As Plano Goes...
...so goes the nation? Commentators around the country have been debating that for months. If only they understood what the booming Dallas suburb is really like.
By Virginia Postrel
Texas Monthly, December 2006
LAST DECEMBER, AS PUNDITS turned Brokeback Mountain into the culture wars’ latest ammunition depot (It’s an attack on marriage! It’s a landmark event! It’s just a movie!), New York Times columnist Frank Rich momentarily called a cease-fire. Brokeback Mountain was a heartland hit, he told anxious liberals. It represented “a rebuke and antidote” to President George W. Bush’s support for a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage. The movie, which he acknowledged has “no overt politics,” was “not leading a revolution but ratifying one.” After all, it was even doing well in Plano, Texas.
Nonsense, replied Los Angeles-based blogger Mickey Kaus, of Slate. Plano is no indicator. It’s not the land of pickups and gun racks; it’s just a bunch of yuppies. Kaus, an iconoclastic Democrat, quoted a reader who wrote, “Plano, TX is NOT the heartland. It’s a ritzy, upscale, SUV-choked, conspicuous-consumption-driven Dallas exurb populated by more east-coast ‘expatriates’ than native Texans.” In other words, this suburb isn’t Middle America. It’s an affluent island of educated blue in a sea of ignorant red. It’s a bunch of people who think more or less like Kaus and Rich. This summer, Kaus revived his argument again to puncture claims that Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth was winning converts in Republican territory. One supposed indicator was the movie’s success at the Angelika Film Center in Plano. Again, Kaus quoted a reader: “Plano is no more conservative than Sunnyvale or Palo Alto; it’s a typical American metropolitan suburban mongrel (10% Asian, 10% Hispanic) that comprises newcomers from a wide variety of backgrounds and income groups.”
“What is Plano really like?” suddenly became a hotly debated question in the political blogosphere. The answer matters not because online pundits are considering relocating but because Plano has come to symbolize the fast-growing territories of Red America. As Plano goes, perhaps, so goes the nation. It’s the quintessential “boomburg” and the new Peoria: the touchstone Middle American town, a bellwether for retailers and culture watchers alike.
Regarding the movies, Kaus came to the right conclusion for the wrong reason. So did Rich when he temporarily abandoned his demonization of conservatives to suggest an emerging truce in the culture wars. Kaus was right that you can’t tell much about Red America in general by looking at art-house ticket sales in Plano—not because Plano is just like Silicon Valley but because it’s big and diverse enough that a tiny percentage of residents can fill a theater. Rich was right that the town’s Middle American conservatives aren’t, for the most part, the sodomy-obsessed, hate-fueled religious zealots he usually assumes. Both, however, misunderstood Plano and the vast and influential swath of American life it represents.
For starters, Plano really is politically conservative (despite what Kaus’s readers might believe). In 2004 the Third Congressional District, which includes Plano, went 66.8 percent for George W. Bush, and longtime Republican congressman Sam Johnson didn’t even face a Democratic challenger. Mary Price, a Plano resident for about fifteen years, sums up the area’s politics this way: “The Democratic party car always goes at the very end of the Fourth of July parade, and the Republican party car is always at the very beginning of the Fourth of July parade.” Conservative politics are as normal in Plano as liberal politics are on the Westside of Los Angeles or the Upper West Side of Manhattan. The real question is, What does “conservative” mean in Plano and the other boomtowns of Red America?
Conservative, it turns out, is not the opposite of “yuppie” (or “former yuppie”). Someone with a six-figure income, an advanced degree, a fancy car, a taste for aged balsamic vinegar, and some openly gay colleagues or neighbors is not necessarily a liberal or even the work-centered bourgeois bohemian of David Brooks’s Bobos in Paradise. What confuses coastal elites is that Plano is simultaneously cosmopolitan and traditional. Its residents travel widely, work with colleagues from all over the world, and keep up with books and movies. But they also go to church, vote for candidates who keep taxes low, and structure their lives around what’s good for the kids. (The hot-button political issue in Plano is not gay marriage but school schedules dictated by Austin.)
Unlike the proverbial Peoria, today’s heartland, the home of reborn Main Street Republicanism and consensus social mores, is neither rural nor parochial. It is a sophisticated, complicated mix of tradition and innovation: postindustrial but not postmodern (witness the BMW with the unironic “MOTIV8” bumper sticker), ethnically diverse but culturally conformist. Its residents value tolerance but avoid eccentricity. Plano is indeed a typical twenty-first-century American “metropolitan suburban mongrel,” but compared with those Silicon Valley burgs of Sunnyvale and Palo Alto, it’s more politically conservative, more religious, more economically diverse, more family centered, and, well, more normal, just as Peoria was.
Plano does represent the New Economy, built on skilled, creative people. But it fits neither Brooks’s emphasis on bohemianism among the professional classes nor Richard Florida’s new industrial policy prescribing groovy uptowns with lots of gays. As Harvard economist Edward Glaeser wrote in a review of Florida’s The Rise of the Creative Class: “I’ve studied a lot of creative people. Most of them like what most well-off people like—big suburban lots with easy commutes by automobile and safe streets and good schools and low taxes. . . . Plano, Texas was the most successful skilled city in the 1990s (measured by population growth)—it’s not exactly a Bohemian paradise.”
Nor is Plano as uniformly affluent as its image suggests. With a median household income of $71,560 in 2005, it is indeed statistically tied with San Jose, California, as the country’s most affluent community of more than 250,000 people, according to the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey. Unlike San Jose, however, it’s economically diverse, with affordable houses for just about every income. “Volunteering in Junior League was a real eye-opener for me, because I found out there were pockets of need all over Plano—not just on the east side, not just old Plano,” says Kelly Hunter, a media-relations specialist who grew up in the area and moved back shortly before her son was born, eleven years ago.
Despite its income statistics, Plano is no isolated enclave, and most residents are fairly typical of the broad middle class—so much so that businesses that aim too far upmarket can get in trouble. When the Shops at Willow Bend opened in 2001, featuring stores like Escada and Armani, Planoites stayed away. “[Developers] found out that fashionable women in Plano shopped very happily at Kohl’s and Stein Mart,” Hunter explains. “Even the more affluent pockets of Plano are still to a great extent working-class. They’re just a more affluent section of working-class.”
If you measure class in dollars, that may sound delusional, which is why Hunter laughs after she says it, revising it to “middle class.” What she means is Planoites work for a living, and they have middle-class attitudes. Indeed, Plano made national business headlines this March when Wal-Mart—a place no self-respecting member of the coastal elite would enter—opened a prototype store there (“Shabby Chic,” June 2006). “If plasma TVs, microbrewery beer and fancy balsamic vinegar sell in Plano, those items could turn up in other affluent communities,” explained an Associated Press story. Reporting from the Wal-Mart, Washington Post style wag Hank Stuever described Plano as “embodying everything both dreamily enviable and vaguely unnerving about modern paradise.”
That’s not to say that Plano is untouched by social snobbery. “People of Plano would often decide your class on which part of the city you lived in,” says a former resident who now lives in Austin. “Plano had an extremely snotty side to it that really got to us as kids growing up there.” But everything is relative. Hunter’s husband, John, who was one of the few kids at Highland Park High School with an after-school job, says he appreciates his new hometown because it lacks the Park Cities’ old-money “culture of entitlement.”
In fact, Plano boomed because it’s cheap—the Stein Mart of towns. It allows residents to live a scaled-up, globalized version of the family-centered life of the postwar suburbs, a twenty-first-century Wonder Years. While you can find a $7 million estate in Plano, you can also buy a perfectly reasonable vintage ranch house, possibly with a pool, for less than $200,000. From that address, you can send your kids to excellent public schools. By contrast, on Kaus’s modest street in Venice, a tiny two-bedroom, one-bath bungalow was recently on the market for $754,000, making it one of the cheapest houses in the area (and the schools are lousy).
The economics of Plano change the sociology and the politics. Plano is more conservative than Silicon Valley at least in part because its cheap real estate and good public schools support a more traditional lifestyle. Many families don’t need a second income to live a comfortable middle-class life. Mothers can stay at home or work, often part-time, for personal fulfillment and luxuries like family vacations. These educated women also provide a safety net in hard times, like the tech crash. You don’t have to be work-obsessed to live in Plano, and at least in some circles, a work-oriented life seems rather eccentric. Life is about family, friends, and church.
For outsiders like Kaus and Rich, the area’s most important social networks are the hardest to understand: Plano’s ubiquitous churches. Religious practice is an unquestioned part of the background of life and a source of friends and meaningful activities for both parents and kids, just as it was in old-time Peoria. “Youth group is a great way for a preteen to stay busy and not be bored and thinking up things he can do,” says Stacey Lanius, who belongs to the same midsized Methodist church as the Hunters. She contrasts Plano with Fresno, California, where she spent most of her childhood. In California, her friends would say, “You go to church? That’s something my grandmother does.”
Plano residents tend to assume that everyone belongs to a religious congregation—if not Christian, then possibly Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, or Buddhist—because that’s the normal thing to do, and the city’s religious marketplace, like its food markets, has something to suit every taste. Asking a new acquaintance what church he attends, or even inviting him to come to church with you, is meant to be innocuous, says Lanius’s husband, John, a lawyer. “It’s not so much evangelizing as it is networking.”
So, as Kaus suspected, Plano’s culture is, generally, tolerant. Most Planoites would never ostracize the irreligious, if only because that wouldn’t be polite. But they also don’t really understand resolutely secular people—just as the New York Times has trouble grasping that smart, good-hearted, well-educated people can be conservative Christians. Cosmopolitanism, in both varieties, has its limits.
Where are those limits in Plano when it comes to gay rights? That’s the question that started the whole debate.
Here, again, Kaus and Rich are both right and both wrong. They are right that most Planoites are not, in Kaus’s words, “wildly exercised about sodomy.” These solidly conservative, mostly Christian families are not about to launch a pogrom against their gay neighbors. “I have yet to know somebody on finding out that an educator or volunteer was gay in Plano to say, ‘Oh, gosh, I can’t have them working with my child,’” Kelly Hunter says. “I have known them to say that about the mom who drinks before she goes some place.” By the standards of twenty years ago, and certainly by those of Peoria, Planoites are positively accepting.
But not persecuting gays is not the same as treating them as social equals who can marry, raise children, and walk down the street holding hands without risking opprobrium. Plano is a “don’t ask, don’t tell” place. Gays are welcome as colleagues and neighbors, as long as they’re discreet enough that the kids don’t notice anything unusual. Even a lawn sign opposing an anti-gay-marriage ballot measure can qualify as “broadcasting” if it leads a five-year-old to ask uncomfortable questions about the couple down the block.
Plano residents aren’t “wildly exercised about sodomy,” notes a gay friend who last year moved from Dallas to Los Angeles, “but most anti-gay people aren’t. They are wildly concerned with making sure their kids never hear the word ‘sodomy’; never ask, ‘Mommy, what’s a drag queen?’; and never have to deal with anything even remotely related to sex. Ever. Period. Until they are eighteen. If then.”
He exaggerates, of course. But Plano parents want to determine when and where they talk to their kids about sex, and they assume that explaining that some men fall in love with other men is “about sex.”
“We don’t have control over a whole lot in the world, but hopefully the education of our children is part of it,” Hunter says. “We don’t live in a bubble, but we’d like to live in a reasonably safe place.”
Gay-rights advocates who want to make progress rather than merely excite their base (or, in Rich’s case, simultaneously scare and flatter their readers) need to figure out how to make their cause play in the new Peoria. Brokeback Mountain is indeed ratifying a revolution. But in child-centered Plano, its subject matter is still rated R.