By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
Sarge says he spends most days at his "duty station." The tall, gentle-sounding man appears to be talking about a single metal folding chair parked under a scraggly hackberry tree a block south of Dallas City Hall, just out of reach of the withering sun. But he is also clearly half out of his mind.
Sarge has positioned himself directly across a narrow side street from the First Church of Christ Scientist, a landmark classical revival-style edifice of tan brick and white stone best known for its distinctive gray metal dome. The building has been surrounded since early August with an 8-foot chain-link fence. For the last five years, Sarge lived in the front door of the sanctuary, which was all but abandoned to vandals and thieves in the late 1980s. When the fence went up, Sarge told the building's new owner, investor-developer Hershel Weisfeld, that he was expecting to be reassigned to a new post someday, so he didn't mind moving off the property.
He is still awaiting that new assignment. By all indications, though, he has moved for good to his new spot just across Browder Street. "I'm with the Army. I'm not here to watch automobiles, and I'm not security," says Sarge, who wears a Ralph Lauren button-down, a knit cap, and a pair of grimy black sneakers. "I'm here in the protocol area awaiting stationing. If you want to know more about me, go around the corner and ask the Armed Forces Director of Personnel down there at the Day Resource Center."
Not willing to volunteer anything else about his name, age, or years living on the street, Sarge says, "You have to talk to high-ranking personnel over there." Asked how he feeds himself, he says, brightening, "You can eat seven days a week 'round here. The churches come by."
The former church that Sarge has adopted as his "home" is about to become yet another cog in the near south side's engine of change, the wave of residential and commercial redevelopment in the Cedars area, which by old-time markers begins at the back door of City Hall and extends across the Interstate 30 canyon into the Old City Park area and southwest to the former Sears catalog warehouse. Weisfeld's project will become the Sara Ellen & Samuel Weisfeld Center, an alternative performing arts space for music, dance, and theater. "There'll be an endless list of opportunities to expand this part of the city culturally, like never before," Weisfeld says from his art-filled offices just off Turtle Creek. "I'm trying to be a good citizen and figure out how I can work with my neighbors."
But Weisfeld's neighbors aren't your standard next-door nuisances -- the Winnebago-parkers, the snotty adolescents, the lords of weedy lawns.
Before he put up the fence, his neighbors filled the window wells around his building with broken 40-oz. beer bottles. They crapped in his bushes and urinated on his lawn. They fell asleep on his property and threatened him and yelled obscenities when he had the nerve to wake them up. They covered his lawns and parking lots with their casually discarded styrofoam plates and cups, which had been handed them minutes before by drive-by church groups.
His neighbors are the hardcore street people who have turned nearby Ervay Street into a Champs d'Elysée of destitution. They stroll the street by the score with brown sacks of malt liquor and whatnot, from the Dallas Public Library, the city's de facto homeless day room, over the I-30 overpass, past Old City Park, and south to the Bunkhaus, a for-profit crash pad. On any given weekend, the brick shelter at 1818 S. Ervay St. is surrounded by a teeming bazaar of hookers, loan sharks, crack dealers, and now and then a vanload of charitable sorts handing out sandwiches, cold chicken, or old clothing.
Judging from the long list of people Weisfeld has talked to about his problems -- city officials, homeless-service providers, police, and neighborhood groups -- he's been busy. So far he's extracted a promise of a few more trash cans along the street and the cooperation of a few church groups that are thoughtful enough to pick up after their mass street-feedings. For the most part, however, the relationship between Weisfeld and his neighbors is symbolized by Sarge and the old church.
They sit facing each other. A stand-off.
On one side is a hip comer, one of a growing collection, with plans to expand the tax base and revitalize an area that has been a blighted backwater for more than 40 years. On the other side is a problem the city has herded from neighborhood to neighborhood, out of Deep Ellum, into the Cedars. They represent a problem nobody has managed to resolve as downtown's last frontier -- the Farmer's Market area and the southern edge of downtown, down to Corinth Street -- shows signs of new residential and commercial life. Nobody talks about the endless car burglaries and thefts and piles of excrement on the front step left by their neighbors, who many Cedars residents suspect have been deliberately concentrated in their part of town by a host of public and private policies.