Why It Is Not Enough for Fair Park Leadership to Merely ‘Cheer’ for South Dallas

That word, "cheerleader," struck me as woefully inadequate, if not more than a little condescending -- and even borderline offensive.

Photo by Elizabeth Lavin
Photo by Elizabeth Lavin

Amidst all the hubbub over homelessness that has erupted over the past few days, I feel like an important article by Robert Wilonsky about Fair Park hasn’t received the attention it deserves. On Tuesday, Wilonsky wrote about the many parcels of land that the State Fair of Texas owns outside the boundaries of Fair Park. These lots are dispersed through the community of South Dallas. Some are unkempt, others vacant, and others used to enforce arbitrary parking restrictions. Like the moats of parking around Fair Park, these lots remain a real, active agent of disinvestment in a community that has been the victim of a bully neighbor for decades:

But the truth is Fair Park spills out far beyond the fence line and into the seldom-traveled streets beyond the South Haskell Avenue side of the property line — 50 properties, according to the tax rolls, every single one of which is tax-exempt.

Some of it’s nice, if you have a soft spot for concrete and fences. Some of it looks like a good place to do bad things.

The city doesn’t own those 70 acres. But that doesn’t mean they’re not part of Fair Park. They’re owned by the park’s largest tenant: the State Fair of Texas.

A few weeks ago, after Michael Lindenberger’s wonderful article about the plan to privatize Fair Park, I started thinking about what it meant that the head of the effort to privatize the park, retired Hunt Oil executive Walt Humann, understands the new entity’s role as that of a “cheerleader” for the neighborhoods around Fair Park. That word, “cheerleader,” struck me as woefully inadequate, if not more than a little condescending — and even borderline offensive. It felt indicative of a disposition and mentality that grossly underestimates not only the nature of the symbiotic relationship between Fair Park and South Dallas, which will continue into the future, but the real depth, weight, and cost of the historical violence Fair Park and the State Fair have inflicted — and continue to inflict — on South Dallas.

Yes, violence.

The seizing of people’s homes at below-market rates and razing them is violence. Creating seas of parking; dangerous, multi-lane boulevards; and erecting a perimeter fence — all of which ensure that Fair Park is not a part of its community, but an obstruction to the continuity of that community — inflicts its own kind of insidious violence. Continuing to hold ownership of vacant lots which also disrupt the community, offer space for crime, and basically break every rule of the “broken windows” approach to urban renewal, represents a form of neglect and irresponsible neighborliness that amounts to its own brand of insidious soft violence.

And this is a community that knows violence. Some other vacant lots in South Dallas are the sites of bombings in the 1940s and 1950s, when white residents, egged-on by their preachers and some members of the city leadership, resisted African-Americans who were moving into South Dallas from the overcrowded districts and slums where they were otherwise permitted to live. That may feel like ancient history to you, but some of the very lots that were bombed back then remain empty and vacant today. That is what a vacant lot can mean in South Dallas.

Are the park and the Fair the sole reasons for the challenges facing South Dallas? Of course not. But they are considerable ones, and they also represent a historical attitude, disposition, and neglect on the part of city leadership that underlies many of the other challenges facing the South Dallas community. And so, to say that any management entity that is going to oversee both Fair Park and the State Fair is going to merely be a “cheerleader” for the community is to admit to a historical ignorance used to justify a relinquishing of responsibility.

Before Dallas makes any decisions about Fair Park’s future, its leadership needs to understand that being a cheerleader for the neighborhoods around Fair Park is not enough. There can be no real, equitable, successful future for Fair Park or the State Fair without taking into account the future of those neighborhoods. The park and fair’s leadership need to fully recognize and appreciate that the way Fair Park and the State Fair have operated for the past century — all the way back to when the city kicked African-American baseball leagues out of Fair Park in the 1920s — have inflicted a cost and a debt that to this day remains unpaid. To fully appreciate the debt Fair Park and the State Fair owe to South Dallas, the city and its leadership need a real history lesson. That’s why I liked Wilonsky’s column so much. It tries to fill in the gaps of the history and draw out why that history is more than relevant today, and why today is not all unlike that history. Here’s more from Wilonsky’s piece:

State Fair officials said Monday they’ve been acquiring the land for more than two decades, and that they need it for parking — for fairgoers and livestock haulers — or for access to the fairgrounds from those remote lots. Mitchell Glieber, the State Fair’s president, showed me an aerial photo taken of the neighborhood during one Texas-OU morning, and it looked like someone had neatly arranged tens of thousands of Matchbox cars all over South Dallas.

Fair Parking. I don’t know why we just don’t call it that. What “park”?

And parking is also just about the worst thing you bring up to someone who lives around Fair Park or remembers that grim period in the late 1960s and early ’70s when the city and the Fair grabbed more than 200 homes around Fair Park, along South Fitzhugh and Second avenues.

The city and fair snatched those homes because a 1966 report prepared by Economics Research Associates told them to, because Fair Park had two problems: “inadequate parking” and “poor Negroes in shacks.” Paving, fencing and lighting up land around Fair Park would “solve that problem.”

But it didn’t erase the memory of that betrayal.

Read the whole thing.

 

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