Alan Kotok/Flickr

Recently, Texas State Sen. Wendy Davis, D-Fort Worth, has been under attack with questions about her past. The ending of this week's cover story in The New York Times Magazine on Davis’s run for governor says it all:

[T]he reality of Davis’s achievements were all around me as I drove back to my hotel, along a route that took me through her old City Council district, where few people probably spent much time wondering about what personal sacrifices went into the building of this bridge or that residential tower. What had once been a languid cow town was now a sleek city where folks still un-self-consciously stroll around in cowboy hats. Davis played a notable role in the integration of what Fort Worth had always been with what it was becoming.

That's one of the larger points in the article: It matters little what changes you make in the physical environment or how we live. It matters whether you are for or against women’s rights, deficits, and other charged concerns. And it matters how you sell things.

Callie Richmond of The Texas Tribune/Flickr

The other side of this article’s coin is the controversy about how long Davis lived in a trailer park, which is our symbolic and physical place of being down-and-out, its supposedly mobile minimalism only one step removed from the placelessness of living on the streets. It seems the Harvard-educated politician spent considerably less time there than her campaign would originally have had us believe, and it could mean that her whole campaign comes to naught.

Does that mean that the sites and images of poverty mean more than those of development and designed order? Certainly the image of the former is much more clear and vivid. We can identify poverty with a place, and tend to do so. Achievement in the built environment is more difficult to see and sell than the grit and make-do spirit of the trailer park. Is this a fact or a question of biases in seeing what we want to see? I would venture to say that to a certain degree we are still wedded to the can-do, bootstrap myth of the American Dream. What we make of our cities is not so easy to identify as an achievement. None of the buildings or infrastructure improvements for which Davis was at least partially responsible is, as far as I know, a thing of great beauty in the sense that we think of trailer parks as being ugly. The changes she has helped to bring about have been gradual and piecemeal, making for an environment that is generally better, but without any central monuments or moments of transcendence that she can sell as an ideal to which the whole state could aspire.

Then there is the moment that made her famous and a candidate for the high position she now seeks: her 11-hour filibuster in the Texas Senate in an attempt to protect women's reproductive rights. We remember her there because of her pink sneakers and the fact that she was fitted with a catheter so she didn’t have to take bathroom breaks. The story’s main fact, however, was that she had to remain in one place long enough to stare down the law—although it nevertheless passed later in a second session. Occupying a place of power is apparently our current version of bringing down an enemy with a slingshot in an open field.

Maybe that is one of the problems of the American Dream. It is more about occupying a place in a mobile and ultimately temporary manner than it is about making something of lasting achievement. The myth is one of surviving in a place, not making one.

Aaron Betsky is a regularly featured columnist whose stories appear on this website each week. His views and conclusions are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT magazine nor of the American Institute of Architects.

Photos used with permission via Creative Commons licenses with Flickr users Alan Kotok and Callie Richmond of The Texas Tribune.