OK, time out, is it just me? Or is anybody else getting tired of the Scrubbing Bubbles routine from the mayor?
Mayor Miller, here's a page from your organizer: Get rid of roosters. Check. Pass a law against smoking. Check. Pass a law against people taking shopping carts home with them. Check. Pass a law against panhandling. Check. Force downtown owners to beautify their parking lots. Check. Give 325 speeches about Dallas, "the city on the hill" that you visited as a teenager, and how the most important thing is for Dallas to look that way again. Check check check.
And here's a little memory check: What damn hill? Around that same time in your life, is it possible you visited San Francisco? Time plays strange tricks.
Anyway, wait a minute. I never said I wanted to live in a shopping mall. What? When you're done, we'll rename the city "The Shops on the Trinity?"
And wait another minute. May I ask a question? Whatever happened about the damn potholes? I thought that was your big campaign issue. I don't remember voting for you because you were the candidate who reminded me most of Martha Stewart. Although you're starting to.
Right off the bat, I admit: This has been building, but the straw that broke my back was Laura Miller's pronouncement last week that all news boxes downtown are "litter on the sidewalks" and should be eradicated. That box happens to be my ox.
I'm not exactly in an ownership position around the Dallas Observer. Whenever I encounter the people who are, they always re-introduce themselves. I feel like the guy with the pop-bottle glasses in the movie Office Space. Long after the owners have disappeared, I'm still muttering, "I have stated on several occasions that there is no L in my last name."
But news boxes are how I make my living. Dear reader: Where did you happen to get this copy of the Observer that you're reading right now? I would say it's amazing that the mayor doesn't remember her own recent past as an employee of this particular free-distribution newspaper, but it's not amazing. Not anymore. We all know she doesn't remember.
Here's the point. The scrubby-dubby spritz-spritz business, the Windexing of Dallas, the Lysol Doctrine (all of which is beginning to look more than a tad compulsive) is the closest I can find to a consistent theme in her tenure. Meanwhile, I'm driving down the street here, and the potholes are so bad I feel as if my family and I should be wearing crash helmets.
Another Sunday ride in Dallas. I don't know why anybody buys a new car here. Next street cruiser I buy will be one of those big '80s Detroit felony cars. I never want to own another car I'd feel bad about abandoning on the street.
"OK, on the count of three, throw the doors open and we all break for the DART bus."
We could almost do a deal on the news boxes, if she would agree to put them in the potholes. That would be better for my car than what we have now.
This isn't just a joke. It's serious. Last week I wrote about the city's approach to the issue of homeless people downtown. I had spoken at length with advocates for the homeless, worried that some kind of fascist bug-spray approach might be looming. Since then I have spent another week talking to people on several sides of the issue, and I am not cheered. If anything, I think I may have undersold the story. Few people will talk on the record about it. (What is with this town? I could get more candor in Baghdad.)
But the picture that emerges more and more clearly is one of very strong pressure to somehow sanitize downtown of all homeless people.
Let me declare a few personal biases here. I am not a major defender or proponent of people going to the bathroom on the street in front of me. I do not like getting "panhandled" so aggressively that it's really a stick-up. I do not sympathize with the cops for refusing to enforce the law on aggressive panhandling because they're mad about their pay raise. Get a chief. Get those troops lined up. Go out and enforce the law. That'd be my plan. There can be no life downtown as long as the hard-core anti-social and criminal homeless roam the sidewalks with impunity.
But that doesn't mean it is possible or morally defensible or even especially desirable to make a whole class of people go poof. The impulse to eliminate problems by eliminating people is real bad. And dangerous. No Scrubbing Bubbles for human beings. Got that?
This is all about one major choice: where to put the city's new $3 million homeless "intake" center. An element of the real estate community downtown is pushing for a plan to put the new center at a considerable distance from downtown--farther than the homeless could walk.
There is some legal strategy here: The theory is that such a center would satisfy court rulings requiring cities to create some kind of safe haven for the homeless. In this case, the city would have met the requirement and might feel it was then OK to declare open season on homeless people who refuse to be relocated.
The other choice is to put the new center in or near downtown. The center would refer everybody who is referable to organized programs and then provide some kind of minimal assistance to the hard-core who refuse to be referred. Of course, that leaves some number of homeless people downtown. It's not a perfectly antiseptic solution, in other words.
One of the people I spoke with was Bennett Miller, who has been a successful developer of close-in residential property here since the early 1980s. He has an interesting attitude toward the homeless. I asked him if eliminating the homeless population downtown would not give all of his property values a major bounce.
"Of course," he said. "But that's not in the cards."
He says you can't make the true hard-core go poof. You have to play with the cards that are dealt you, and in an urban environment that includes a certain quotient of homelessness. He has bought properties where the homeless were living in the woods like Indians when the pioneers arrived, and he has turned those properties into sophisticated, successful urban venues. He clearly believes in doing everything possible to reduce the numbers and steer as many homeless people as possible into programs.
But he doesn't see any reasonable outcome that entails scouring downtown clean of all homeless people, if clean is a word we should use for the removal of human beings. He knows from his own experience that businesses can succeed in a fairly cheek-by-jowl relationship with the homeless, if everybody is patient and if everybody works hard at it. He says lots of people say they want to help, "but they don't want to get dirty."
He didn't say this, but I think in many people's minds not getting dirty means dealing only with the nice homeless, the meek and mild homeless, the biblical poor who are always with us. But that still leaves the scrungy bastards. Somebody still has to deal with the scrungy bastards.
Bennett Miller points out that even some of the scrungiest are susceptible to help, if you catch them at the right moment. "You can pick them off a few at a time," he said.
It's the same point homeless advocate James K. Waghome made to me in an e-mail: "Fact is, if you ask these people, they have tried our services, but we failed to make the proper connection to help them.
"Two years ago, there were 11 people who lived at Lovers and Greenville. They are the ones people call 'eyesores, chronically homeless, service-resistant.'
"Today, go to the same intersection, and you will find they are no longer there. Eight are now clean and sober. All live in some type of housing, saving the taxpayers money. Two still have not dealt with their problems but are also not spending time on our streets with panhandling signs or in jail at $150 a night."
Waghome is a former homeless person himself. Bennett Miller has been a developer for decades, but he comes originally from a background in social activism. They both accept the basic right of the homeless to go and to be where they want to go and be, as long as they do not unfairly or illegally infringe on the rights of others.
That's the difference. The other view--the one I hear from the mayor almost every time she speaks on these issues--is that all basic rights are trumped by the need for tidiness. It goes back to one of her first campaigns on the city council, when she wanted to drive up and down Jefferson Avenue and force all of the Mexican tire shops to either pretty up or shut down.
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Hey. What if I think junky Mexican tire stores are beautiful? What if I look at all that rotting rubber and peeling paint, the clang and the bang, the kids loitering on a stack of tires after school waiting for their dad to give them money for an ice cream, what if I look at that and I see a glorious saga of American self-improvement? Huh?
I don't want the city to look like upscale Connecticut. I don't want to live in upscale Connecticut. I sometimes wonder what Laura Miller would do if she suddenly became the mayor of Rome.
"OK, you expletive-expletive expletives, you're gonna get some fresh plaster on that dump of a Coliseum, or I'm gonna take that Venus de Milo and ram her so far up your ass that she'll think she's crossed the River Styx."
She doesn't talk that way anymore. I wish she would. I just wish she'd talk that way about the damn potholes.