This Gross House

How a junk-collecting man and his gun-toting son are holding city inspectors and a North Dallas neighborhood at bay

Neighbors think the old man who lives at the corner of Cortez and Thornberry might be a little crazy. His house is falling down, its paint is fading away, and plastic tarps cover holes in its crumbling wood-shingle roof. The old man's yard, jammed with lumber, pipes, bricks, scaffolding, and other castoffs, looks like a salvage yard, the final resting place for the detritus of a dozen construction jobs. A swimming pool sits empty, its gaping maw filling with leaves and what little water the city has seen during these past dry months.

Hidden behind the tall wooden fences that surround his corner lot is a mélange of old bicycles, barbecue grills, lawn ornaments, at least one birdbath, pumps, motors, and who knows what else. It is a sight that would elicit shudders from any nearby homeowner thinking about property values.

Neighbors see the old man at odd hours working about his property, scampering across the roof in the dark, or watering plants after midnight by the headlights of his pickup truck. The place never seems to look much better for his efforts.

Several say they have tried to steer clear of the eccentric German, whose habits and temper leave them uncertain about engaging him in conversation. "To tell you the truth, I think he's a little cuckoo," says Peter Keesing, a personal trainer who moved in next door to the old man almost two years ago.

When Peter Poulides bought the house that backs up to the old man's yard more than six years ago, the seller warned him "what a wacko guy this was," says Poulides, a free-lance photographer. "When we moved in, we made a conscious effort not to tangle with him."

For the past year, tension has been building in the neighborhood. The root of the trouble is the old man, Hans Dietz. Neighbors say they can no longer ignore Dietz's peculiar habits. They say they have had it with his junkpile of a property, and they blame his cluttered yard and deteriorating house for the possums, raccoons, stray cats, fleas, and mosquitoes that have infested the area. "Everybody's entitled to live their own way," Keesing says. "I don't want to aggravate the guy, but I feel this is a matter of health."

A showdown is brewing on Cortez Drive.
Keesing and other neighbors have repeatedly appealed to the City of Dallas to force Dietz to clean up his property, but the neighbors say the city has proven inept or unwilling when it comes to enforcing city codes and addressing the neighbors' concerns.

Tensions heightened last year when altercations erupted as city workers tried to clean up Dietz's yard. The two incidents ended with the police stepping in and arresting Dietz's son for allegedly brandishing a gun and threatening to kill city workers. Although police twice arrested the son, Thomas Dietz, he has not been formally charged with any crimes.

Last week, 15 neighbors signed a petition and sent it to Assistant City Manager Ramon Miguez, demanding that the city force Dietz to bring his property up to code and get rid of some of the junk piled about the place. The week before, the Urban Rehabilitation Standards Board gave Dietz 180 days to fix up his house--or face having it condemned.

After almost a year of simmering discontent, the battle lines have been clearly drawn between Dietz and his neighbors. And so far, to the neighbors' dismay, the old man seems to be winning.

Peter Keesing got a bargain in 1994, picking up a respectable home for $50,000, below the going price for houses in the cozy neighborhood just north of Northwest Highway near Midway Road.

It appeared to be a quiet neighborhood, not as tony as most of North Dallas, but with plenty of trees grown large since they were planted by the original, largely working-class families that began moving into the neighborhood in the late 1940s and early 1950s.

Though it needed a little work, Keesing's new home on Cortez Drive did have a big yard, good for his two dogs--Greenville and Wycliff--to romp with abandon.

There was, he acknowledges, the small problem of the house next door. It looked like a dump dropped down in the middle-class neighborhood. Keesing figures that was one of the reasons he got his house so cheaply. "I was aware of the property next door," he says. "I told myself it was to my advantage."

That first summer, however, wiped out any gloating over his bargain buy. Swarms of mosquitoes ranged across his backyard. Keesing, sensitive to mosquito bites since he was a child, found he had to coat himself with Avon Skin So Soft before venturing into his backyard with Greenville and Wycliff. "I was saying to myself, 'Where in the name of God are these things coming from?'" he recalls.

It wasn't just mosquitoes. Keesing says his backyard became a "huge kitty box" for countless strays wandering the area. Keesing's dogs, as dogs are wont to do, would eat the droppings.

Possums and raccoons also kept showing up in Keesing's backyard, sometimes picking fights with his dogs. Last October, Keesing borrowed a trap from the city's Animal Control office. In a matter of days, he says, he bagged a stray cat, two possums, and a raccoon.

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