The Conservative Urbanist
Wick Allison (1948-2020) fought for traditional, humane cities and towns.
American baby boomers came of age as suburbia was becoming king, in a time of big cars, free parking, and the romance of the open road. American cities had started their long decline, and President Eisenhower inaugurated the 48,000-mile Interstate system as expressways carved up historic downtowns in the name of speed. For all the activism of the baby boomer generation, they largely supported the dismal state of the built environment they inherited from their parents. From postwar planning schemes that called for sprawling subdivisions to homeowner associations that kept their tracts frozen in amber, boomers have protected their desire for ever-increasing property appreciation and a quick and easy retirement scheme.
The sprawl-plex—to evoke another Eisenhower coinage—is a powerful paradigm of rebuilding our cities into throwaway places and making the young and old dependent on a pricey personal vehicle, even if they can’t afford one or have the wherewithal to drive. The sprawl-plex is still growing in the same part of the country where cheap growth has happened for over a generation, the Sunbelt, and notably in that land where everything is bigger—in Texas.
Lodowick Brodie Cobb “Wick” Allison was born in Dallas in 1948, just as that landmark boomer generation began. The sixth-generation Texan was a conservative early on, serving as a young staffer in the Nixon White House and in the 1980s as publisher of National Review. But Allison remained rooted in Dallas, where he was an entrepreneur. He started a new city-based monthly, D Magazine, to cover local politics, business, and lifestyle. For all his marketing and business acumen, Allison was also something of a muckraking journalist. He cared about his country and his city, so when he saw something had gone wrong, whether it was the sprawl-plex or a disastrous war in Iraq, he spoke out forcefully, not only as a publisher but as a writer and activist.
“Sprawl is not infinite,” wrote Allison, as he introduced a special edition of D Magazine, “Dallas and the New Urbanism,” in 2018. It must have been something for a suburban wife in Plano to pick up this issue from the supermarket checkout line and discover that the Metroplex might be changing, replacing strip malls with traditional streetscapes. (Allison disliked the 1970s term “Metroplex” for the Dallas-Fort Worth sprawl, which sounded like one giant airport.) But Allison didn’t have time to apologize for status quo failures. He wanted to tell everyone the truth. If Dallas didn’t change, he thought, it could become another Detroit. A hollowing out of the core downtown and inner neighborhoods could lead to a death spiral of municipal insolvency.
“In the late 1960s and ’70s, the city’s leaders turned their back on the urban core in order to accommodate suburbia,” Allison told a chapter of the American Institute of Architects in Dallas. “This created a lot of self-inflicted wounds on the city.” Like the boomers who inherited these scars still on the urban landscape, Allison saw it all happen. Later he would vow to change course.
When Allison was a young man, the barons of Dallas were throwing up freeways and suburban towers all over the place, as Allison told Jim Schutze in the Dallas Observer:
“As a sophomore at the University of Texas, I stood with [Dallas developer] John Stemmons in 1968 in Stemmons Towers overlooking Stemmons Expressway, which had opened in 1963. He was so proud of it. He thought this was going to be the greatest real estate development of all time. … That was 1968. The last office building built on Stemmons was 1971. Stemmons Towers is for lease today and it can’t be leased. It has been a disaster. The market will not go where there is an interstate highway.”
Allison would admit he hadn’t immediately seen the problem. In the 1990s, his magazine supported a proposed downtown highway called the Trinity Parkway. He began to realize, though, that the wonderful riverfront park didn’t actually need the paved part. “The road was just a means to an end. It would provide bridges, and you had this wonderful park, and that was the whole point.” Then in 2010, Allison saw an interesting report done by some transportation consultants hired to improve an adjacent downtown expressway. Usually improvements meant more lanes, but “these guys had gone rogue,” he recounted. “[Dallas officials] don’t need to widen I-30. That’s the exact wrong thing to do. They need to take it below grade, put an esplanade on it and reconnect the city.’ It was all new urbanism. … I go, ‘Holy shit!’ I had never thought about this.”
Allison had read Robert Caro’s landmark book The Power Broker, on postwar urban renewal and Robert Moses, and a developer friend told him to read 1960s urbanist Jane Jacobs. He began to see what needed to change in order to preserve his city.
Allison started enlisting more people, conservatives in particular, to help understand that New Urbanism was fully compatible with the wisdom of the ages. In 2011, he became president of The American Conservative and reached out to the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation, a Chicago-based organization that supports traditional architecture. TAC partnered with Driehaus to create a regular series on New Urbanism, a collaboration that continues today.
In 2015, Allison became convinced that another Dallas highway was choking off redevelopment. He was encouraged by the midrise Uptown neighborhood to the north, where he had moved, which improved when three blocks of highway were decked over to form an urban park. Since the 1970s, I-345, an elevated freeway to the east, had cut off downtown from the historic Deep Ellum neighborhood. Removing the freeway and replacing it with a boulevard, Allison and others thought, could revivify some of the lost human habitat in that area. Many were skeptical, of course, but as white papers in his new Coalition for a New Dallas showed, a majority of those traffic lanes were not occupied by local residents but by outside traffic looking for a faster route through the middle of the city. He and his allies cited numerous examples of urban elevated highways torn down where the accompanying scaremongering of traffic gridlock never materialized.
The movement Allison began is more than a think tank or vanity project. In organizing it as a political action committee, Allison made the campaign a real political effort, pressuring local officials to take these ideas seriously. He also helped organize a panel at the 23rd Congress for the New Urbanism, held in Dallas, where two editors at The American Conservative presented arguments for “Bipartisan Placemaking,” drawing a large and probably mostly liberal crowd excited to see real, live conservatives ready to link arms with them.
Allison wore many hats—journalist, activist, power broker, businessman, gentleman scholar—and as he approached his eighth decade of life, he never tired. As former TAC editor Daniel McCarthy commented to me, Wick “knew what had to happen to make the city more beautiful and more human. He worked tirelessly for this, but as I observed him, it never seemed like labor at all: It was what he enjoyed more than anything. The cause animated him.”
Was it really all that surprising that New Urbanist Wick Allison would become something of a traitor to his class, as a friend of Texas real-estate barons, as an avowed conservative, and finally as a baby boomer?
In fact, Allison’s kind of conservatism was not status quo reactionary politics but a more Burkean sensibility in favor of gradual reform, always tempered by tradition and history. No less a figure than the great urbanist Jane Jacobs has also been described as a Burkean conservative. Jacobs understood that fine-grained urbanism, that collective knowledge of centuries built up over habits, could be destroyed with careless utopian planning schemes. Once he discovered it, Allison became a disciple of Jacobs’s work, so much so that he kept several copies of The Death and Life of Great American Cities in his office, handing them out to potential converts.
“Maybe the biggest prejudice of all human beings is presentism,” Allison once commented, “that is to say, what is has always been and will always be.” Allison could transcend the politics of the moment because this avowed classicist and Roman Catholic convert could also break through shortsighted, myopic presentism. Starting with incremental reform was what Allison’s conservatism meant.
The tired vision of the sprawl-plex implemented by the Silent and Greatest generations after World War II was actually quite radical. As the sprawl-plex matured, becoming the norm, it stagnated, with cheap real-estate schemes running out of steam. Today the boomer generation’s embrace of the car-centric world has in many cases become a more nasty, reactionary way of defending one’s privileges—one might even call it the bad kind of “conservatism.” Yet even as a boomer, Allison never succumbed to this temptation of his cohort as they aged.
As McCarthy also told me recently, “Wick didn’t come to urban policy as an ideologue, with a blueprint for what the city would look like if it were remade along conservative aesthetic principles. Instead his urban conservatism grew out of his experience of and love for the city itself—he knew how Dallas works and how it feels, and his battles against disruptive highways and other follies were always about the city’s intrinsic character and potential.” Part of Allison’s legacy will be setting “an example for how conservatives can think about economics and aesthetics, business and beauty alike, in ways that are guided by the personality of a place.”
This ability to love and cultivate one’s city or town, while also trying to transcend the very real spatial divides that create identity and class divisions, is what has made “conservative urbanism” a force for good. Many conservatives have a strong pessimistic streak, but Allison was always forward-thinking, once telling us that “the future can be intentional. We can take charge of the future—and are taking charge of the future—and be just as intentional in restoring our communities as they were in the past in destroying them.”
May this founder of conservative urbanism inspire many more generations of such daring and energetic activism, as we rebuild humane places worthy of a great civilization.
Lewis McCrary is formerly executive editor at The American Conservative. This New Urbanism series is supported by the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation. Follow New Urbs on Twitter for a feed dedicated to TAC’s coverage of cities, urbanism, and place.