Swiss Misses

A tempest in a teacup over azaleas erupts into a class war in Dallas' Swiss Avenue Historic District

Bryan Parkway resident Jim Schutze had been in situations like this before, neighborhood meetings gone awry because someone pooh-poohs someone else's idea. And his last tango with the Guild, a particularly mean dispute involving a promotional brochure, was still fresh in his memory.

Schutze says he tried to remain quiet like everyone else in the room, but this time the Guild had gone too far.

"I just couldn't keep my lip buttoned. I was shocked," he recalls. "I said I was really appalled at what looked to me to be a major end run."

Schutze, for one, doesn't believe moonlights and azaleas qualify as charity. So the veteran journalist publicly vowed that night to investigate the activities of the Guild. He also mentioned--some say quite loudly--something about getting a lawyer.

"I said it's really embarrassing to be from Bryan Parkway and being in this position of having to argue that we're being left out," Schutze recalls. "It just makes me feel like a dork."

Many of the residents shifted uncomfortably in their chairs as Schutze spoke out, hoping the meeting wouldn't turn into the sort of shouting match that occurred the last time the Guild had pushed its agenda on the Association. But Swiss Avenue bachelor and Guild antagonist Larry Johnson wasn't about to let his neighbors go home without at least giving them his assessment of the situation.

Like Schutze, Johnson believed the Guild could no longer be considered a harmless social club. Instead, it had become a political wedge, dividing the district along class lines. The Guild, he said, must be stopped.

"I said, 'I think we need to call a spade a spade,'" Johnson recalls. "'We're approaching civil war.'"

Not since the infamous Halloween Blackout of 1985 has so much controversy gripped the Swiss Avenue Historic District, a 22-block neighborhood of 170 homes that lies minutes from downtown in the heart of old East Dallas.

That year, the district's residents were ripped by scandal after Dallas Times Herald reporter David Fritze uncovered their secret plot to turn off their lights in an attempt to drive off the annual throng of trick-or-treaters who descend upon Swiss Avenue from the surrounding, mostly Hispanic neighborhoods.

When the first doorbell was rung that year, every television crew in town was on hand to cover the story as it unfolded. The embarrassing attention forced many lights back on that day, but it also put a nick in the neighborhood's smooth image.

It wasn't the debate over how many Snickers bars would be doled out that year that made front-page news, however. It was the implication that the city's first historic district--a testament to the virtues of inner-city living--had become home to elitist snobs who evidently placed more value on their manicured yards than on neighborly kindness.

Twelve years later, the same sort of accusations are flying around the District.

It's widely suspected that the Women's Guild is a clique of self-absorbed housewives--Highland Park wannabes who dress up in fancy gowns and play elaborate games of house, all the while thumbing their noses at the serfs who occupy the land surrounding their half-million-dollar homes.

Never mind that all of the homes in the District are pricey, making this, in essence, a battle of snob vs. snob.

The Guild members--it is alleged--have no appreciation for the District's role as an inner-city neighborhood. Instead, they're perceived as materialistic bargain hunters, people who haven't figured out that privacy fences and potholes big enough to swallow a bichon frise are the only things standing between their "castles on the cheap" and third-world poverty.

Worse, they stand accused of posing as the official representatives of the District, a duty historically entrusted to the all-inclusive neighborhood Association.

These are accusations that newly appointed Guild chairman Martha Novorr vehemently denies. The Guild, she says, is well aware of the district's location. And its status as a historic district is the very motivation behind many of the Guild's recent promotional activities, which she insists benefit the entire area.

"The next-door neighbors cannot move in and paint their houses pink because they just got back from the Caribbean," Novorr says. "And we're glad for that. We have everything to lose if the district suffers."

Just when, exactly, the district's residents started believing that their neighborhood had become a model of diversity is unclear.

After all, the district was created by cotton tycoon Robert S. Munger, who made his fortune in an industry that isn't exactly a textbook example of the American ideals of freedom and democracy. And neither was Munger's elaborate district, which, for about a half-century, was home to the city's banking, manufacturing, and political elite.

"Needless to say, for the times, white folks only," one historian comments about the neighborhood's turn-of-the-century demographics.

Sure, a teacher or two may have lived within putting distance of Swiss Avenue, but real, live, breathing diversity never found its way onto Swiss Avenue until World War II, when the original homeowners fled north, and their estates were sold to absentee landlords or simply abandoned.

By the 1970s, the mansions were crumbling and Swiss Avenue was to be razed to make way for high-rise apartments. That's when a core of neighborhood stalwarts, led by Dallas' then-first lady Dorothy Savage, began a contentious battle against developers to get the area designated a historic district.

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