Thursday, June 30, 2022 Jun 30, 2022
86° F Dallas, TX

How a Highland Park Church is Trying to Save Jubilee Park, One of the Poorest Areas in Dallas

By D Magazine |
ALFONZA HALL, who has owned a body shop on East Grand for 22 years.

A frazzled piece of East Grand Avenue serves as the main stem through this section of South Dallas that for much of its history lacked a name or an identity. The wire-snarled stretch is home to a couple of barrooms, a collection of junker-filled auto body shops, and a block of warehouses that once was a Ford assembly plant until the automaker decamped nearly four decades ago.

Across from the auto factory site sits O.M. Roberts Elementary, a classic two-story schoolhouse built in 1908. In the shaded streets behind Jubilee Park, narrow wooden shotgun houses mark what had been the black section in segregation’s day. Whites lived in the “rock houses,” the brick homes, then began moving away in droves in the 1960s. Near the center of the neighborhood sits Congo Street. The narrowest lane in the city and just one block long, it was given its name, historians say, to warn whites attending the 1936 Texas Centennial at the nearby fairgrounds that the area was black and should be avoided. Eventually, everything stayed away except crime and a cycle of poverty that by the late 1990s helped make O.M. Roberts the worst elementary school in the Dallas school district, a habitual entrant on the state’s list of low-performing campuses.

[inline_image id=”1″ align=”” crop=””]“Ten years ago, it was like New Jack City around here, except it was real,” says Alfonza Hall, who has owned a body shop on East Grand for 22 years. “On a Friday afternoon like today, you couldn’t be here without getting hassled, if people didn’t know you.” About six years ago, a bullet hit Hall in the neck, and it was no stray shot. He was in a parking lot next to his business when he saw a man gun down another in front of a convenience store a few dozen yards away. “He didn’t want any witnesses,” says Hall, who has a scar on the back of his head marking the exit wound.

In late 1997, the area’s abandonment by anyone with capital or resources earned it a place on a unique list. On the occasion of the church’s 50th anniversary, Saint Michael and All Angels Episcopal Church decided to launch a modest outreach program to a Dallas neighborhood in need, and it was screening candidates. “Instead of building a new wing, the church decided it wanted to volunteer in the community,” says Walt Humann, a former Hunt Oil Co. executive who became the project’s chairman and chief proponent.

The Jubilee Project, as it came to be called, settled on the 62-block area—bordered by Interstate 30, the East Grand Avenue corridor, and Fair Park—because it seemed to be one of the hardest cases in town. The well-to-do Park Cities congregation picked “a no-name place nobody paid any attention to, invisible and neglected,” says Humann, who helped expand the project into an ambitious push to revitalize nearly every aspect of the neighborhood, from housing and health to education, employment, and safety.

Diana Orellana is one product of that effort. With her mother frequently in jail and her immigrant father tethered to a construction job, Diana and her two older siblings were left to raise themselves. She had daily opportunities to wander off track, given the dirge of drugs, crime, and teen pregnancy that plays on a continuous loop in the neighborhood. When she was in third grade, Diana became one of the first in the neighborhood to encounter the Saint Michael’s volunteers. LaSheryl Walker, now a program manager for the Jubilee Project, met Diana on a visit to her class at O.M. Roberts Elementary School. She was there to recruit kids for a new afterschool program setting up in two sunny red brick structures the group had built on Bank Street.

Besides helping Diana with her English homework, which generally frustrated her, Jubilee helped patch the holes in her family life. “LaSheryl became like a mother to me,” says Diana, now 19, recalling how she would accompany Walker to her weekend job styling hair at the salon at the downtown Neiman Marcus. She’d help out, handing Walker rollers or sweep up between customers. “I’d stay the night at her house sometimes,” Diana says. “When I fell back in school, she showed me how to get back up.”

Sometimes, Walker says, Diana just needed a woman in her life. “She might be embarrassed by me saying this, but being raised by her father, she needed someone to go shopping with her for bras, women’s things,” Walker says. “Her father didn’t know.”

In May, Diana graduated from Woodrow Wilson High School, along with 21 other students who have taken part in Jubilee educational programs, and became the first in her family to receive a high school diploma. This summer she began beauty school.

[inline_image id=”2″ align=”” crop=””]That’s one promising story. But can a church rescue an entire neighborhood? Higher graduation rates, improved test scores at O.M. Roberts, reduced crime on East Grand, construction of a neighborhood park, a spacious 173-student Head Start school, and a smattering of new homes show Saint Michael’s efforts are improving the quality of life in this forgotten corner of Dallas. The formerly nameless area, cut off from East Dallas by Interstate 30, has even gained an identity to rally around. Jubilee Park, as it is now called, is home to about 2,500 residents, 35 percent of whom are black, 60 percent Hispanic. Resistant to quick fixes, the neighborhood is still characterized by low incomes, high unemployment, and a generally depopulated feel. A quarter of its lots are vacant, many of those boarded up and weed-choked. New faces in the neighborhood are often men recently released from prison, which makes it that much harder for anyone to get a fresh start.

In trying to revitalize Jubilee Park, volunteers from the church, including a number of successful business executives, are confronting issues beyond the difficult nuts and bolts of improving education, reducing crime, building housing, and the like. How, for instance, do you refurbish a neighborhood without gentrifying it and driving away the very people you are trying to help? How does a group of mostly white volunteers, many of whom arrive in top-model Lexuses and Cadillacs, gain the trust of residents who watched relatives forced out of their Fair Park homes by “slum clearance” in decades past?

“We don’t want to do anything at the expense of the people we’re trying to help,” Humann says. “In something like this, one of the biggest obstacles you have to overcome is the mistrust of people you’re trying to help. They don’t necessarily appreciate your efforts.”

Suspicions arose early on, when Jubilee picked as one of its first projects the building of a park to supplement the area’s only playground, a sun-blasted square of gravel behind the elementary school. They also wanted the park, in roughly the center of the area, to become a focal point for revitalization.

City condemnation of a predominantly black neighborhood south of Fair Park for Cotton Bowl parking in the late 1960s left a legacy that presents, in Humann’s words, “a huge problem” for anyone promising progress through land acquisition today. “They paid very little, and the fairness of it wasn’t there,” he says. “What happened to the people who were displaced?”

To assemble the 50 lots Jubilee needed for its park, the group decided neither to overpay nor turn to the city for condemnation and went through the time-consuming business of negotiating with each owner. Those ran the gamut from Dallas’ stingiest landlords—such as the Topletz family, who own roughly 500 rent houses well known to city code inspectors—to absentee owners who didn’t even know they owned property in Dallas.

Fractional, unrecorded property ownership is widespread in South Dallas, which proved to be one of the biggest hurdles to the church buyers. “We had one property, a 50-by-100 lot, with 64 owners we needed to track down. The great-grandfather deeded the front yard to his sons and the back yard to the daughters. They die intestate, and so forth,” recalls Humann, who is best known for helping create the Dallas Area Rapid Transit agency 25 years ago and is often called the father of DART. To further assure residents and sellers, the Jubilee Project put a clause in the deeds that says if the lots were ever to be used for something besides a park, they could be repurchased for one dollar.

The park effort brought Humann and other volunteers face to face with the squalor in which some in the neighborhood live. They found Miss Mary, an Anglo woman in her mid-80s, renting a house without electricity or a commode. She slept on a putrid mattress surrounded by trash bags and covered with fleas. The Jubilee Project moved Miss Mary to a house in Garland, near a relative, and her hovel was purchased for the park and torn down. Today, a wide green park with basketball courts and volleyball nets—all built and maintained with donations from foundations and private individuals—is broken by a single hold-out, a house with a tenant, 78-year-old Verma Dye, whom the Jubilee Project does not want to displace.

On the other hand, Humann says, a handful of people saw money being spent and began to think their ship had come in. “See that house there?” he says, pointing to an abandoned blue cottage across from the park gate. “It’s worth about $28,500 for the land, but the woman who owns it wants $250,000. She also wants a new Mercedes-Benz because, she says, she wants to go to New York and become an actress.”

Although the temperature has cooled considerably during the past 10 years, Jubilee Park still had a very high crime rate in 2007. Two murders, two rapes, and 22 armed robberies topped a list of 251 offenses. Over the years, Jubilee raised money for a private protection agency, then off-duty officers. Each time, crime dropped with the patrols. But when the money ran out and the patrols stopped, crime went back up.

image of Congo Street image of Ann Avenue
(left) Congo Street, the narrowest lane in the city.
(right) An apartment building on Ann Avenue.

Tom Harbison, who chairs Jubilee’s anti-crime task force, proposed putting the area under 24-hour watch with a set of surveillance cameras—an idea that is being used downtown and in residential areas of Chicago and several other cities. The group raised two-thirds of the $250,000 cost of installing 15 cameras, with the city picking up the rest and providing round-the-clock monitoring from the 911 center in Dallas City Hall.

The first seven cameras, capable of picking up a license plate a quarter-mile away, were activated along East Grand last summer, with promising results. In just the first three months, the cameras prompted 184 police dispatches leading to 54 arrests.

“It’s been a great help,” says Hall, whose auto body shop is only a few dozen yards from one of the cameras. “It’s no longer business as usual.” Resident Rosalyn Shelton, 50, says the neighborhood is so calm today, she and other residents’ concerns have begun shifting. “Now I’d like to see some restaurants and stores come in,” she says, talking on the front porch of her house on Gurley Avenue.        

Harbison says arrests are up, crime is down, and gang activity has dropped 25 to 30 percent since the cameras went up. “People are being watched and they know it,” he says. “We’ve had merchants threatened by these guys who say they want the cameras taken down, so it’s working. Still, we have a long way to go.”

Rolling slowly along congo Street in a Lexus is still dicey business, even in daylight. Although crime is more intermittent than it once was, the extreme poverty of the ramshackle neighborhood is still such a stark contrast to the automotive symbol of excellence cruising down the boulevard that the car’s very presence seems almost defiant, as though it is taunting those watching from front-porch stoops. It almost seems reasonable for them to wander in front of the car, stand their ground, and demand a toll.

And it’s exactly that disparity that makes each step taken in the fight to reclaim Jubilee Park so fraught with unintended consequences. Which makes the successes witnessed by the Jubilee Project so encouraging.

image of Kayne Taylor image of Nitikka Garrett
BIG WHEEL:  Kayne Taylor (left), 4, outside his home on Congo Street. Nitikka Garrett (right), 18, lives on Congo Street.

Much good has come, for example, from enacting simple, straightforward community crime-fighting approaches, including business and resident crime watches, cleanup of alleys that host drug sales and prostitution, demolition of a crack house and a barroom some residents called “The Shooting Range,” and designation of the entire neighborhood as a drug-free zone, allowing prosecutors to seek enhanced sentences for violators.

Harbison, who made his fortune in the call center business, says much more progress will be made when the group begins to address the myriad challenges facing the 125 parolees who live in the neighborhood. He said his group is negotiating an agreement with Operation Oasis, a faith-based nonprofit that provides ex-offenders counseling and job placement help.

Other efforts are more problematic. New housing, one of the most obvious signs of a neighborhood on the mend, has been slow in coming to Jubilee Park, although that is about to change.

To date, Jubilee has worked with other nonprofits and built six homes in a careful effort designed not to set the neighborhood on fire with escalating property values. “We don’t want to gentrify the neighborhood,” says Robert Axley, a commercial real estate developer in charge of the group’s housing task force. “We want people who grew up here in a rental to be able to buy their own house. We can’t do that if values get too high.”

Typically, he says, a wage-earning family might be able to afford a small down payment and a mortgage of perhaps $60,000. It costs about $115,000 to buy a lot and build a three-bedroom brick house. Using a grant from the Meadows Foundation and other sources, Jubilee steps in and fills that gap, buying down the mortgage to an affordable amount.

The city of Dallas, through a land-bank program that takes empty properties with six or more years of delinquent taxes and makes them available for affordable housing, has recently provided Jubilee with four lots. On a broader scale, the group is targeting two sections of the neighborhood—one for multi-family housing, the other for single-family homes—and is assembling enough adjacent lots to be able to make a larger impact with a concentration of new homes.

Jubilee is looking to focus its efforts farther out from the park, toward a lot of vacant property and several particularly troublesome garden apartments. There are also plans to build new homes in the area, possibly in a style retaining the close porch-fronts that gives the neighborhood  its unique flavor.

Two other new structures—a resource center that will house a police storefront and community prosecutors, and a community center that will add space for more educational programs—are being built with a $6 million donation from Dallas oilman T. Boone Pickens.

The organization, which until recently has shied away from publicity and made a point of leaving donors’ names off their works, has quietly raised an additional $5-$6 million over the past decade, the group’s tax records show. But Axley and others believe high-profile donations such as Pickens’ may provide some extra benefits once people become aware of them.

“We’ve had more interest since the Pickens gift,” Axley says. “People see someone like him getting involved and they think, ‘Maybe this is something we should be looking at, too.’ ”

Thus far, Humann says, the Jubilee Project has been a “work in progress, a noble experiment” that perhaps can serve as a model for others. A church might not be able to save an area beset by the thatch of problems that plague so many inner cities. But one has been determined to try.

[inline_image id=”3″ align=”” crop=””]