Outta Here

People in Cadillac Heights say Eddie Bernice Johnson, the city's first black member of Congress, is selling them down the river.
Mark Graham

Think about the anger and pain of the residents in Cadillac Heights. They believe people in their area are dying of cancer from chemicals left behind by defunct lead smelters. It's an old black and Hispanic neighborhood on the Oak Cliff side of the Trinity River, just below where Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard crosses the river.

They say no one will listen to them. But they believe the two public officials who have betrayed them most are the city's first black mayor, Ron Kirk, and the city's first black member of Congress, Eddie Bernice Johnson.

Johnson and Kirk insist that what the people of Cadillac Heights really want is a new levee to stop the Trinity River from flooding their neighborhood.

The people say no. That's not what they want. What stings them to the quick, however, is that Kirk and Johnson won't talk to them about it.

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Let me run some background by you: Mayor Kirk is the principal champion of the Trinity River project--a $2 billion public works campaign to build new levees, lakes, parks, and a highway along the river where it runs through the center of the city. A major part of the overall deal is an extension of the existing levees, which run only to the southwest corner of downtown. The plan calls for building new levees down the river to protect some industrial property on the north bank and to protect Cadillac Heights on the other bank.

Champions of the new levees say they should be built as a form of racial reparation since Dallas has never built levees for black people. But here is where the politics of race gets tricky. Black people in Cadillac Heights--along with the more recent Hispanic settlers--say they don't want the levees. They believe that an even worse history of lead contamination from old plants along Sargent Road next to the river has turned their neighborhood into a cancer ward. They say they want out. One option that other cities have used in flood-prone areas is to buy people out and move them to a safe place that won't flood and isn't polluted.

That's what they want. They don't want curbs, gutters, sewers, or levees. They want out.

"You could pave our streets with gold," says Diana Sierra, a 20-year-old college student who grew up in Cadillac Heights. "We would still have the lead."

The city denies there is lead pollution in the soil of Cadillac Heights and has not conducted the kind of research that would show whether Cadillac Heights residents are dying of cancer at anomalous rates.

Those issues are debatable. But one issue shouldn't be. If a bunch of suits downtown and in Washington are going to decide the fate of Cadillac Heights, shouldn't they at least invite the neighborhood to City Hall and hear what people have to say? Doesn't respect for simple human dignity require that much?

Since no one has ever invited Cadillac Heights to City Hall, at least not to open their \mouths, the residents must invite themselves. For several years, they have been trudging down and signing up one by one for the "open mike" sessions on Dallas City Council meeting days, hoping to use the few minutes allotted them to get their plea heard before the mayor and the rest of the council.

"When we go down there and talk," says longtime resident Dorothy Thomas, "the mayor either gets up and walks away, or he's on the telephone with his back to us. He doesn't care."

She and others in the neighborhood remember how excited they were when Vice President Al Gore came to town in March 1998 to announce a $1.1 million federal grant for Dallas to clean up industrial waste sites, called "brownfields." Congresswoman Johnson, knowing that the Cadillac Heights residents were concerned about toxic waste, invited all of them to meet the vice president.

"But when we got down there, we found out she wasn't going to give us the opportunity to speak to anyone," Thomas says. "We couldn't stand up and express our views. It's like we were swept under the carpet."

Another Cadillac Heights resident, Trisha Adams, remembers the Gore visit and how humiliated the residents felt when they realized Johnson had trotted them downtown for a photo op but wasn't going to let them speak. "We went there very enthusiastic," Adams says. "We thought maybe we could get a chance to tell the vice president about how we feel. She told us what good friends she and the vice president were and everything. But we never got a chance to speak. We just stood there at the end of the room, and they took pictures of us."

Says Dorothy Thomas: "See, we are all black and Hispanic, and they really don't care what happens to us."  

But the mayor is black. So is Congresswoman Johnson.

"You know better than that," Thomas says. "You can be black and not care. Sure, we got a mayor who's black, but he doesn't hear us, and he doesn't care about us. And neither does she [Johnson]."

Some of what Cadillac Heights gets when it asks for a meeting with the city is what we all get. Even when the city manager and city council do agree to have meetings in the neighborhoods, they often don't actually conduct the meetings: They hire the "Dallas Plan," a private social science group, to conduct them like a show. The Dallas Plan comes to some rec center with a little book that tells people what they are allowed to discuss and then runs a clock on them. When the clock goes "ding," people can't talk anymore.

At a recent Dallas Plan meeting in Cadillac Heights, residents who had lost relatives that same week to cancer attended. They were still raw with grief. The overwhelming sentiment of the audience was that they didn't care about the levees. They cared about the cancer, and wanted to be bought out.

But the Dallas Plan staff, armed with the little mind-game book, told people they could only address issues such as parks and sidewalk improvements. The audience reacted with angry shouts and derisive laughter.

Later, Diana Sierra told me that meetings such as this and the city's general treatment of the neighborhood have been a source of personal humiliation for her. "It embarrasses me," she said. "I used to love my neighborhood. It's like a small town here. Everybody knows everybody. Everybody knows everybody's business. But people were saying at the meeting, if we wanted the mayor to come and talk to us, we would have to kidnap him.

"Then they have this little clock, and you can't say anything anymore. We would tell them about the cancer, and they would say, 'We hear you.' I just laughed. I thought, 'Yeah, but you don't hear what we are saying.'"

Eddie Bernice Johnson is the highest-ranking Texan on the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure. Some months ago, she and all the other members of the Dallas delegation to Congress were visited by Larry Dunbar, a lawyer who is also a hydrologist and former employee of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, where he worked on computer modeling. Working with Jim Blackburn, an environmental lawyer in Houston, Dunbar has developed what he says is incontrovertible proof that the Corps faked its computer models in order to justify the Trinity River project in the first place.

Now, think about this one for a minute: Dunbar says he visited with every member or a top staff representative from the Dallas delegation and showed proof that this $2 billion project, to be built mainly with federal tax dollars, is a scam.

"I told them that the correct modeling shows there is no flooding danger in downtown Dallas, and there is no justification for the project.

"They all just said, 'Isn't that project in Eddie Bernice's district? What does she say?' When I said she was for it, they said, 'Well, if Eddie Bernice wants it, who are we to question?'"

I made my perfunctory call to Mayor Kirk's staff, asking for comment. He did not return my call. I devoted more effort to Congresswoman Johnson, whom I have known for some years and with whom I always thought I had a good relationship. Perhaps I made a mistake by telling her staff, both in Dallas and in Washington, what it was I wanted to discuss with her.

She wouldn't talk to me. A member of her staff read to me a prepared statement on the Cadillac Heights issue that said, in part, "Her efforts are geared toward the values she holds dear, which are protecting family and protecting community."

She hears you.

Mayor Kirk continues to refuse to go along with efforts by Councilwoman Laura Miller to schedule public hearings on the Trinity River Plan.

The residents of Cadillac Heights are poor people of color. They believe they are dying of cancer caused by chemicals that rich white people rained over their houses for years. Maybe they're wrong. Maybe they have no more cancer than anyone else does.

But how can anyone--especially Ron Kirk and Eddie Bernice Johnson--justify refusing to let them air their views? How is this one ounce different, at the moral core of things, from the old days when white people used to push black neighborhoods to the river's edge and then let the floods carry off their children?  

Dallas Observer Editorial intern Katharine Houpt contributed to this report.

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