Rebecca Levin, a documentary filmmaker based in Paris, arrived in Tent City on a brisk Wednesday morning in early February with a spiral notebook and a knee-length maroon coat. She'd been assigned by a major French TV network, TF1, to shoot a film about inequality in Dallas, and the sprawling homeless encampment, which stretches for a half mile beneath Interstate 45 just southeast of downtown, seemed like the obvious place to start.
Her guide for the day was Jonathan Grace, a Methodist clergyman who runs a homeless ministry through the nonprofit CitySquare, though, with his leather jacket and chest-length mane, he could easily be taken for a heavy metal bassist who'd mistakenly wandered into Tent City from nearby Deep Ellum. Levin had expected him to act as a fixer, but he seemed more focused on glad-handing with parishioners and finishing his weekly tent count than connecting her with potential documentary subjects. Finally, after she'd asked several times for an introduction to someone who might consent to be filmed, Grace led her to where a group of men were circled around an open fire.
They were friendly enough, neither disturbed nor particularly impressed by the sudden appearance of a French filmmaker. Levin ended up talking with one of them, Bennie Valentine, for about 20 minutes. "I said 'How long have you been here and what’s your story, how’d you get here?'" Levin recalls. He told her of an accident he'd had years ago, how he frequently visited the hospital but was never given what he needs, how he would occasionally make $18 a day washing and detailing cars at an auto auction as part of a crew from Tent City.
Levin moved on and eventually found a willing subject just south of Hickory Street in Paul Darrow, whose affability and orderliness has led his neighbors to refer to him as The Mayor. Darrow is a mechanic by trade, though it's been a while since he's had steady work. "Geez. It was, uh, 2008? 2009?" he says. Suffice to say it was during the recession, which hit his native Rust Belt with particular force. "Company downsized, I got laid off. After that, I had a whole year of collecting unemployment, and that's when I started skipping around."
He bounced from place to place for a couple of years before settling in Wichita, Kansas, where some friends needed help looking after their aging parents. Darrow moved in, helping the couple with day-to-day chores and fixing up the house, but the husband, who suffered from Parkinson's, rapidly deteriorated and the family was soon forced to sell the house.
Darrow moved in with a friend who was living in Sherman. The friend "was all cracked out," Darrow
says. "It ended up I drank too much and I got picked up and they threw me in a rehab center, and the rehab center said, 'Go to Dallas, that's where they've got the best treatment, you know, for homelessness' ... I literally just got dropped. They drove me down here and dropped me off." Darrow began to have doubts as soon as he stepped out of the van. "I said, 'Nuh uh, take me back to Sherman.'" But by then it was too late. His ride had already left.
For a while Darrow stayed at The Bridge, the city-funded homeless service center, but he says he lost his bed after an extended hospital stay. The other shelters are too restrictive for his taste. Austin Street, two blocks from Tent City, starts admitting people at 4 p.m., but anyone who wants a realistic shot of getting inside needs to be in line by 2 p.m. A friend of his was staying there when he got work as a waiter. He'd get off work at 11 p.m., sometimes joining his colleagues for a night cap after the restaurant closed. "A couple times they wouldn't let him in. 'Ah you've been drinking!'" Darrow shakes his head. Don't even think about trying to catch a weekend show in Deep Ellum. "After that you lose your spot or you lose whatever you had, they throw it out. They throw your shit out."
So Darrow wound up in Tent City. He'd rather be working and housed, but compared with the alternatives, life beneath the underpass isn't so bad. He gets along well with pretty much everyone, and his neighbors respect his space. He's surrounded his tent with a small dirt levee that's more decorative than functional. He sometimes uses a broom to sweep excess dirt from the resulting enclosure. His appearance is similarly tidy. He has pale blue eyes and trimmed white hair that's invariably covered with a baseball cap. His clothes — a well-fitting red sweater and jeans — are carefully chosen and somehow free of the ash-colored dust that coats everything else beneath I-45.
He's not quite sure what to make of the prospect of being on French television, but he's been happy to play along. He and Levin have been working on "scripting stuff," he says. "It's like, 'Here's what we're going to do today: a shot of you with your bicycle, riding down there to CitySquare.'
"OK, that's cool, so we'll set it up, and maybe [it'll be] like, 'You're going too fast, you're going too slow,' but that's the only thing is sometimes I'm, like, a little too fast or too slow. But as far as the dialect and talking, she's like, 'Man you're a natural.' She even said you need to quit being such a natural. Don't ham it up." On the morning Levin arrived with her cameraman, Francoise, to film, Darrow cleaned up his tent. "She's like, 'No, you've got to mess it up,' So I'm like, "All right,' so I go in there psssshk, and it's like, alright."
Levin says Darrow was playing too hard to the camera; she's after "slice of life" footage that hasn't been sanitized.
Levin's methods are different, but she is working within a genre — the puzzled dispatch from America — that's well-established in France. Its most famous practitioner by far was Alexis de Tocqueville, who embedded himself in the United States for several years in the mid-19th century, compiling his observations into the two-volume tome Democracy in America.
Levin, who is originally from Boston but has lived in France for more than two decades, has done her share of this type of work. She has filmed dispatches on American gun culture, the juvenile justice system, and, like de Tocqueville, its prisons. Her current piece on inequality in Dallas originated as lighter fare. She'd previously done a piece profiling French expats living in Louisiana and had come to Dallas with the idea of doing something similar. She picked out several subjects — the founder of the La Madeleine cafe chain, a hockey player for the Dallas Stars, a helicopter pilot with the Dallas Police Department — and spent several weeks filming, but the network that had commissioned the project decided the concept was stale and pulled the plug.
While in Dallas for the original project, Levin had been struck by the chasm between rich and poor. She learned from subsequent conversations that the gap was rapidly growing wider and was doing so faster than almost anywhere else in the country. Tent City offered visually potent confirmation. Soon, Levin found herself and a cameraman back in Dallas.
In France, because of the robust social safety net, someone like Darrow would not wind up on the streets. "If you lose your job, you’re going to get unemployment for years and years; unemployment lasts for a long time. Then, if it dwindles down, you get another kind of aid that’ll last for years and years. Public housing is very, very profuse. People can get public housing pretty easily. The homeless are pretty much people who are choosing to be homeless or very mentally ill."
Such government largess does come with trade-offs. Levin knows plenty of people who don't bother to work because they can live just fine on their unemployment checks. "The generous social system is way too generous." And there's nothing comparable to America's constellation of church groups and nonprofits that shower the homeless with compassion. "When you go [to Tent City] on Saturday and see all the church groups giving out food or clothes, it’s like a carnival," she says. "That does not exist in France."
All in all, Levin expects that most French viewers will wonder how a country so rich can let so many people fall through the cracks. "To a French person, I guess it seems paradoxical."
For Levin, finding documentary subjects who occupy the bottom stratum of Dallas society was easy. In addition to Darrow, she connected with a Hispanic family struggling to make ends meet. More challenging was finding a willing subject on the other end. Levin initially connected with an old-money Dallas family. The family was happy to have Levin film them, but, rather disappointingly, they lacked the nouveau riche impulse to flaunt their wealth.
Which is how, on Monday morning, Levin wound up sitting in the expansive North Dallas living room of Candy Evans, the proprietor of the local real estate blog Candy's Dirt. Levin had contacted Evans on my advice. We're former coworkers and still occasionally chat and exchange emails. More to the point, Evans is the undisputed queen of Dallas "house porn," as she describes her photo-heavy articles on the mansions of Dallas' ultra-wealthy. If any of my mostly impoverished contacts could find Levin a willing millionaire, it was her.
But hearing the white-noise hum of the housekeeper running the vacuum cleaner in the other room, glancing at the mammoth Christmas tree and matching tinsel still hung across the marble fireplace, and listening to Evans describe her run-ins with millionaire dentist Richard Malouf over his backyard water park and how, after a family emergency left her unable to acquire properly elaborate headgear for the annual Mad Hatter's Tea, she went to the party with the family parrot on her head, it became clear that Levin's search was over.
Evans, who is in on-and-off talks with production companies about starring in a real estate-focused reality show, was an eager subject. The two began poring over their schedules, figuring out the optimal time for Evans to be followed around with a video camera. They decide that Levin will tag along with Evans when she visits a $6 million Preston Hollow mansion the following day, at a charity event at Anteks in the Design District and on a Sunday trip down Beverly Drive, where Evans can point out, among other things, the house whose new owners just built a game room beneath their swimming pool. Levin also hopes to follow Evans to a lunch with one of her contacts.
Evans isn't sure where they're planning to meet but, as always, she's game. "Do you want it to be at a chi-chi place?"
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Levin nods enthusiastically.
Evans suggests Fearing's, which is housed inside the Ritz-Carlton, though Levin's attendance depends on securing the cooperation of her contact and restaurant management.
Levin will be filming in Dallas through March 9, mainly tagging along with Evans and spending several nights riding along with the Dallas Police Department. She also plans to check in once more with Darrow now that the city of Dallas is plotting Tent City's disbandment. City officials, who have been discussing Tent City for months, were prodded into action by a deadly stabbing. Levin was surprised, and somewhat alarmed, when she learned from news reports that the alleged murderer was her initial contact in Tent City, Bennie Valentine.
Homeless advocates are working desperately to find housing for Tent City residents before their dispersal, which is scheduled for May 4, but there simply isn't enough housing for everyone. Levin's film, however, might just end on a hopeful note. Darrow has an appointment scheduled with a case worker at CitySquare who will help him put together a resume, which, maybe, will be his ticket out of Tent City.