Keep Your Eye on the Bottoms

A page from the city's study concerning redevelopment in the Tenth Street Bottoms
A page from the city's study concerning redevelopment in the Tenth Street Bottoms
A page from the city's study concerning redevelopment in the Tenth Street Bottoms

I wasn’t going to write about this, because City Manager Mary Suhm assured me it was nonsense. I think she may have implied that I was nonsense too. But the church fire on Sparks Street yesterday has changed my mind. I think I will go ahead and be nonsense anyway.

A couple weeks ago, a secret angel delivered unto me what turned out to be the text of an e-mail, ‘tween whom I know not, involving a very knowledgeable discussion of the pros and cons of tearing out the levee that protects the Tenth Street Bottoms, an area of which Sparks Street is a portion.

Drive across the I-35E bridge to Oak Cliff, and just as you cross the Oak Cliff levee, look down to your left. You will see a church steeple (not the church that burned). That neighborhood, reaching south a little less than a mile toward Corinth Street, beneath the bluff, is the Bottoms -- an old black neighborhood with a few new in-fill houses, a good number of very old shotgun houses, a whole bunch of boarded-up structures and many empty lots.

The whole sales pitch to black Dallas for the Trinity River Project was the redress of a history of environmental racism: For the first time, Ron Kirk promised, Dallas would carry out a flood-control levee-building project that would protect black neighborhoods the way white neighborhoods had been protected.

Given that promise, tearing down a levee to flood a black neighborhood would amount to one whopper of a political betrayal. Suhm said to me: “That’s not going to happen.”

In fact, she said that to me in a saltier version that I promised not to quote verbatim. I think she meant it.

The problem -- as I saw in my purloined email -- is that tearing down the levee happens to make a whole lot of sense. It would create a pressure-release for floods on the river and thereby save tons and tons of money elsewhere, eliminating hugely expensive bridge modifications that must otherwise be done at Corinth Street, I-35 both north- and south-bound, Houston Street and Jefferson Avenue, as well as eliminating the need for massive new pumping stations and expensive levee improvements, all of which are made necessary by the Trinity River toll road.

I suspect, in fact, that somebody is looking at this -- in spite of the political costs -- because people are desperately scrounging for ways to get the evil genie of the toll road costs back in the bottle. I have said all along -- and I am supremely right -- that they can’t build the toll road. It’s stupidly expensive. It’s a concept born of idiots.

But they’re gonna try.

I talked to a landlord who has owned property in the Bottoms for decades, and he told me there has been talk of flooding out the area for at least a year.

Let’s be fair. Well, let’s try. The city is committed to a serious plan of re-development in the Bottoms, working through church leadership in the area. That’s where those in-fill houses came from, and many more are planned.

Sadly, my landlord source -- a guy who really knows his ground -- says that the in-fill ain’t gonna work. It’s a strange little island of land locked between the bluff and the levee, with a very tough history. You can build it, he says, but they won’t come. He thinks flooding that land would be a great idea. I guess he figures he’ll get bought out.

That’s the other thing. In order for the area to be flooded, the city would have to resort to lots of eminent domain seizure, which the pols have promised not to do.

I wasn’t going to write about this, because I believe Mary Suhm when she tells me something. So why did the church fire yesterday change my mind?

I don’t know. Just instinct. Listen. That’s a weird little area. It’s too poor, and there’s too much interest, too much pressure, too much money on the table. Things there are not stable.

I do believe Mary Suhm. She is an honorable person. But she doesn’t know everything. I just think we all need to keep an eye on the Bottoms.

You know, when you drive it, you can see all the trouble easily enough -- tough guys on folding chairs in the middle of the street in front of drug houses and so on.

But the Bottoms also has a certain charm, tucked down there in the shadow of the bluff -- a very old, very modest little community of African-American families, some of whom are still there, according to the county property records. I had a relative who sold household sundries down there from the trunk of his car and knew everybody as Miz So-and-So and Mr. So-and-So.. The Tenth Street Bottoms is a survivor.

I will not be especially surprised if the Downtown Boys tell us at some point: “Well, the toll road has turned out to be quite a bit more expensive than we thought it would be, but we can get it done. All we have to do is break our word and screw a small poor black community.”

When that happens, it will be an entire century of bad history reaching forward with grubby paws into the next century to grab some more ill-gotten gain.

I just think we all need to keep any eye on the Bottoms. We need to help Mary Suhm keep her word. --Jim Schutze

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