Swiss Misses

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

Larry Johnson thinks it's symbolic that the Guild's first speaker was a plastic surgeon. A tall man with a deep laugh and country-boy mannerisms, Johnson is feared within the district for his unwillingness to mince words--and his willingness to openly criticize the Guild, especially Palmlund.

"Suzanne will never give up until she gets shot dead. And when she gets shot dead, she'll be terribly sad and hurt. But she has to be stopped," Johnson says. "It's gonna be war until it's over."

On this balmy fall evening, Johnson is joined by Bryan Parkway resident Jean Naczi, who had the unfortunate pleasure of serving as the Association's president during the year of the brochure. Besides the spat over funding the brochure, Naczi caught hell because she made the faux pas of putting up the median's Christmas lights before Thanksgiving.

Two years later, Naczi says she's still filled with regrets about her tumultuous tenure.

"I feel like, man, I should have done something better. We should have first listened to Suzanne's ideas about the lights in the bushes and the trees," Naczi says. "We've never had anything like this before."

Johnson, as usual, has sharper words. "What if they do all these elaborate things that we have no say in and then they move? Then you've got 20,000 azaleas with no money or means to take care of them," he says. "It's scary."

The sound of a nearby gunshot pierces the air as the pair sit on the front steps of Johnson's two-story estate--modest by Swiss Avenue standards--and contemplate how life has changed in the District.

Back in the old days--in the '70s, when the houses were still being renovated--Johnson says, the neighborhood had an air of mellow cooperation about it.

"Someone would walk up and say, 'Hey, are you working on this house?' You'd say, 'Yeah, want a joint?' And you'd go inside and smoke a joint," Johnson says.

Naczi slaps her naughty neighbor on the arm and offers some more-wholesome recollections.

"When I moved in, I was welcomed. People brought cheesecake over. That isn't being done now," she says. "Now the solution is get out the checkbook. It's a different way of thinking."

Both Naczi and Johnson stress that the Guild is motivated by good intentions, and agree that Palmlund is about the hardest worker they've ever seen.

The problem, they say, is that she and her friends have a tendency to make snooty comments that inadvertently insult the people who are barred from joining the Guild.

"She's a good leader. I have a lot of respect for her. She sometimes sticks her foot in her mouth and says things the wrong way, but she doesn't mean to," Naczi says.

Johnson is less charitable.
"A lot of the new people don't like diversity, and they live here because they can't afford to live in Highland Park," claims Johnson, who refers to the Guild as the Swiss Avenue Women's Gild because of its perceived lust for wealth.

"Some of the people on Swiss seriously don't think they have to deal with the people on Bryan Parkway. And it isn't even who has the most money--it's who has the best mortgage," Johnson continues. "I mean, gawwwwwleee. Is it ridiculous or is it ridiculous?"

Although Naczi tries to restrain herself when talking about Palmlund, she does offer up one anecdote, which she believes speaks volumes about Palmlund's personality and the nature of the Guild.

One Christmas, Palmlund invited Naczi to her house to participate in what Naczi thought would be a ceremony to usher in the holiday season. Then-Dallas Mayor Steve Bartlett was supposed to show up, and a choir was on hand to sing. Palmlund gave Naczi a candle and directed her to a stairwell, where she stood with several other neighbors.

Naczi recalls how she stood on the stairwell with her unlit candle, wondering when the ceremony would begin. When someone started taking pictures, it finally dawned on her that there wasn't going to be a ceremony.

"They never sang. They never lit the candles. They never had a ceremony. All it was was a photo op, this false thing that fizzled because the mayor didn't show up," Naczi says. "It felt weird. I thought people came to take pictures of an event that was actually occurring."

The telephone in Gary Ahr's Mercedes rings. It's Gary's wife, Sarah, calling to say she's going to the gym to work out and won't return to their Swiss Avenue home until about nine. Sarah Ahr is not a member of the Guild, but Gary won't say why as he gives a rolling tour of the Swiss Avenue median.

Ahr is the Bhoutros Bhoutros Ghali of the median, its chairman and point man, responsible for ensuring that the delicate mowing arrangement between the city and the Association is carried out. As part of the pact, the city mows the median every other week. In exchange, residents use the proceeds from their annual home tour to pay for mowers and tree trimmers during the alternate weeks.

The task costs the neighborhood an average of $10,000 a year, which may seem like a lot of money, but is just barely enough to keep the median presentable.

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