Ray Mali dresses neatly in a collared cotton shirt, jeans, clean sneakers and a bulky leather jacket that doesn't keep him quite warm enough. It's eight o'clock on a January morning. He takes his last few gulps of tea and leaves for work, his muscles aching even before he steps outside of his apartment. He's only 33, but his body hasn't caught up with his new routine, a long morning commute to a job stocking shelves at a used bookstore, for $7.25 an hour he needs too badly to be anything but prompt.
He begins his walk through the boxy patchwork of parking lots and unadorned buildings of his apartment complex, stopping at the leasing office to pay his $18 electric bill. (His middle name is listed on the bill as "IRC," for International Rescue Committee.) He passes three African men, one of them wearing a gray hoodie over a neon headdress. He keeps winding through his neighborhood, Vickery Meadow, a dense swath of about 100 apartment complexes cradled by NorthPark Center and Whole Foods to the west and Half Price books to the south. It's an overlooked anthill, population 25,000, packed with people here by circumstance.
On his walk up Ridgecrest Road, he passes others, old and young, on their way to wherever they're obligated to be. In the morning, everyone has a destination; night is when people seem to wander. Some groups of commuters speak Spanish; others speak languages too foreign to Dallas to recognize. An estimated 27 languages are spoken in this neighborhood, including Mali's French and English. A daily commute here is a gritty, fleeting, survival-based version of Disney's It's a Small World ride, where dolls from all corners of the globe dance around in a fabricated display.
At least it feels that way until a breeze carrying the smell of marijuana wafts from somewhere nearby, a skunky reminder that it's not that Disney after all.
Mali, whose name has been changed for his protection, arrives at a bus stop near Five Points, a five-way intersection and one of the Dallas Police Department's 27 high-crime focus areas. He waits 15 minutes for the bus, while groups of men loiter at the corner but never ride. Two bus rides and one long hour after locking his front door, he arrives at the used bookstore across town.
"Without being probably arrogant, I went to school," he says. "I never imagined in my life that I would do this job, because I went to school."
Mali worked until recently as a human-rights lawyer in his homeland, the Democratic Republic of Congo, advocating for victims of ongoing conflict, building cases against violent leaders and forwarding the evidence to the International Criminal Court in the Netherlands.
"I have to stay grounded and be like everybody," he says. "If I don't, my situation will be very, very bad. ... I don't know exactly what's going to happen to me tomorrow."
"This area was the equivalent of Uptown," Bob Breunig says, over coffee at Henks Deli on Blackwell Street. Henks is one of the few Vickery businesses that has withstood the test of time, and crime, and decline. But Breunig — who still has the broad shoulders and wide smile of his days as a Cowboys linebacker — remembers a different Vickery Meadow.
Breunig called this neighborhood home for his first two years in Dallas, before he married and moved to Lake Highlands. He arrived in 1975, after being drafted in the third round out of Arizona State. Like many of the rookie Cowboys, he moved into Vickery Meadow for its proximity to the team's training facility and to the bars and restaurants at the corner of Greenville Avenue and Park Lane. The original Filling Station was in the rotation, a convenient place to grab a drink and stay for live music. A walk south on Greenville Avenue felt the way Lower Greenville feels today, with music spilling onto the sidewalk every time a door swung open.
Breunig paid $220 a month in a complex at Meadow Road and Central Expressway — a "top end" spot, he says. Real estate in Vickery was such a commodity that Breunig invested his NFL earnings in two apartment complexes.
Mike Palise worked in the neighborhood in that era, conducting market research for an apartment developer. "In those days, we categorized people by lifestyle," he says. "Swingers" were that area's ideal clients, he says — "singles in their twenties and thirties who liked going out and were looking for their first apartment."
But the neighborhood started to shift in the 1980s. Those singles married and fled to the suburbs, and in 1988, the federal Fair Housing Act — which barred apartment complexes from discriminating against families — was amended to increase enforcement, making it hard for Vickery to hold onto its "swingers."