By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
Jim Bryant is 75 years old, walks with a cane, sometimes suffers a dry throat from medication. He gets tired. But Jim Bryant is stubborn about principle. Today he has taken his cane in hand and come downtown to City Hall yet again to continue his quarter-century-long battle with the bureaucrats.
He will fight them to his last breath, if that's what it takes. He knows he's right. He knows they are wrong.
Let me tell you the end of this story at the beginning. Jim Bryant is right. The bureaucrats are wrong. They are also lazy, self-serving and callous. But we'll get to that.
Right now Bryant is standing at the microphone before a little-known body of city government called the Urban Rehabilitation Standards Board. The URSB meets in the grand chamber of the city council, with names of the URSB board members printed in block letters on cardboard plaques taped over the engraved names of the council members who appointed them.
In a room that sometimes holds hundreds, the audience today consists of me and half a dozen worried-looking supplicants.
Bryant's voice is raspy but insistent. The city employees who occupy half of the seats at the horseshoe are silent and chilly of eye. The only thing I can think of that might add to the poignancy of the scene I see before me would be for some solemn functionary to come out, wrap Bryant's head in a black blindfold and then supply the city staffers with rifles.
"I do not own this property," he tells them again. "If I ever did own it, I don't own it now. I don't want to own it."
Here's the drill. When a building is in such bad shape that the city wants to tear it down, the case winds up before the URSB. Today's situation concerns the sorry, burned-out, fallen-in, rotting remains of what was once a cute little novelty-siding bungalow, 1,300 square feet built in 1911 at 319 Starr St., three blocks from Lake Cliff Park in Oak Cliff. Jim Bryant's father bought this house on June 4, 1951, as a rental property.
The staff wants the URSB to order Bryant to demolish this house or repair it. If he refuses, the city will demolish it and place a lien against the property for the cost of demolition.
But Bryant says he cannot and will not demolish this house because it does not belong to him. He says ownership of this and other properties passed to his father's last wife, Elizabeth Bryant, who was not his mother, when his father died of a stroke and without a will on February 2, 1963.
Later that same year, a lawyer approached Bryant and his sister and informed them that an interest in these properties also had passed to them. The lawyer, who represented the widow, asked if they would sign their interest over to her.
They said sure. They considered the property hers. Her only income was rent from this and another small house and Social Security. This was all about cleaning up deeds. So on September 12, 1963, Bryant and his wife and his sister and her husband signed "quit claim deeds," turning over their interests to their father's widow.
Elizabeth Bryant died November 18, 1977, without a will and without known heirs. Jim Bryant told other family members they could pursue ownership of the house at 319 Starr if they wanted. They didn't, and neither did he. Bryant figured that was the end of it.
But in the early 1980s, the city began dunning Bryant to fix up the house on Starr Street. In big black type at the top, the notices said "Repair or Correction of an Urban Nuisance within a Specified Time" and gave Jim Bryant's name as the miscreant who had allowed the house to fall into disrepair.
These, by the way, are criminal offenses in Dallas. A lot of people don't know that. If you get one of these notices, you're not just looking at potentially stiff fines. You could be looking at some jail time, at least in theory. That's enough to make many law-fearing citizens fold their cards and do whatever the city tells them.
Not Jim Bryant. "I'm a pretty stubborn guy," he tells me. "I don't give in very easy."
Bryant began writing to the city, at first directly to Aquila Allen, the official whose name appeared on the notices, then to other officials whose names he gleaned from various notices. For a decade he wrote letters telling Dallas city officials he did not own the house on Starr Street.
"Not one of them ever answered a single one of my letters," he told me.
Today at this hearing, the city staffers are cold and confident, but the citizen appointees to the board obviously are troubled. Board member Jim Rogers, an attorney, puts pointed questions to Tyrone McGill, the top city administrator.
"Do you have any muniment of title or affidavit of heirship to show that this man owns this property?" Rogers asks.
The answer is no. But McGill and his staff are adamant that Bryant does own the property. They shrug off his quit-claim deed, saying they have been unable to find any official record of the deed recorded with the county clerk.