Mean green

Taking a walk in the park isn't easy in Bob Salesky's neighborhood. Just around the corner from his home in Southeast Dallas, there's Bisbee Park. With its wild shrubs and fallen trees blocking the main walkway, it's not so much a park as it is a patch of wilderness, one best avoided. But today Salesky enters the jungle just to show its shoddy state and to get his point across--Dallas' Park and Recreation Department has done little to make it better.

That city agency has its defense, though: It's not a park at all, says Rita Hughes, the park board member appointed by District 7 city council member Leo Chaney. Actually, it's an undeveloped "parkway," but even according to the park department, that's a fine distinction. City maps say it's a park. Just to set the record straight, though: "It is a park. It's a park property," says Willis Winters, director of planning, design, and construction for the Park Department.

In all, there are three parks in Salesky's neighborhood of about 900 homes. They're all terrible, say many residents, and every effort by the neighborhood to make them better appears to have been stymied. "It keeps coming back to the fact that city council isn't doing its job," says Salesky, who as president of his neighborhood association has tried to jumpstart three separate projects on behalf of the surrounding parks. All have failed. Some in the park department see at least two of those parks as too beset with problems to proceed.

Salesky, though, isn't giving up on Bisbee--or on any of the nearby parks. He sees possibilities. And despite the city's position that a stream running through Bisbee causes too much erosion for work to be done, Salesky says there's still hope for a walkway, some lighting, maybe even a pavilion. The city doesn't agree.

About two years ago, Salesky called the park department. When a willing official came out to look at Bisbee, the man asked the obvious: "This is a park?"

For Salesky, it could be. It should be.

Traversing Bisbee's thick, fallen tree branches, he enters an open patch of land surrounded by mounds of trees. Besides the gang members who a few years back often drove up the path and stripped cars here, no one comes to these 11 acres on Bisbee Drive, allocated by the city as parkland back in 1952. Well, there was one person. A corpse, actually. Long-time resident Johnny Tunnel recalls that sometime in the late 1970s he was walking near the park when he got a whiff of a foul smell coming from the woods. It lingered for three weeks until the cops came by.

Otherwise, no one ever paid much attention to Bisbee.

Then Bob Salesky, a chiropractor by trade who now works as a flight attendant for American Airlines, came to town. After moving into the area five years ago, he took one look at that overgrown green eyesore and knew that something had to change. Soon, he formed the Parkdale/Lawnview Association of Neighbors, a group representing about 300 residents. The association soon called the city to close off Bisbee's walkway, just to thwart gang members from driving up the path. Then, once the "hoodlums" (as Salesky calls them) were gone, Salesky saw a chance to create the kind of park everyone could use.

Last summer, after he prompted the park department for change, a department employee gave him a rough outline of plans for Bisbee. An architectural firm would be brought in, the man said, and then city crews would clear away underbrush from the park area to lay down a pathway. In the months ahead, the neighborhood association met with the department's landscape architect and the architects. That day, the firm Wallace, Roberts and Todd laid out the plans for a proposed walk and bike pathway at Bisbee, funded through a community development block grant (CDBG) of $260,000. Salesky thought help was on its way. He was wrong.

The months passed, and Bisbee stayed the same. When Salesky called the Park and Recreation Department in January and asked about the holdup, the landscaping architect told him that the city didn't have adequate crews to clear the underbrush. When Salesky called again the next month, he learned that the architectural firm's contract had been terminated. (Winters of the Park Department couldn't recall specifics of the case, but said that the firm's fees were too high and that its attorneys were revising standard city contract language. Wallace, Roberts and Todd project director Richard Leisner says that the disagreement stems from what he calls "boilerplate contract language." But he says that in his firm's initial survey of the area, a walkway seemed feasible despite the fact that the park was an extensive drainage area. "Dollars are a big part of the equation," he says.

After Salesky called the park department, he learned that a second architectural firm had stated that erratic elevations in Bisbee Park would not be conducive to a path. He's been fuming ever since, saying that he feels left out of the decision-making process by the park department.

Just last week, Rita Hughes came to look at Bisbee for the first time. Salesky and other residents weren't invited until the very last minute, he says.

Hughes says that Salesky and other neighborhood complaints are being fueled by Jan Bridges, an appointee on the city's community development commission who lives in Salesky's neighborhood. (The community development commission makes recommendations on how the city should spend CDBG money.) Hughes would not specify why she thought Bridges was stirring up the neighborhood; both Salesky and Bridges deny Hughes' claim.

In the midst of all the finger-pointing, Bisbee remains just as crummy as ever. And for residents, neither of the other two nearby parks is inviting. At Parkdale, near Military Parkway, garbage cans and beer bottles lie strewn across the edge of the field. A footbridge across a small stream is rotting. At nearby Lawnview Park on Scyene Road, a bond was passed in 1998 to make improvements, but just a few weeks ago, Hughes informed the Park Department that she believes the money--$230,000--should go elsewhere in the district. Hughes said flooding from nearby White Rock Creek makes improvements problematic. The park department's Winters agrees. "Because of White Rock Creek, Lawnview floods more often than others in the system," he says.

Salesky says no one ever mentioned the flooding when voters approved the bonds in 1998. The money would have been used to build a baseball field. If the money were reassigned, it would go to another park project in District 7, says Winters. And as for where it would go, Rita Hughes says simply, "We will see what we can do to try to serve the area."

The uncertainty surrounding Lawnview upsets Linda Bannister, a teacher who lives across the street from the park. Her husband, an amateur bird watcher, has documented some 100 species of birds that find refuge at Lawnview. She and her husband haven't seen as many birds these days, though. Noise from cars that park on the grass drives many away. And there's another reason: Old trees are dying off.

"It's a shame that the city hasn't decided that this is a valuable resource," Bannister says. "The people around here are nice, decent people and shouldn't have to move to North Dallas to get decent service."