This Gross House

Neighbors think the old man who lives at the corner of Cortez and Thornberry might be a little crazy. His house is falling down, its paint is fading away, and plastic tarps cover holes in its crumbling wood-shingle roof. The old man's yard, jammed with lumber, pipes, bricks, scaffolding, and other castoffs, looks like a salvage yard, the final resting place for the detritus of a dozen construction jobs. A swimming pool sits empty, its gaping maw filling with leaves and what little water the city has seen during these past dry months.

Hidden behind the tall wooden fences that surround his corner lot is a mlange of old bicycles, barbecue grills, lawn ornaments, at least one birdbath, pumps, motors, and who knows what else. It is a sight that would elicit shudders from any nearby homeowner thinking about property values.

Neighbors see the old man at odd hours working about his property, scampering across the roof in the dark, or watering plants after midnight by the headlights of his pickup truck. The place never seems to look much better for his efforts.

Several say they have tried to steer clear of the eccentric German, whose habits and temper leave them uncertain about engaging him in conversation. "To tell you the truth, I think he's a little cuckoo," says Peter Keesing, a personal trainer who moved in next door to the old man almost two years ago.

When Peter Poulides bought the house that backs up to the old man's yard more than six years ago, the seller warned him "what a wacko guy this was," says Poulides, a free-lance photographer. "When we moved in, we made a conscious effort not to tangle with him."

For the past year, tension has been building in the neighborhood. The root of the trouble is the old man, Hans Dietz. Neighbors say they can no longer ignore Dietz's peculiar habits. They say they have had it with his junkpile of a property, and they blame his cluttered yard and deteriorating house for the possums, raccoons, stray cats, fleas, and mosquitoes that have infested the area. "Everybody's entitled to live their own way," Keesing says. "I don't want to aggravate the guy, but I feel this is a matter of health."

A showdown is brewing on Cortez Drive.
Keesing and other neighbors have repeatedly appealed to the City of Dallas to force Dietz to clean up his property, but the neighbors say the city has proven inept or unwilling when it comes to enforcing city codes and addressing the neighbors' concerns.

Tensions heightened last year when altercations erupted as city workers tried to clean up Dietz's yard. The two incidents ended with the police stepping in and arresting Dietz's son for allegedly brandishing a gun and threatening to kill city workers. Although police twice arrested the son, Thomas Dietz, he has not been formally charged with any crimes.

Last week, 15 neighbors signed a petition and sent it to Assistant City Manager Ramon Miguez, demanding that the city force Dietz to bring his property up to code and get rid of some of the junk piled about the place. The week before, the Urban Rehabilitation Standards Board gave Dietz 180 days to fix up his house--or face having it condemned.

After almost a year of simmering discontent, the battle lines have been clearly drawn between Dietz and his neighbors. And so far, to the neighbors' dismay, the old man seems to be winning.

Peter Keesing got a bargain in 1994, picking up a respectable home for $50,000, below the going price for houses in the cozy neighborhood just north of Northwest Highway near Midway Road.

It appeared to be a quiet neighborhood, not as tony as most of North Dallas, but with plenty of trees grown large since they were planted by the original, largely working-class families that began moving into the neighborhood in the late 1940s and early 1950s.

Though it needed a little work, Keesing's new home on Cortez Drive did have a big yard, good for his two dogs--Greenville and Wycliff--to romp with abandon.

There was, he acknowledges, the small problem of the house next door. It looked like a dump dropped down in the middle-class neighborhood. Keesing figures that was one of the reasons he got his house so cheaply. "I was aware of the property next door," he says. "I told myself it was to my advantage."

That first summer, however, wiped out any gloating over his bargain buy. Swarms of mosquitoes ranged across his backyard. Keesing, sensitive to mosquito bites since he was a child, found he had to coat himself with Avon Skin So Soft before venturing into his backyard with Greenville and Wycliff. "I was saying to myself, 'Where in the name of God are these things coming from?'" he recalls.  

It wasn't just mosquitoes. Keesing says his backyard became a "huge kitty box" for countless strays wandering the area. Keesing's dogs, as dogs are wont to do, would eat the droppings.

Possums and raccoons also kept showing up in Keesing's backyard, sometimes picking fights with his dogs. Last October, Keesing borrowed a trap from the city's Animal Control office. In a matter of days, he says, he bagged a stray cat, two possums, and a raccoon.

The raccoon was so big, animal-control workers did not want to wrangle with it, so they crated it away still inside the cage. They gave Keesing a receipt for the cage to show that it had been returned to the city.

All he could figure, Keesing says, was that old man Dietz's junkpile of a yard had become a natural shelter for all the stray wildlife in the neighborhood. Keesing was worried about his dogs' health and his own.

A physical therapist and personal trainer, Keesing is a small but strongly built 39-year-old. Right now, he lives in the large front room of his house while the rest of it undergoes remodeling. His television is almost as big as his bed, and jars of protein mixes and vitamin powders are clustered around the microwave oven he uses for cooking.

Keesing says he has had to stop using his backyard entirely, keeping his two dogs indoors as much as possible, fearful they will wind up with rabies if they fight with any more wild animals.

Last year, Keesing began keeping records and making videotapes of his neighbor's yard, trying to prod the city into doing something about the mess.

Lately, other neighbors have joined in the campaign.
Peter Poulides, whose house sits behind Dietz's, has also found his property overrun with pests. The first year he and his wife lived in the house, Poulides says, there was a problem with rats. Feral cats, possums, and raccoons followed. One year, Poulides says, he had a flea infestation in his yard and home even though he had no pets at the time.

Like Keesing, Poulides says there were many more mosquitoes than would seem normal in a neighborhood in the middle of Dallas. "We had a real problem with the mosquitoes around here and I couldn't figure out why," he says.

Poulides, like his other neighbors, had a strong suspicion. Last summer, he says, he peeked over his neighbor's tall back fence and saw a swimming pool "full of water, just black scum."

The Dietz house had long been an eyesore, Poulides says, with junked cars parked in the yard and all manner of debris wedged into the front and back yards. Dietz himself had seemed relatively harmless, if a little goofy, the few times Poulides had occasion to speak with him. But what had once been just a nuisance was now becoming a neighborhood health problem. Dietz was starting to make life miserable for those around him.

In late February, Poulides circulated a petition in the neighborhood asking the city to take some action against Dietz. Signed by 15 surrounding homeowners, the petition called Dietz's house an eyesore and expressed fear about the health risks from wild animals living in his yard.

The petition followed repeated efforts by Keesing to incite some action by city inspectors. Since he began doing battle with the mosquitoes, Keesing has called code-enforcement officials and has demanded meetings with Assistant City Manager Miguez to get the city moving.

The city has cited Dietz numerous times for violating codes, and last November a city crew entered his yard and hauled away some of the accumulated lumber and building supplies piled there, but the house remains an eyesore, and there is still plenty of clutter to go around.

Neighbors say dealing with the city has become as aggravating as dealing with Dietz himself--and that's pretty aggravating.

Standing in his backyard, surrounded by what his neighbors call junk, Hans Dietz sees a purpose in everything.

He is 66 years old, a native German who came to this country in 1954. He is a thin, gray-bearded man with clear blue eyes and noticeably large hands who stands a few inches shy of 6 feet.

As his neighbors can attest, once Dietz starts talking, he is not likely to stop anytime soon.

For most of his life, Dietz has been a carpenter. Although he retired several years ago--early, he says, so he could care for his ailing wife--Dietz is still known and respected within the profession in Dallas.

"He's an Old World craftsman," says Barry Adams, executive secretary of the Carpenter's District Council of North Central Texas. "Dietz is very highly regarded. He's a superqualified carpenter, always very meticulous in what he did. You never had to redo anything he did."  

Adams worked with Dietz in the 1980s, when both men were employed by Sanger-Harris to do fittings and finish-out work for the department-store chain. Dietz says he also helped build restaurants, and law offices in fancy downtown skyscrapers. "I came as a legal immigrant and I have conducted myself in the form and fashion that nobody could shake a stick at," Dietz says.

In his native Germany, Dietz says, he was trained as a carpenter in the old ways. He shudders that many carpenters he worked with in Dallas would not even know the proper way to grind a chisel. Dietz was taught to do the job right, even if that takes a long time.

In 1960, a few years after emigrating to the United States, Dietz and his wife Alice bought the house on the corner of Cortez and Thornberry. The neighborhood was relatively new--and friendly, Dietz recalls. The couple's son was born three years later, and Dietz set about crafting his family's life.

He planted red oaks and live oaks, trees that now stand sentinel around his yard. He built a swimming pool, doing much of the work himself. He put up fences, and sheds to hold his lumber and tools. "This neighborhood, they adopted us more or less the way we were," Dietz recalls. "I had the prettiest place on the block here."

Life wasn't perfect, Dietz says. One of his neighbors--who has since moved away--was convinced that Dietz was a Nazi, and periodically called him that. Dietz had a running feud with her. She would call the city every time he tried to build something new on his property--like his swimming pool--and the two just did not get along.

Things really started to go downhill, Dietz says, after his wife was mugged 13 years ago outside a grocery store. "A couple of black boys jumped her and threw her to the floor," he says. "They picked her up and mashed her down on the floor four times and busted all the bones in her knees."

Alice Dietz has been bedridden ever since, he says. She stays at their son's house, which is about 12 blocks away from the Cortez home. Dietz stays there often himself, feeding her, changing her bed, and taking care of her.

"She needs me about four or five times a day," he says. "Sometimes it takes me about an hour. Sometimes I stay longer when I have to change the bed for her."

Dietz says he was forced to retire early to care for his wife. That meant fewer Social Security benefits, and little money to waste.

The Cortez house was getting older and needed work, but it was hard to keep up with it all.

Dietz remains intent on fixing up the house, he says, and someday moving his wife back into a room with a big picture window where she can see the swimming pool and live-oak trees from her bed.

That explains all of the stuff jammed into his yard. It is not junk, he says. Each and every piece of lumber, piping, or whatever has a place in the repairs and improvements he is trying to make on the house. It's just hard to get to everything because of his wife's illness, his own advancing age, and the fact that all of the friends he might have counted on to help him with the house--all of the people whose houses he worked on over the years--have pretty much died off.

So Dietz seems to keep falling further and further behind. The bricks stacked in one part of the yard are meant for a barbecue. He will put new decking and shingles on the roof, but first he wants to extend the eaves so they offer more protection.

What fills his yard is simply the materials he must have on hand to do the job, Dietz says.

Dietz knows the neighbors are growing restive, and he feels like the city has been harassing him, coming into his property and carting off perfectly good plywood and bricks just because the neighbors have been complaining.

"It's definitely uncalled for, what they have had me going through in this ordeal," he says. "It is nothing but harassment and discrimination and a violation of my civil rights. That is not what I was told to expect when I came to this country."

Dietz says he has seen Poulides walking around the neighborhood with his petition. "The one behind me [Poulides] is a funny duck," Dietz says. "He's involved in it. He's got some sort of document that he's been going house to house with, some sort of document trying to blackmail me."  

Dietz's next-door neighbor, Keesing, has been trying to sic the city inspectors on him, Dietz says, for things that are not his fault. "He went ahead and reported me to the city and demanded that everything come off my property," Dietz says. "He wants me out of the neighborhood."

Sure there are possums and raccoons, Dietz says, but they are all over the neighborhood, flushed out when some nearby woods were cut down for a new development of custom homes. The animals may be attracted to his house, he says, because he has the last wood roof left in the neighborhood. He has to keep throwing tarps over it because the animals are tearing up the roof.

No matter what his neighbors say, Dietz claims his swimming pool was never full of stagnant water and could not have been the breeding ground for the mosquitoes that troll the neighborhood in warm weather.

If the neighbors and the city would just let him get on about his work, the house would eventually be repaired, and the yard cleared of the accumulated supplies.

His neighbor's complaints, he says, have landed the city on his back.

Seated at the table holding his microwave and protein supplements, Keesing digs through some files and pulls out copies of city codes.

See, he says, it's written right here: A homeowner can't use more than five percent of his lot for "accessory storage," meaning someone like Dietz can't just pile stuff all over his yard; and swimming pools have to be maintained so that they are not "hazardous or obnoxious to adjacent property owners."

According to his research of city files, Keesing says, neighbors have been complaining about Dietz and his property since at least 1992, but the city has taken little action.

Keesing says he doesn't necessarily blame Dietz for getting away with whatever he can, but he does blame the city for not stepping in and enforcing the codes. "I don't really have anything against Mr. Dietz," he says. "Mr. Dietz is an opportunist. If the city cuts him the slack, he's going to take advantage of it."

City records indeed show what appears to be a frustrating pattern of unsuccessful efforts by code-enforcement and neighborhood-services workers to prod Dietz into improving his lot.

Perusing city files, Keesing came up with numerous instances in the past several years in which Dietz has been cited by the city for parking junk cars--like a 1956 Oldsmobile and a Chevrolet pickup of unknown age--on his property. There have also been several citations for having too much "accessory storage" on his land.

In 1993, for instance, a code inspector issued Dietz a notice of violation and told Dietz he had to remove the litter and garbage from his yard, stack the lumber scattered about, and stop parking cars on his yard. He was also told to repair or replace rotted wood on his porch, doors, windows, walls, and eaves.

Inspection logs also show numerous follow-up visits and attempts to contact Dietz during the past four years. Many times he was not home, and on several occasions he refused to accept certified letters sent by the city. Little progress ever seemed to be made on the house or property.

In 1994, the city briefly turned over Dietz's case to People Helping People, a program run by the city to help those lacking the means to fix up their properties. Dietz wasn't crazy about the help the program offered, for instance, to repaint the house. The program would have used latex paint, Dietz says, and he wants only oil paint because it lasts longer, and besides, there's no point painting the house until he finishes extending the eaves.

By late 1994, Keesing and neighbors say, Dietz's property only seemed to be getting worse. The pool was full of stagnant water. The debris was packed so tightly into his back and side yards that it would be almost impossible for anyone to walk around in the clutter.

Keesing began his full-court press and says he encountered seeming resistance from the city to pressure Dietz. "I told them I want you to go in and do your job," Keesing says.

Ramiro Lopez, a division manager in code enforcement and the man most familiar with the Dietz complaints, declined to elaborate on the city's record of dealing with Dietz. "What you have here is an elderly gentleman who likes to build things," he said. "He's a strong practitioner of 'waste not, want not,' so he's collected all kinds of building materials."  

Keesing and others wonder if the city is just plain scared of Dietz, and they point to two incidents last year as the basis of their speculation. In April 1995, a city crew did arrive to haul off some of the stuff from Dietz's yard. The old man's son, Thomas, came by while the workers were there. According to a police report, Thomas Dietz "became irate and ordered the [city worker] and all other employees out of his yard."

When the workers tried to talk to him, the report continues, Thomas Dietz "went to his truck and pulled out, according to the complainant, a pistol or pistol-like weapon and pointed it at [the city workers] and stated, 'I'll shoot all you motherfuckers, get off my damn property.'"

Police arrested Thomas Dietz on a charge of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon, and a pistol-grip 12-gauge Mossberg shotgun and several rounds of ammunition were taken from his truck. He was later released on $5,000 bond. A clerk in the Dallas County District Attorney's Office says Dallas police have never forwarded the case to them for prosecution.

In November, a city crew, this time led by Lopez, again showed up to clean up Dietz's property. An argument again ensued. According to the police report, Thomas Dietz went to his home and called the code-inspection office of the city, telling a worker there that he had an assault rifle and planned to return to the Cortez house and kill a city employee.

When Thomas Dietz did return to the property on Cortez Drive, he was arrested again on a charge of retaliation, and later freed on $20,000 bond. That case also has not been turned over to the District Attorney's Office for prosecution.

Thomas Dietz, through his father, declined to be interviewed, but Hans Dietz says the charges were overblown.

In the first instance, Dietz says that although he was angry, his son never actually pulled the shotgun out of his truck. In the second case, the father says, his son was mouthing off and may have chosen his words poorly, but never seriously intended to harm city workers.

After police arrested young Dietz the second time, city crews spent two days hauling supplies and debris off of Dietz's property, trying to bring it within city code requirements.

Dietz says he was enraged as he saw some of the things being carted off: the old swing set his son had used which Dietz was saving to give to a neighbor; stacks of plywood that were to have been the decking for his new roof; a barbecue grill that was still perfectly usable; a stack of bricks. "There was no way I could control their activities," Dietz says. "They violated every goddamn civil-rights law that I had."

Even when the city crew was done taking stuff away--under a legal warrant from a magistrate--there was still plenty left behind, more than enough to keep the neighbors concerned and wondering why the city appeared to back off from full-scale efforts to clean up the lot.

"When he threatened the lives of the city employees out here, I think the city attitude was, 'we have a dangerous guy out there and the neighbors aren't really up in arms, so let's leave him alone,'" Poulides says.

Now, the neighbors are up in arms. Despite the loads of junk hauled away by the city--and the fact that Dietz was required to drain his swimming pool--they say there is still far too much debris on Dietz's property. The house is still decaying, its east end obscured by scaffolding and the tarps still on the roof.

Keesing says he will keep pressing the city to keep pressing Dietz. Poulides is waiting for a response from Miguez to his petition. (Miguez did not return repeated phone calls from the Observer.)

Dietz says he's working, trying to meet the 180-day deadline given him by the Urban Rehabilitation Standards Board to fix the roof and paint the trim. Then he'll see when he can get to the rest of it. Having his neighbors and the city on his back isn't helping any, he says, and he resents it.

"I have deep roots in this town here. Ever since I put foot in this country, I have been in Dallas. I helped build the city," Dietz says. "Now, I even feel ashamed to look the neighbors in the face, because I don't like what's happening. I've been made a spectacle.

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