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.

The big Trinity River levees and the big public money came into play first in the late 1920s and early '30s, then again on a grander scale in the post-war boom years of the late 1940s and early '50s, when the federal government started sluicing out vast sums for local flood control and other programs like the euphemistically titled "urban renewal" program. (Snickering land promoters of the time called it "negro removal.")

In the late 1940s, there was one particular sticking point in the grand scheme to dike the Trinity and turn the mudflats into an industrial and warehouse district. The encumbrance was a place called Eagle Ford, where West Dallas is now. Eagle Ford had always been vulnerable to flood. It wasn't serviced by sewers or drains. The city had encouraged black families to settle there. Ads for property in Eagle Ford were listed in the classified sections of the local newspapers under "Colored Lots."

During the period after the war when African-Americans were flooding into the city in search of jobs, there were few other places in the still rigidly segregated city where they could settle. So the population of Eagle Ford grew by 1500 percent in the 1940s.

By white standards it was a black hellhole, a jumble of dirt lanes and little frame "shotgun" houses on stubby stilts, with trash blowing in the streets, typhoid brewing in the wells, and infant mortality rates to rival the worst of the Third World. But to black people coming to the city with nothing, owning one's own home in Eagle Ford was a stake, even a leg up. It was home ownership--the same tough but promising start that all the waves of immigrants to American cities have had to make at some point in their own beginnings.

The problem was that the people who wanted to redevelop West Dallas and the Trinity River floodway as industrial property needed Eagle Ford in order to make it all work. It was in the middle of their strategic map--one of the pieces they needed to make the whole deal happen.

The new federal programs, which brought with them the power of eminent domain--the ability to order people off their own land whether they wanted to go or not--supplied the river schemers with the power to coerce. It was a morally smelly business, especially in a place where people bragged about their belief in private property rights.

In early 1950, the Morning News published a series of articles detailing miserable living conditions endured by residents of Eagle Ford. The publication of the series was an unparalleled outpouring of empathy, unlike any feeling in the white community before Eagle Ford had become a desirable piece of real estate or after. In a sense, the journalists who executed the series, whether consciously or not, functioned as the Empathy Marines, sent in to soften up the beachhead before a total takeover.

Some people, including "liberals" of the era, took comfort in the promise that the dispossessed black families would be compensated by a new program to herd them into massive government-owned concentration centers, specifically the new West Dallas public housing projects.

A few lonely voices in the power structure called it by its name--a jackboot land-grab. At a Dallas Chamber of Commerce meeting in 1950 where the plan for the Eagle Ford confiscation was unveiled, John W. Carpenter spoke against it. Carpenter was president of the Chamber at the time. He rose to his feet and said, "I don't think it's right to condemn homesteads and resell them again."

He concluded a moving, emotional speech by saying, "If I were one of the people who had a home, even one of the so-called shotgun variety, I would be heartbroken if it were taken away from me by force."

Carpenter was overruled. Eagle Ford was overrun. The black families were pushed off the land and into public housing. Four decades and two generations later, white liberals in Dallas today are talking about ways to teach home-ownership skills to the residents of the West Dallas projects.

This sordid chapter, conveniently swept from view and treated as forgotten for decades, was brought back into the light of day in the late 1980s when lawyers for the plaintiffs in the Walker public housing desegregation suit recounted it to federal District Judge Jerry Buchmeyer. People close to the case at the time said Buchmeyer was personally appalled and outraged, not least by the fact that people of the stature of John Carpenter had publicly called the seizure of Eagle Ford for what it was.

There was no mystery, in other words. No one could claim to have been confused. The city leaders knew exactly what they were doing. They did it anyway--for the money.

In 1989, Buchmeyer ruled that the city had helped build a separate and unequal system of public housing in Dallas, and in that ruling he described the West Dallas projects as a "gigantic monument to segregation and neglect."

The sudden concern of white Dallas in the '50s for the plight of the people of Eagle Ford--just before they took land away from them--is not without some modern parallels. The city has been energetic in recent years about identifying areas along the Trinity that have suffered chemical contamination. Most of the worst lead and other pollution has been found in poor neighborhoods like Cadillac Heights.

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