Jilted

Old and full of potholes, a sad city remembers its mayor-bride

So I'm plugging away one day last week, and a helpful e-mail pops in from the city telling me Dallas Mayor Laura Miller will be available to the media at 4:15 p.m. in the little horseshoe off Independence Avenue just inside the Rayburn Office Building in Washington, D.C. I do remember reading in one of the local morning rags that she's up there lobbying for millions in federal money for the Fandango suspension bridge over the Trinity River.

Next day the Morning Kleenex tells me she's very excited because she thinks the Dallas delegation will wrest at least $75 million from Congress to build a suspension bridge over a drainage ditch downtown to create a tourist attraction. Let me tell you where I'm coming from.

Mexico. Went there for a brief vacation over the MLK holiday. Dull man. Dull, dull man. Wife promenading down avenida, exclaiming over architecture, bougainvillea, banyon trees, textiles. Teenage son and buddy glancing sidelong at beach, muttering about topless European women, thumbs up, thumbs down. My eyes glued to shoes.

Robert Ridley, left, moved into the  Owenwood neighborhood and re-did a house. Ken Green has lived there since he was a kid. They both want streets and sidewalks.
Mark Graham
Robert Ridley, left, moved into the Owenwood neighborhood and re-did a house. Ken Green has lived there since he was a kid. They both want streets and sidewalks.

I am exclaiming silently to myself over the great condition of the streets and curbs in Mexico. OK, it's a tourist town. But these are really great curbs, sidewalks and streets, no matter where. (Be glad you're not on vacation with me, eh?)

So now I'm back home. And the streets, curbs and sidewalks right outside my door, when compared with the ones in Mexico, are trash! Cracked-up, caved-in, buckling, crumbling trash. Giant potholes in the street. Horrible asphalt "repairs" that look like freshly shoveled donkey dung. I would call these Third World streets except that I just came from the Third World, and I didn't see anything anywhere near this bad. So what is Dallas, the Fourth World?

The mayor, who ran for office on pothole repairs, is in Washington this week and is Howard-Dean-fist-in-the-air-YEOWWWWOUGH! excited about the prospect of getting $75 million for a make-believe suspension bridge. Why do I want a make-believe suspension bridge if you can't fix my curb?

Example. Last summer the city sent out letters to people in the Owenwood Park area near southeast Dallas, just across Interstate 30 from Tenison Park, telling them the city had about $120,000 available under some new program for their little area. It could be used to improve the neighborhood in any way the neighbors saw fit.

Owenwood is an older neighborhood of small brick and frame homes, sort of a lost archipelago of Old East Dallas cut adrift when I-30 (then I-20) came blasting through in the early 1960s. Twenty-five years ago this area was widows, drug houses, guys in wheelchairs (wheeling really fast) and a few families too stubborn to move.

But the basic streetscape--old trees, gently sloping streets, vest pocket parks--was preserved by the old families who stuck. About 20 years ago gay and lesbian people, young unmarrieds and Latino families started moving in and helped fuel a renaissance.

Now it's cool. It's a tiny neighborhood. We're talking about half a dozen streets in an area three-quarters of a mile square. But on some of those streets, almost all of the houses have been smartly redone; the lawns look great; it's East Dallas meets South, with a very civilized culture, different kinds of people mutually respecting each other.

The streets and sidewalks in much of the neighborhood are a lot better than they are in the Swiss Avenue Historic District where I live, because over the years the Owenwood neighborhood has snagged every chance that came by to get things fixed. But a couple of streets in Owenwood are still really bad--jagged concrete emblems of the city's decades of "deferred maintenance" (a fancy term for urban slovenliness).

So everybody in the Owenwood neighborhood heard about the 120 grand that the city was tossing around, and they all said "streets and sidewalks, streets and sidewalks, streets and sidewalks."

Robert Ridley, head of the Owenwood Preservation Society, told me the neighborhood held a series of well-attended meetings, and the message never varied. "From our main first meeting," he said, "the concerns were our streets, our curbs and sidewalks.

"Every meeting I was in, the people that were there were complaining about the streets and sidewalks."

He said the city officials who attended the meetings told them it was up to them. "'Whatever the community wants.' We were told that at every meeting. Repeatedly it was, 'We need our streets, sidewalks and curbs fixed over here.'"

Imagine their surprise, then, when the city informed them after these months of meetings that the $120,000 would be spent on a laundry list of park repairs and "improvements," including removing basketball goals from one small park and installing a nature trail in another park the size of two house lots.

A whaaaat? A nature trail? For what? Ants?

Now, when I spoke to the park department, they backed off on the nature trail designation. It's just a trail trail. And the cost will be only $16,000 to $30,000 of the total. But, yeah, a trail. And none of the money will go to streets, curbs or sidewalks. The balance will go for lighting and other enhancements to Owenwood Park.

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