This Teardown Town

South Dallas' history is in danger of being demolished, so why are so few protecting it?

One must have faith to stay there--in a church that sits directly across the street from two abandoned restaurants that have been stripped of anything worth selling, in a church where each Sunday Leatch finds drug paraphernalia and the stray used condom on the back steps, in a church abandoned by all but a few folks who come to services on Sunday morning. Preservation Dallas added Mount Olive to its list of endangered properties two weeks ago, because it will not last much longer unless City Hall acts to protect it and folks with money act to preserve it. But politicians have other priorities, like building expensive bridges that will span a drainage ditch. Who will act to save a small church in a part of town long since left for dead?

If you really want to see the state of preservation in Dallas, you need only walk out Mount Olive's front door, across MLK Boulevard and over to the South Boulevard-Park Row Landmark District. There, it's almost a tale of two cities within the span of two blocks. South Boulevard is the Swiss Avenue of South Dallas, the former home of such prominent businessmen as Neiman Marcus founder Herbert Marcus, liquor merchant Harry Sigel and real estate magnate Henry S. Miller. Their houses were designed by some of this city's best and best-known architects, including J. Edward Overbeck and Roscoe DeWitt, and many were bought in recent years by upwardly mobile African-American families who respected the neighborhood's history and who restored those homes to the point where some look almost brand-new. The houses will forever need tending to--"It's like having another child," says Gilbert Gerst Jr., who owns the old Levi Marcus home at 2707 South Blvd. --but they're safe, a bit of Dallas' past likely to survive the future.

But Park Row is not so fortunate. Some of its homes are in great shape, cared for by owners who take pride in living in a historic district. Charles Bolden and his wife, Jeanette, and their two daughters moved into 2521 Park Row (not so incidentally, my father's childhood home) in 1987, and he's redone the plumbing, wiring and most of the interior. "I can never leave here," says Bolden, who grew up in Queen City. "This house has taken all my 30s and now my 40s. It took a lot out of me."

Jackie Leatch has to not only rebuild her dwindling flock 
at Mount Olive, but also save a church in need of serious 
restoration.
Mark Graham
Jackie Leatch has to not only rebuild her dwindling flock at Mount Olive, but also save a church in need of serious restoration.

And he's done this work living directly across the street from a house that looks as though it should have collapsed yesterday. For years Bolden and his wife, who is the block captain, have tried to get the city to do something about the house at 2522 Park Row, which looks like it's ready for Christmas, its front papered with red and green code-violation notices. The Landmark Commission insisted that since it was in a historic district, the house needed to be repaired, lest it turn into one more vacant lot. But the city at long last agreed to tear it down--only it can't touch the place till the Texas Historical Commission gives the OK, which it hasn't done yet. And even if that house goes, there's another one two doors down in similarly bad shape, and still more one block over--some of which are no more than charred wood and tall weeds.

"It's like selective enforcement over here," Bolden says. "If the city sees you doing something to your property, they send you over to Jim Anderson and Margaret Fiskell and tie you up in red tape, and it's such a hassle. Then they have these condemned houses they don't do anything about. Sometimes it's a little discouraging. They should never have let this happen. But it's South Dallas. We were born in South Dallas, and we know that's the way it goes. I mean, our houses look like those in the M Streets, and those are gorgeous. It could be the same here, but we're in the southern sector, and nobody cares."

And the thing is, there are folks begging to buy and rebuild even the most dilapidated houses on Park Row. Shaní Dixon, who was born in Queen City 27 years ago and now works for an architectural firm in the Meadows Building, has been trying to acquire the 83-year-old house at 2409 Park Row since 2001. With two stories and 10 rooms, it was the largest residence built on Park Row and was originally the home of Horace Landauer, president of the beloved Titche-Goettinger department store. But the house, valued by DCAD at $23,280, has been empty for as long as anyone can remember, its upstairs windows long gone and its foyer full of detritus, including an abandoned baby carriage.

And according to Sandberg, the city is powerless to do anything about it. Sandberg says there are several liens attached to the house, but as long as its owner, which has been the subject of litigation for years, continues to pay the code violations, of which there have been many, and his taxes, he's free to do with it what he pleases.

"It's frustrating, but it's interesting, because I like problem-solving," Dixon says. "If you feel you're really gonna get it, it takes time, and you stick with it." She lets out a slight laugh. "I am not old yet."

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