SENSE OF THE CITY McShann Road Revisited: Who are the Real Victims?

The converted duplex near Skyline High School lacks what the real estate people call great drive-up appeal. The yard needs weeding and mowing, and somebody should pick up the hubcap that has found its way into the front shrubs.

The hubcap doesn’t belong to any of the six women-five white, one black, ages ranging from 20 to late 30s-who live here. Like most retarded people, they don’t drive. In that way they’re different from the typical citizen. In many other ways, they’re not that different at all.

Their home is one of three run by Sequoia, a private agency that contracts with the Dallas County Mental Health and Mental Retardation Center to house people from MHMR’s lengthy waiting list. Some of the women ride buses all over town to various jobs and classes. One works at a fast-food restaurant. Another was working full time at a discount clothing store, but her hours got cut back and then she was laid off-another victim of the recession. They share household chores and take turns cooking dinner for the group. On Wednesday, the menu says, someone’s making turkey tetrazzini.

Two women in their 30s share a neatly kept room with a stereo and bowling trophies; down the hall, the room of a younger woman looks like it was hit by a “normal” teen-age whirlwind. Only two of the residents can read, but one of the two also speaks German and loves to write long letters. Most of the women are sweet-tempered and docile; one throws temper tantrums and pounds on the wall. It’s hard to generalize about retarded people.

I asked Sequoia’s acting executive director, Judy Marshall, to let me visit this home, one of 30 like it in Dallas County, because I’m perplexed by the MHMR board’s recent vote to abandon plans for a group home on McShann Road in North Dallas, As you may recall, MHMR paid $98,400 for the site last summer and planned to build a $240,000, 3,900-square-fbot home. Six severely retarded teen-agers, each with a “developmental age” of about 3, would have lived there under constant supervision.

That was the plan. Then the plan got caught up in the politics of race and class.

McShann Road is home to some statistically unusual people. For some 40 years it’s been a North Dallas bastion of affluent blacks-doctors, lawyers, the professional elites. But in another, more important sense, the McShann homeowners are typical- they’re just as vulnerable to fear and prejudice as the rest of us. They may have confused the MH with the MR, as many do, and assumed that the mentally retarded young people were mentally ill-a common error. Being educated types, of course, they were too smart to come right out and say that they just didn’t want a houseful of retarded youngsters down the block.

So they reached for another excuse, one that in our befuddled society has much more power: They played the race card. It was racist and insensitive, they argued, for MHMR to pick on McShann Road. McShann was part of their heritage, a place where they settled when most of North Dallas was off limits to blacks. MHMR chose McShann, they fumed, because someone thought they lacked the political muscle to resist.

Of course they did resist, with the help of County Commissioners (and strange bedfellows) Jim Jackson, a conservative Republican whose district includes McShann Road, and John Wiley Price, whose original appointee to the MHMR board had supported the McShann site. During the furor, Price replaced her with another black woman who was adamantly against building on McShann. In April, the board voted 4-3 to back down and sell the property to the McShann Road Neighborhood Association. Now, Advocacy Inc. and the Association for Retarded Citizens of Dallas (ARC) have sued against the neighborhood group, the county commissioners and the MHMR board. Ironically, the suit is based on the Civil Rights Acts and the Fair Housing Act, which were designed to prevent discrimination against minorities. The plaintiffs want the property sold back to MHMR. They want the group house built on McShann Road.

Only a fool would deny that many black people have suffered racism, discrimination and blows to their dignity. Yet it was sad to watch the McShann folks, who are so fortunate compared to those retarded kids, slip into the role of downtrodden victims. It was 1945 all over again. One McShann resident, a doctor, said that MHMR officials “slithered into the neighborhood like the other water moccasins.” Another neighbor put the case more elegantly: They were not against retarded kids. No, they were offended by “the circumvention of the democratic process.”

That’s where the McShann deal gets more complex. Talk to anyone in this dispute, and you’ll hear process, process, process. The McShann homeowners and their allies say the site selection process was flawed because the neighbors were not consulted before the property was purchased-though the law does not require any prior notice.

On the other side, advocates for the men-tally handicapped say the process that turned up the McShann site was completely fair. To them, the handicapped kids are just like any family. You didn’t ask permission to move into your neighborhood; why should they? More important, the advocates say, the proc-ess was identical to that used a year earlier to select another site on Inwood Road. The Inwood Road neighbors also didn’t like the idea of sharing their streets with the re-larded. They went to court. MHMR fought the suit and won. Six mentally retarded youngsters will move in this summer.

Was race a factor in choosing McShann? One MHMR board member who opposed the site selection says it was. “There was no sensitivity to the history of the area,” says the member. “Those individuals have put their fortunes on the line. It was insensitivity through ignorance.” But Eileen Bruni of ARC, which strongly backed the McShann selection, argues that the very randomness of the process ensures that it was fair. “They drove through with a realtor and saw a sign. If they had screened the houses in advance, then they would be seen as picking on black neighborhoods.”

An MHMR board member who voted to build on McShann Road says the homeowners were not hurt by their race, but were in fact helped by their class: They had the money to fight the system. “It’s not fair to say that if you’ve got wealth, it’s king’s X,” says the board member. “How about an area that can’t buy [a house] back? If you don’t have the wealth, you’re stuck. That’s about as un-American as you can get.”

It’s hard to see how this lawsuit will bring about a happy ending. If the courts rule in favor of McShann and the MHMR board, it will be a victory for the Not In My Back Yard movement in Dallas and around the country. On the other hand, if the courts rule for the plaintiffs, what then? Will MHMR build the home, neighbors be damned? Will jeering protesters block the bulldozers and chant curses as federal marshals escort the kids to their new home?

As the fight goes on, some good people arc being caught in the middle. County Judge Lee Jackson, who’s as principled as he is smart, says, “Dallas County is fully committed to [group homes] morally, financially and otherwise, and we’ll make it happen.” Sheryl Howard, who chairs the MHMR board, finds herself at odds with her ideological soul mates on this issue. Howard pleaded with the advocates to delay their lawsuit, asking for time to prove MHMR’s genuine commitment to group homes. She doesn’t think the McShann people are fighting retarded kids-just the “arrogant” government they perceive to be pushing the home down their throats.

In one of Commissioner Jim Jackson’s recent newsletters, he scolded the champions of the mentally retarded: “It is. . .easy to be enlightened with other people’s property. How many group homes are next door to an enlightened federal judge, congressman, county commissioner or member of the board of a mental health center? Not many, I bet.”

Fair enough. With MHMR’s backlog and the Fort Worth Stale School closing, Dallas County will need to find group homes for 350-400 new people in the next five years. Divided by six, that means around 60-70 more group homes. Perhaps a partly enlightened journalist shouldn’t write about these issues without answering the question: What about my back yard?

Our neighborhood already has an MHMR outpatient clinic, but I think I could coexist with some handicapped neighbors. Talking to mental retardation experts has made me see that dividing the population into normal Us vs. retarded Them distorts reality. The textbooks say that retardation begins when IQ drops below 70, but it takes more than high IQ to make a good neighbor. A “normal” neighbor can get sick or drunk or depressed and raise hell. A “normal” neighbor can let the lawn go to weeds, or set up skateboard ramps in the street, or blast out heavy metal music. Residents in an MHMR home get far more supervision than the average teen-ager. And if an MHMR neighbor should “act out” or get his wheelchair stuck in the petunias, you know who to call.

The hard-line advocates of the retarded say that the battle must be fought over McShann; otherwise, any neighborhood can use its money, heritage, color or clout to set up a “no handicapped” zone. Caving in on McShann, Eileen Bruni says, would be “like saying to Rosa Parks in Montgomery that it’s no big deal to ride that bus.”

Talking to such people, you’re struck by the depth of their feeling for the handicapped. You wonder why they care so much. I got part of the answer at the group home 1 visited, when one of the residents sought Judy Marshall’s advice. The woman was already working part time but wanted to do some volunteer work in the mornings before going to her job. Though her relatives were against it, she really felt she could do more than she was doing. “I won’t get paid,” she said, “but it might help someone else. And it would be good training.”

I had been seeing this woman, with her childlike speech patterns and awkward gait, as a victim who had been dealt a losing hand at birth. Yet, with all her burdens, she wanted to help others lift theirs. Right then, I knew I’d be proud to have her as a neighbor.

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