Flood money

The Trinity River Plan's billion-dollar vision of levees, parks, and ponds has Mayor Ron Kirk--and most of Dallas--spellbound. But engineers warn it could lead to a flooding catastrophe and destroy the same poor neighborhoods it's designed to help.

"It's a more sophisticated, modern version," Kirk says, "of the same thing the same kind of people were saying and doing 50 years ago. It's environmental racism."

In the mayor's version of history, he has the people switched around curiously: The national hydrological experts making the non-structural argument now are hardly the same folks as the big land-holding families who dominated all the levee-building decisions in Dallas for the first half of this century.

But Kirk nevertheless has a powerful, deep-rooted, and intensely emotional argument going for him in the racist history of past Trinity River projects. What's new is hearing it from a mayor of Dallas, especially one who was elected to office with the support of the city's old business and land-holding elite.

Ron Kirk is black, of course, and should be expected to have a view different from his all-white predecessors. But the fact that he is so closely allied with--and employed by--the downtown business establishment makes his version of Trinity River history all the more startling.

"In the 1940s and '50s, the way this river was managed was as glaring an example of environmental racism as anything in the whole country," Kirk said recently.

"Those projects stopped where the white people stopped," he said. "It's very dramatic to take a helicopter ride now and see where the levees end and where poor black people and Hispanics are forced to live adjacent to the part of the river where there is no protection."

Kirk argues that the new levees below downtown are a necessary tool of racial justice--a way to set the scales of history right at last. The three-mile Lamar Street Levee would protect Rochester Park, a poor black neighborhood on the east bank, and the 2.3-mile Cadillac Heights levee would protect a poor Hispanic neighborhood on the west bank.

Kirk says the levees are a "Holy Grail" of racial justice. He says people in those two neighborhoods look to the huge levees north of them and say, "You did it for the folks up there. Now do it for us."

The mayor seems absolutely sincere in making the argument that the city should ask the federal government to spend $32 million building new levees for the express purpose of righting an ancient wrong.

There are a couple of problems with the argument, however, one from the here-and-now and the other from Dallas' Chinatown past.

The immediate issue is that where the mayor sees levees as a "Holy Grail," the sentiment in the neighborhoods where they'd be built seems lukewarm. People there tend to have as many reasons to want to get out as to stay.

Cadillac Heights, in particular, has been devastated several times over the last 20 years by revelations of lead and other contaminants in its soil. A long and elaborate citizen-input process on the river, which took place before Kirk became mayor, concluded that residents of flood-prone areas should be offered a buy-out instead of new levees.

John Loza, a new city councilman who represents some of the area, walked door-to-door soon after he was elected in order to ask people which they preferred--new levees or a chance to get out entirely.

"It was mixed," Loza says. "There was no clear consensus. One person would say he wanted the levee. The person next door would say he wanted a buy-out."

The other unsettling aspect of the mayor's racial justice argument for levees is that it harkens back--in ways he may not even be aware of, having grown up in Austin--to some very unpleasant river history in Dallas. It's a history not merely of environmental racism, but more specifically of exploiting empathy itself as a trick for getting black people out of the way.

In the plan for the Trinity, there is an eerie echo of Robert Towne's screenplay for Chinatown, a tale of water politics in early Los Angeles. The overlapping mysteries of the movie revolve around shoddy dams, flood and disaster, incest, bodies floating in the reservoir, and vast fortunes made in water.

In the Los Angeles of Chinatown, the secrets that got Jack Nicholson's nose slashed had to do with spreading the water around, using it as a tool of urban sprawl and agricultural speculation. In the Dallas of the 1920s and '30s, the water game was similar: It involved turning the river this way and that like a fire hose, using it to stir development in one spot, to push black people off the land in another, to make things happen where the major land-holding families wanted them to happen.

Levee-building is an exercise in human magic. Take land that floods every couple of years, where nobody in his right mind would invest money. Push up a wall of dirt. Proclaim the land dry and safe from flooding. All of a sudden, you've turned nothing into something.

That's what people like the Stemmonses and the Dealeys were doing in the early part of the century. But the first levees were only poor little farm-quality dikes that family money--even the big family money--could afford to build in those days. Real levees, levees that could change history, took public money.

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