Demolition Man

How lone crusader Joe Burkleo keeps the city's wrecking ball swinging

Burkleo found his niche as a member of the URSB, on which he served for about six years. He learned exactly what constituted a code violation, and how homeowners could be forced to satisfy city codes through the dual threats of civil penalties and demolition. Even then, he wasn't shy about pushing for demolition. He still isn't.

Last year, when Burkleo advocated demolition of numerous shabby properties that came before the URSB, the city tore down a record number of homes, garnering several claims for damages and accusations of constitutional rights abuses.

Earlier this year, The Dallas Morning News reported that the city had torn down more than 1,000 homes in the last three years, mostly in poor and minority neighborhoods. Burkleo, like most folks associated with the city's demolition program, defends it as beneficial to declining neighborhoods.

Demolitions, he says, are the most effective way to deal with substandard housing when the owners can't or won't fix up the property. "I'm saying a vacant lot would be preferable to a substandard structure sitting there for many years...where people could come and make them crack houses," he said during the 1994 deposition. "Sometimes," he added, "it is the only solution."

When Burkleo's URSB term expired in 1989, he continued his involvement in code enforcement on an unofficial level. He says he has no need to serve on the board again, because he's just as happy--and just as effective--working from the outside. If he were appointed to the board in the future, however, he might run into problems because the criminal background check required by the city for URSB applicants would turn up his 1989 conviction for public lewdness.

Burkleo explains that, as part of a plea bargain with the Dallas County District Attorney's Office, he pleaded guilty to the misdemeanor charge. He says the case resulted from an unfortunate encounter with a stranger in the dry sauna of a Dallas health club. The man accused Burkleo of sexually assaulting him. "My attorney didn't want to take it to court, and I agreed to plead guilty to a misdemeanor," Burkleo said in the 1994 deposition.

The court fined him $1,000 and placed him on probation for one year. Burkleo successfully completed his probation, but his conviction means he'd probably have trouble getting back on the board.

No matter. Burkleo rebounded marvelously, aggressively scouting the city's neighborhoods, carrying out his own personal urban rehab program.

Because he knew the system, Burkleo was able to finagle periodic driving tours of the city with Code Enforcement inspectors and URSB members. He'd also occasionally sit in on staff briefings to the board members, which are generally closed to the public.

At other times, Burkleo rode by himself. His daily forays into tattered neighborhoods yielded a bounty of code violations. At one point, he accidentally turned in Dallas city council member Craig McDaniel's home, even though he'd supported McDaniel's campaign. People in Code Enforcement gossiped about that for weeks.

"He had no reason to be there in the first place," one neighborhood activist complains. "He ties up city staff stuff on bogus, petty issues when they are not getting the big picture done. He needs to get a job. He just needs to get a job."

Despite the influence he wields, Joe Burkleo will tell you himself that he has "low self-esteem"--sometimes in the same breath that he'll say he has less than a year to live.

"I'm very unhealthy," he says, even while looking robust in his starched white shorts and white shirt.

On a Sunday afternoon in July, Burkleo took the bus to a stop just south of Interstate 30 on Beckley Street. There, in 95-degree weather, dressed in his customary white short set, his prominent belly straining under a T-shirt, he began clipping the branches of a tree and placing the cuttings in a pile by the curb.

I stumbled across him there as he worked tirelessly, occasionally brushing beads of sweat from his forehead. For some odd reason, Burkleo dropped a bunch of leafy branches over the long-handled tree clipper just as I walked up, so the branches hid the clippers.

"I'm just cleaning up this lot," he explained to me, seeming surprised--and slightly displeased--that I'd come by.

"Is this your property?" I asked.
"No," he said. "But I do this all the time. I'm always cleaning up property downtown. I can't stand to see trashy properties like this. Do you see all this?" he asked, pointing to the branches he'd just clipped and piled up. "The city just leaves it."

Burkleo carried on briefly about the unsightliness of tree branches being piled on the curb, even though he was the one who put them there.

Ignoring the clippers, he then ambled about, picking up stray pieces of paper, until I left.

Joe Burkleo is eccentric. Many of his motivations are hard to figure out, and that, he says, is why he is so often misunderstood. Some of his critics even say he's dangerous, although his demeanor is placid and unthreatening. For a man who describes himself as having little self-esteem, he has managed to weather all kinds of criticisms, and has even fought back with a few jabs of his own.

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