Down the River

Mayor Kirk says the Trinity River project will protect "thousands of black families." But the area to be protected actually looks like this.
Mark Graham

All right, let's get in the car and go settle this thing. A couple of weeks ago Dallas Mayor Ron Kirk shouted at me on the telephone and said I didn't care about the "thousands of black families all over South Dallas" who won't be protected from floods if the city doesn't build the Trinity River project.

I'm not quite sure how this got so personal. I'm a columnist for the Dallas Observer. The people who really slammed the Trinity River project a couple of weeks ago were the U.S. Office of Management and Budget, directly under the president. Why doesn't he go beat up on the president?

Then again, I guess he tried. Right after the OMB issued its scathing report characterizing the Trinity River project as deceptive and inefficient, both Kirk and the editors of The Dallas Morning News tried to paint the OMB as some obscure federal agency that rode in "at the 11th hour" to sabotage a fine public works program.

Obscure? That's a major reach. It seems to be true that the OMB's criticism of the Trinity project was unusual, in both its depth and emphatic tone.

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But what should that tell us? The president is from here. He was a golf buddy with all of the types who are pushing this thing. What do you think it took for his administration to produce this kind of near indictment? Something here had to look really bad to somebody really big, or this just would not have happened.

The mayor and that other famous font of social progressivism, the Army Corps of Engineers, say that this project will protect black families that never were protected by white-dominated flood projects of the past. I do happen to know this history. I wrote it, as a matter of fact. Until my 1986 book, The Accommodation, not a single Dallas author or historian ever had looked at the way the river interests in Dallas have used federal flood control projects to dispossess African-American families of their property, herd them into public housing camps and push them down river into even more flood-prone areas.

But let's don't do history lessons. The mayor says I don't care about the "thousands of black families" his project is going to help. So, please, hop in the car here with me, and let's go look at these families.

With me today I have brought a couple of documents that will prove invaluable to our endeavor, Plates A-37 and A-38 of a Corps of Engineers publication called "General Reevaluation Report and Integrated Environmental Impact Statement, Dallas Floodway Extension." The whole report occupies two fat ring binders, but these two maps happen to show exactly what property in Southern Dallas will be protected by the project if it is ever built.

Both documents are hydrological maps. One is of a pretty bad flood, the kind we could expect once every 100 years. The other is of a really terrible flood, the Noah flood, which we might expect once every 800 years.

The most striking feature of these maps is that they both show the Trinity project offering no new protection at all to most of Southern Dallas. Especially for the 100-year flood, the red squiggly line that shows how things are now without the project is drawn right on top of the blue line that shows where the water will go after the project is built.

In fact, that was the biggest criticism offered by the OMB. The OMB said it didn't understand why the federal government should spend tens of millions of dollars on levees in Southern Dallas when almost all of the new flood protection offered by the project is north of this area, in downtown.

But to be fair, there are a few small areas in the South that the plan would protect, especially from the Noah flood--areas not protected now.

OK, we're rolling. If you will look out your window on the passenger side as we proceed south on Lamar, to the west toward the river, you will find yourself right about now viewing the largest area of new protection. As you see, the first family whose home we are passing lives in an enormous corrugated tin and concrete structure, the Draggon Industries Inc. family. To be precise, I think that's the DimCO Steel Division of the Draggon Industries Inc. family. Interesting folks, huge place, serious about yard work.

All right, next door to the Draggons, we have the $Best$ Scrap Metal family in another quite large residence. Now we're going by the Kilo's Beer & Wine family. Looks like there may be a reunion going on there. Next door you see the home of the Gold Metal Family. I wonder if I knew their son in college.  

Now I have pulled over to recheck Plates A-37 and A-38 against my Mapsco. Yeah, that's right. Look, I feel that I need to be precise here with you about what we're looking at. It's true that right across Lamar on the other side of the street there are normal-looking residential areas. But those areas are already protected both by Lamar Street itself, which is built up and acts as a levee, and quite a bit farther down by the existing Rochester Park levee, which the city built some years ago.

The new protection that would be offered by the Trinity River project will protect the first block of houses into that neighborhood on the other side of Lamar, but that's it. We're talking a few dozen homes. The hundreds of houses beyond that first block get nothing--no new or additional protection. All the main protection is out your window, toward the west and the river, on the other side of Lamar.

To continue our tour of the proposed newly protected area, then, we are now passing the home of the Okon Metals clan, good folks all, I'm sure; The Trinity Recycling Family; oh, and here are some people I feel as if I have known all my life! So this is where Elsie the cow lives, in this big mansion owned by the Borden Dairy family. They have her picture right on the front gate.

I actually feel kind of good about Elsie being protected. You go, girl. But I always thought Elsie was white.

Now, hang on a minute, because we need to get on the viaduct and cross the river. On the other side of the river, where this turns into State Highway 310, we will be passing through the other significant area of new flood protection offered by Mayor Kirk's river plan, according to plates A-37 and A-38. This proposed protected area is actually going to be out my window on the east side of the highway.

Oh wow. The first home here belongs to the K-Line family. They collect railroad boxcars. I think they may have gone a bit overboard. I wonder where they made their money.

And now finally the big one. The really big show. Here at the down-river end of the protected area, the part of the city where Mayor Kirk says he is going to rescue "thousands of black families" from flooding, we have the immense baronial estate of the Tamko Roofing Products family. What can I tell you? These people have their own water tower. I would describe the architecture as Temporary Pennsylvanianate.

So you ask me this question as we turn home. Is there no real flooding in residential Southern Dallas? Is everything already protected?

The answer is no, everything is not protected. And yes, there is flooding. So how is it that the construction of two major new levees down the reach of the river that flows directly into Southern Dallas could offer so little protection to any of the residential areas?

I spent some time last week poring over the two thick ring binders and talking on the phone with flood control experts looking for an answer to this very question, and I learned that this question has an interesting answer. Most of the uncontrolled flooding to which Southern Dallas is still prone is caused not by the Trinity River, according to the available data, but by the creeks flowing into the river, especially by White Rock Creek.

This flooding is related to the Trinity, because when the Trinity floods, backed-up floodwater on the Trinity blocks the water washing down from the creeks, and that makes the creeks back up. The backed-up creeks inundate adjacent neighborhoods.

But building dikes along the Trinity not only doesn't address that problem, it may make flooding worse by slowing down the flow of the creeks.

These are the kinds of questions implicit in the OMB's criticism. Far from being fly-by-night or 11th hour or obscure, as the News tried to argue, the OMB criticism is an alarm bell. A really serious alarm bell. It is our warning that we are on the verge of making a terrible mistake that will imperil our lives and our property for decades to come.

This isn't just about using flood control money to kite the value of old industrial property along the river. The hustlers behind this deal also want to build an eight-lane freeway right down the riverbed, making flooding much worse, doing so little to relieve traffic that the federal government won't pay for it, but leading from the area by Fort Worth where the Perots own a private airport down to an area where people are talking about building NAFTA-related truck centers.  

That's all within the limits of legitimate play, as far as I'm concerned--American politics and commerce. The part that is outside those bounds--the thing that goes way back and way deep in Dallas--is the manipulation of poor black people and their property to make it happen.

That part does not wash.

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