By Saying No to Xeriscaping, Heavy-Handed Historic Preservationists Fight to Keep Legacy of Waste and Slavery

Sure, historic preservation is a great idea, if people could just decide what history to preserve. In a recent decision to make East Dallas homeowners rip out native plants and replace them with sod, the Dallas Landmark Commission has come down solidly on the side of stupid history.

The commission ruled March 4 that Maja McFaul and Burton Knight must scrape away a low-to-no water xeriscape of cactus and other plant species and replace them with a water-sucking carpet of grass.

Let's see. The most common water-sucking grass used in Dallas is Bermuda. And what is its history? Nobody knows for sure how Bermuda grass got to this country in the first place, probably from India or Africa, but one theory is that it came as seed in contaminated hay used as bedding on 18th century slave ships. Wow, we really need to celebrate that history, don't we?

Now estimated to cover 15 million acres, Bermuda grass is the black plague of water wasting. The EPA estimates that a typical Bermuda grass lawn consumes 10,000 gallons of water per year above rainfall.

Burton Knight, the guy who redid a small lawn in the Junius Heights neighborhood with cactus, drought-tolerant plants and decomposed granite, has a horticulture degree from Texas A&M. He was awarded a preservation fellowship with stipend by the National Garden Conservancy based on an essay he submitted on garden history, reviewed by a national panel in New York.

In the materials Knight submitted to the Landmark Commission he included another brief essay on the history of gardens in Dallas, with descriptions of desert and prairie-looking gardens popular with early pillars of the community, including his own forebears.

Then there is this: His neighborhood, like the one I live in, is an official "historic district" by city ordinance. That means you can't even repaint your house the same color without official permission. For an alteration like the one Knight wrought in his yard, you have to invite a special panel of your neighbors, called "The Task Force," to come look at your plans and then give you a thumbs up or down.

Look, I was a huge supporter of all this stuff back in the day. In the '70s and '80s City Hall wanted to turn the entire inner city into used car lots, tenements and double-decked expressways. Their whole idea was to deep-six the city as a place to live and get everybody out to the suburbs where Dallas mayors and members of the private Dallas Citizens Council had invested all their own money. Historic preservation in inner city neighborhoods was the only grass skirt we had to cover our extreme vulnerability.

My own home is now divided on some of this. My wife is still a big defender and sometime member of our own task force. I call them the taste Nazis. If you ask me, the whole idea of historic preservation has morphed into an excuse to impose a suburban-style conformist monoculture on an urban realm that yearns and needs to be diverse and quirky instead.

But here's the deal in the Junius Heights case: The Junius Heights task force sided with the homeowners. It was split vote, but most of the task force members were cool with Knight's xeriscape lawn and told him he could keep it.

But then it went to the Landscape Commission. I must just be dumb about that. I thought if you won at the task force level it was over and you were home-free. But according to city paperwork, someone called "The Opposition" appealed the decision of the task force to the commission.

Whatever. The commission voted to make Knight tear out his water-conserving lawn because it wasn't "historically appropriate." So my question. Which historically appropriate?

Appropriate to the way-back history of what was really here before the arrival of the palefaces? Appropriate to later history when Dallas was a new town full of characters who went their own way? Appropriate to a more recent era when I happened to live in Junius Heights? The guy two doors down from me ornamented his lawn with a concrete Virgin Mary in an up-ended bathtub, which most of us on the street loved and appreciated. I would even say Bathtub Mary was part of why we wanted to live in Junius Heights and not Plano.

No, of all the eras from which it could have chosen, the commission in its wisdom decided the one chapter it needed most to preserve was the early and mid-20th century invasion of middle and working class homeowners who proudly carpeted their lawns with water-sucking slave-ship weeds from another continent.

I don't know about anybody else, but I'm about at the point where I could start a movement to have this whole part of town redesignated as an official McMansion District: Any new construction must include at least five different materials on the street-facing façade, must contain at least 6,000 square feet of living space and must be designed by a contractor who did not complete high school. I honestly think it would cut down on the asshole factor.

But now you must excuse me, because I need to call over to the Y and see if they still have rooms available tonight. (Saying anything bad about historic preservation is soooo touchy around here. Better to mock the Blessed Virgin.)

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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

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