Slumdog Millionaires

Maybe The Dallas Morning News editorial board should spend more time cleaning up its own neighborhood.So here I am, patrolling the neighborhood of Dallas Morning News editorial writer Colleen McCain Nelson, looking out for evidence of neglect and decay. So far, pretty good hunting. I'm looking at a rusty "Crime Watch" sign next to a house that looks so tumble-down and junk-strewn I have to wonder if they mean we should watch for the crime to happen right here. I should explain.

On January 9, Nelson wrote a signed column for the op-ed page in which she told how she personally had forced city officials to tear down a bad building in southern Dallas. She said it was part of a personal crusade.

Nelson said she had heard from people in southern Dallas that they were having problems with city services. "So I started shining a bright light on the irritants that make a neighborhood less livable," she said. She calls her crusade, "Ten drops in the bucket."

"I sought out property owners and tracked down the folks at City Hall who could do something. I tackled the southern half of the city one drop at a time."

Her column came one week after the editorial page of the Morning News had announced that it was "the conscience of the community."

In an official editorial, the newspaper said, "As the soul of the newspaper and the conscience of the community, the editorial pages provoke, inspire and challenge readers."

I blinked at that. I don't think if you're really the conscience of the community you announce it. Somehow that seems like something you ought to wait to hear back on.

Nelson's column, coming so soon after the News had appointed itself to be our civic conscience, gave me real pause. I thought maybe I sniffed just the slightest whiff of Lady Bountiful in all of this.

So I decided to take a gander at Nelson's backyard. I will explain more why I did in a minute. I won't print her address here, because she's a nice person, and I don't want to cause her alarm. But I will tell you generally that she lives in the Lakewood, Old East Dallas area.

I suspected I might find some mischief here because it's where I live too. I seldom walk my dog without coming across at least one structure that looks like the set for a chainsaw movie.

I'm just a few blocks down from her right now, on her same street, looking at the house with the crime watch sign, and I can't help wondering why this shouldn't be one of her "drops in the bucket." One block over, I see we have a common East Dallas issue—a fellow who seems to be operating a freelance junkyard, building supply, flea market and circus equipment outlet from his backyard. I bet the folks at Code Compliance could spend a whole day over here.

Here's another scene from a slasher movie just a few blocks from Nelson's abode—a house with peeling paint and blowing trash. And looky here—I never knew this existed—a whole little rag-end of a block occupied by falling-down shotgun shacks. I don't think I want anybody to find out about this. It's a part of our heritage in East Dallas that needs to be preserved.

Look, it never occurs to me that Nelson and the editorial page of her paper mean anything but well by their excursions into southern Dallas. There are, however, two major points I need to make:

First, their concern for southern Dallas doesn't seem to extend, for some reason, to the promise of free enterprise and opportunities that might truly improve the lot of people on the poor and minority side of town. After all, people don't let their property run down because they think it's supposed to be run down. Generally speaking, the symptoms of poverty appear where people don't have any money.

They need money. The weeds and the peeling paint will take care of themselves after everybody has some money.

I mention this because the same editorial page of the same newspaper has been very cavalier lately about problems besetting the single biggest industrial development ever to show its face in southern Dallas—the so-called inland port project, and specifically the part of it that is under development by The Allen Group, a San Diego firm that recently moved its corporate offices to Dallas.

I have written about this a lot. The Allen Group's project—a massive rail, truck and warehousing hub—has been in development for five years and just now is ready to begin selling to tenants. At the 11th hour, a handful of local officials, abetted by a regional planning agency, have stepped in to put the whole thing on hold.

They want to do 18 months' worth of so-called "master planning" that is suspiciously redundant of planning already completed and on the shelves. Meanwhile, stalling sales at the Dallas inland port would seem to work very powerfully in favor of a competing hub in Fort Worth controlled by the politically well-connected Perot family.

The editorial page of the News has been derisive of The Allen Group's complaints about the master plan process, even though the company's investment in southern Dallas and Dallas County—6,000 acres at last count—far exceeds any investment anybody local has ever made on that side of the Trinity River. More to the point, the inland port promises up to 60,000 new jobs in an area that has known chronic, crushing unemployment.


Right now the master plan effort is in temporary abeyance, after Congresswoman Eddie Bernice Johnson denounced it as an attempt to wring money out of people. But the sponsors, including The Dallas Morning News' editorial page, have vowed to revive interest in it. I wonder why?

Why travel to southern Dallas and shine your light on crummy buildings if you don't feel any urgency about the 60,000 jobs? Mostly what you do when you knock down old, decaying buildings in a poor neighborhood is leave a bunch of poor people with no buildings to live in.

This is an issue, in fact, that is about to resurface in the current session of the Legislature. The last session saw an effort—backed by a number of well-intended groups from the white side of the river including the Morning News editorial page—to change state law to make it easier to use eminent domain as a tool of slum-clearance. Specifically, the changes would have allowed the forced sale of residential properties in order to "improve" neighborhoods.

I understand. Property titles in southern Dallas sometimes lie buried beneath tangles of lost heirs, unpaid taxes, liens and conflicting claims. How neat and absolute it would be to come in with a kind of statutory bulldozer and just scrape it all away.

Because of its abuse in the past, eminent domain has a very bad name in southern Dallas. Modern political activism in black Dallas came about more because of the eminent domain battles of the late 1960s than through any linkage with the national civil rights movement. It's appalling, frankly, that anybody would venture into southern Dallas to improve things and not know that.

The attempt to pass a new eminent domain law was stopped at the last moment last session because Representative Yvonne Davis, a Democrat who represents District 111 in southwestern Dallas and Duncanville, spotted it and spiked it.

State Senator Royce West, who represents District 23 in southern Dallas, had been playing an ambiguous game on eminent domain, vowing to constituents he was against the use of eminent domain to take homes. But in March 2007 I attended a community meeting at the Juanita Craft Rec Center where West clearly was supporting an expansion of eminent domain backed by the Foundation for Community Empowerment.

State Representative Terri Hodge, who represents District 100 in southern Dallas, delivered a fiery speech against the FCE proposal to foot-stamping applause, after which West relented. He promised to oppose efforts in Austin to expand the use of eminent domain.

But at the end of the legislative session, West tacked a popular bill creating a new law school for southern Dallas on to the back of an eminent domain bill that had been stripped of key homeowner protections. The only way Davis could protect southern Dallas at that point was by helping kill the law school bill—a painful choice but one she made anyway. She revisited the issue with me the other day on the phone. She said seizing a home, even a bad home, is too often a poor trade for the person who loses the house.

"Everybody's house is their castle. It may not be the castle you picked, but it's theirs. I don't think we have the right to summarily decide that it doesn't fit anymore. I think it's wrong to make citizens victims of their government."

I mention all of this because things I am hearing lead me to believe there will be another run made at an eminent domain bill in this new legislative session. I'm also hearing that the "master planning" effort for the inland port will be backdoored somehow in Austin. That is, someone is going to try to use legislation and create new governmental districts to screw up the Dallas inland port, since the effort to do it with the planning initiative supported by the Morning News seems to have failed.

What? Are we just crazy? Why does everybody want to pick up their pith helmets and their parasols and go to South Dallas to do good works, if they're not willing to do whatever it takes to create jobs? Jobs now. Jobs as soon as we can get them.

Where does this idea come from that some kind of program, governmental or charitable, is going to change anything? Look around. What have programs ever changed?

Jobs change things. Money changes things. Not programs.

Ten drops in a bucket? Look, I think the people on the Morning News editorial board ought to put some drops in their own buckets and leave other people alone, unless they want to get onboard for real and fundamental change.


In that same editorial where they announced they were now the conscience of the community, the Morning News also said, "We believe in a progressive conservatism that advocates civil rights, fiscal responsibility, environmental stewardship, effective local governments, public accountability and an internationalist foreign policy."

How about just jobs? Man. I don't know about some of these guilty conservatives today.

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