Vox Populi

Wait a minute...There's democracy in Dallas?

One of the things you hope you get to see every once in a while in a democracy—at least catch glimpses of—is democracy. Those of us who are over 21 and have attended a county fair or two know better than to expect to find it just lying around on the ground.

It's more like the ivory-billed woodpecker, that rare bird they're looking for in Arkansas—a flash, a flicker, a fragment of song. But democracy's out there flying around. I know. I have seen it with these very eyes. Just recently, in fact. And it was so...

Marvelous! Stunning! Exciting! Took my breath away.

Don Williams has good intentions, but he was backing a losing bill.
Don Williams has good intentions, but he was backing a losing bill.

We need a little back story here. You may have heard of a guy named J. McDonald "Don" Williams, retired chairman of Trammell Crow Co., founder in 1995 of the Foundation for Community Empowerment, or FCE. The FCE secures and leverages grants and other money for what it calls "asset development" in southern Dallas. Shorthand might be to say FCE tries to bolster what's already there that's good more than it tries to replace what's bad.

Don Williams is a rich white guy who made his money in real estate. Southern Dallas is the historically black part of the city. Like white North Dallas, southern Dallas is an artifact of racial segregation.

Unlike North Dallas where people see God basically as the first real estate developer, southern Dallas views developers, especially rich white ones, with enormous mistrust based on a century of legitimate grievances, none of which is ever forgotten at all, or should be.

So Williams has a hill to climb, eh?

FCE has been out there on the front lines in southern Dallas for more than a decade now working for change in the schools, leveraging grant money for neighborhood redevelopment, funding research. That entire time I've been asking black leaders in southern Dallas every little chance I get, "What's the worst thing you can tell me about Don Williams?"

Not that I'm picking on Williams. I ask that about everybody. (For the best things that can be said about people, please see "Steve Blow," The Dallas Morning News.)

When I ask about Williams, the answers I get are always that he's cool. I get that even from people who have a general aesthetic distaste for white people. It's pretty impressive. If you ever ask that question about me in southern Dallas, make sure not to tell me what you hear.

Two years ago FCE helped set up a thing called Frazier Revitalization Inc., or FRI, to spur redevelopment of the very poor African-American neighborhoods east of Fair Park. This is an area that has felt the sharp backhand of the white community across its face many times.

In the 1930s, for example, when city leaders were developing Fair Park for the 1936 Texas Centennial Exhibition, streets in this area were renamed with code words such as "Congo" to warn away white people. Most of those street names have been changed back, but Congo Street remains, and we can hope it will remain as Congo Street forever. May it stand as an emblem of pride.

But the rest of the story on the ground right now in the Frazier neighborhood is bitter and bleak beyond belief. Don Williams said to me on the phone the other day, "Did you know there are actually houses you can rent over there that do not have any utilities? They have no water, no electricity. It's just astonishing."

No. I did not know that. Did you? Did you know we allow people in this city to collect rent on human habitations where there is no electricity and no water, therefore no plumbing?

This year Frazier committed a political misstep, I think, by going to Austin to seek a change in state law on the use of eminent domain for neighborhood revitalization. FRI wanted the city to be able to take private property in the Frazier neighborhood and turn it over to private interests for redevelopment.

Somebody forgot to read the history. In southern Dallas, eminent domain is a phrase only slightly less odious than the old man himself, Jim Crow. To this day northern and southern Dallas see the same history from shockingly different perspectives. The late Erik Jonsson, a founder of Texas Instruments and mayor of Dallas from 1964 to '71, is still viewed in the north almost as a sainted visionary. In the south he's the arrogant white bastard who used eminent domain to steal homes and businesses from black people around Fair Park in the late 1960s.

White people have always had a divided theory of property rights in this country. If it's white property, the right of ownership is almost absolute. But if it's black property, the rights of ownership are something less. Hence Dallas, like most American cities, has seen waves of property seizure—sometimes called slum clearance, sometimes called flood control, whatever—in which eminent domain has been used to seize black-owned property.

Black Dallas knows that. Black Dallas hates eminent domain. FRI didn't have that figured out.

FRI's attempt to use eminent domain for its own purposes was one of those politically maladroit moves that just gives you a toothache to watch. The Frazier Revitalization effort is a sincere and intelligent attempt to resolve pressing, legitimate problems. Hopelessly tangled land titles, liens, back taxes and convoluted heirships are a common barrier to acquiring land for redevelopment in the Fair Park area. It is also the case that a single noxious property—and some properties in this area take noxious to a whole new level—can kill the dream of revitalization for blocks around. It's sort of the real estate equivalent of Chernobyl. You can't clean it up unless you clean deep and clean big.

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