Since moving to Dallas in 2002, I have lived in a few different neighborhoods: Oak Lawn, Knox-Henderson, and now Oak Cliff. I moved to Oak Cliff for one very specific reason: I wanted to save the city, starting with southern Dallas.
Let me back up a moment. My wife and I were forced out of our Knox-Henderson apartment by a developer that wanted to demolish our building to construct half-million dollar townhomes. With the deadline (and the bulldozer) bearing down on us, my wife and I started talking about where we should live. It was a conversation that would change our lives. She stressed to me that the issues that I wanted to address were more pressing in southern Dallas than anywhere else in the city. Since we had to leave anyway, my wife inspired me to move our family to Oak Cliff to be in the center of those concerns.
I started a blog called Dallas Progress (dallasprogress.blogspot.com). Its mission is right there in the name: to have a city that has less crime, is affordable for working people, and provides opportunity as well as a meaningful existence for all of its citizens. Through Dallas Progress, I want to make sure that Dallas citizens know the truth about what’s happening in their city, regardless of who gets mad about it. I want to give a voice to the voiceless.
A few months ago, I got the opportunity to speak even louder. I was appointed to the City Plan Commission, representing District 4. In my new position, I want to get people in my district (and the rest of southern Dallas) to expect more from their community. I want them to let business owners know that all development is not good development.
But my hope for Dallas Progress and my work with the City Plan Commission go deeper than that. Ultimately, my goal is to get residents of southern Dallas more engaged in the decisions that impact their neighborhoods. When an important issue is based in northern Dallas, its residents pack the Council chamber. I want southern Dallas residents to be engaged in the same fashion.
I think we are finally coming to a time when that is possible. Ironically, it started with bad news: the federal indictments of several of our community leaders, most prominently former Mayor Pro Tem Don Hill, former Councilman James Fantroy, former Plan Commissioner D’Angelo Lee, and current State Rep. Terri Hodge.
Fantroy famously predicted that the indictments would cause black people to take to the streets and “make the Los Angeles riots look like a picnic,” but it seems to me they’ve done the opposite. The indictments gave us some closure, even though the cases have yet to go to trial. I have often been asked over the past two years, “What is the significance of the FBI investigation?” I see the FBI investigation as a turning point. Now that we’ve read the indictments, the looming, secretive FBI investigation cannot be used as a convenient excuse for investors and other leaders not to take stock in southern Dallas.
The people involved in the investigation are innocent until proven guilty, and we must now let each case run its course. But we cannot and will not allow those events to change our path. In the coming year, we must continue to stay focused on the issues that matter in southern Dallas and throughout the rest of the city.
Looking at the J. McDonald Williams Institute’s recently issued 2007 Wholeness Index Report, which measures statistics such as crime and access to retail, it tells a story that I already know about southern Dallas. I’ll give away the ending: it’s not great.
Living here, I’ve experienced challenges that residents to the north probably can’t imagine. The supermarkets here are awful. When I lived in Knox-Henderson, grocery shopping was never even remotely a concern. Now I have to drive for miles to find a decent grocery store. There is an utter lack of retail and restaurant choices. When I lived in Knox-Henderson, I could walk to a dozen restaurants, and I never wanted for retail outlets. In southern Dallas, no restaurants are open past 9 o’clock (save for North Oak Cliff, and not counting fast food).
On top of all that, in some neighborhoods in southern Dallas, the fear of crime grips people in a way that should not occur in 2007. We’ve had restaurants and businesses close because of gang threats against business owners and young employees. People are afraid to walk the streets or sit on their front porches during daylight hours. Our neighborhoods are overrun with hot-sheet motels and rundown houses. This must end.
Aside from the obvious blight, there are systemic factors that hamper southern Dallas and caused me to get involved. From a political and business standpoint, I really saw Dallas as being too much of an insiders’ game in which only a select few were rewarded at the expense of others.
One small example: I tried to buy a dilapidated city-owned property in South Dallas near Fair Park. Upon inquiring about the property, I was told by city officials that I could not buy it. I was informed it was being “held for someone” and that the property (and others like it) was “not for me.” Nearly four years later, the property is still an eyesore and a safety hazard. I guess it’s still being held for someone.
I also saw many local elected officials ignoring major issues in southern Dallas such as crime, drugs, and economic development. Such terms were being used to campaign and grandstand but little else. I also saw the lack of many so-called leaders willing to address those same issues head-on, even though they have the forum to do so.
The lack of political mentorship in the black community also irked me. I saw more people “passing the torch sideways” to maintain power instead of trying to mentor younger people to lead the community in the future. The only people willing to give me a shot at learning how the city works in an official capacity were former Councilman Fantroy, his assistant Mary Hasan, and current Deputy Mayor Pro Tem Dwaine Caraway.
I appreciate them tremendously for that. And I know that I am blessed. I have been afforded wonderful opportunities by a multitude of people that saw something in me at an early age. Family, church members, businessmen, and neighbors have made me who I am. Now we need others on that same path.
What southern Dallas needs is not just a change in the conversation, but also a continued change of the people in the conversation. Those with capital to invest in Dallas have to realize that they no longer need to defer to the people that have traditionally held power in southern Dallas. They need to seek out a new generation of leaders and contacts in the black community. They don’t need permission from anyone to do it.
I have dreams that have yet to be fulfilled. One of those dreams is to be a successful real estate developer. But the same issue that hampers my goals affects others as well: the lack of access to capital. Previously, I was a regional director for Lincoln Financial Group and worked for a real estate investment trust. I understand how money is made and what defines a good investment. There are young people in southern Dallas who are fully capable of having commercial investment conversations. We have ideas and energy, but that means little if those ideas go unfunded. They must be capitalized by support with real dollars for southern Dallas to succeed.
Dallas has to get past its old way of doing things, which generally is to parcel out small handouts for favorable press clippings and news releases. You see, most of us in southern Dallas don’t want a handout; we want the opportunity to build up our area. We can create high rates of return on investment like any other community in Dallas.
We aren’t cleaning up our neighborhoods to have the same developers that rule Dallas make easy money. We are fully capable of doing the job ourselves. And it should not be based on guilt but based on our ability to make investors money—like any other institution.
The dreamer in me would love to get in a helicopter with Robert Haas (a local buyout company owner who has developed an impressive second career as an aerial photographer) to highlight the beauty of southern Dallas, as well as document the challenges it faces, and then publish our findings. Maybe then, the entire city would realize what needs to be done. We must have real neighborhood development and involvement on the ground for southern Dallas to succeed. It must go beyond the Inland Port, the University of North Texas’ satellite campus, and the Trinity River Corridor Project.
But there continue to be obstacles. Two major issues that impede the quality of life in southern Dallas are violent crime and blight. Boarded-up houses cast a shadow over the rest of the neighborhood. More often than not, they become drug “stash houses” or places that fugitives can hide. Many of southern Dallas’ streets have multiple houses that have outlived their useful lives and must be demolished. A large-scale program to rid neighborhoods of these houses must be implemented. Otherwise poorer neighborhoods will continue to suffer.
If large foundations want to get involved, they can donate money to help Deputy Mayor Pro Tem Caraway demolish drug houses and motels or to fund our gunshot-detection system project. A gunshot-detection system can determine the exact location (within 25 feet) of a shooting and the type of weapon fired and report it to the police dispatch within seconds. It is being used with great success in Chicago, Los Angeles, Boston, and other large cities. In Boston, for example, an arrest was made within days of the system being activated this past October. Such results send a message to criminals that they will be caught. Best of all, a gunshot-detection system doesn’t require a 911 call by residents.
It will take time to sort all of that out; you can’t rebuild the neighborhoods overnight. Some of the issues, however, can be addressed immediately and at no cost. We in Dallas have to mature in a way that moves us to vote. In 2006, more people turned out for the “Oak Cliff Super Bowl” between Kimball and Carter high schools than voted in the Dallas ISD election involving the trustee district that includes both schools. Our senior citizens have earned their rest and the younger generations must pick up the slack.
I love the seniors in this city, especially the ones in southern Dallas. Since my wife and I moved to Oak Cliff, they have supported me and welcomed me into their homes. I cannot think of a better way to repay them than to improve their neighborhoods and return a sense of hope. That means more to me than trying to change things from afar while maintaining a short walk to the Katy Trail and two of my favorite restaurants, Chip’s on Cole Avenue and La Duni on McKinney.
I know that sense of hope can come back. I am one of the most optimistic people you will ever meet. I believe in our city and its people. But at the same time, we must get real. We must not sugarcoat past wrongs, but we must also not let those wrongs impede our future goal. Like I said, the federal indictments are not going to stop progress in southern Dallas. The way I see it, they will only lead to more of it.
There can be no distractions. Too much is at stake.
Write Michael Davis at [email protected].