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Every new bcFELLOW arriving at buildingcommunityWORKSHOP receives a small research assignment. It serves partially as an introduction to bcWORKSHOP, and partially as an introduction to the city of Dallas. Most FELLOWs study the development of a single neighborhood, often one with some other link to the work of our office. But instead of studying one neighborhood, my assignment was to study the entire Dallas street grid. Not really a small research assignment. Did I mention I had never even been to Dallas before joining bcWORKSHOP?
Whenever I told anyone I was studying the Dallas street grid I always received the exact same two-word response. “What grid?”, he would reply, half joking, half serious. And it’s true. Dallas does not have the nice clean street layout like Manhattan, or even Washington D.C. (which makes a lot more sense from the air then when you actually have to navigate through it). Heck, even Los Angeles, where I had been living, had nice numbered streets and something resembling order. In Dallas, I have taken the wrong street many times. Or a street has taken a bend and gone a completely different direction than the one I was intending to travel. And I still have not figured out how that Exposition Avenue intersection works, even after this project.
However, it was my job to make sense of this mess. And the truth is, if you break it down and look at the individual pieces, it is really not all that complicated. Every street was laid out by some (reasonably) rational individual, even if that reason is no longer obvious. With a few exceptions, most streets follow one of three grids, each older than the city itself:
- A grid at 45 degrees to the cardinal directions, laid out by a man named Warren Ferris for settler John Grigsby. This covers areas like Old East Dallas, Oak Lawn and South Dallas.
- A grid aligned to the cardinal directions laid out under businessman W.J. Peters for the Peter’s Colony venture, which covers a portion of North Texas about the size of the state of Maryland. This is all the large square sections as you move away from the center of Dallas to the north and into Oak Cliff.
- The grid laid out by John Neely Bryan aligned with the Trinity River. That is the streets like Commerce, Main and Elm, that spread northeast through downtown into Deep Ellum.
Throw in about a dozen railroads, competing real estate interests (a surprising number of which were settled in the Supreme Court of Texas), the Trinity River, and a gaggle of freeways, you end up with the street layout Dallas has today.
The streets of Dallas account for a huge portion of our city, both in terms of the physical land and the way we experience our city. So instead of resigning ourselves to jokingly asking “What grid?”, let’s see if we can gain something by actually discovering what is going on.