You may not know this, but there is an elaborate system of pedestrian tunnels throughout downtown Dallas. It was originally designed as a way to keep busy Dallasites out of the heat during the summer and the thunderstorms in the spring and fall. There are also spaces available for retail and services underground, creating a sort of self-sufficient city underneath the streets.
It’s a good idea…in theory. Of course, like many cool things in Dallas, it all went horribly wrong when it actually got put into practice. Number one, downtown Dallas is dead. As soon as five o’clock passes and offices close, the worker bees of downtown buzz back to their hives in the suburbs as fast as their Hummers can carry them. Even during the day it’s a rare occurrence to see a living soul outside of their cubicle. Number two, anything that requires the people of Texas to get out of their SUVs and actually move their lazy asses around by mere footpower is destined to fail. As a result, walking through the tunnels is like walking in a ghost town. Empty retail spaces outnumber the occupied ones at least two to one. Even the ones that remain open are host to absent customers and one or two extremely bored-looking clerks. The employees underground seem to spend more time engaging in idle conversation with each other, pausing only to emit a sigh of frustration whenever a potential customer saunters by.
One day, I set out to explore the mysterious labyrinth I had heard so much about. Equipped with my wits, an iPod, and a blurry map culled from the dark corners of the internet, I began my journey at Fountain Place Plaza, roughly three blocks east of the Dallas Museum of Art. You might know it as “that weird looking kind-of-triangular” building. The neat thing about Fountain Place Plaza is that the building changes shape depending on which direction you view it from. It goes from wide triangle to thin sliver of glass to chopped-up obelisk as you move around its perimeter. Dallas must be one of the only cities with a 60-story optical illusion in its heart.
I walked down a staircase leading from the street to enter a massive garden of fountains. Unlike most building complex names like “Forest Park” or “River Glen”, Fountain Place is actually a place with a lot of fountains. During a summer afternoon you might find business types enjoying their lunch under a shady tree, mingling with the bored children of summer enjoying an illicit dip in one of the dozens of fountains.
The underground entrance is tucked away behind one of the tiered fountains. I was in; I had finally gained access to the elusive tunnel system. No longer did I have to endure the scorching wrath of the Texas sun. I was free from the legion of panhandlers shuffling about the sidewalks. The great labyrinth was mine to explore. Of course, things do get a little confusing when your only method of navigation is a barely-legible map and no sense of direction; I had foolishly neglected to bring a compass. What would my former scoutmaster think of me? Only a handful of signs offered cryptic directions, and surprise junctions connected underground tunnels to second-story skywalks. It’s kind of like following a dusty old pirate map, only there’s no treasure at the end. Or pirates, for that matter.
It’s easy to get lost between buildings due to lack of signs, but it does add a bit of adventure to an otherwise bland atmosphere. While other cities have their clearly marked subways and helpful tourist maps posted on every corner, Dallas seems to antagonize anyone foolish enough to wander the strangely angled streets of downtown. The city is a trap for lost souls who dare to escape the clean, organized uniformity of the suburbs. You almost expect to find David Bowie and an army of Jim Henson puppets taunting you at every corner.
The path winds through a number of prominent buildings in the downtown area, but the tunnel system itself remains disturbingly bland. Most of the way, gray or white walls are all that you see. At some points it’s like walking through a parking garage with no air conditioning. These corridors were built in a time where function triumphed over form. In some corners, however, you can still see the faint ghosts of decoration: an unlit fossil display, a faded mural, signs advertising shopping areas long derelict. The tunnels were built with the noble purpose of creating a subterranean fusion of business, shopping, and leisure. Now, they merely shuttle sun-weary businesspeople between cubicle prisons.
After an hour or two of exploration and disappointment, I decided to turn back. I had expected some grand endeavor of smart urban planning. Instead, I got a few air-conditioned skywalks and empty store facades. It’s sad to see noble efforts fall into such disuse. But it is a good way to waste a lazy afternoon.
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