How Will Angela Hunt, Ann Margolin, Gerald Britt and Steve Blow (Settle Down) Fix Dallas?

For those Friends of Unfair Park who don't have Jewish mothers, I will tell you: They get stuff done. That would probably be their motto, if they ever organized themselves into some kind of union. (Possible sub-motto: "But, Really, Would It Kill You To Call More Often?")

This morning, in front of a packed house at Congregation Shearith Israel, the local chapter of the National Council of Jewish Women convened a panel on the subject of making change in the city. (I got to sit next to Wilonsky's mother. She is adorable.) Working under the title "A Greater Dallas: What Does It Take?" the panelists were city council member Angela Hunt; Rev. Gerald Britt from CitySquare; Manny Ybarra, president of Pillar Commercial (and a former City Plan Commission member); and The Dallas Morning News's own Steve Blow of Sunnyvale.

With council member Ann Margolin moderating, the panel talked for two hours about how to get stuff done: by bettering the public schools, saving the newspapers, improving public transportation, attracting more businesses, building bike lanes, getting me to quit slouching and you are not wearing that T-shirt to school, just get back in there and change your ... sorry. Different Jewish mother. Back to the panel.

Hunt's first comments laid out what she sees as the "foundational" challenges for the city: improving schools and public safety, yes, but also "creating a city people love to live in and want to move to." She talked about the idea of the "creative class," who she said is most attracted to strong neighborhoods with clean, safe parks (not filled with homeless people, you mean?). And she praised the Arts District for being "walkable and fun."

"We have pockets like that" in the city, she said, "but we don't have enough." She talked about wanting Lower Greenville to look similar to Bishop Arts, saying, "We have too many bars and too many frat boys who like to have too much fun" in her part of town. Dallas, she said, also needs better transportation to get from one walkable area to another. "Like streetcars," she said. (At that, Jim sensed a disturbance in The Force and clutched his forehead.)

Britt, however, was more concerned with addressing poverty and homelessness in the city. "We're not going to make Dallas a greater city until we deal with poverty," he told the room. "We need to address the issues of food insecurity, homelessness, joblessness. ... Until we do that, we'll have a great city for some, but not for all."

"In Angela's area," he said, neighbors are "lauded as great" for trying to shut down bad bars. "But when poor people say they don't want scrap metal dealers and payday lenders in their neighborhoods, it's mean poor folks attacking these businesses."

Blow, meanwhile, was concerned with what's happening with his own paper, and what it means for the city at large. He referenced the recent layoffs at The News, and added that "circulation and staff are half of what they were."

"It would be a devastating loss for the city and the nation" if the paper went under, he said. "People would lose their communal place to come together and talk instead of being separated out into 1,000 blogs."

Each of the panelists were asked to make a "micro-proposal" for how to jump-start change here. Hunt suggested building bike lanes, a big part of the new Dallas Bike Plan. "We need a robust, practical plan," she said. "But we need the political will to do it." It's been a challenge, she said. "There's pushback. We love our roads, don't we? The idea of giving up a lane is a little scary."

Britt wasn't sure quick fixes were the solution, but he did advocate finding more space to house the chronically homeless as soon as possible. "We have a little over 5,000 homeless people in the city," he told the audience. "About 1,000 of those are chronic. We could put an end to that. That's political too." Adding that he meant no disrespect to Hunt or Margolin, he went on, "When politicians say, 'We don't have the money for that,' they mean, 'We don't have the money for what you want to do.' We can find the money for anything we want to find the money for."

Britt also emphasized the need for more grocery stores in the city's urban centers. "Areas with food deserts need grocery stores," he said. "they create jobs and collateral economic development." He criticized the Dallas Farmers Market for not accepting SNAP cards (food stamps). "That amazes me," he said. "It's a barrier to low-income people being able to access fresh fruit and vegetables." (The women in the audience muttered in dismay at the thought of people not being able to eat enough fruit and vegetables.)

Hunt asked what the city could do to help: Provide land? Economic incentives? The latter, Britt told her. "Incentivize major grocers," he said. "It's wonderful that Walmart is coming to Oak Cliff. People criticize it, but it's the only major store coming in."

Next, Blow brought Hunt back to the subject of streetcars. "They're slow and expensive," he said. (Somewhere, Jim perked up slightly). "Why not buses?" he asked, adding, "I know they're not sexy. ... Why not bring back something like Hop-A-Bus?" That brought a round of applause.

"It was pink," whispered a woman in the crowd to her seatmate. "And it had bunny ears."

Hunt, though, said that streetcars are "economic generators," something she saw on recent trips to Seattle and Portland. "But I'm not against the Hop-A-Bus" idea, she added. "I learned from Jason Roberts at Better Block that's it's all about short, quick wins, getting something done now."

As the panel wound down, Margolin asked for final thoughts. "Speaking as a journalist," Blow said, "things are so much better than they look in the newspaper. ...I'm often accused of being in the 'gloom and doom business,' but the idea is not to despair or give up, but roll up our sleeves and tackle things. Gosh, the Dallas I see today is so vibrant." It will take work to make it better, he said, "But maybe we all just need to roll up our sleeves a little higher and work a little harder."

Britt was a little less effusive. "I remain hopeful when it comes to Dallas," he said. "Don't fool yourself about how bad things are, but never lose hope." He thanked the council members for their time, and urged them to commit to "intentional, focused" coalition-building: "Make it a priority."

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