“The City Without a Reason to Exist”: Harry Hunsicker on Dallas
To celebrate the release of Dallas Noir, we’ve invited some of the volume’s contributors to share their personal experiences with Dallas and with crafting stories for the Noir Series. Today, Dallas native Harry Hunsicker talks about the founding of Dallas and his family’s history with the city.
“The City Without a Reason to Exist”
by Harry Hunsicker
They call Dallas the city without a reason to exist, and I suppose that’s accurate.
Hell, the historians aren’t even sure who the place was named for—either an unknown friend of the earliest settler, or the equally obscure George Mifflin Dallas, vice president during the Polk administration.
Fort Worth was a fort, a bastion against the dangers of the frontier. Austin was the capital; Houston, a port town. San Antonio started out as a Spanish mission.
But Dallas, well, all she had going for her was a flat spot on the prairie, a perch on the banks of an unnavigable trickle of mud called the Trinity River, a small artery of water that intersected with a Native American trail used by the Caddos.
But a strange thing happened. The village grew to be a city, and no one really knew why. A thousand little towns like this one were scattered across Texas in the 19th century, most of which have been lost to the crevices of time.
But not Dallas.
Maybe it was the hard grit of the original settlers, a plucky group that included a lawyer-turned-dry goods merchant, several German families, and my personal favorite, a band of French artists and musicians who established a socialist utopian community on the Trinity River in the mid-1850s.
Their Shangri-la, called La Réunion for reasons only a French Socialist would understand, was a mosquito-plagued cluster of huts which quickly failed. (Astute observers will note that leftist groups have never done very well in the area, even to this day.)
This was about the time that my great-great grandparents, the Fishers, arrived and settled on the opposite side of Dallas, a few miles east, in a farming community which ended up named in their honor, Fisher.
Fisher Road in current-day East Dallas led to the family homestead where my great-grandmother was born in 1868, the first generation of my family to make their grand entrance to the world in Big D. In 1895, she married my great-grandfather, a Kentucky transplant who later became a prominent lawyer and district judge, a man who was no stranger to the darker sides of human nature.
My great-grandmother died in 1968, a few weeks after her one-hundredth birthday. In her later years, she often urged her preschool-age great-grandson (me) to become a lawyer. At the time, I was intent on pursuing a career as a fireman or a cowboy. I like to think that my chosen path as a writer of fiction is an honorable compromise somehow.
I grew up in the leafy green environs of North Dallas, solidly middle-class, near several generations of cousins and aunts and uncles. This was a land of color TVs, fried chicken on Sunday, and Fourth of July parades that brought out the whole neighborhood.
When I grew older, I realized that there were large parts of the city about which I knew nothing. Places where the yards weren’t so green and the Sunday dinners were purchased with food stamps.
These were the neighborhoods where arguments were settled in an alley behind a bar, the participants armed with a gun or a knife; the Dallas not mentioned in any guidebooks.
Their inhabitants drew my attention. The media chronicled their stories, tales of spurned lovers, dope deals gone bad, and so many poor choices it was hard to discern exactly where an individual’s path of destruction began. Was it fate or circumstance? Or the sum total of all their mistakes? What kept me from going down that path?
My story in Dallas Noir is about a young woman from West Dallas, an ex-stripper who grew up only a few blocks from where the French Socialists established their village in the 1850s. This is the same neighborhood that gave the world Bonnie and Clyde, and not much has changed in the last century. The houses are small, the people poor. Circumstances in this part of Dallas often put the inhabitants in situations where the only fork in the road leads to destruction or something worse.
Bad choices are my protagonist’s forte, a life-long pattern that culminates in the plot of the story.
The question I often ponder when creating characters like her is how I would react if I had the same backstory. What would my life be like if I’d grown up poor in West Dallas?
For this, I have no answer.
HARRY HUNSICKER, a fourth-generation native of Dallas, is the former executive vice president of the Mystery Writers of America. His debut novel, Still River, was nominated for a Shamus Award, and his short story “Iced” was nominated for a Thriller Award. His story “West of Nowhere” appeared in The Best American Mystery Stories 2011, edited by Otto Penzler and Harlan Coben. Hunsicker’s fourth novel, The Contractors, will be published in 2014.
Posted: Nov 6, 2013
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