Taking It to the Street

Want to get elected to city council in southern Dallas? Forget the race card and patch that pothole.

This little stretch of Parry Avenue, just northeast of Fair Park, isn't the street of broken dreams. Not yet, anyway. The dream here is still tangible and exciting. But it has definitely taken some hits. Parry Avenue is a bitter window on what everybody in every neighborhood is going through these days. It illustrates the tension between what Dallas always says it's going to do--get bigger, better, more international, blah blah blah, sell sell sell--vs. what actually happens. Two years ago, the volunteer agency Habitat for Humanity came in and built small, neat brick-fronted homes on both sides of Parry's 4500 block. This had been a lost pocket of southern Dallas left behind by the white flight of the 1950s, out of view, squeezed behind everybody else's freeway project and industrial park and almost totally trashed out. Ticky-tacky frame houses had fallen on their knees and elbows in the weedy gumbo soil. Some were wooden caves inhabited by drug pirates.

So here today is this tidy little avenue of sturdy working-class homes. When people open their doors, you can see the pride inside, the careful rows of bric-a-brac above the big-screen TV and the plush carpeting still remarkably fresh after two years of rampaging children.

Habitat, its volunteers and supporters, and the families who were able to move in under Habitat's income guidelines have invested heart, money, and blood, working to transform a terrain of ruin into a green pocket of decency and hope. The dream is almost there.

But it's also visibly slipping away, because the part of this scene that belongs to the city of Dallas--the street itself--looks like hell.

Two years after Habitat finished building the houses and people began moving in, there still are no curbs on this block. No gutters. No connection to a storm sewer. No sidewalks. It doesn't even look like an urban street. It looks like what you would expect to see in an all-cousin trailer park. Rain slides off the tarry surface of the street and floods up over the footpaths where sidewalks were supposed to go, turning the soil to gelatinous brown soup.

Up and down the block, in spite of the residents' efforts, there are unmistakable signs of disrespect. Someone has come in during the night and dumped trash on a vacant lot. Blowing litter is glued down in the mud on the sides of the street. It's the kind of thing you just don't see on a street that looks tight, looks right, looks like somebody's policing up the area on a regular basis.

On this particular day, two candidates are walking the block--Jeannette Brantley-Wango, running for the District 7 city council seat currently occupied by Charlotte Mayes, and Margaret Donnelly, waging a longshot campaign for mayor. Those races and all of the other city council seats will be decided in the May 1 municipal election.

Maria Ruiz, a compact woman with a 6-year-old and a 7-year-old in the house, won't immediately open the door for strangers. But when she darkens the peephole, she must spy something, perhaps the campaign literature. She changes her mind, and the door flies open.

Mrs. Ruiz, eyes lighted by a predatory gleam, sees fresh meat in front of her house--do-gooder, promise-making suits who want something from her. She rubs her hands together and starts belting it out.

The street. The curbs. The gutters. The sidewalks.
Both Donnelly and Brantley-Wango offer her political push cards covering broader topics such as economic development and public accountability, but she's not buying, not listening, not looking.

The street. The curbs. The gutters. The sidewalks.
Up and down the street today it's the same story from everyone. Abel Arriga Jr., who speaks little English, turns to Donnelly, who grew up in Venezuela, and says the same things in Spanish: "Las aceras, los arroyos."

Elaine Echols is shooing in children from the car. She moved here from Oak Cliff two years ago and loves it. "The neighborhood's wonderful," she says. "It's peaceful. It's actually quiet. Habitat's been wonderful."

But she wants to talk about the street, the curbs, the gutters, the sidewalks. Where are the sidewalks?

"I was led to believe we would have sidewalks," she says. "But right in front of our house we have holes where the water just sits if it rains. They get full of mosquitoes."

She says she has given up on the city. "I tried to contact someone, and they never even called me back. So I said OK, forget it."

The big picture is coming in loud and clear to both candidates: The big picture is at their feet. If they start talking about anything that's more than six inches off the ground, they're losing votes.

A few nights later at a candidates forum at South Oak Cliff High School, most of the men and women seeking the District 7 seat appear and give short speeches. The forum is sponsored by some union locals and ACORN, which is a Saul Alinsky-style grassroots organizing group with a long history in this part of the city. The evening's theme is supposed to be "A Living Wage." The sponsors want all the candidates to sign a pledge saying that, if elected, they will vote in favor of an ordinance requiring the city of Dallas to do business only with contractors willing to pay at least $8 to $9 an hour for labor.

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