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Jilted

Robert Ridley, left, moved into the Owenwood neighborhood and re-did a house. Ken Green has lived there since he was a kid. They both want streets and sidewalks.
Mark Graham

So I'm plugging away one day last week, and a helpful e-mail pops in from the city telling me Dallas Mayor Laura Miller will be available to the media at 4:15 p.m. in the little horseshoe off Independence Avenue just inside the Rayburn Office Building in Washington, D.C. I do remember reading in one of the local morning rags that she's up there lobbying for millions in federal money for the Fandango suspension bridge over the Trinity River.

Next day the Morning Kleenex tells me she's very excited because she thinks the Dallas delegation will wrest at least $75 million from Congress to build a suspension bridge over a drainage ditch downtown to create a tourist attraction. Let me tell you where I'm coming from.

Mexico. Went there for a brief vacation over the MLK holiday. Dull man. Dull, dull man. Wife promenading down avenida, exclaiming over architecture, bougainvillea, banyon trees, textiles. Teenage son and buddy glancing sidelong at beach, muttering about topless European women, thumbs up, thumbs down. My eyes glued to shoes.

I am exclaiming silently to myself over the great condition of the streets and curbs in Mexico. OK, it's a tourist town. But these are really great curbs, sidewalks and streets, no matter where. (Be glad you're not on vacation with me, eh?)

So now I'm back home. And the streets, curbs and sidewalks right outside my door, when compared with the ones in Mexico, are trash! Cracked-up, caved-in, buckling, crumbling trash. Giant potholes in the street. Horrible asphalt "repairs" that look like freshly shoveled donkey dung. I would call these Third World streets except that I just came from the Third World, and I didn't see anything anywhere near this bad. So what is Dallas, the Fourth World?

The mayor, who ran for office on pothole repairs, is in Washington this week and is Howard-Dean-fist-in-the-air-YEOWWWWOUGH! excited about the prospect of getting $75 million for a make-believe suspension bridge. Why do I want a make-believe suspension bridge if you can't fix my curb?

Example. Last summer the city sent out letters to people in the Owenwood Park area near southeast Dallas, just across Interstate 30 from Tenison Park, telling them the city had about $120,000 available under some new program for their little area. It could be used to improve the neighborhood in any way the neighbors saw fit.

Owenwood is an older neighborhood of small brick and frame homes, sort of a lost archipelago of Old East Dallas cut adrift when I-30 (then I-20) came blasting through in the early 1960s. Twenty-five years ago this area was widows, drug houses, guys in wheelchairs (wheeling really fast) and a few families too stubborn to move.

But the basic streetscape--old trees, gently sloping streets, vest pocket parks--was preserved by the old families who stuck. About 20 years ago gay and lesbian people, young unmarrieds and Latino families started moving in and helped fuel a renaissance.

Now it's cool. It's a tiny neighborhood. We're talking about half a dozen streets in an area three-quarters of a mile square. But on some of those streets, almost all of the houses have been smartly redone; the lawns look great; it's East Dallas meets South, with a very civilized culture, different kinds of people mutually respecting each other.

The streets and sidewalks in much of the neighborhood are a lot better than they are in the Swiss Avenue Historic District where I live, because over the years the Owenwood neighborhood has snagged every chance that came by to get things fixed. But a couple of streets in Owenwood are still really bad--jagged concrete emblems of the city's decades of "deferred maintenance" (a fancy term for urban slovenliness).

So everybody in the Owenwood neighborhood heard about the 120 grand that the city was tossing around, and they all said "streets and sidewalks, streets and sidewalks, streets and sidewalks."

Robert Ridley, head of the Owenwood Preservation Society, told me the neighborhood held a series of well-attended meetings, and the message never varied. "From our main first meeting," he said, "the concerns were our streets, our curbs and sidewalks.

"Every meeting I was in, the people that were there were complaining about the streets and sidewalks."

He said the city officials who attended the meetings told them it was up to them. "'Whatever the community wants.' We were told that at every meeting. Repeatedly it was, 'We need our streets, sidewalks and curbs fixed over here.'"

Imagine their surprise, then, when the city informed them after these months of meetings that the $120,000 would be spent on a laundry list of park repairs and "improvements," including removing basketball goals from one small park and installing a nature trail in another park the size of two house lots.

 

A whaaaat? A nature trail? For what? Ants?

Now, when I spoke to the park department, they backed off on the nature trail designation. It's just a trail trail. And the cost will be only $16,000 to $30,000 of the total. But, yeah, a trail. And none of the money will go to streets, curbs or sidewalks. The balance will go for lighting and other enhancements to Owenwood Park.

Let me hasten to say something else as well: I spoke to intelligent, reasonable officials in charge of the program under which this money is being made available, called Neighborhoods in Bloom, modeled on a successful program in Richmond, Virginia. They explained to me the difference between census tracts, council districts, focus areas and target areas. I think I get it. It's all very reasonable and logical and rooted in sound urban theory. I don't know what the formal name would be for the overall theory. Just as a personal shorthand, I call it the "ha-ha on you, you big fat dumbbell suckers" theory.

You can't have no stinking street repairs, you fools! What part of "your target area is not in the focus area that is in the census tract that was identified as one of five special-needs areas in certain city council districts right after council redistricting" do you not understand?

Man, I lose my patience with these people trying to act like City Hall works for them. How about you?

Now, I want to add another thing here. Nobody's lying about anything. I spoke with the city councilman for that district, John Loza, who told me very candidly that it was his decision the money should go to the parks. "I just felt that it would benefit the entire neighborhood more if it were put into those parks rather than put into one specific sidewalk," he said.

And he's the council-dude. The park department people I spoke with gave me all this stuff about public input and how they had so many meetings and handed out so many pieces of paper and so on. But when I said, "Wasn't the actual decision made by the councilman?" they both shrugged and said, "Yeah."

Someday, somehow, someone has got to explain to City Hall that it's not "public input" if you know in advance you're going to get the political fix on things from inside City Hall and then flush all the input down the toilet. Instead, that's: "You big fat dumbbell suckers, go home and stop making asses of yourselves by believing we're listening to you."

A nature trail! I think I'm going to wait until they build the Fandango bridge and then just hurl myself off.

Owenwood Park, like a lot of inner-city neighborhoods with some battles under the belt, is fairly savvy about the process. They figured out that the 120 grand was not coming from the Neighborhoods in Bloom (Big Fat Suckers in Bloom) program, which has no money, but from federal funds, called Community Development Block Grant funds, which have to be handed out according to certain rules. They went to the board that oversees those funds and made their case. The Community Development Commission agreed with them! It said the money should be spent on what the neighborhood said it wanted--curbs and sidewalks.

Two weeks ago by unanimous vote, your city council and your mayor voted to overturn the Community Development Commission and force the neighborhood instead to spend the money on the micro-nature trail, basketball court removal and other swift ideas. That means your mayor and your council member voted not to allow these people to spend the money getting their curbs and sidewalks fixed.

There was a fascinating little side moment during that council debate. Council member Veletta Lill riffed on a whole series of clever tricks and strategies she knew of for funneling money into getting curbs and sidewalks fixed--things like finding that schoolchildren might trip and hurt themselves, so that you qualify for some kind of knee scrape-prevention program.

I go back to my original wonderment here, which is about the mayor and the bridge. OK, John Loza has his reasons for not wanting to go along with the Community Development Commission. The other council members have their little gang mentality of not contravening a member on a deal that's totally within his own turf.

But what about the mayor? Didn't she originally run for office on this stuff? Isn't she the one who said we had to eat our vegetables before we can have dessert? "First we fix our schools and roads," she said when she announced for mayor the first time. "Then we do our signature bridges."

 

So instead of going to Washington to lobby for $75 million for a Fandango bridge, why hasn't she been burning the midnight oil stringing together every single one of those little tricks and strategies Lill described the other day in order to create a program of massive and dramatic infrastructure repair? Answer me that.

Well, gotta put my walking gloves on with the little rubber tips. Gonna head over to Owenwood Park now, stretch out on the grass and do some serious finger hiking.


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