By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
"The seeds have not taken root because people are not willing to work hard enough to make them take root," says Howard, a downtown-based architect. "The board is an advisory board to the city, and the board can say, 'We think instead of giving $50,000 we should take $250,000, or every bit of our commercial loan money, and put it toward a big project.' And nobody has been willing to say, 'What a great idea. Let's make it a top priority.'"
Hicks would like to change all that. He believes you can bring a Wal-Mart into South Dallas and that one big store will give rise to dozens of tiny ones. He even mentions a major pizzeria that would like to open not only a store on Robert B. Cullum but also a strip mall with it. The problem is, Hicks explains, the property has gone from $11 a square foot to more than $60 in the wake of the Cowboys' interest in Fair Park.
The surrounding neighborhoods also have experienced a sudden jump in value. One local commercial Realtor asked Tom Jackson, who owns a garage across Fitzhugh from Smirnoff, to put his property on the market for $3 million, a staggering figure "that just made my jaw drop," Jackson says.
The Dallas County Appraisal District lists most of the houses near Fair Park as valued between $5,000 and $20,000, and for-sale signs that were on front lawns just two weeks ago have already vanished in the neighborhood off Second and Fitzhugh. And there are a number of once-beautiful homes for sale along South Boulevard, the old Jewish neighborhood off MLK.
"I think the neighborhood will evolve," says Friends of Fair Park's Craig Holcomb. "I can say this because I'm gay, but suddenly my gay brethren have figured out that the houses on South Boulevard and Park Row are as big and fancy as the houses on Swiss Avenue, except you can buy them for about a tenth as much money, and you're still 10 minutes from downtown, and you're starting to see that happen. Well, the same thing is going to start to happen all over South Dallas. People are going to start looking at it and saying, 'Gosh, this residential real estate is so undervalued, considering its proximity to downtown.'"
What then happens to the residents if gentrification occurs or developers suddenly find gold among the trash heaps? According to the census, more than half of the people living near Fair Park are renting their property. They simply will be forced to pick up and move. There have been examples of sports arenas saving poor neighborhoods--San Diego's PETCO Park, home of the Padres, is hailed as an example--but only after the baseball team agreed to partially fund the building of a hotel, condos and residential units, a garage and even a water-chilling plant. The Cowboys have said they will limit all their new construction within Fair Park's gates.
"Will there be change if the Dallas Cowboys come?" Hicks asks. "Yes, there will be significant change. Will all of the changes that occur please everyone in this community? Absolutely not. More likely than not, some people will be displaced. More likely than not, some business will be displaced--not so much because the Dallas Cowboys need the land, but because it will spur economic development, and other economic interests will come in to replace the existing economic interests and character of the residential neighborhood. Change and growth are painful...Will some fall by the wayside? Probably. Will it have a greater benefit, though, to the community? Absolutely."
But one need look no further than just over Fair Park's walls to see that you don't need the Dallas Cowboys to change a neighborhood for the better; it is possible, and it need not be so painful.
Much of Jubilee Park, a 282-acre neighborhood bound by East R.L. Thornton Freeway and East Grand Avenue and Fair Park itself, looks like every other neighborhood in the area, with its tire-strewn vacant lots and crack houses and shotgun shacks. It was all but destroyed when the nearby Ford car-manufacturing plant shut down in 1970. Yet in the middle of the neighborhood you find a beautiful park and two new buildings that serve as a community center. There's a stunning head-start school called Davids' Place, which has some 150 children between the ages of 3 and 5, along with two elementary schools, Owen Roberts and Fannie C. Harris, where kids are actually showing up after years of declining attendance. Off-duty cops and a community prosecutor patrol the area, despite the threats by drug dealers who still roam the streets. Children play on the basketball court donated by the Dallas Mavericks. Kids play football coached by an off-duty police officer. There are a few new homes, new curbs and gutters, new life.
Much more is planned, including low-income homes for families and the elderly and new retail and residential complexes along a renovated Grand Avenue. But in just a few years, with private contributions that total well into the millions, Jubilee Park has gone from a dead end to a chunk of land with a chance at survival.