Our city’s biggest fan is often its strongest critic. Dallas Morning News columnist Robert Wilonsky’s byline first appeared in the Dallas Observer in 1991, where he gained a reputation for being a quick-witted and opinionated journalist. In a city that tends to bulldoze history, Wilonsky is adamant about preserving pieces of Dallas’ past in writing. The Thomas Jefferson High School graduate even purchased the house next door to his childhood home in Sparkman Club Estates. “I think you can grow up in a city with its history in your bones, in your DNA,” he says.
What was your childhood like?
I share a backyard fence with my childhood home. I drive by my old high school, Thomas Jefferson, twice a day. My childhood was pretty great in that I haven’t done a great deal to escape it. I did move away twice — once to Austin to go away to school and to Los Angeles to help run a newspaper — but I came back every time.
What brings you back?
Writing about Los Angeles, I felt like a bit of an imposter. I felt like I needed to write about a place to which I had a connection. So that’s why I came back here in 1996.
Is it strange to live next to your childhood home?
No, it’s not weird. It’s like a John Updike novel with a happy ending: “Rabbit Did Not Run.”
What makes you so proud of your family’s legacy?
I like the fact my family played some small part in developing the city. My grandfather knew Jack Ruby. He knew Bonnie and Clyde. They were customers at his auto parts store. My mother was the X-ray tech at Parkland the day that Kennedy was brought in. My father was at Campisi’s at lunch after having seen the president at Love Field when he found out Kennedy died.
Is your son, Harry, as passionate about Dallas’ history as you?
We collect Dallas memorabilia. Harry really loves that stuff. When he was a little kid, we spent every Saturday driving the city. When I write a story about an imperiled old home, he often comes with. He’s not quite the fetishist I am, but he adores it in a way I was not exposed to or did not understand when I was his age. I spent a lot of time in my teens working at my father’s auto parts shop on Second Avenue next to Fair Park. I heard stories as a little kid about how Second Avenue in the ’30s, ’40s and ’50s was like Beale Street. It was a vibrant and active community with jazz clubs, record stores. I would talk to customers of my father and grandfather about that. You accrue a narrative when your mother is a footnote in something significant that happened here.
What are some of the biggest issues in Dallas and in the Preston Hollow/North Dallas area?
Well in Dallas and North Dallas, it’s affordable housing. It’s galling that all these affordable housing meetings in the city are all south of I-30. I think for us to think all of that needs to be south of the Trinity is how we’ve gotten to the point we’re in now. We need to take a closer look at the city as a whole, whether be it Vickery Meadow or Bachman Lake or Hamilton Park. You can see it at Marsh and Walnut Hill. Once upon a time, it was a thriving little corner. Today, it is not that. We don’t have any little hip spots in northwest Dallas.
If you had hypothetical control over the city, what would you do?
I would make sure we had affordable housing that was easily available. I think we are going to reach a crisis point, if we have not already. God forbid Amazon comes here. I don’t think we would be able to recover. If I had control over the city, I’d demand people send their kids to Dallas ISD. It’s the snake that eats its tail. Having mixed income and racial diversity in the schools is the one thing that’s going to help them.
What are your vices?
I don’t drink anymore. I hate to say it, but one of my biggest vices is I often put work ahead of everything else. Like all journalists, I feel that one day I’ll be found out as a fraud, so I need to keep proving every day I’m not. My work-life, home-life balance has always been wildly out-of-whack.
Do you have any stories you regret?
No, I can’t think of any. Should I? There’s probably some stories my editors regret reading. Then again, I can’t think of any that I’m very proud of either. I tread a fine line between self-deprecating and self-loathing. It’s a wildly unhealthy combination. No one loves us and hates us more than ourselves.
Since you started as a music critic, what are your favorite concerts in Dallas?
The first concert I saw was Jackson 5 at Memorial Auditorium. I, to this day, maintain Wilco at the Palladium was great. Anything at the Bronco Bowl. I deeply and profoundly miss it. They tore it down and put a Home Depot in its place. It’s the most Dallas story I’ve ever heard. I’m very nostalgic for a Dallas I remember, but I’m very nostalgic for a Dallas I never knew in the ’40s and ’50s. The crowded Downtown, the packed streetcars, the crowded sidewalks. That doesn’t exist anymore.
What else should people know about you?
I don’t expect I’ll ever move. I do fear sometimes I’ve become a parody of myself. I only tweet about old Dallas things. I only buy old Dallas things. I have hundreds and hundreds of books on Dallas history. I do worry I need to find more interests.
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