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.

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.

A couple weeks ago the eminent domain issue came to a splendidly climactic democratic grassroots moment at a very heated community meeting in the Juanita Craft Recreation Center at 4500 Spring Ave., half a mile southeast of Fair Park. The meeting started in an exercise room, but the crowd quickly grew so big the gathering had to adjourn to the center's gymnasium.

State Senator Royce West, who with County Commissioner John Wiley Price is now the co-honcho of southern Dallas politics, was trying hard to sell the crowd on the virtues of the legislation FRI was seeking without actually owning up to being for it himself. And then the moment came.

Terri Hodge, Democratic state representative from District 100, a broad band across southern Dallas including the Frazier area, took the microphone and gave a stem-winding, electrifying, stomping and cheering, roof-raising speech that ought to be in a movie.

Hodge went right to the issue of legitimacy. If the proposed eminent domain legislation was such a good idea for southern Dallas, then why hadn't some elected southern Dallas official agreed to be its sponsor?

Stabbing the air with a fist, Hodge told the crowd, "I asked every member of the South Dallas delegation, 'Which one of you has the nerve to be sponsoring an eminent domain bill in my district?'"

They came unglued. The room vibrated with cheers.

"Everyone I talked to told me that they are not sponsoring this legislation," she said. She turned toward Senator West, who was watching a bit sheepishly from a few yards away. "My senator who shares the district with me has told me that he is not sponsoring the legislation."

West shrugged and looked a little sickly. The crowd cheered at that too.

"Until they come to you," Hodge shouted, "and tell you the truth, I will be working against eminent domain legislation."

People were on their feet, cheering.

Now West was really hanging his head, but in a way that was good-natured. "Wellll," he said.

The crowd laughed, but with him, not at him. They knew they had him.

"Wellll," he said again. "I got to follow the community, and it's real apparent to me that the community is saying no."

People clapped. West promised that he would do nothing to help introduce or sponsor eminent domain legislation in Austin. They cheered.

The debate that night at Juanita Craft was a whole lot of bitter and sweet mixed together. I heard people say things that broke my heart. One guy got up and said, "Don Williams is bad news for black people."

I know that not to be true.

But in the crowd around me on the bleachers—not down front where the speakers were, but in the crowd—I also heard a wisdom born of experience. When West promised them that the proposed legislation would not touch their property, people behind me and on all sides snickered.

"Not right away," one man said.

Southern Dallas knows this: Good intentions come and go. Changes to the property law stay. That's the thing about our system. Our leaders may be smart, but the people tend to be smarter. And that's what you have to respect.

I called Hodge a few days later. She called me back after 11 p.m. She was still in her office in Austin, combing through every bill in the House, looking for the fools who may try to slide an eminent domain bill past her when they think she's not looking. She intends to catch them and then post their pictures all over southern Dallas.

Wanted posters.

Nothing got solved. Somebody still rents houses in southern Dallas with no utilities, and Williams still intends for that to stop.

It's not that Williams has been unwilling to meet with southern Dallas leadership. He told me he and his folks have been doing nothing but. But they have to meet with the leadership and get it right. And where is that leadership?

In the bleachers.

Nothing ain't easy. But this is how a free people think together. And I sure do love watching it unfold.

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