All These Years Later, Swiss Avenue Still Haunted by Ghosts of Halloweens Past

So leave it to me. Here it is Sunday night. I'm sitting on the porch handing out Halloween candy and trying to be nice. But I am gnashing my teeth.

On Saturday The Dallas Morning News published a story about Halloween in my neighborhood. Much mention was also made of the newspaper for which I worked back in the day: the Dallas Times Herald, a daily once owned by the Los Angeles Times and no longer in business. The story was written by one of my favorite News writers, Nancy Visser, and it was about some of my favorite people, Dr. and Mrs. John and Harryette Ehrhardt, who live a block away from me. It had to do with my favorite neighborhood event, Halloween. So what did I have to gnash about?

Through no one's fault especially, the story misconstrued an event that was, I believe, seminal in the history of the neighborhood and seminal in the history of the city.

Halloween on Swiss Avenue is an event unique in the city and maybe in the country, a wonderful accidental blending of the American holiday with El Día de los Muertos and maybe 16 or 17 other cultural phenomena we can't even sort out. Thousands of kids of every possible ethnic and cultural stripe flood Swiss Avenue to collect candy, enjoy the scene and watch shows put on by homeowners like Dave and Ann Brown, who do a whole Phantom of the Opera production on the balcony above their front porch. It's a great vibe and a wonderful expression of the character of the city.

The story in The News was about an event 25 years ago in which the Times Herald severely embarrassed the neighborhood.

David Fritze, one of the best young reporters to pass through that paper, did a piece exposing the fact that an element within the neighborhood wanted to shut down Halloween or severely curtail it in order to keep kids from outside the neighborhood from coming in. Visser at The News, who's a really good reporter herself, characterized the Times Herald story thusly: "The news report, which quoted two residents who had tired of the large numbers of trick-or-treaters, seemed to spur more homeowners than usual to hand out candy that year, according to a follow-up report in the Times Herald, which ceased publishing in 1991."

The impression I got from her story, which may not have been intended -- indeed, maybe I am being, surprise surprise, a tad defensive -- was that the Times Herald kind of ginned up this sensationalized account from a couple of off-the-wall interviews, and then the neighborhood, which was seriously embarrassed about it, came back and made Halloween bigger and better than ever.

Half true. Half false.

I was very aware of that story as it moved through the Times Herald newsroom. I was conflicted out, because I live on a street a block from Swiss but within the Swiss Avenue Historic District. But you can bet I kept my eyes and ears open.

Fritze based his story on a published neighborhood homeowner association newsletter, on multiple interviews and on accounts from residents of a fractious neighborhood association meeting in which one new resident had demanded to know where all of these Mexican kids were coming from. The answer, of course, was: "From all around us. They're not coming into our part of town. We live in their part of town. Dumbass."

Or words to that effect.

Swiss, as we call it, has always struggled with a kind of split personality. You have really great people like the Ehrhardts, who stayed with the 'hood through thick and thin, helped bring it back and want nothing more than to make it a congenial and welcoming place.

And then you have the snobby-bobby ex-suburbanite wannabes who move there to buy mansions for half or less what they would cost in the Park Cities and then put on ludicrous airs. The tension between the two types is recurring. Rose Farley wrote a classic Observer piece about it called "Swiss Misses" in 1997, describing a group of dames on Swiss who had formed their own separate club, called "The Guild," so they wouldn't have to be in the same club with the little-house people on streets like mine.

The responses to Fritze's piece at the Herald and Farley's piece 12 years later for the Observer were identical: Both stories strengthened the positions of the anti-snobby-bobbies -- people like the Ehrhardts and the late Linda Hankinson -- and cut the ground from beneath the bobbies. Both stories helped the neighborhood become its better self.

I'm touchy about it -- sitting here handing out Halloween candy and scaring the kids even though this is not a mask, it's my face -- in part because The Dallas Morning News does not and never has done stories with edge, stories that cut. And I believe that sometimes stories with a knife-edge wind up doing much more good than the feel-good stuff that tries to flatter every group and conceivable readership demographic.

Truth be told, it wasn't even Fritze's story that delivered the most painful sting. A couple days after his piece ran, editorial cartoonist Bob Taylor had a cartoon on the editorial page showing a rich matron dripping in pearls standing at the door of a Swiss Avenue mansion, shrieking something like "EEEEEEK!!!" and recoiling in horror because a couple of the little trick-or-treaters on her step were black.

It was one of those worth-a-million-words cartoons that just slice through all the brouhaha straight to the what-it-is-what-it-is.

I did not gnash my teeth all through the evening Sunday. I calmed down. I love Halloween, especially on my street, where we have a kind of very stepped-down spill-over from Swiss. But as I sat there handing out cavities to the kiddies, I reflected on the fact that people like David Fritze, Rose Farley and Bob Taylor deserve a lot of the credit for our even having this wonderful signature phenomenon in our midst.

Being nice is not always the nice thing to do.

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Jim Schutze has been the city columnist for the Dallas Observer since 1998. He has been a recipient of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies’ national award for best commentary and Lincoln University’s national Unity Award for writing on civil rights and racial issues. In 2011 he was admitted to the Texas Institute of Letters.
Contact: Jim Schutze