Tribal vengeance

In primitive land, high price paid for speaking out of turn

"That all changed when Redbird Mall got built," he said.

Redbird Mall was completed in 1975, a few miles from them and upstream in the watershed. All the water that used to soak slowly into the ground now slid off the surface of the mall in a slick sheet and gathered in foamy brown floods at the storm-sewer grates. In rainy seasons, Woody Branch Creek changed from a country trickle to a dirt-gouging, root-ripping torrent.

By then the city had learned a new trick. In the old days, the city retained ownership of creek beds. But that just meant the city was responsible for keeping them up.

The Dallas City Council and the city manager's staff have decreed that Melton and Cora Barnes cannot have protection for their dangerously eroding property because they spoke to the Dallas Observer.
Peter Calvin
The Dallas City Council and the city manager's staff have decreed that Melton and Cora Barnes cannot have protection for their dangerously eroding property because they spoke to the Dallas Observer.

In the 1960s, when real estate development was already turning the watersheds into hydrological chaos, the city of Dallas managed to duck out of its responsibility for the creeks. The city began requiring developers to draw their plat maps so that ownership of the creeks themselves pertained to the adjacent private lot owners along the banks, as if the homeowners would know what to do with all of the water from Redbird damn Mall.

By the early '90s, many houses up and down Woody Branch Creek were in serious danger of collapsing and plunging over the brink. Even though the city had weaseled out of its legal responsibility to help the homeowners, the city council saw some political mileage in saving the lives of at least the nicer people.

Melton Barnes, meanwhile, had been hounding the city relentlessly over the huge storm-water pipe it had aimed at him in 1985. After the pipe already had gouged away half his mother-in-law's bank, he persuaded the city to modify it. They put a 45-degree angle on the end, so that now it is aimed directly at his property instead.

As part of the political deal to decide which homeowners on Woody Branch Creek would get protection from the '95 bond issue, the staff asked Duncan to request of the neighborhood that it tell Barnes to stop bothering them about the pipe.

"We specifically talked about that at the meetings I had with the homeowners," Duncan said. "The discussion was, 'Quit bugging the staff. You're not going to get their cooperation if you pester them every 24 hours.'"

Duncan says Barnes agreed to back off. Barnes tells the same story. "He said I was a pest. He told the homeowners meeting, 'If Mr. Barnes will agree to not go bother the city anymore, I might be able to get the money for this project.'"

Barnes agreed. But when the list of homeowners to be helped came out, he wasn't on it. Nor was his mother-in-law.

He panicked. If everyone else got a rock wall, if he did not--if he and his mother-in-law were the soft spot in the creek bank, and if the city's pipe continued to be aimed at him--he figured he was dead meat.

The pictures seem to bear him out. Barnes was a pressroom supervisor for big printing companies all his life. I don't think he's unintelligent, nor is his wife. They're not what I would call politically sophisticated. But the underlying truth is that when they found out three years ago that they weren't on the list for protection, they were in their 70s; they had paid taxes to the city of Dallas for 30 years; this house was everything they had; and they were scared.

"So I called the media," he told me. "Actually, I called The Dallas Morning News first, but they weren't interested. I couldn't get the TV out here, either. So I called the Dallas Observer."

We understand.

On July 24, 1997, the Observer published a story by Rose Farley called "Slip sliding away: A South Dallas couple takes on the city to save back yard."

Farley's story reported that the city had jimmied its own priority list in order to move several properties up ahead of the Barneses, including some that clearly were not as threatened as the Barnes property.

For example, one homeowner whose house was much less threatened but who nevertheless was given a big flood job by the city was then-city Councilman Don Hicks. Talking on his car phone to Rose Farley, Hicks said, "It's all right for a councilman to get some of his property fixed, isn't it?"

I talked to Steve Parker, a city engineer who has worked on this issue. Tongue-in-cheek, he said, "I am Mr. Barnes' personal city engineer. I'm the guy who gets up to speak at the property owners meetings so Mr. Barnes can stand up and disparage my character and I can respond politely."

I asked why properties were shifted up and down the list of those to be protected, especially if the list was supposed to reflect all kinds of engineering study and objective criteria. He told me that the ultimate decision on who gets helped and who doesn't "is up to the council."

I asked Duncan why people got moved up and down the list. Duncan explained to me that the money needed to protect the last three properties on the creek, including the Barneses, was in a fund controlled by city staff, not by him. "In order to get that transferred over, I had to have staff cooperation. I was so nice it hurt."

After the Observer article ran in 1997, Duncan says the price of staff cooperation was for the Barneses to go over the cliff. No help for them. Ever.

Duncan paid it.

This, brothers and sisters, is what we proudly call "The Civilized World."

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