has — ‘Keep Austin Weird’?” Saxe said. “I think we need T-shirts to hand out at the Final Four that say ‘Make Arlington Weird.’”
Indeed, after AT&T Stadium opened, the city began to chase off what it calls the SOBs — the sexually oriented businesses, also known as strip clubs. Local politicians deny a link between the events — their interest in cleaning up the city was purely a coincidence, they say.
During the closings, one strip club owner felt overcome by Arlington’s sense of possibility. The feeling that anything could happen if he just put his mind to it. You know what the strip club owner did? He put out a hit on the mayor.
What is Arlington? I asked Bill and Jamie Beatty.
“It’s a beautiful town,” Bill said. “Everybody we’ve met and talked to has been so nice.”
“We wore our shirts everywhere and people asked, ‘Are you from Kentucky?’” Jamie said. “Almost like we were cool because we were from Kentucky. We wanted to be like, ‘No, you’re cool.’”
After Aaron Harrison buried his 3-pointer on Saturday night, the Beattys had flown to Arlington for the championship game.
“I’m a Cowboys fan, and she’s a Kentucky fan,” Bill said.
“It was win-win for us,” Jamie said.
They were agog at the sight of AT&T Stadium. “I thought, Man, TV does not do this place justice,” Bill said.
“I got a bigger kick out of the Walmart across the street,” Jamie said. “It’s not the place you would expect to see a Walmart.”
The Beattys were ideal Arlington tourists. They were ready and willing to spend. The problem was, they were leaving Tuesday after the game. Arlingtonites have found that their city’s shelf life is even shorter than that of Las Vegas.
Politicians like Charlie Parker would prefer to keep tourists here. Send ’em to the International Bowling Museum or have ’em try Babe’s chicken downtown. But Arlington lacks a big, luxurious resort hotel that could glue tourists into place. So tourists like the Beattys will come to a game, have a great time, then leave. When they walk out of AT&T Stadium, they will hear a recorded message on a loudspeaker that says, “Thank you for attending the 2014 Final Four in North Texas! Please travel home safely!”
You get a sense that everyone in Arlington, resident and visitor alike, is going somewhere else. One afternoon, I met O.K. Carter at a restaurant called J. Gilligan’s, which sits in the shadow of AT&T Stadium. An architect once assured citizens that the stadium wouldn’t intrude on Arlington’s “skyline.” Carter, who was publisher of the Arlington Star-Telegram at the time, had a nice laugh about that. AT&T Stadium is to Arlington what Vesuvius was to Pompeii. With its bulging retractable roof, it looks like a Band-Aid that has been placed on top of a blister.
Arlingtonites, Carter explained, are always leaving. Every morning, 120,000 residents leave town. They go to Fort Worth or Dallas or points in between for work. At the same time, another 90,000 people come in to Arlington. They work at the stadiums or Six Flags or the businesses that have nested in office parks close to them, like the headquarters of American Mensa.
“It’s like a human tidal population,” Carter said. And the tide doesn’t just roll in and out daily. Every four or five years, 100,000 residents move out of Arlington. Arlington has a reputation as a great “starter” city, a place where you can buy your first house for about $200,000. But you may not buy your second house there. Arlingtonites like to note that many Cowboys and Rangers who play there live elsewhere. “If you make a lot of money, you move to Colleyville,” Carter said. “You don’t make a lot of money, you move to Haltom City.”
Yet as those 100,000 residents move out of Arlington, another human tide — greater than that of the people leaving — move in.
The city lacked a sense of permanence. After leaving Carter, I climbed into a Jeep with Bob Kembel, a real estate developer who was trying to fix the problem. Kembel is a bluff, handsome guy who looks like Dirk Benedict. He drove me through his new development, 1,800 acres of oak and willow trees about two miles from the stadium. “Homes in Arlington go for about $85 a square foot,” Kembel said. “We’re $120 out here and we’re killin’ it.”
When Kembel’s partners bought the land, they found the City Council willing to forge a public-private partnership. (It wasn’t quite bended knee, but it was very cordial.) Kembel’s partners named their tract Viridian, a shade of green. We drove through streets with names like Ivy Charm and Rose Spirit and Plum Vista. How did you come up with these names? I asked.
“We took names that were green names … put ’em in a bag, and stuck ’em together,” Kembel said. “We wound up with one called Possum Fire. It actually got put up there. My wife came and said, ‘Nobody wants to live on Possum Fire.’ So Possum Fire is now Autumn Mist.”
One home at Viridian had already been sold as a “sports house.” A man arrived in a private plane for Cowboys games and used it as a crash pad. That the man left as fast as the Final Four visitors was bound to feed Arlington’s neurosis. But Kembel also planned to have seven-figure homes that would sit on an island in the middle of Viridian. We drove to a lookout point where we could see the spot.
“There’s these pergolas here,” Kembel said, conjuring the future. “You got these pergolas and lawn chairs and you sit here and look out over the lake. Look, there’s a blue heron!” A heron strutted through an unfilled lake bed. “That’s real common. And there’s a white egret! A white egret is walking around by the blue heron.”
“These are going to be the finest custom homes that have ever been built in the D-FW area” — I noticed he didn’t say Arlington. “Where are you going to find an island in the middle of a lake?”
It’s kind of the place, I said, a Cowboy or Ranger would happily live.
“Happily,” Kembel said.
On Monday morning, after the first two games of the Final Four, I got up early, when Arlington’s tidal human population was beginning to ebb outward. I walked toward Interstate 30, one of the two mega-highways that run on parallel paths through Arlington. Spiritually, Interstates 30 and 20 are Arlington’s main streets.
I’d been told that the perfect way to appreciate Arlington’s ebb and flow was from atop an overpass. I climbed a wet embankment and hopped over a guardrail. There was no sidewalk, but I took a spot at the edge of the overpass and looked west, toward Fort Worth. I could see AT&T Stadium and the Six Flags roller coasters in the distance. But what caught my eye were the cars traveling toward me: three lanes’ worth of headlights traveling at crazy speeds. I crossed to the other side and looked toward Dallas. Three more lanes’ worth of headlights barreled toward me. I felt like I’d been sucked into the 2001: A Space Odyssey light tunnel.
Pretty soon, I could feel the speed behind me, the whole overpass shaking as cars and trucks and SUVs raced toward the on-ramps so they could get out of town, too.
That is Arlington’s anxiety: that for all its success and its great stadiums, it had become a way station of the sports world, the Casablanca of “North Texas.” Arlington was easy to love and it was easy to leave.
“Every morning and evening I cross both of those highways,” Saxe said. “I can look east and west and it’s just a sea of lights. Just a sea of lights. It’s amazing! It’s a Los Angeles image. Car after car, thousands of cars. They’re not staying in Arlington necessarily, they’re just going through.”