By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
The weed-choked, two-acre vacant lot on East Ledbetter Drive was once ground zero in South Oak Cliff's crack cocaine epidemic. In the late 1980s, drug dealers peddled their cheap, potent rocks in the shadows of towering live oak trees. The Johnson grass grew so tall and thick it was a perfect place for thieves to stash stolen loot.
A siege mentality gripped residents of the apartment complexes--Prince Hall, Robin Oaks, East Ledbetter--surrounding the vacant lot. Families slept on their floors to avoid being struck by errant bullets. Parents were afraid to let their children play outside, lest they be shot or lured into a life of drug addiction.
Residents beseeched police for more foot patrols to restore a measure of civility and safety to the neighborhood, but their pleas went unanswered. When help finally did come, it was not from the cops, but from a group of mostly middle-aged African-American family men, led by Fahim Minkah, who organized to quell the violence and reclaim their neighborhood.
Minkah's group, African-American Men Against Narcotics (AAMAN), gained national attention when its members took up arms and walkie talkies and began patrolling the apartment complexes at all hours of the night. Both PBS' Frontline and the FOX Network featured the AAMAN drug fighters in documentaries.
A former high school and college track star and Air Force judo champ, the six-foot-tall, rock-bodied Minkah cut an imposing figure patrolling the apartment complexes brandishing a shotgun. Residents welcomed him and his group. But Minkah, a former member of the original Black Panther party, did not plan to stop at being the neighborhood's de facto police chief. Fighting the drug scourge was a temporary crisis. What the longtime civil rights activist really wanted was to bring about fundamental changes in his community.
So as Minkah's followers successfully battled crack, crooks, and violence, he was hatching other plans. Minkah dreamed of creating something positive and prosperous where havoc and neglect reigned. Before the crack epidemic diverted his labors, Minkah had already formed the nonprofit United Front of Dallas to foster social service and economic development programs in the long-neglected southern sector of the city.
"We needed something in this neighborhood that would generate money, that we could circulate into other programs," recalls Minkah. "We needed something that would serve youth and families, that would promote physical fitness. The best drug prevention is well health."
With a definite dearth of wholesome recreational activities for kids and families, it was no wonder that people were turning to drugs, Minkah reasoned. In what he describes as a kind of poetic justice, Minkah envisioned building a brand-new, state-of-the-art roller-skating rink, and he wanted to put it on the very same wasteland where dealers sold their wares.
Minkah is a life-long skater who taught the four children and five step-children he raised to skate from the age of two. He was tired of having to drive his family 15 miles to skate in Grand Prairie or Duncanville. And there were plenty of families in southern Dallas who didn't have the means to travel that far even if they wanted to.
Minkah dubbed his planned roller rink Southern Skates, and began working toward the day when it would rise from the vacant Ledbetter lot as a beacon to the kids and parents of a beleaguered neighborhood.
That was seven years ago. Since then, Minkah and the United Front have worked tirelessly to turn his vision into a reality. For two years, he and crews of volunteers took it upon themselves to clear the overgrowth from the lot, endearing themselves to the police and the bank that owned the land. Eventually, the Resolution Trust Corporation, which took over the land after the bank that owned it was declared insolvent, agreed to donate the property to the United Front.
It took another four years to find financing for the project. Southern Skates started picking up steam two years ago when the Southern Dallas Development Corporation took Minkah under its wing. A private, nonprofit corporation created by the city to promote the development of small, primarily minority-owned businesses south of the Trinity River, the SDDC pledged $500,000 to the project. The SDDC also helped Minkah find other sources of money for the roller rink.
By early December 1996, Southern Skates was on a roll. All the pieces were falling into place, and Minkah felt confident that the new year would see ground broken on his long-awaited project.
The SDDC had already sunk more than $100,000 into the project, paying for a business plan, feasibility study, environmental impact study, and detailed architectural renderings. The project was sent out for bids, a contractor selected, and a building permit filed with the city--all with the blessing of the SDDC.
But then the wheels fell off. In January, the SDDC suddenly reversed itself. The SDDC loan committee, by a one-vote majority, decided not to give Southern Skates the $500,000 it had previously offered, defying its own lending guidelines and seemingly ignoring the very studies it had commissioned on the project.
Now Minkah and the United Front are on the defensive once again, scrambling for funds to build the rink. Minkah is hoping the city might be able to arrange financing for the project, and is exploring the possibility of suing the SDDC for negligent misrepresentation, among other things.