Change Is Gonna Come

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

"Did you know there's a guy living in there that cranks the walls in his house with a wrench?" says Tate, whose Frazier Revitalization Inc. is the latest offshoot of the Foundation for Community Empowerment (FCE), which was founded in 1995 by then-Trammell Crow Co. Chairman J. McDonald Williams, a powerful man with connections to powerful people who, according to the story he likes to tell, woke up one day and realized he needed to direct some of that power toward the powerless in this city. Tate is among those Williams has appointed to carry out his mission, which, at this moment, is more dream than reality, but more about that in a moment. First, back to reality.

"Every three, four weeks he has to do it to keep the walls from falling down," Tate says, "and I ask myself, how did a community get to such decline? Is it that the people don't care? Is it that the city doesn't care? They don't give a rip? I'm from New York City. You go to Harlem today, and it's a mecca. I mean, it is beautiful. But the other day I took two professors through this community, and they said, 'This is worse than the deepest parts of Mississippi.' But we'll get there. It might take two or three years before people notice it, but we will get there."

The neighborhood's heard this before. God knows how many plans have been cooked up to save South Dallas, how many false prophets have stood at the corner of Misery and Ruin and shouted about impending salvation. And God knows how many times those vows were shattered and Frazier and the surrounding neighborhoods were left to fend for themselves. Today, when you tell people who live in the ramshackle homes that someone's got a plan to fix their neighborhood, they laugh, roll their eyes and wave their hands.

Nat Tate is spearheading the effort to revitalize Frazier by acquiring and developing property in the area.
Nat Tate is spearheading the effort to revitalize Frazier by acquiring and developing property in the area.
Collins Avenue apartment complex
Collins Avenue apartment complex

"Ha!" shouts one woman walking down Collins Avenue when informed of the latest venture to rescue South Dallas. "They'll patch it up and swear they did something." And she keeps on walking and laughing.

But FRI might--and one must always preface promise of rebirth down there with a mighty big might--be the thing that turns around Frazier. It's using as its foundation some significant development that's already taking place near Fair Park. Just last year, the Dallas Housing Authority tore down the 109 units of the 60-year-old Frazier Court housing project and has begun construction on 76 units of public housing that look less like Army barracks than miniature versions of houses you might find in the suburbs of Far North Dallas. It's the first phase of five that, when completed, will include 40 single-family homes, more than 300 rental units, a 18,000-square-foot Head Start facility and some retail properties.

At least a third of DHA's development is to be paid for by $20 million in Housing Opportunities for People Everywhere (HOPE) VI federal grant money. (HOPE VI grants were created in 1992 to upgrade the country's worst public housing units.) DHA also received from the city 9 percent tax credits, worth an estimated $5.4 million; the city also kicked in $282,000 in federal community block development grant money. Two years ago, the Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs awarded DHA half a million dollars' worth of tax credits. The rest of the money will come from bank loans and Affordable Housing Program loans made by the Federal Home Loan Bank. All told, DHA says the project will cost $60 million.

For the first time in decades, there is real progress in Frazier. The bulldozers are churning; the bricklayers are spreading mortar; the carpenters are hammering nails. And FRI is about to close on a deal that would turn a piece of land across the street from the Shearith Israel cemetery on Dolphin Road, where a small church now sits, into a 150-unit assisted-living center, the first of its kind in the neighborhood.

And there is a master plan in hand--not the first of its kind but, swears Williams, the last. Like many in this city's recent history, it was created by renowned Boston-based urban planner Antonio DiMambro, whose relationship with the city goes back as far as the Dallas Plan of the early 1990s.

DiMambro's vision for Frazier includes not only the new public housing but affordable single-family homes and town homes and apartment buildings where empty lots and antiquated houses now sit; mixed-use retail and residential development along Scyene Boulevard and Second Avenue, which are dotted with liquor stores and no-tell motels; walking and jogging paths along a drainage ditch that runs through the neighborhood; and even a "town center" where Spring Avenue and Lagow Street intersect. That is not far from where DART is planning on putting light rail stops along Scyene Boulevard--a major impetus for future retail development, Williams insists.

DiMambro, the Foundation for Community Empowerment and city employees have broken down every square foot of the neighborhood; they know how many buildings there are (2,338), down to the number of "residential sheds and garages that are usually found in the backyards of homes" (312). They know that there are 165 vacant and/or abandoned buildings in the neighborhood, and they know that almost half of the structures in Frazier (precisely 1,014) are in poor condition and that perhaps only 1,000 will be recoverable if and when redevelopment takes place.

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