They Ain't Heavy: Recyclers on South Side Are the Foundation of a Better Neighborhood

It speaks volumes that people at The Dallas Morning News, like some other people in Dallas who should know better, do not know what heavy industry is. Two pieces in the print edition of the paper this morning describe scrap-metal and architectural remnant recyclers near Lamar Avenue as "heavy industry" or "heavy industrial businesses."

Wow. Somebody didn't grow up in the Rust Belt. Heavy industry is something you see on the horizon 25 miles away. Heavy industry is something you can scrape off the hood of your car with a magnet. Somebody who really ever lived near real heavy industry remembers not being able to smell rotten egg gas because it smelled normal.

One piece in the paper today is a semi-grudging acknowledgment of an event coming up tomorrow on Rock Island Street, something I wrote about a week ago. Tomorrow the businesses on this cool, little, gritty cul-de-sac just south of downtown off Lamar will host what they are calling the Cedars West Art Festival from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m.

This block-long street tucked between the Trinity River levees and Lamar is home to a handful of businesses including Orr-Reed Wrecking, an architectural salvage yard beloved of old-house renovators in Dallas for decades. Fans of Orr-Reed should take major umbrage at a piece on the op-ed page of the Morning News today by the Reverend Gerald Britt sliming Orr-Reed and anybody else engaged in recycling as somehow equivalent to the lead-spewing battery recycling plant that has just agreed to shut down operations in suburban Frisco.

Britt, who has become something of a shill for the downtown Dallas business boys in recent years, writes, "Frisco and South Dallas residents both have been concerned about the effect of recycling operations on community health. In Frisco, it is concerns of rare cancers usually traced to lead pollution; in the community along Lamar Street, asthma, heart disease and cancer have been reported."

By this logic, if you allow the Boy Scouts to install one of those glass recycling stations on a church parking lot near your neighborhood, eventually somebody in that neighborhood is going to die. And I guess, come to think of it, that's true. Somewhere someday somehow somebody is gonna die.

I'm not saying there may not be recycling operations somewhere along Lamar that are still problematic. But Britt, in his piece, is clearly taking aim specifically at the ones I wrote about on Rock Island.

Painting it as a problem of inequity between the affluent suburbs and the inner city, Britt says, "The result of Frisco's activism is hailed as a victory. In South Dallas, the owners of the recycling operations have been portrayed as victims who are being preyed upon by mischief makers with nefarious motives."

I would take credit for the nefarious motives thing, except that the Dallas City Council beat me to it. When proprietors of the businesses on Rock Island went to the council more than a year ago, they complained that they were getting jammed by city staff and by backers of the Trinity River project, especially The Dallas Morning News editorial page.

It wasn't so much that the News wanted them to sell their century-old businesses to make way for apartments and coffee shops. These are business people. Of course they will sell, if the price is right.

The News and City Hall wanted to use the city's zoning laws to push the people off the land for cheap, confiscating their property, in effect, to hand it over to some favored cabal of developers who then would reap any windfall to be made.

The City Council balked and gave the Rock Island businesses a reprieve not so much because it all sounded "nefarious." That's way too much of an understatement. It sounded un-American.

As for Britt, I know that he is a good man of good intention. It pains my heart that he has so little idea how to help his community.

He writes, "South Dallas residents and their allies have expressed ... worries that a drive down Lamar Street confirms. Owed significantly to the presence of recyclers and the crumbling remains of night clubs and urban nuisances, more wholesome economic development has been effectively choked out."

This is the view that a certain kind of prosperity -- lots of fancy retail, in particular -- is not present in an area because someone is withholding it. This take on things is founded on the notion that wealth is a bestowed commodity, a gift, a present. It fails to apprehend that affluence is a made commodity, a built thing, put together a layer at a time over time.

If somebody wants something fancier on Rock Island, then the thing to do is support and embrace the businesses that are there right now, help them prosper and hire more people, help them make more money. We should help the area build cachet gradually as what it could become: a funky urban expansion of the artists community already developing in the nearby Cedars area.

Then maybe a generation from now, you'll see your first Starbucks open up down there. Personally, if I were around to see that happen I might shed a tear, but I would also clap my hands for Britt finally getting his way the right way, with patience and hard work instead of a writ and a bulldozer.

So, anyway, tomorrow is a festival to celebrate the neighborhood's survival. Hope to see you there. Just Google Rock Island street. It ain't that big physically. Morally, it's huge.