City Hall's Slam-Dunk Gang

Quick--someone take a pulse. The Dallas City Council hasn't peeped in months. And John Ware and Ron Kirk are looking awfully well-fed.

The manager took them.
"You can imagine the embarrassment that council member Mayes must have felt," Martin says, "to be telling us, 'It's on the bond program,' and then we do the research and it's not. And this is to a community that's done the work on this for years and years."

Derrick Mitchem is a 30-year-old, second-generation, professional drag-car racer, well known on the national circuit, who grew up in Dallas. Nine months ago he bought a funky, falling-down building in South Dallas--the original headquarters of the Bama Pie Co.

Named for the lady who originally baked them, Cornelia Alabama Marshall, Bama Pies are little pecan confections you can still find in some convenience stores. The pies gave birth to what is now a mammoth food-processing corporation headquartered in Tulsa, run by Bama Marshall's granddaughter.

Mitchem, a rangy, good-natured, quick-smiling guy with a lot of energy, wants to restore the old Bama Pie Company as a historic site and set it up as the new headquarters for his racing company. Leaning on the trunk of a car next to the building recently, he proudly displayed architectural renderings and a raft of letters from preservation experts saying his project had real merit.

He stumbled on the property and ordinarily would never have considered investing in that area. He's from a relatively privileged background. The blasted area around the old Bama building isn't where he grew up. But something about the place and the idea spoke deeply to him.

"Can you imagine?" he says, nodding toward kids picking their way across a littered intersection a week ago. "I want to use part of it for a display room for historic race cars, so kids could come and look in the window and see them. Can you imagine what that could do for this area?"

He says that six months ago he was told by more than one City Council member there could be as much as $150,000 to $250,000 in local community-development financing available for his project.

"Now they just say, 'It's not there anymore.' That's all I'm getting. 'It's not there.'"

He turns, looks at his building, and exhales a mighty sigh. "This is something that really hits hard to me," he says. "This is my life. This is something that I want to do."

Of course, beneath the surface of the bad news, there is wonderful news. It's a mysterious blessing on us all that the city even has people in it like Vikki Martin and Derrick Mitchem, people who weave the fabric of community around them according to some spiritual warp even they probably don't fully understand.

The weavers of community enjoy successes, even without money. Usually without money. And they do get help from good people who work for the city.

Jonathan Sterling is a 29-year-old laborer from New Hampshire who has put down roots in a bitter landscape of bottle shards and discarded drug needles along the Santa Fe tracks in East Dallas. He and his young wife own two old sun-bleached houses that rise above the ruined dirt like shipwrecks. They have helped organize the neighborhood around a host of causes.

He conducted a walking tour, proudly showing off the vacant lots where he has persuaded someone to dump truckloads of chip-mulch, steaming on a cool morning recently. "We're trying to create a layer of earth between the glass and the children's feet," he said.

He showed off the best houses on his block and the apartment buildings where landlords have been persuaded to haul off years of accumulated trash.

The end of the tour was his pride and joy--a scrawny park next to the tracks where the Parks Department has built a tidy tin-roofed pavilion with a concrete floor. Parks workers have put in sandboxes and a wooden climbing structure and will soon plant trees.

It's a patch of orderly green in a world of chaos--a sign that someone cares.

"The city built that pavilion," he says, as if announcing the Miracle at Lourdes. "They work with us all the time to keep this park like it is, really nice. They have a Central Services Team that comes in and sets up meetings between us and the people in the city we need to get to help us.

"We are very, very happy with this program and with the help we've gotten from the city," he says.

Those are the people who build the city anyway--the grassroots community builders and the hands-on city employees who work with them. They are the pillars. The city doesn't spill out of a sports arena. It grows up organically from places where someone found a way to create new soil between the glass and the feet of playing children.

There are all kinds of people who work for the city who want to do good work, who draw satisfaction from helping build the community, just as grassroots organizers do. The single-member system was supposed to have reached up from the grassroots, found the outreached hands of help from City Hall, and helped both sides accomplish together the quiet thatching of community.

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