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The Guardian Explores the Human Costs of Oak Cliff Development (And How to Resist It)

In this Guardian deep dive, human stories offer a fresh perspective on the ongoing changes reshaping a popular Dallas neighborhood.
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Oak Cliff, pictured here in 2018, where new development is colliding with old. (Photo by Creagh Cross)

When you live in a place and are involved in its day-to-day life, it can be difficult to recognize the pace and scale of change. Neighborhoods change slowly, evolving over years and decades. Case in point: North Oak Cliff. New restaurants open all the time, and townhomes and apartments seem to spring up from vacant lots weekly. It takes a big news event — like a recent council election or a planned new master plan  — to refocus attention on how all those little changes are driving neighborhood development.

Now, a new report in the Guardian draws our attention back to just how much has changed in Oak Cliff in a relatively short period of time. Here’s a striking statistic cited in the piece:

When [Antonio Vargas’] grandparents arrived 40 years ago, the neighborhood culture was completely different. The big Latino community made it easy for Vargas’s grandmother to find work doing various jobs at local Latino-owned businesses. Today, the neighborhood is still predominantly Latino, but is experiencing a Black and brown decline. Between 2010 and 2014, the white population increased by 15% to make up 24% of residents, while the Black population decreased by 14% to just 3%. The Hispanic population still makes up 71% of the total inhabitants.

Vargas is one of a handful of Oak Cliff residents through whom the Guardian tells the recent history of Oak Cliff, and his story is particularly poignant. Vargas grew up in an early-20th century bungalow near Bishop Arts that was recently raised for a new townhome development. When the property hosted its grand opening, Vargas was  invited to bartend the event. Things spiraled downwards from there.

“Some of us overheard someone on the phone with the owners, saying the guests ‘didn’t fit their demographic’ – and then the event was shut down minutes later,” Vargas said.

Vargas’ story captures an aspect of gentrification that can be difficult to drive home in statistics. Rapid investment in a neighborhood not only physically displaces residents from their homes, it can also dislodge them from their sense of community and belonging. In this story, Vargas goes from Oak Cliff native to Oak Cliff servant, from someone with deep familial roots in a community’s identity to someone who is no longer seen as belonging to that community. He not only loses his family home but also ownership of a personal history and place-rooted identity. That psychic displacement represents the real violence of gentrification.

There are also stories in the piece about how some of the businesses that were instrumental in Oak Cliff’s resurgence are now being replaced by a new waves of investment. An Oak Cliff paleta shop was forced to move to Arlington after rents rose — only to be replaced by another paleta shop that is part of a chain. Chan Thai, a long-time neighborhood staple, is being forced to move because its Bishop Arts landlord decided not to renew its lease, opting instead to try to lure in a more upscale restaurant.

Oak Cliff’s particular story is interesting because its revitalization began as a grassroots, neighborhood-led effort. Its earliest real estate investors were people who lived in the neighborhood and were careful to balance the needs of the market with the needs of the community. Many of the first Bishop Arts businesses had roots in Oak Cliff and hoped to provide new services that could stabilize the neighborhood. But Oak Cliff seems to have reached a tipping point in which the market now drives a more indifferent brand of change.

The Guardian story goes on to highlight some efforts underway to dampen the effects of rapid growth. Long time resident and former-Cliff Dweller publisher Rob Shearer speaks about trying to help residents understand that the impacts of this development are not inevitable, and that the public can play a role in shaping what kind of neighborhood Oak Cliff becomes. For Oak Cliff’s Cimajie Best talks about the disparities between Oak Cliff neighborhoods and how the successful districts can suck investment and public support from other neighborhoods that are still hungry for basic services.

As Shearer points out, protecting Oak Cliff’s sense of community and historical continuity requires public vigilance and participation. It is not merely market forces that threaten Oak Cliff, but also apathy:

“I see my role now as one of speaking out against the perceived inevitability of gentrification and displacement. So many that are either actively participating in gentrification, or passively benefiting from it, believe it will happen regardless of our actions,” Shearer says.

Shearer has publicly said that the city of Dallas has done very little to protect residents in Oak Cliff from soaring property values that force them to sell and ultimately push them out. While good arguments could be made that more jobs have been created in the neighborhood during the past decade of growth, he questions whether they pay well, given that only a quarter of adults between ages 25 and 34 in Dallas county earn a living wage.

While some of the longtime homeowners in his area were able to sell their homes for more than they bought them for, Shearer believes that is more of the exception than the rule. “Those are often the examples cited by supporters of the redevelopment and gentrification,” he says.

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