OK, So Don't Bulldoze Fair Park. Let's Re-imagine It -- In a Better Neighborhood.
All right, maybe it wasn't enormously helpful of me to suggest last July that we bulldoze Fair Park, the 277-acre dilapidated wasteland one mile southeast of downtown that once housed the 1936 Texas Centennial Exhibition.
But, c'mon. Why would we just let it just sit there and molder into the ground? We're not idiots. Not all of us. Not totally.
Oh and by the way, I think I did mention that Fair Park comes alive once a year for the State Fair, attended by two to three million happy people. This summer the State Fair will launch an off-season amusement park on park grounds, sure to hoist up annual visitation numbers for Fair Park. Just not by enough.
Look. It's almost 300 acres of well-preserved land -- some might say preserved in amber -- in the heart of the city. Most of the year the big excitement you'll see there is the occasional security guard chasing the occasional skateboarder between abandoned museums and dormant fountains. I've always thought it would make a great set for a movie about time-traveling clown vampires. OK, forget that. Let's be serious.
Sunday's Dallas Morning News editorial section included a guest op-ed essay by Dallas designer Diane Van Buren calling for a collective re-imagining of Fair Park and its surrounding neighborhood. In pointing to the area that encompasses Fair Park, Van Buren really cut to the heart of the matter. The ritzy cultural institutions and museums are all decamping to the new arts district downtown, propelled out of Fair Park by the sheer difficulty of pulling people in through the neighborhood.
Ever since 2004 when the Dallas Cowboys rejected the notion of building their new stadium at Fair Park, people have debated who was to blame -- Cowboys owner Jerry Jones or former Mayor Laura Miller. Nobody ever has the guts to say out loud what was really at fault -- the neighborhood.
Most suburban white-breads, including many upwardly mobile black and Hispanic white-breads, start locking their car doors and unholstering their concealed carries the minute they enter the zone -- hardly the sort of mood anybody really wants to be in taking the kids out to see talking dinosaur skeletons.
City Hall, meanwhile, continues to utter the same old politically safe line it always has propounded about the neighborhoods around Fair Park -- the area looks too poor, so the city or somebody should build some stuff to make it look less poor, and there's too much crime, so the city or somebody should cause less crime to occur, and there aren't enough thriving businesses, so the city or somebody should cause thriving to occur.
Yeah, right. Next, City Hall conducts aviation classes for pigs. C'mon. We're still stuck on the same old dime here.
The traditionally black neighborhoods around Fair Park were the scene of serious racism in the 1970s, when City Hall repeatedly worked to improve the atmospherics for fair-goers by using eminent domain to steal property from black owners. Nothing in history goes unrecompensed forever. By the 1980s elected leaders from those neighborhoods, people like Diane Ragsdale and Al Lipscomb, were able to extract reparations for the neighborhoods in exchange for a testy peace during the fair. That was important. It had to happen. But in terms of real ongoing benefit or significant change in the surrounding area, devices like the Fair Park Trust Fund accomplished something between nothing and less than nothing. There were more businesses and far fewer abandoned lots in the area before the campaign of racial reparations than after. Why would that be? Oh, c'mon. Putting people from a poor neighborhood in charge of economic redevelopment is like ... what? ... putting newspaper columnists in charge. Puts me in mind again of porcine aviation.
Really and truly transforming Fair Park and the area around it is a task that cannot happen without the committed involvement of people who have both the ability and the incentive to carry it out. Who would that be? Well, for one, a bunch of great big fat real estate developers. They develop real estate, right? That's what we're talking about. I'd say you also go talk to State Fair President Errol McKoy, the one big consistent success story at Fair Park. And, sure, you talk to the leadership in the neighborhoods.
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But here's the catch. It's wrong, upside-down, profoundly mistaken, not real and not even reasonable to think that an area like this can be transformed without any turnover or significant change in current ownership patterns and especially in current elected leadership.
In her piece Sunday, Van Buren said, "Decrying gentrification doesn't provide solutions ... Dallas isn't the overwhelmingly white-majority, segregated city of 679,000 it was in 1960 ... A diverse partnership is essential to developing a neighborhood to support and complement Fair Park."
What's that all about? It's this: The worthy principles of self-determination and pride, of demanding a seat at the table, were appropriate 25 years ago. But those ideas have been dragged forward into today as something quite else. What we see too often now from elected leaders like City Council member Carolyn Davis is a dug-in recalcitrance that would rather see decay than progress that might threaten incumbents.
It's the basic mindset of your typical East Texas all-cousin town -- against anything that might pit the existing good-old-boy network against competition from newcomers. That troll-under-the-bridge toll-taking mentality has become the single biggest deterrent to positive change in the city's southern hemisphere.
Van Buren is right. She chose her words carefully, and I don't want to put my own in her mouth. But I read her piece as saying that Dallas is no longer the haven of anachronistic racial caste it was 20 years ago. This newly diverse city is pretty exciting lately. If Dallas were to launch a fundamental re-imagining of Fair Park and the area around it, the launch pad would not be a bunch of old rich white guys sitting around a table at the Dallas Country Club. We should assume the party would include lots of smart, thoughtful people of all backgrounds and extremely varied experience, capable of bringing this area forward as they are doing already in Uptown, Bishop Arts, Lower Greenville, and, I should mention, the Jubilee neighborhood just east of Fair Park.
It means change. Change isn't fun for everybody. Somebody's ox gets gored. Hopefully that can be done with a measure of compassion.
But Van Buren is right. Fair Park is too huge and too ripe with potential just to be left dying on the vine like fruit left to birds and flies. Somebody needs to wade in and say the unspeakable: It's time to free Fair Park from its neighborhood and do both of them a huge favor in the process.
And, last thought: Even though we would never again leave this sort of thing up to the old rich white guys at the Dallas County Club, those guys should be given an opportunity to send over their checkbooks by messenger. Just to be totally inclusive about things.