Posted by: Harold Knight | 09/26/2010

A Tale of (at least) Two Cities; An Ethnically Diverse Haircut

(Please note: I would be honored if you would also read my other blog posting for today. Thank you.)

(Second note: as of June, 2013, the strip mall where the barbershop was located has been razed to make way for another enormous Dallas apartment complex. That does not, however, change the purpose of this posting.)

tn_poster4brAt the barber shop I patronize, I’m pretty sure from time to time I’m with men and boys who are in this country illegally. I don’t know for certain, but it’s a pretty good guess, I think. In this shop Spanish is the language not of choice but of necessity. I’m always he only person in the room for whom Spanish is not my native language. The shop reminds me of the barber shop where my dad and brother and I had our hair cut back in the ‘50s. The same amount of banter takes place—and, I assume, the same testosterone-induced subjects—that took place in ‘50s barber shops, before Fancy Cuts chain establishments, men and women, everyone looking the same and behaving the same. Except, of course, this banter is in Spanish. I catch perhaps ten percent of the banter and get none of the jokes.

My barber could be from any Spanish-speaking country. Or from the United States. He speaks English with an accent. I think he’s the boss, but in five years I’ve not been able to figure that out.  A bit shorter than I am, he’s something of a bulldog, muscular, swaggering—handsome in a dark and somewhat menacing way. In his 40s, I’d guess. He puts me in mind of an ex-con. Tattoos on both forearms. Something in his manner that, although he is pleasant enough, is a bit unnerving. I know inmates in Texas prisons learn barbering. This is conjecture, of course. You might wonder why I keep going there.

I do so for three reasons. First, it’s the closest one to the apartment building where I live. Second, the charge for the simple kind of haircut I need is far less than at one of those Fancy Cuts shops. And, most important, the barber has a skill few barbers have. He can all but shave my head and not once knick any of the skin barnacles my grandparents’ genes so kindly blessed me with. His skill is like the small-town barber I knew as a kid.

I’m pretty sure I’m the only resident of the apartment building where I live who patronizes that barber shop even though it’s only two blocks away. It’s the sort of place the gay men or the Anglo and Asian medical students  who make up the majority of the residents of the large building are likely to avoid. There is nothing up-scale about it, and this is, after all, Dallas. Besides, who wants to get that close to people who might be undocumented immigrants?

I had my hair cut yesterday after I had my car inspected at the tire shop and garage up the street. It’s not an up-scale business, either. I have the same language difficulty there. But there, too, they remember me because mine is one of the few VW New Beetles they work on. After I had my hair cut, I did some grocery shopping at the Mercado Rio Grande next door to the apartment building. I’m absolutely certain some of the other shoppers are not in this country legally. If you want to know how I know, ask me. My foray into the neighborhood today took me to three Hispanic businesses. I’m neither making value judgment about the businesses nor saying anything about myself except that, when I can, I patronize businesses in my neighborhood—because I’m lazy and don’t want to drive across town when I can take care of not-very-important business near home.

I live in our neighborhood. Our neighborhood has for some years been in decay as it has changed in basic ethnic makeup over and over again.

It’s hard to tell exactly how many different communities of people live in this neighborhood. It is one of those big-city places that has changed in demographics (a noncommittal word for “persons”) several times over the years. Middle class. African American. Gay. Now Hispanic. (1) Waiting for the next big change when the new Parkland Hospital is built across the main street from where I live—to replace the one that was already outmoded when JFK died there—and the gentrification that will take place when property becomes valuable again (upscale new apartment complexes are already replacing small homes and run-down commercial and industrial buildings).

I am fascinated by Dallas as a “[variety] of cities, precisely because there cannot be one, as the city remains a composite of a multiplicity of parts” (2). I assume, although Dallas is the only non-suburban city I’ve ever lived in and know well, that description fits all cities. The politics of the city is made up, I should think, of the interplay between this “multiplicity of parts.”

Aristotle realized and can teach us about the importance of understanding the diversity of the city (he was speaking of the “city-state,” of course, but what he says applies to our cities). He

. . .[puzzled] through a politics that demands both an acknowledgement of the diversity. . . around us and a perception of an insensible unity without which we cannot know or act as political beings. . . He embraces diversity. . . The city is made up of parts, and the one interested in politics must not simply accept those parts; he or she must study, analyze, incorporate those parts. (3)

All of this seems common-enough knowledge. Saxonhouse, in her study of the beginnings of political science, says Aristotle, however, did not rely on knowledge, but “the study of politics becomes, under Aristotle’s guidance, the study of particulars, of what we see with our eyes. He battles the exclusive victory of the mind. . . and he brings back the senses” (4).

I’m sure I am over-simplifying both the Aristotelian complexities (I am certainly no Aristotelian scholar!) and Professor Saxonhouse’s explanation of them. However, it seems to me that we need to return to the “study of particulars.” Cities, I know, reflect the upward mobility of their citizens. As their incomes increase, families relocate to “better” neighborhoods. And in many neighborhoods, there is an underlying fear that the neighborhood will deteriorate with an influx of (usually) one ethnic group or another.

That deterioration has a great deal to do with my singular presence in “my” barber shop. Not only has this part of the city over the decades become largely Hispanic, but it has become physically uncared-for.

Preston Avenue

Preston Avenue

Why this is true, I have no idea. I’m not a politician or an economist. I do know that the sense of the “city beautiful” has been lost. My guess is that it’s the economic conditions, not the demographics of the area that have brought that about. It seems logical to me that

the leisured contemplation of all this civilized and civilizing beauty, a contemplation Aristotle saw as the very purpose of human existence, was largely reserved to a handful of aristocratic families. . . and the splendor of the Parthenon itself, Pericles’ magnificent sacrament of Athenian democracy, was paid for with booty stolen from conquered and impoverished peoples. (5)

Certainly the language barrier is a huge impediment to one “city” in Dallas mixing with another. And the cultural differences should not be minimized. But my guess is the potholes in Maple and Lemmon Avenues (as opposed to the smooth pavement of Preston Avenue), and the run-down appearance of buildings owned by absentee-landlords, and the less-than-ideal trash pick-up have as much to do with my being the only English-speaking patron of “my” barber shop as the barbers’ primary language.
(1) For studies of the way Dallas (and other cities) historically remained segregated into almost inviolable neighborhoods, see the short list below.
(2) Saxonhouse, Arlene W. Fear of Diversity: the Birth of Political Science in Ancient Greek Thought. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press: 1992 (214). [Dr. Saxonhouse is Chair of the Department of Political Science at the University of Michigan.
(3) Saxonhouse 235.
(4) ibid.
(5) McCormick, Patrick T. “A right to beauty: a fair share of milk and honey for the poor.” Theological Studies 71.3 (2010): 702+.

For further reading:

  • Anderson, Michelle Wilde. “Colorblind Segregation: Equal Protection as a Bar to Neighborhood Integration.” California Law Review 92.3 (2004): 843-884.
  • Hacker, Holly K. and Tawnell D. Hobbs. “’Black Flight’ Changing the Makeup of Dallas Schools.” The Dallas Morning News. June 9, 2010. Web. 24 Sept. 2010.
  • Miller, Bennett. “A Slow Walk Through Cedars History.” Cedars Neighborhood Association: Dallas Texas. 07/25/02. Web. 24 Sept. 2010.


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