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Despite belated aid to the West Dallas projects, crime, death and bitterness go on
By Richard West |

FROM THE POLICE helicopter’s high synoptic view, the pauperdom of West Dallas clearly looks imprisoned and isolated behind the D/FW Turnpike and the levees of Mountain Creek and the Trinity River; the 1-mile-square site of the West Dallas Housing Projects, with row upon row of uniformly bleak institutionlike buildings, resembles a prison itself. Other familiar landmarks also stand out: the RSR Corp. lead smelter plant’s 300-foot smokestack; the high bluffs overlooking the westerly thrust of Singleton Boulevard, the community’s main street; and Fishtrap Lake, sparkling in the sunlight like a diamond in the rough.

As the aircraft drops to its landing spot on the landscaped shoulder of the Trinity levee, the crowds along Pueblo Street in the southern end of the projects can be seen standing behind barricades. They are awaiting the arrival of the Rev. Jesse Jackson, who will speak at the senior citizen community center. The presidential candidate is two hours late, but the crowd has only grown larger.

Sitting on porches, poking heads through faded curtains sucked over windowsills, waiting behind fly-specked screen doors, standing curbside, here are the three overlapping groups found in any large black neighborhood: those from disorganized and broken families, the respectable church folk and members of the underground. No millionaires, a few thousandaires, most folks hustling to just make it.

This is no pantomime of friendliness. The noise and excitement, like the raised hands, are gestures of exultation. Two kids stand atop a half-closed dumpster, blissfully unaware of the container’s bad breath, and expertly imitate Michael Jackson’s moves. Mommas shush fretting babies and anxiously look toward the corner for a sign of Jesse Jackson’s entourage. Only the older brothers and young men stand by calm, unimpressed, detached, cool behind sunglasses; some carry the ghetto’s newest defense system-a single golf club, always an iron.

The event has attracted several street characters: Cigarette Slim, dressed as usual in multiple layers of clothing, strides purposefully down the sidewalk, carrying a car radiator and muttering curses, headed toward a junkyard; Polly, a Mongoloid black man, who pushes a grocery cart all over West Dallas gathering cans and bottles, follows not far behind. No one’s seen Del-hi Delight, a bawdy woman from Delhi Street who likes to pause during her wanderings, bend over and throw her dress over her head.

Some of the community leaders wait in front of the senior citizens’ center: lanky Leonard Long, head of the West Dallas Community Centers; the nervously pacing Rev. Kenneth Hogg, resplendent in a three-piece white suit adorned with Jackson buttons on the lapels; and the woman who will introduce the presidential candidate, Pauline Garey, president of the resident’s council in the George Loving Place special purpose housing section-an area that’s set aside for about 250 elderly and handicapped occupants.

Ms. Garey, 69, is largely responsible for the new police substation that opened in January at the north end of the projects. Tired of the robberies, rapes, murders and petty hustling that victimized her helpless neighbors, Garey had cut through the air of indifference and fatigue and organized busloads of residents who appeared repeatedly before the Dallas City Council to bring attention to a place where one out of five dwellers were victims of crime last year. She agrees with Jesse Jackson: “Can’t do” is like “don’t care.” Neither have a home.

Ms. Garey has also been active in the fight to close the 26-acre lead smelter that sat 500 feet south of the projects across Singleton Boulevard. Three years ago, studies showed dangerous amounts of lead in the blood of residents living closest to the smelter. Families were relocated, apartments closed, and contaminated dirt removed, and on the last day of February 1984, after 52 years in business, the RSR Corp. shut its doors rather than spend $600,000 for lead emission-control equipment.

It had been those clouds of lead-bearing smoke that finally brought attention to the 6,500 residents living in the 3,500 unreha-bilitated apartments-1,200 of them vacant and uninhabitable-all of them bowed by years of frustration, neglect and the bitterness they contained.

In this greatest concentration of low-rise family public housing in the United States-half of the Dallas Housing Authority’s total inventory-73 percent of the citizens have incomes of $5,000 or less; 69 percent are 20 years old or younger; and more than half are dependent on government assistance. In 1980, Dallas’ three poorest census tracts ran together in the projects with a median income between $3,800 and $4,600, compared to the county’s $18,572.

Last year, however, power and money descended on the poor and anonymous in the wake of the lead poisoning allegations and the attention drawn to the area by power-famished West Dallas activists. Federal housing officials gave the DHA $18 million to renovate apartments in two of the three projects-Edgar Ward Place and Elmer Scott Place-but refused the requested $23 million for George Loving Place because of the continuing lead contamination. Work on the Edgar Ward Place and Elmer Scott Place begins this month.

At the same time, work begins on 82 acres of the projects to provide street realignment and gas-line replacements. Buildings will be remodeled to convert the barracklike arrangement into a more congenial neighborhood. It’s all the result of proposals suggested by 15 urban architects, planners and professors, plus business executives who met last summer to study ways of changing the face of the West Dallas Housing Park.

The projects have seen studies, millions of dollars in funding, a permanent police presence, even a visit by a black presidential candidate. Pauline Garey knows that none of these things will heal the abscess of poverty. But she welcomes any help she can get.

THE TRINITY RIVER flood plain had been little more than a Hooverville before the 503 buildings were erected 30 years ago. During the Depression, hundreds of shacks had been built from abandoned sheets of metal, license plates, scrap lumber, orange crates and cardboard on lots that sold for as little as $5 down. More than 800 families had lived on the site, but when the Dallas Housing Authority acquired the land in 1950, 800 buildings were later demolished.

In their place, 3,500 new units were built-1,500 units for blacks in the Edgar Ward Place, 1,500 for whites in George Loving and 500 for Hispanics in Elmer Scott-at a cost of nearly $35 million. Each section was effectively segregated from each other by 10 miles of streets, river channels and strategically placed open spaces. In 1954 to qualify for residence, a family had to be currently living in substandard housing and have a monthly income of $150 or less.

Henry Frayre Jr. had been living with his grandfather-at Singleton and Borger, across the street from where Clyde Barrow grew up-when his family moved into the brand new Elmer Scott Place.

Theirs was a close-knit Mexican-American family. Henry’s father used discipline to keep Henry, his brother and two sisters in line and away from small-time crime and trouble in the projects.

“We were disciplined, we had chores, but I knew my parents cared and loved me,” says Henry Fray re Jr., sitting in the police substation. “We lived here for three years back in the mid-Fifties. I don’t remember many bad things. The apartments were certainly an improvement from where we came. We roamed the river bottom and played where Pinkston High School is now. I’m sure drugs were around, but I never saw them.”

Henry, now 39, is back in the projects, this time as a parole officer for the Texas Youth Council who has come to see one of his 10 charges living in the complex. Things have changed-for the worse. Now, most of the female children land in maternity wards without husbands; the males wind up in the streets.

Henry Frayre Jr. was on his way to see Gary’s mother. The 16-year-old has been in trouble since March 1980, when he was arrested for possession of marijuana and placed on probation for a year. His family situation fits the pattern: His mother is a single parent on welfare; he’s habitually truant; and he has friends who use any drug they are offered. This case differs in one respect, however. Gary [not his real name] is a homosexual.

Since the drug bust, Gary has expanded his record: September 1981, breaking and entering; November 1981, theft; March 1982, theft; October 1982, violation of parole. In January 1983, Gary was committed to TYC’s halfway house in Austin.

Gary did well in Austin, staying in school and working part time in a museum. Released in February, he returned home and began attending Pinkston High School. But now he has had nine absences. “Gary isn’t taking his parole seriously,” Henry says. “He wants to be with his gay friends over on Oak Lawn and not in school. He’s already got a brother in the state pen in Huntsville. That’s so much of the problem here in the projects. These kids have no role models, no fathers-only friends and brothers, many of whom are criminals.”

MOTHER’S BABY, father’s maybe. No one knows better how the weave that once held family life together has become unraveled than Pat Leal Keaton. Keaton joined the police department as a caseworker after graduating from Texas Woman’s University with a degree in social work.

She had learned long ago the few basic rules needed in working the projects: always stand to one side when knocking on a door; give yourself a quick escape route when you’re in a room with a person who has had a history of mental illness; don’t visit apartments on Friday afternoons when the drinking goes on.

Sitting in the station, Keaton speaks without detectable gloom, despite her daily involvement with child abuse, family disputes, attempted suicides and problems involving the mentally ill and the elderly.

“I get most of my referrals from cops on the beat.” Picking up a report, Pat reads, “Here’s a lady, Latin-American female, 31, six kids, been here only a month over on Shaw Street and already robbed several times. They took her food, food stamps and a little money. She needs help from the crime prevention guys on making her place safer. Here’s a grandmother, 38, who tried to kill herself with Tylenol and codeine because her granddaughter died last week.”

She finishes her coffee and leaves for Shaw Street in the Elmer Scott Place section of the projects, just north of Fishtrap Lake. Several weeks ago, police had investigated a family disturbance and noticed a naked 18-month-old boy with an enlarged scrotum. Pat had taken mother and child to Parkland Hospital where the hernia was treated. Later, she had gone back with a child-welfare worker and, for the second time, found the young children alone, some unclothed, others in dirty clothes. There were no sheets on the bed and little food was in the kitchen. “I had left a card on the door, and it was inside, so I knew she had come and gone again. Black female, 25, fights all the time with her boyfriend. On a Friday, we took the kids to the shelter. She called and said to look after them. She couldn’t get over there until Monday. I don’t know. . .”

SGT. HERBERT STEELE chose a two-story apartment building on the northern border of the West Dallas Housing Park, just across from the Trinity levees, for the Lake West Station.

“I wanted folks who didn’t live in the projects and who are afraid to enter them to be able to come by. They just wouldn’t do it if we were more centrally located in the middle of this place. And they’re right. It’s a bad place to live,” says Steele, sitting at a long table next to the kitchen where the officers relax. Steele, in charge of the outpost, has worked many years in West Dallas. He’s a large man with a slow smile, steady gray eyes and a gentle manner that barely disguises his strength and sense of sadness at having seen too much blood and fury.

Protection for this sprawling high-crime acreage had been a problem for many years. In 1975, a federally funded private security force began work in the projects. Four years later, the program was abandoned because of funding cuts. There was also the discovery of payroll irregularities. (In 1978, four Dallas police officers were fired, two suspended and two reprimanded for submitting multiple payroll billings for working part time on the private force.)

The Dallas Security Force began in 1971 with seven men patrolling City Hall, and has grown to 185 officers who guard city buildings, Love Field, Farmer’s Market, the Dallas Public Library and other property. Today it patrols Roseland Homes and Turner Courts. Crime has dropped 38 percent in these smaller projects since the DSF began work. Dallas Chief Billy Prince and DHA Executive Director Jack Herrington decided the projects needed a stronger contingent.

Sgt. Steele answers a knock on the back door and a black man walks in. “I’m Charles Searcy. I live just down the block on Apple-grove. I saw the sign here, and I wanted to make some new friends. I might need them where I live,” he says. Steele shakes his hand and leads Charles Searcy back to the kitchen table.

Searcy, 25, drives a truck and hauls sheet-rock for his uncle. He’s an ex-con who’s familiar with the Texas Department of Correction’s Coffield Unit. “Two years and four months,” he says. “Trouble’s easy to get in and hard to get out of.” Steele’s smile widens as he nods in sympathy. Searcy’s afraid. He talks about how much worse the projects have become.

“It’s gotten way out of hand, man. You say the wrong word, you in trouble bad. I can’t go out of my house sometimes. Hard to make friends here. Too many bad people. The worst thing is, they wouldn’t be so bad if they had work. All my friends need jobs bad.”

Steele has been watching Charles with his steady gray eyes, and decides that his neighbor’s sincere.

“What about this, Charles?” asks Steele. “Once, out there at LBJ and Denton, I worked an extra job for Mayflower movers. There was always a bunch of men waiting to be hired to help unload the trucks. Why couldn’t we take a vacant lot, say, over near Singleton, put up a small building where you could drink coffee and play dominoes, and have us a place where men who wanted to work could come and be hired as day help? They did it in the Bible. It’s a 2,000-year-old idea. I think it could work.”

Charles Searcy agrees. His uncle sometimes needs extra help and can’t get it. Project lumpers sound good to him. Steele has no idea how it will come about, but he knows something has to be done. Charles drinks his coffee, and in a tone suggesting it would be easier to block the sunrise, says, “Maybe that would help. I know I don’t want to see no more man’s brains on the street like I did last month.”

Those brains belonged to James Hamilton. Rickey Webb, a neighbor of Searcy’s, had been arrested March 27 for allegedly stabbing Hamilton to death after Hamilton tried to break up a fight between Webb and a woman. Mary Skillings, the manager of Edgar Ward Place, where the murder occurred, remembers that March day well. It was a rather hyperactive day even for a woman in charge of 837 units housing 728 black, five white, one Indian, seven Hispanic and 96 Asian families paying an average of $91.09 in monthly rent.

The day began when one of her residents with a history of mental illness (who forgot that she had moved) tried to chase a family of Asians out of their new home. Back in her office after taking the woman to a mental health clinic, Mary smelled something burning. It was just an electrical fire that emptied the building. The annual credit union meeting followed the fire, and March 27 ended with the murder on Applegrove Street.

There’s more crime-from theft to murder-in Mary Skilling’s Edgar Ward Place than in the other two sections, more people sun-sitting their lives away on the “logs,” (horizontal telephone poles used as crude benches), more who know that lukewarm soapsuds work best at removing bloodstains from furniture, more empty paint cans and Liquid Paper bottles dropped by the sniffers.

Bootleggers and liquor-laden customers leave empty Windsor Canadian (the project’s most popular whiskey) and Mad Dog Double Deuce (Mogen David 20/20) bottles near the Easy Way Mobile Grocery trucks in the 3800 block of Fishtrap. Crapshooters hustle suckers in the 3900 block of King-bridge, two blocks south of Sgt. Steele’s headquarters. Dope dealers sell marijuana and “T’s and Blues” (a heroin derivative and amphetamine pills) for $8 a set on Rupert near the cul-de-sac. West Dallas Hispanics control the Mexican brown heroin flow and keep it to themselves. There’s not much “white girl’-cocaine is too expensive.

There are also many good people scattered through this lawless landscape: Rachel Carter on Leath Street, with her beautiful roses that she trims each day; Ila Jean Moore on Greenleaf, who serves on the advisory board’s resident council of the West Dallas Community Centers; Irene Richardson, whose twin daughters both have college degrees thanks to their mother’s hard work; and Jeff and Lisa Williams, a young couple trying to raise a family and keep jobs amidst the rubbish of everybody else’s life.

And there are the Asians, 5 percent of the project’s population (more live in Edgar Ward than the other two sections). Their gardens of radishes, squash, lettuce, hot peppers and onions bloom and flourish behind ramshackle fences made from scrap lumber.

Despite rumors, no one has been reported cooking dog or using human waste as fertilizer. There does seem to be a drop in the area’s pigeon population, and some families hang fish-caught with nets from Fishtrap Lake-to dry on the clotheslines.

BOB WALKER began teaching English classes for the newly arrived Asians at the Edgar Ward Community Center in February 1983 after Mary Skillings requested help from the refugee resettlement staff at El Centro.

“They are incredibly good citizens,” says Walker, a large, bearded man with piercing blue eyes. He’s dressed as usual in his loud Hawaiian shirt, khaki trousers and rubber shower thongs. “[They’re] very prideful, they hate welfare. Once hired, they are very loyal and hard-working employees. They hate interest rates, so they work long and hard and save the whole bundle for a car or even a down payment on a house.

“Many out here work at Virginia Chemicals, over at General Magnetics or for the Sky Chefs food service people at the airport. Most Laotians are from rural areas and aren’t used to urban life or dealing with money, unlike the Vietnamese, who come from large cities and adjust easier.”

Lang Syhachack had been a policeman, nurse, farmer and village chief in Vientiane province before arriving in Dallas two years ago. Lang, a single man, heard jobs were plentiful and moved in with friends at Greenleaf in Edgar Ward. Nine people live in his apartment. All five adults work. Lang is a cook at the Marriott on Stemmons Freeway.

“The rent is good, but we’ve been robbed,” says Lang after his English lesson. “They took our car battery and TV. Also, the schools are close and free, and the kids are learning. In Laos, you had to pay once you reached high school. But the hospitals are expensive and far away. Medical care was free in Laos. I like the climate, and Dallas is quiet. We shop at the Farmer’s Market or the Laos Market near Parkland Hospital or at the Thai Market in Irving. My dream is to buy my own house.”

His classmates agree with Lang. All are homesick and send money to relatives in Laos each month. All but a few have jobs; most work at the minimum wage level. Despite their bleak and unfriendly surroundings, the members of Bob Walker’s class live with the remembrance of something perhaps forever lost, yet are determined to have a second life that’s better than the first.

THE OFFICE and retail outlet of James “Chuck-a-Luck” McDonald sits in a parking lot at the corner of Toronto and King-bridge at the south end of the projects. The white van once carried snow cones throughout West Dallas; now, the van’s interior is stacked high with rolls of carpet. Men’s suits from the Goodwill hang along the walls.

On Saturdays (flea market day), Chuck-a-Luck, Bobby Elliott and other friends move the van south a block to Singleton to another parking lot, spread the carpet out, hang a few suits on the back doors and wait for customers. Chuck-a-Luck’s girl friend, De De, comes over and Chuck pulls the “galloping dominos” (two small yellow dice) out of his pocket. Then he flexes and pops and bends and stretches his “money makers’- his long black fingers-and tells about his life on the road as a bone roller.

Chuck-a-Luck is a Chinese three-dice game. He explains as he draws the game’s numbered layout on a torn piece of card-board. He demonstrates the Hudson, a spin shot where the dice are thrown so they spin with the same face down rather than tumble. Then he performs the palm holdout, a means of concealing extra dice in the palm. Chuck quit the bone-rolling life when he couldn’t use the palm holdout because of arthritis. Nine is his lucky number. “Come nine, nina from Carolina, 90 days, quinine. Gimme strychnine!”

Since his birth in De Soto County, Mississippi, 60 years ago, Chuck-a-Luck McDonald has hustled and survived. He’s traveled with a jazz band, has been a farmer, hod carrier, chef, mechanic, carpenter, construction worker, tailor, hat maker and, always, a gambler. Two jobs ago, he worked as a maintenance man at the La Dauphine Apartments at Inwood and Bordeaux.

“I was almost 60 years old before I realized that the Braniff Airlines bankruptcy and Texas Instruments laying off people could affect me. They did. Boss asked me, ’Chuck, how many apartments we got vacant?’ I said, ’thirty-nine out of 89’. Boss said, ’That’s why I got to let you go.’ Pilots, stewardesses, engineers all going somewhere else. Last thing I did was lemon-oil a place for two Persians.”

He soon had a job helping to build the office and warehouse for Lee Distributing Service on the bluff overlooking the projects. When that ended, he used $450 out of his $1,027 income tax refund to buy the van, found the used carpet and the suits and set up shop. When Chuck gets restless, he crosses Singleton and walks south on Manila, not far from two parallel streets named Amos and Andy, goes up the grassy bluff and looks at the building he helped to build.

Chuck-a-Luck has seen a savage transfig-urement in the projects. He has seen people not only overwhelmed by their impotence to change their lives, but also affected by the disintegration of family life that Keaton, Steele and Fray re have observed.

“Prosperity and Eleanor Roosevelt. That’s what did it,” McDonald says. “Mrs. Roosevelt told all the mothers, ’Put on your nylons, go out and party, don’t fix dinner, leave those babies with strangers, get a job!’ Now they ask, ’Who’s my Momma, who’s my Poppa?’ Why, I remember when there wasn’t such a word as babysitter.”

Chuck-a-Luck and De De live in the southeast corner of the 1,474-unit George Loving Place. Average rent for the 29 white, 835 black, 11 Hispanic and one Asian families is $72.48. The manager is Rebecca Swanson, a no-nonsense Hispanic woman, who is determined to run the riffraff off her turf.

She has evicted a woman on a dialysis unit who carried a pistol and sola drugs as well as a wheelchair-bound bootlegger. She tags abandoned autos and calls Apollo Wrecker Service, which, often, is chased away by bottle throwers. Recently, she sent out 85 notices to remind tenants that dogs are illegal and not allowed in the projects.

Rebecca Swanson’s biggest problems are with drug dealers and vandals living near “the hole,” a cul-de-sac at Rupert and Trepur (Rupert spelled backwards) Court.

“Lots of young women live near there, and they attract the pushers and bootleggers. I ran a young black man off who I know was dealing out of a beige Cadillac. Then I saw the same car parked near Pinkston High School. Can you believe that?”

THE POLICE OFFICERS working out of the substation have taken a special interest in the tenant at 3149 Rupert in the special purpose section. In July 1976, Maurice Woods, a South Bend, Indiana, police officer, stopped a motorist suspected of robbing several Ponderosa Steak Houses in the area. Richard Lee Owen was overly polite while being questioned by Woods. He quickly complied when Woods asked to see the bag on the front seat.

The policeman made the mistake of standing behind Owen instead of watching him through the front windshield. He didn’t see the pistol Owen shoved down the front of his pants. Owen shot the officer in the arm. Woods turned with the impact, and the second shot went through his rib cage. As Woods crawled away from Owen on his hands and knees, Owen shot him in the back.

Woods spent a year and a half in rehabilitation hospitals. He rejoined the force two years later, but resigned in 1979 because of the constant pain he still feels. Owen was caught two months later and sentenced to 28 years but was paroled last September. Later, the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago granted him a new trial based on a jury impropriety question.

Maurice Woods came to Dallas to visit his brother and decided to stay. Running short of money, he moved into the projects in January 1983, paying $102 a month. Shortly after he arrived in special purpose housing, thieves stole his tools, food and other items.

“The police here have really been good to me, taking me to the hospital and shopping. If we have a new trial, they said they would help raise traveling money. Look here,” Woods says, pulling up his shirt. “That’s an autopsy stitch, not a surgical stitch. They thought I was going to die.”

FIRST COME the motorcycle cops-lights flashing, two abreast-then more security. Finally, the black limousine carrying Jackson arrives, followed by more limos and cars and buses holding the press and campaign supporters. Jackson springs out, arms held high, and begins working the cheering crowd. Close behind him follow supporters and ex-Dallas Cowboys Pettis Norman (whose Burger King sits just east of the projects across Hampton Road) and Billy “White Shoes” Johnson.

Inside the community center, Jackson embraces Pauline Garey and introduces Norman and Johnson, giving a little wiggle and dance with the latter.

“When I see a missing brick or window, that’s the slummy side,” Jackson says in a low, dignified voice. “Our young people should be trained to be brick masons and carpenters so they can repair their community. That’s the sunny side. You may be born in the ghetto, but the ghetto is not born in you.”

The slummy side, the sunny side. The lead contamination, the crime and the close, un-lived-in buildings have brought attention and, thus, millions of dollars in needed renovations to the dilapidated, dangerous housing complex. The forgetful city fathers- safely headquartered across the Trinity in the glittering city that hangs over the dog-eared neighborhoods-are finally acting.

Jackson leaves Pauline Garey and her neighbors and once again plunges into the crowds behind the barricades, which include James “Chuck-a-Luck” McDonald and De De. The entourage packs up and moves east toward the next stop at the North Hampton Park Recreation Center. Bystanders quickly disperse. Soon, only two kids remain near the center, bouncing a tennis ball against a poster scabbing off a concrete wall.