Change Is Gonna Come

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

(In the interest of full disclosure: Initially, this story was to be solely about FCE and Williams. Only after I began interviewing the principals did I discover they were planning to rehab the neighborhood in which my grandfather's, and now my father's, auto parts store has been since 1955, on Second Avenue. Though Foundation for Community Empowerment officials say they have met with more than 100 members of the neighborhood--the so-called stakeholders--they've never spoken with my dad, who's as much a stakeholder in Frazier as anyone, even though DiMambro classifies the auto parts store under the "undesirable land use" category in his site analysis of the neighborhood. "Well, when you live in shit, you look like shit," my old man says.)

Sketches in DiMambro's master plan make Frazier look as happening as the West Village and as wholesome as Disneyland. It's multi-ethnic, a rainbow coalition of those willing to live in a former slum three miles from downtown. It's bright and busy, with some white girl putting groceries into her red scooter while behind her two elderly black women stroll arm-in-arm. A white girl reads next to a stream, and nearby a black man in shorts pushes his bike down a crowded jogging path. Banners hanging along wide streets advertise jazz fests and banks. Apartment complexes rise from small forests, with "tot lots" inviting the kiddies to frolic beneath lush green shade. Retail and commercial sites line heavily trafficked thoroughfares.

"You have to make sure the community owns the plan," DiMambro says. "They have to know it's not something that came from downtown. It came from them and is then brought to the attention of downtown. In a way, that's how I worked with these people. Housing is only one component. The transportation is also a critical element, and they fought to add the DART station at the edge of the neighborhood. It will make a big difference; people need to have access. They want to see things there that are going to serve them."

Collins Avenue apartment complex
Collins Avenue apartment complex
Yolanda Davis, far right, with her 5-year-old son, says she has lived her whole life in the Collins Avenue apartment complex that's owned by a California landlord she's never met.
Yolanda Davis, far right, with her 5-year-old son, says she has lived her whole life in the Collins Avenue apartment complex that's owned by a California landlord she's never met.

But what, in the end, makes this promise any different from the dozens of broken promises? Why should anyone believe this fairy-tale vision whose happy ending is years away from being in sight?


Maybe the answer is as simple as one man: Don Williams, at least to those who know and work with him, which happens to include everyone from the mayor to most of the wealthiest people in this city. Without Williams, Ann Lott, president and chief executive officer of the Dallas Housing Authority, would have never been interested in South Dallas. Without him, DiMambro would not have been involved in Frazier's rejuvenation. Without him, there would have been no affordable housing task force.

Is he the savior of South Dallas, of Frazier? That is certainly his goal, and if he does not say so in such blunt terms, do not doubt that the man who ran Trammell Crow for 17 years considers himself capable of anything. He cannot do it alone, of course. He will need his rich friends to reach into their deep wallets; their green will be needed to seed dirty patches of Frazier and beyond. They will have to commit their businesses to South Dallas in ways they never have. They will have to prove they're not only wealthy but also willing to let their money grow in a place where nothing ever takes root save poverty.

"What we do is we bridge," Williams says. "I've got some degree of credibility in the business community and the philanthropic community and, in some levels, in the political community, and it takes all of those in appropriate partnerships with community leaders and organizations to effect real changes. You know there's a problem, but our interest is in large-scale system change, and I have become convinced that it is through empowering the neighborhood...You've got to have grassroots relationships, and you've got to have relationships with the power structures. Otherwise, things don't change."

From the 32nd floor of the Trammell Crow building downtown--the Foundation for Community Empowerment's Spartan offices are across the hall from Trammell Crow's headquarters--Williams, who is still chairman emeritus, likes to tell the story about "the re-education of a white downtown business boy" who went to South Dallas a smart guy and came back a humbled one. He recounts how, one afternoon in 1995, he went to Lincoln High School to visit with the famously short-tempered principal there, the late Napoleon Lewis, who was once seen as the educational (and, some would have said, spiritual) leader of all of southern Dallas. Williams had just shown up out of nowhere, figuring a "big-shot downtown boy" didn't need to make an appointment. Lewis agreed to see Williams and listened to him talk for about half an hour, but Williams could tell the principal didn't give one damn about what the Trammell Crow CEO had to say.

"I was really miffed," Williams says. "So I said, 'Dr. Lewis, I really appreciate and respect you a great deal, and if there is anything we can do to be useful to you, let me know.' I was prepared to leave, and he said, 'Sit down, boy. You know, boy, I've been listening to you for a while, and I've been trying to figure out what your hustle is.' I said, 'Sir, you know Trammell Crow Company is not going to be doing any projects over here. I'm not making any investments. I'm not running for any political office. I just care about these issues, so what you see is what you get.' And he said, 'Then you're the first white businessman to come into Lincoln High School in the 25 years that I've been here that didn't have a hustle.' That was the closest I had to an epiphany. I saw what the trust levels were. I knew then I had to step back and listen."

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