Demolition Man

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

He says the former URSB assistant director, Althea Gulley, dislikes him because he complained so vociferously about her performance that she was ultimately removed from her position. "She simply was not responsive to my concerns," Burkleo stated in the deposition.

He also accuses former board chairman Darwin Gaines, who developed a public reputation for being unbending and abrasive, of having "a very soft approach to code enforcement. I believe that people should maintain their properties, and I don't believe he shares that same philosophy." (Gaines stepped down as board chairman in September when his term expired.)

Burkleo also says he filed a police report earlier this year on a man who walked up into his parents' driveway and punched him out. He says he'd never met the man, but thinks the attack had something to do with his work in code enforcement. He says he's certain the attacker is a Dallas police officer, because police have done nothing about the incident. Jim Chandler, spokesman for the Dallas Police Department, says police have no record of it.

Last year, the criticisms against Burkleo took an ugly turn. The activist became the target of a Dallas Fire Department arson investigation. It seems that someone-- department officials refuse to say who--called the department and gave them a list of homes under review by the URSB. The source noted that at least three houses Joe Burkleo was complaining about had mysteriously caught fire. "They found it all very strange," says Dallas fire captain Randy Sanders.

Fire department officials began conducting an investigation. They found that the houses weren't located in any one neighborhood; the fires had been started in vacant houses all over town. The arsonist or arsonists used the same method for starting all the fires: just piling up junk lying around and lighting it somehow. No lighting agent of any kind was used, Sanders says.

After investigating, arson detectives called the activist downtown.
"It was based on false allegations," Burkleo says. Fire detectives gave him two lie detector tests; he flubbed one question on the first test, but passed the second test without a problem, he recalls. Still, the detectives were not convinced.

"They took me in the room and interrogated me for seven hours," Burkleo says. "They told me I would spend the rest of my life in prison if I'm found guilty of arson."

At times crying through the ordeal, Burkleo maintained his innocence. Finally, fire officials released him. He hasn't heard anything about the investigation since.

It was nothing more than harassment, he says. "They tried to frame me, because I am speaking out for African-Americans and Hispanics. They are a bunch of good 'ol boys against a white liberal. They tried to break me down. The city is very prejudiced."

After turning up no further leads, and failing to wrest a confession from him, the fire department dropped its investigation.

Burkleo does sometimes speak out for minorities. When the Dallas Park Board was thinking about changing the name of the Red Bird Park and Recreation Center to the Thurgood Marshall Center, Burkleo spoke out in favor of it. "The African-American and Hispanic people need to have role models," he argued. "And if it's something as simple as changing the name of a school or recreation center, the [white] people should accept that."

When parts of Oak Cliff were threatening to secede from Dallas, Burkleo criticized the area's white residents, who led the secession effort, saying they were trying to avoid dealing with the growing minority population in the area. "All they are trying to do is control the black population, as they've always done," he said.

Yet minority activists have also criticized Burkleo, because most of the victims of the city's aggressive demolition program, which he has avidly supported, are minorities. Of all the criticism he gets, the notion that his code enforcement efforts have victimized black and Hispanic residents hurts the most, he says.

These days, Burkleo says he saves his energy for "wealthy white slumlords, who suck the community dry and then walk away." Burkleo's latest campaign is aimed at the Southern Oaks Apartments in East Oak Cliff, owned by Southern Oaks Enterprises of Washington, D.C., and a ratty apartment complex on Diceman and Birdsong in South Oak Cliff, owned by General Rental Properties of Dallas.

The Southern Oaks Apartments, located at 3152 Southern Oaks, are indeed an eyesore. And the General Rental Properties apartments, owned in part by a Dallas man named James "Skip" Bailey, are dilapidated and unpleasant. Both complexes have unsecured, vacant, and crumbling buildings swallowed up in high weeds. Both companies have filed lawsuits to keep the city from demolishing their properties.

Representatives of the two companies did not return calls from the Observer.
"These are the people who are responsible for the deteriorating neighborhoods--the wealthy landlords," Burkleo says. "The city has to be able to fight them."

He has testified in several housing-related court hearings for the city. But his opponents say the city relies too much on a man who is not a trained inspector, or even a troubled neighbor.

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