Change Is Gonna Come

With some help from his friends, Don Williams intends to save South Dallas one block at a time

On a fiercely hot Tuesday afternoon, Yolanda Davis sits outside and watches her two children--a 10-year-old girl and a 5-year-old boy--ride bikes up and down weary Collins Avenue in South Dallas. Davis says she is 30 and does not work because she has a criminal record that keeps her from getting a job. So this is how she spends most days, perched on a patch of dirt and surrounded by friends and kinfolk who sip beer in the shade, shoot the breeze and wait for darkness before they head inside. Beneath their feet are empty cans, rusty nails and a pale green Ziploc baggie no bigger than a half-dollar--the kind in which drug dealers sell their crack rocks.

Used to be, Davis would sit outside with neighbors till three, four, five in the morning. Not anymore. She says her brother was 20-year-old Kenneth Haggerty, one of two men killed last month in a gang-related shooting at the downtown club El Angel. She worries someone's going to pull up and shoot her too.

"You be scared to go outside at night," Davis says. "Now it's too risky, because you don't know if they're going to do a drive-by. Every car that goes by, my heart gets to beating real fast."

J. McDonald Williams--"Don" to everyone who knows him--is attempting to prove private investors can do what public money can't.
J. McDonald Williams--"Don" to everyone who knows him--is attempting to prove private investors can do what public money can't.
Ann Lott at the Dallas Housing Authority says she was stunned to find that urban designer Antonio DiMambro lived in Boston.
Ann Lott at the Dallas Housing Authority says she was stunned to find that urban designer Antonio DiMambro lived in Boston.

Davis has lived in this neighborhood on the outskirts of Fair Park all her life. She says she was born and raised where she lives today, in one of the few habitable apartments in the 4524 Collins Avenue Apartments building. The place, which looks like the old Army barracks-style construction common in public housing projects of the 1950s and '60s, is owned by a man named Mark Benton, who lives in Moreno Valley, California. He is the third owner in seven years, according to Dallas County tax records, and Davis says she has never met the landlord. "He doesn't do anything but get his rent every month," Davis says. A sign outside says apartments rent for $475 a month. That does not include air conditioning. Davis recently had to buy a window unit so her mother, who is not in good health, could keep cool.

But Davis is fortunate to have air conditioning in this neighborhood, which covers more than 1,100 acres and is but a minute's drive from Fair Park. It's commonly referred to as Frazier, after the Frazier Courts projects that stood at Hatcher Street and Spring Avenue from 1942 till last year. There are dozens of homes lining the pockmarked streets that appear to have no window units at all, only open windows and tattered screens allowing in the blast-furnace breeze. Some houses barely have roofs, and many have shattered windows and plywood tacked over rotting frames.

Every now and then you will spot a new house. Along Jamaica Street there are two Habitat for Humanity homes being constructed a few yards from a house that's been painted entirely green and decorated with an enormous replica of the Chicago Bulls mascot. A longtime resident explains the place is where folks go late at night to drink beer, shoot pool and play dominoes.

The Frazier neighborhood, which contains the highest-crime area in the city, is what the poorest sections of New Orleans looked like before they were decimated by Hurricane Katrina. Some parts of it look like photos taken after the devastation. There are dozens, if not hundreds, of houses decorated with the green and red signs indicating code violations. Code enforcement officials will say there is little they can do, since many of the property owners are out of town or hard to find.

And there is little economy here at all, save for the selling of alcohol inside the liquor stores on the fringes of the neighborhood--and the selling of drugs outside them. Liquor stores are as common here as trees are in Preston Hollow; even though South Dallas accounts for only 5 percent of the city's population, 26 percent of all alcohol sales in the city are made in Frazier and the surrounding neighborhoods.

There are dozens of dispiriting statistics from here. According to the latest U.S. Census Bureau data, the median household income among the area's some 6,400 residents, 91 percent of whom are black, is $15,000. The median household income for the rest of the city is $47,000. Thirty-eight percent of the neighborhood's residents have had some high school but did not graduate, compared with 14 percent for Dallas as a whole.

"This city really sucks," Davis says. "I feel like the city has abandoned us." Davis is not alone in feeling that way.

Which is why, at this moment, there are people trying to do what the city would not and could not do for all these years. Maybe, just maybe, a lost and forgotten neighborhood is missing no more.

"It amazes me how this has happened."

The man who says that is Nathaniel "Nat" Tate, who holds in his possession the plan that may contain the blueprint to Frazier's resurrection. On another unbearable weekday afternoon, he is driving around Frazier, pointing out the places where drugs and women are sold. Tate, who once helped Bishop T.D. Jakes build The Potter's House, is now the head of Frazier Revitalization Inc. (FRI), which has a plan for redeveloping the Frazier neighborhood using private money.

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