WHY THE BUY: The Browns (left) chose their home because it was in the city. The Mullers chose theirs for cultural balance. Photography by Elizabeth Lavin

House Hunting: How to Keep it Real

Suburbs or in town? More square feet or richer cultural life? Black families face all the usual questions about where to live but with one additional complication.

As with most families, black parents in North Texas carefully weigh factors such as good schools for their children, affordable housing, and a reasonable commute to work. But black families also often want to ensure that their children identify with black culture. How families balance these choices is as different as the families themselves. Each of their decisions has pros and cons. Some move to urban neighborhoods like Kessler Park for a strong sense of community and then worry about educating their children. Others live in Cedar Hill or North Dallas, enroll their children in private schools, and seek cultural balance in social activities and the black church. Still others seek more square footage in the suburbs and then find other ways to connect culturally. Here’s how four families struck the balance. 

In-Town Acreage

To get to the Kessler Park neighborhood where the Davis family lives, you cross over I-30 just past downtown and make a sharp turn onto a wide, tree-lined street. Set back on an expansive lawn, their 1950s brick house with a black wrought-iron front gate doesn’t give away its best feature—a huge park-like backyard.

HAVING A BALL: Drake and Drew Muller (below) have plenty of room to play in Cedar Hill Photography by Elizabeth Lavin
Photography by Elizabeth Lavin
“When we first walked into this house, it wasn’t updated, not the bathrooms or the kitchen,” says Kip Davis, 44, a Bank of America credit review manager. “But the thing I remember popping into my mind was, ‘Well, you know you can always remodel a house, but they are not building any more land.’ ”

“I saw this house on the internet,” says his wife, Kim, 44, a technology service manager at the same bank. “I thought, ‘That’s the house I crossed off my list.’ But when the Realtor opened the gate and we went to the backyard, our mouths fell open.”

“That sold the house,” Kip says.

The couple, who say they never want to live more than 5 miles from work, bought the house in 2002 when they moved to Dallas from 
Charlotte, North Carolina.

“For us, it’s quality family time together, not spending it on the road commuting,” Kip says.

They updated the kitchen with stainless steel appliances and repainted the walls in warm, earth tones. The 1,900-square-foot home now includes their two sons, Kade, 6, and Kamo, 5. The neighborhood, they say, has given them not only the convenience of being close to their downtown Dallas jobs, but also a strong sense of community. As they recently showed off their backyard, they proudly pointed to the neighbors’ yards around them and ticked off descriptors—the gay couple next door, the family with school-age children, the older woman behind them.

“For us, it’s quality time together, not spending it on the road commuting.”

Kip Davis
When the Davises first became urban dwellers in this North Oak Cliff neighborhood known for its skyline views of Dallas, the boys had not yet arrived. But as Kade reached school age, Kip says they knew the Dallas Independent School District “was where it is.” The couple considered private education and a DISD magnet school before they enrolled their son in a dual-language program at their neighborhood public school. The DISD program’s goal is to make Kade fluent in Spanish. The experience has been a positive one—so much so that the couple also plans to enroll Kamo in the fall. But they say they carefully watch the boys’ progress, ready to supplement their education or place them elsewhere.

Despite their urban setting, the Davises say they still worry about culturally anchoring their children. Their elementary school is predominately Hispanic, and the couple seeks ways to enhance their children’s exposure to African-American culture. They are part of a playgroup with other black families and have visited some of Dallas’ largest black churches but have yet to find one they want to join. They also worry that the children are not experiencing economic diversity in their middle-class world.

“It is still one flavor of the African-American community, and it is not diverse,” Kim says. “It has been a challenge for us.”

As the couple continues to find ways to help their boys grow into successful men, Kim says the family has no plans to move.

“I am in my dream neighborhood,” she says.

Gated Community to the South

It’s a rare Saturday at home for the Mullers. Michelle and David’s older child, Drake, 9, has strep throat, and the day’s activities (basketball games and a birthday party) have been set aside as a result. Inside their spacious, newly constructed stone and brick Cedar Hill home, the parents instead tend to their sick child and keep their younger son, Drew, now 6, entertained. The Mullers settled in the southwest suburbs of Dallas County when they bought their first house in DeSoto 12 years ago. They moved in September 2010 to the Cedar Hill house nestled on a quiet, leafy street in a gated community. But now the Mullers both face a stout commute. David, 40, is the signal chain pricing manager at Texas Instruments in North Dallas, and Michelle, 38, is indirect procurement director at LSG Sky Chefs North American region. Both their boys attend Greenhill School, a private school in North Dallas. 

Their choice of the southwest suburban neighborhood, they say, is part of a well-thought-out effort to balance their children’s cultural lives as well as live near relatives, friends, and their church. 

Photography by Elizabeth Lavin
Photography by Elizabeth Lavin
“We are in a real integrated environment at Greenhill, and we want the kids to understand who they are, our heritage, and where we come from as a race,” Michelle says. “That is one of the deciding factors of why we are here in Cedar Hill.” 

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, of Cedar Hill’s nearly 43,000 residents, more than 33 percent are African-American, providing the Mullers with greater diversity than they would have experienced if they had chosen to live in North Dallas, closer to work. 

Michelle’s parents, who often pick up the boys from school, live a short drive away, in Oak Cliff. Concord Church, one of Dallas’ well-known black churches, is also nearby. But one thing that the Mullers didn’t factor into their housing decision was where to send the boys to school. Both said that they decided early on to send the boys to Greenhill, a choice they say worked best for their family. 

“We just felt like it was a good fit,” Michelle says. “The kids enjoy it, and we like the quality of the education. We know that Greenhill will provide the challenge and the academic foundation for our kids to be successful.”

What they want most for their boys, they say, is an ability to succeed in the world around them. That is why the boys attend a black church, play on sports teams both in their neighborhood and at their school, and are part of the Dallas chapter of Jack and Jill of America, an African-American family organization that provides social, cultural, and educational activities for children.

“It’s not black America or white America. It’s just America,” David says. “We want them comfortable and confident so that when they go into that environment where everybody doesn’t look like you, it isn’t a concern—or if everyone does look like you, it isn’t a concern. You are very comfortable, really, in any situation.”

For the boys, though, it’s not about the house with the granite countertops, the dark hardwood floors, or sweeping expanse of windows. It’s not the private school, the family church steeped in black culture, or the parents’ thoughtful actions. For Drew, it’s simple. 

“We have a lot of friends here,” he says.

Room to Roam in the Burbs

When the doorbell rings at the Wesleys’ Allen home, 3-year-old twins Sydney and Madison rush to the door and peek around their father’s legs at a visitor and then quickly return to their princess Disney video in the family room. The family, which includes photography studio owner Ken Wesley, 36, and Lela, 33, a dance choreographer and movie producer, lives in a 3,000-square-foot, two-story home with four bedrooms that provides plenty of room.

The Wesleys and their twin daughters in Allen. Photography by Elizabeth Lavin
Photography by Elizabeth Lavin
“When we first came out here, we were just kind of out here,” says Ken of the move to Allen six years ago. “No one came and visited. There weren’t any stores or shopping. It was kind of peaceful. But everything is now here. It paid off for us to jump in while it was still being built. Prices have doubled almost.”

Development has indeed arrived in the fast-growing city, which is about 30 miles north of downtown Dallas. One exit up from the Wesley home on Interstate 75 is the Allen Premium Outlets, a popular outdoor mall. One exit down is upscale shopping and restaurants. Empty lots with for sale signs still beckon along the major thoroughfare to the Wesleys’ subdivision, but most of the cornfields that once dotted the landscape are gone.

When the couple first married, they lived in a North Dallas apartment and initially looked for a home there, they say. But the houses were too old, too expensive, and too small. Allen, they say, offered them everything they wanted. The school district is highly rated, and they liked the city’s demographics and low crime rate. Both Forbes and Money magazines have ranked the city in the top 20 during recent roundups of best small American cities. The city is also close to Ken’s Plano photography business. And, of course, the Wesleys say, it didn’t hurt that they got a bigger bang for their real estate buck. 

“When I was growing up, we were taught to function in the larger world, but you still had the culture at home, at church, and in the neighborhood.”

Shonn Brown
“That is the driving force,” says Lela about finding new construction and the square footage the couple desired.

But Dallas is still within reach, they say. Each Sunday, the family travels south to Fellowship Church in Dallas, a non-denominational church with a multicultural congregation. It’s the church where they were married. Lela also travels to Dallas on occasion with the girls to attend cultural performances or events. The twins attend a diverse preschool, and Allen provides plenty of opportunity to experience other cultures, but there are times the family still takes the trek south. 

“One thing I can say is difficult from the standpoint of being in the arts is I still have to travel down to Dallas,” Lela says. “We do have things that go on out here, but they are few and wide in between.” Last fall, for example, she took her daughters to a Dallas Black Dance Theatre event in Dallas. 

“Yes, we have to travel, but that is something I can do as a parent,” she says.

Navigating North Dallas

On a recent Saturday morning, Shonn Brown sits on the leather couch in her North Dallas great room and twists strands of 5-year-old Ryan’s hair. Three-year-old Lily watches while her brother Evan, 8, plays an electronic game. The Browns live just slightly north of prestigious Preston Hollow, near Dallas’ enclave of private schools. Upscale shopping, gourmet restaurants, and Dallas’ Arts District are just minutes away. Their 4,300-square-foot house has a long, inviting front porch and a backyard with a swimming pool and plenty of play space for the three children.

“Being from Dallas, I wanted to live in Dallas,” says Shonn, 37, a private attorney. 

Her husband, Clarence Brown, 42, a corporate attorney, agrees. “I really like living in the city,” he says. “I play here. We’re close enough to work, close to our friends. We’re in the thick of things, so to speak.”

ROOM TO PLAY: The Browns enjoy having a yard to play in and being in the thick of things while living in the city. Photography by Elizabeth Lavin
Photography by Elizabeth Lavin
Despite what they call the “huge convenience” factor of living in Dallas, the couple says the choice came with some trade-offs. They paid more for their house than they would have if they lived in the suburbs. It meant making a commitment to private education since Dallas public schools weren’t rated as highly as their suburban counterparts. And, like the Mullers, they say it also means that they must thoughtfully find ways to help their children navigate a multicultural world, including feeling comfortable in their own African-American culture.

“When I was growing up, we were taught to function in the larger world, but you still had the culture at home, at church, and in the neighborhood,” says Shonn, who grew up in the Lake Highlands area and attended public schools. “We went to majority white schools, but our weekend world was black. I knew how to navigate both worlds. For my kids, it is the opposite. Being one of few brown children is just part of their reality.” 

The Browns attend St. Luke “Community” United Methodist Church, one of Dallas’ largest black churches, so that their children will have “the black church experience,” they say. Like the Mullers, they are also part of Jack and Jill of America. They are planning on gathering once a month around the Sunday dinner table with four other families, re-creating a tradition long held in the African-American community.

“I don’t think there is a conscious realization that ‘My Jack and Jill friends look like me, and a lot of my school friends don’t,’ ” Clarence says. “What I want them to realize is that when they are in school as one of the few, it’s not an abnormality. There are others out there. At this age, it is subconscious, and the dividends will be paid later in life when there is this comfort and they can move between worlds.”    

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