Change Is Gonna Come

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

"Frankly, what Don has been able to do is to at least begin to get some of these issues on the map," Hicks says. "I was in a conversation with one of the leading philanthropists in Dallas. This person, who has donated untold tens of millions of dollars to cultural things in Dallas, said, 'You know, maybe I haven't paid enough attention to South Dallas. Maybe I haven't paid enough attention to those sorts of issues.' That is what Don has been able to do: Get his foot in the door and the thought in your head."

Don Williams is upfront about this one important point: He does not know when Frazier will begin to look one bit different than it does today. He does not know when the retail and residential developments will come or when the commercial businesses will move back in and set up shop the way Ford did before abandoning its 50-acre plant on Grand Avenue in 1968. All that stuff is in the DiMambro plan because Williams and his staff and colleagues and DiMambro himself want it there and believe it will be there, some as early as two to three years from now.

The people who live in Frazier--and who are dying at an accelerated rate, according to FCE's research--do not have much longer to wait. And the only people more impatient than they are businessmen who like their investments to start giving back almost before they are made.

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.

Williams thought this would be an easy fix--couple of years, a few million, it'll take care of itself "like any other business problem," as he puts it. That was 11 years ago, and the foundation is only this far now.

"When I came in," he says, "finally one of the community leaders over there took me aside and said, 'You know, we're not sure, but there may be a tiny shred of truth in what you're saying, but we're not sure yet.' They've heard it from everybody--politicians, business people, hustlers. They said, 'Let me tell you how things work.'"

And, usually, they don't.

But this much is certain: Without Williams, there would be no real development in Frazier. The land for the assisted-living home would not have been acquired, using money the foundation got from private investors. And the city would not be working to make Frazier a Neighborhood Improvement Project, which will allow for repaired streetlights and sidewalks and other basic infrastructure needs. And that new public housing development that is being worked on at this very moment would not exist.

Six years ago, Frazier Courts and the surrounding neighborhood were a limb the city was ready to saw off. The DHA's Ann Lott knows this as well as anyone. In 2000, her attention was toward West Dallas, where DHA was using some $200 million in U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development grants and other loans to eradicate the slums that blanketed the area. It was Lott's charge to demolish and replace the infamous public housing developments--George Loving Place, Edgar Ward Place and Elmer Scott Place--that led to the 1985 federal lawsuit known now only as "the Walker case." The DHA had a short time to exterminate decades' worth of blight.

And it did just that. Today, the Lakewest Housing Development, which is actually several different complexes and a multipurpose center (it houses, among other things, a YMCA and a Head Start) spread over more than 400 acres near Hampton and Westmoreland streets, looks almost like a suburban sanctuary. The residents are still among the poorest in the city--in some instances, rent, which is based on income, is as low as $25 a month--but the properties are clean, bright, well-tended-to, safe and hospitable. There is even a section of the development in which folks can own homes, some of which run upward of $160,000.

"There were a lot of people who would tell us to our face, even people on my staff who would say, 'Why will anyone spend $140,000 to live in West Dallas next to public housing?'" Lott says. "They would say, 'They can live anywhere in the city, why would they live there?' The answer is, some of them were raised there, went to church there and had a social conscience and wanted to be part of the process. They were never given the opportunity because there were never quality homes. It's as simple as that."

Folks down in Frazier know all about West Dallas. They have family and friends living in Lakewest, and that's where some of Frazier's residents went when their homes were leveled last year. It's what they hope for their neighborhood--that someone will come in and scrape it down to the soil and start all over again.

But Frazier wasn't on Lott's radar in 2000. She was in West Dallas and looking to the next project--probably near Cedar Springs Boulevard and Maple Avenue, she says. But that year she heard Don Williams speak at a conference about South Dallas and how people were sick there and how kids couldn't read there and about how nobody could get a job there, and she decided to make South Dallas and Frazier Courts--not to mention two other nearby housing projects in dire need of razing, Rhoads Terrace and Turner Courts--next on DHA's to-do list.

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