Dallas City Hall versus The Car Wash

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UPDATED JUNE 9 2014: Cops Barricade South Dallas Car Wash, Threaten Arrest If You Ask Too Many Questions ORIGINAL POST

In the evening after sundown, the neighborhood behind Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard in old South Dallas is a scene from Detroit — vacant lots, boarded-up houses, crackheads and drunks shuffling in the alleys. But in the distance Jim's Car Wash appears out of the gloom like a little circus, brightly lighted and busy-busy, music jangling, shouts and laughter, the occasional rumpus.

Jim's Car Wash at the corner of Myrtle Street and MLK is a place where men and women gather to make money detailing cars — washing them meticulously by hand, vacuuming and scrubbing the interiors, buffing the chrome, Windexing the glass. Sometimes a city-crusty car can leave the car wash looking almost brand-new and bright again, all for a fee of a third to a fourth what people charge for the same service in a better neighborhood.


Dallas City Hall

To some people, Jim's Car Wash is not merely the best thing happening on that part of MLK. It's the only thing. MLK is supposed to be the area's major commercial artery, but many lots are empty and storefronts shuttered. Other people look at the car wash and see only a canker in the mouth of the whole neighborhood, the one thing that has to go before anything else can get better.

In fact, Jim's Car Wash over the years has become a central bone of contention in South Dallas. Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings clearly believes it is a center of criminal activity. When I met with him late last year, he told me of occasions when he had reconnoitered the car wash from his black police-driven SUV and observed what looked to him like drug activity.

I have visited the car wash on and off over the years and always felt safe there, but in deference to the mayor's opinion I did some checking after I met with him. Compared with the area around it, the car wash turns out to have an amazingly low level of crime. Between 2008 and 2013, there were only seven offense reports made at the car wash, including four robberies of an individual and three aggravated assaults.

The surrounding police beat, an area of about 45 city blocks, produced 11 crime reports for the month of last December and the same number in December 2012. So the car wash had fewer crimes in six years than the neighborhood has per month.

A bit more perspective: The police beat that includes the tony NorthPark Center shopping mall at Northwest Highway and Central Expressway produced four times the number of crime reports both last December and also in December of 2012 as the South Dallas police beat around the car wash. How can that be? I'm not sure. NorthPark Center says it draws 26 million visitors annually. Even though the raw number of offense reports there is higher, the rate per person is bound to be much lower. But the fact is that the area around Jim's Car Wash reports 110 times more crime per year than the car wash does, and NorthPark and its immediate environs report three and a half times more crime than the South Dallas area near the car wash.

And then there is the history. Jim's Car Wash was at the epicenter of a long investigation and lengthy hearings eight years ago by a joint committee of the Texas Legislature. It was one of dozens of Dallas businesses that complained to lawmakers in Austin about what they said was scheme of extortion by Dallas City Hall.

In its final report, the investigative committee sided with the businesses, especially the car wash. The report painted Dallas City Hall as reeking with "ward-based politics run amok as the selective enforcement of nuisance laws protect politically connected insiders and punish their competitors."

The report said car wash owners Freddy and Dale Davenport had been preyed upon by bribe-gouging Dallas City Council members. It said they were victims of a concerted campaign of official oppression by the Dallas Police Department and the Dallas City Attorney's Office.

The report described the police and city attorney's departments as operating a citywide protection racket harvesting $20 million a year in top-dollar pay for off-duty cops hired as private security. Merchants and property owners who failed to hire Dallas cops off-duty were subjected to punitive kangaroo court proceedings, fined and even threatened with eminent domain seizures of their property.

The legislators on the joint committee were angered and shocked by the depth and breadth of testimony they heard from the Dallas business and property owners. In their report they denounced Dallas for what they said were gross violations of basic law and civil rights.

Mayor Rawlings, a businessman, was involved in city politics at the time of the report as a volunteer on appointive boards, but he was not elected mayor until 2011. There are reasons why he, like many Dallas residents, may not have been aware of the legislative hearings at the time. Dallas TV stations did not staff the hearings. The city's only daily newspaper, The Dallas Morning News, gave the story only perfunctory coverage. The Dallas Observer covered the hell out of it, but there you have it.

And it was all supposed to get fixed anyway. A new Dallas police chief, David Kunkle, really did clean up the police department. City Attorney Tom Perkins reined in the more egregious misbehavior of his own staff. At the very least the legislative finding meant Freddy Davenport, now 81, a retired steelworker, and his son Dale, now 52, who runs the car wash, could hope their worries of many years were at long last over.

Then late last year, nearly eight years after the legislative report, Dallas city officials sent the Davenports a letter telling them their property was needed for an unspecified city project, warning that the city might resort to eminent domain to force them to sell if they balked.

So they balked. When the Davenports demanded to know the nature of the project and more about the source of the eminent domain letter, the city folded its hand immediately and said there would be no eminent domain. That was part of what the mayor told me in my meeting with him. He said the eminent domain threat was a mistake, a heavy-handed misinterpretation of an off-hand remark he himself had made one day in front of city staff to the effect that the city should think about buying the Davenports out.

But he also told me the car wash had to go, one way or another. He spoke thoughtfully about "Grow South," his campaign to invigorate the economy of the city's mainly minority southern hemisphere, an area that extends far from old South Dallas. He said he could not address the rest of the city's southern half without doing something for MLK.

Rawlings considers the most important asset and prime point of leverage in that area to be Fair Park, the sprawling Art Deco fairgrounds that hosts the annual State Fair of Texas. Pointing out to me that MLK is a principal route into the fair, he made specific reference to the scene at the car wash and said, "People get scared to death driving down MLK."

The mayor also made pointed references to the role in the area of former Dallas City Council member Diane Ragsdale (1984-1991). Ragsdale is the salaried managing director of a nonprofit organization supported in part by city funds that owns roughly 80 parcels of land in the area near the car wash. A second nonprofit owns another 80 properties in the area, and the city owns many lots nearby, as well.

Rawlings told me he thinks the holdings of Ragsdale's group and other entities active in the area, all on residential streets so far, need to be extended out onto MLK, the commercial spine of the area. He and an aide were close-mouthed and careful about precisely where that process of extension might occur.

The mayor said he had been informed by the city attorney's office that the car wash could be pried loose through use of the city's zoning laws. He said he thought it would soon be declared a "non-conforming use." I checked. Until a year ago, the zoning for the Davenport's property explicitly allowed a car wash there. But last year council member Carolyn Davis, saying she wanted only "wholesome" businesses along MLK, persuaded the council to alter the zoning to explicitly prohibit a car wash. Under the new zoning, the city will be able to force the Davenports to close their business.

On one of the last sunny days before Christmas, I drove over to the car wash with photographer Mark Graham. He and I have worked stories together there before. I don't think either one of us has much journalistic objectivity about the car wash. We both flat love the place. Here are the people we met there.

Extra Income

James Black, 51, is in the back of the car wash finishing up a wax job on a 2014 Mustang G.T. 5.0. At one time detailing cars here was his only job. Now Black, 51, works full-time for a phone company but still comes back to earn extra income: "I can make anywhere from upward to $80 to a $150 a day, and that's in a six- to seven-hour job. On a Saturday I can make $150 a day easy. Like I'm doing this job, it's going to pay me $10, take me about 25 or 30 minutes tops."

Car Wash Mom

Shawn Ponder, 39, stands by her late-model pickup truck selling cleaning materials to the detailers. "I am basically like the car wash mom," she says. "I sell all of the car fresheners, and I make sure these guys eat and they have something to drink, and I also pray for them."

For 20 years she has come to the car wash at least once a day. Working here is a leg up, she says, for the men and women who detail cars. "It's an opportunity for them to work. A lot of them are just getting out of jail or getting out of the hospital or something like that, and they come here looking for a job, and to be honest with you I would prefer them to come here than to be breaking into homes, or something else they would have to do."

She says lots of white people in expensive cars come here to get their cars detailed. "During Texas-OU weekend, it was wonderful. It was great, during the Texas-OU weekend, everybody felt comfortable coming back from the OU game, you know, Fair Park, a lot of people, you know. They know us because they see us all the time."

She says she and other adults on the lot make sure young people do not come to the car wash and disturb the peace. "They're not going do it here, because there's too many elders here. We respect Dale to the highest. The older people, we control the young people. You can't just come up here out of control. No. What I told them years ago, I been doing this 20 years, 'If you all are going to do something, don't do it here. Don't do your dirt here. Take it somewhere else, because this is a business.' I kind of like to be bossy."

A Family Place

Marshall Cornelius, 55, pauses with polish rag in hand. He has been detailing cars here for 16 years. He says he goes to the car wash every day as much for the social scene as for the money. "We're a family. If an outsider come in here, yeah, we're going to stick by each other, but together amongst us we are going to have some bickering at times, but we're going to move right along, because we're family."

A Better Way to Make a Living

Gary Brown, 45, steps out of a car he is working on. "I come down here and wash cars," he says, "so I can pay my bills. My family eats off this. One hundred dollars a day, feeding my family, paying my bills. This is what we do.

"A lot of us over here may have been in trouble in the past, OK. So society don't want to give us another chance to go get us another job. My felony is 20 years old, but I still have a time finding a job. But to keep me from robbing and stealing, you know what I'm saying, we came up with washing cars, because you got to make a way so we don't rob and steal. We don't ask nobody for anything. There's a lot of us down here, that's all we do."

He doesn't understand why the police show up sometimes and give everybody a hard time. Most of the time, he says, the cops on the beat have a friendly relationship with the car wash, even bringing their own personal cars in for detailing. "The police come down here and eat our barbecue. We wash their cars. They laugh and giggle with us. They wave at us when they ride by, because we know 'em."

The Country Boy Cook

Antonio Baker, 36, is a big guy who works full-time for a railroad, but today he is in full apron, selling barbecue from a smoker on a trailer parked at the Myrtle Street side of the car wash. He says he only comes on weekdays because too many other barbecue sellers show up at the car wash on weekends.

"It's a friendly atmosphere, very friendly. I just do it through the week on my off days, because I got a normal job. I try to come out here and feed the people. I like to come out here on a pretty day. I enjoy my friends, check out the atmosphere, check on everybody, like to see 'em smile when they eat my food, see how they're doing. I'm straight out of Mississippi, country boy. I love to do this. I love to interact with people."

A young man has purchased a hotlink sandwich and tosses the wrapper on the ground. "Uh-uh, don't do that," Baker scolds, stooping to pick it up. "Don't do that. Got a big old trash can right over there." Then he calls out, "Ten dollars for a turkey leg big as your head, right over here."

Damned by a Stereotype

Gary Adams, 56, is a detailer who is also Davenport's on-site manager. "Everybody gets along pretty good," he says. "Every once in a while you might have a little disagreement about something. That's life. But other than that, everybody else is working. We work together and try to make our money."

He bristles when told that some people think the car wash is a frightening place. "That's something that's made up, like a stereotype thing. People come here all time of night to get their car washed, and nobody tries to take their money or does anything to them. Ain't no crime going on."

Politics Spoils Business

Aston Ingram, 49, a sales manager for Budget Mobile telephone company, pulls into the car wash with his assistant, Unika Long, 21, to ask Davenport if he can set up a sales tent on the lot again. Davenport had to kick them out some months ago when the city threatened to cite him for allowing retail activities not permitted by his zoning. Davenport tells them he's still working on it.

Ingram is disappointed. He says the car wash is a great retail site because of the traffic. He feels perfectly safe bringing merchandise here. "We set up with a tent. We have a longstanding relationship with this young man right here [Davenport]. It's beneficial to both of us as well as the community in itself. We had a good understanding, a relationship, until politics got onto it. We look at this as a place people come to."

Job of Last Resort

John Eddie Burks, 50, stands alone in a shadow at the end of the building. He's big, with a serious scowl and dark shades. He looks tough. When he smiles the scowl breaks into a big grin set off by a massive gold tooth. He says he doesn't know what he would do if something happened to the car wash.

"Some of my friends, it's like they going to a picnic. They leave their house, they come to the car wash. It takes a lot of stress off a lot of these people. It's like a family thing.

"Then you going to have the guys like me, on parole. This is the only job I can get. Take it away, take my only hustle I got, they really telling me they want me to be homeless. I ain't got nothing, because my wife died on me last year while I was away. Every little clothes and stuff I had burned up. Everything I got now, like that red bicycle you saw me ride up on, I bought that. I worked here and bought that. I bought that. I worked on cars. These shades, this ring, I paid for the ring downtown with money I made here. I can go and do slick stuff, but I gave that life away."

A Way to Survive

Out behind the car wash, Tomika McKinney, 38, and Latoya Wilson, 29, are propped back on chairs with their heads against the wall taking a break. McKinney is smoking a cigarillo.

"I've been smoking 20 years, since March 27, 1993."

Mark Graham, the photographer, laughs and keeps shooting. "How do you know the date?" he asks.

"That's the day I got out of the hospital with one of my babies."

McKinney says there is plenty of trouble a short distance away in the blocks behind the car wash. "You can find trouble anywhere. It's up to you if you will avoid it or indulge in it. Somebody got to be smarter than the next person."

She says the car wash is her social center. "Matter fact, I was up here several years ago, I seen a girl who I was in the third grade with. I didn't even know I looked the same. Her name was Barbara. She was like, 'Tomika McKinney!' I was like, 'Barbara!' The same way she was in the third grade, same way she is still right today. Little homely girl."

LaToya Wilson says, "It's how people survive, though. Most people up here are surviving off of it. Wash cars, pay their rent, their food and all that."

McKinney says, "Do it until you can do better. Do it until you can do better. Don't try to make it a lifetime thing. Something to do until you can do better. You got to crawl before you can walk, just like a newborn baby."

The Returning Alumni

Over the course of the afternoon, some alumni of the car wash drop by. One is Curtis Jenkins, 40. Davenport introduces him: "He was born and raised hard in South Dallas. But he has studied. He worked hard. He washed cars. He has done everything. Education, education, education."

Jenkins laughs. "I been knowing him since I was about 18 years old," he says of Dale. "He told me, 'The streets ain't where it's at.'"

Davenport ran into Jenkins unexpectedly recently at a real estate closing. "He's a licensed Realtor," Davenport says. "He's a licensed plumber, electrician, appraiser." He pauses.

"Insurance adjuster," Jenkins adds.

"Insurance adjuster," Davenport agrees. "School teacher."

They laugh about the time Jenkins thought he might try to go get some of Davenport's septic tank business away from him. Jenkins tells Davenport, "One day you told me you could get four or five thousand dollars building a septic tank. I thought, 'Ain't nothing but to dig a hole and put a mess of plumbing in it. I can do that.' I was going to try to get some of that septic business."

They hit on a compromise, instead. Jenkins bought an 18-wheeler truck, hired one of the car detailers to drive it and contracted with Davenport to carry his heavy equipment and tanks for him.

Jenkins says lots of people who come to the car wash are middle-class or affluent. "My uncle comes up here. He teaches law at a college. He was a state trooper 21 years. Comes up here on Saturday to get his brand-new Mercedes Benz washed here. Everybody over here ain't in the streets, man."

They talk about another guy who came back recently. Nineteen years ago when the guy was still an adolescent, Davenport's father, Freddy, showed him how a welding torch works.

"Daddy was over here welding one night. He was 62, worked for Lone Star Steel 40 years. This kid came through here. He was about 14 years old. He was watching. Daddy said, 'Don't watch it! You're going to burn your eyes.' My dad handed him the hat, took his time, let him see how the torch worked."

Davenport says the kid, now a young man, dropped back by the car wash recently. "He said, 'I am now working doing the Seaway Pipeline. I'm a welder, and I'm making $3,500 a week.' He said, 'I was never good with books,' but he said, 'I learned to be a good welder, because your dad had the patience and showed me that day.' He said, 'I always kind of wanted to do that.'"

Davenport shakes his head. "Now what is wrong with that?" he asks. It's a rhetorical question.

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