Dallas Economics 101: Building Fancy Things Makes Nearby Poor People Rich

Today we should learn something more about Yigal Lelah, a real estate developer to whom the city granted $4.5 million five years ago to create a high-end mixed-use development across from the Veterans Affairs Medical Center on Lancaster Road in a poor part of southern Dallas.

That development never happened. The City Council wants to know where the money went. Today as we speak, city staff is expected to provide the council with an accounting.

See also: Dallas City Council Wants to Know What It Did With 4.5 Million of Your Dollars

The debacle across from the VA hospital was the brainchild of council member Vonciel Hill, who represents the district and pushed hard for the project. Her enthusiasm for the project reminds me of former Mayor Laura Miller and her similar conviction about immigrant-owned tire repair businesses in North Oak Cliff. Miller believed the way make North Oak Cliff prosper was to cleanse it of grubby tire repair businesses and replace them with Ann Taylor dress shops and Starbuckses.

Or, while we're on it, Hill's ideas also call to mind the belief of The Dallas Morning News editorial page that the way to bolster the economy and improve lives in South Dallas is to drive out those ugly metal recycling yards and replace them with something ... well ... prettier. It's an idea that would seem raise a corollary question. After the people in the area lose their jobs at the recycling yard, how do they pay for whatever it is that's prettier?

The basic concept here is like spontaneous generation -- the 17th century idea that certain stuff, set in place, just turns into certain other stuff. Spontaneous generation was disproved by the great Dutch biologist Anton van Leeuwenhoek (1632-1723) who, using a greatly improved microscope, demonstrated that decaying wheat does not turn into grain weevils.

By the same token, I would argue that Ann Taylor dress shops do not cause wealth to occur in their vicinities. An Ann Taylor opens a block away. You open your closet door one morning. Oh, my God! It's stuffed with greenbacks! In fact, I think Ann Taylor stores suck greenbacks out of entire neighborhoods, not the other way around.

Anyway during a council debate last week when some members expressed skepticism about high prices Lelah seemed to have paid for land on Lancaster Road -- using city money after all -- Hill took those members to task. She suggested that higher prices paid for whatever reason are always good thing, because things are better when they're higher.

"I want to publicly state," she said, "that I have some concern about comments which say, 'That's too much to pay for land down there.' Rising tides float all boats. Land value follows sales, and as some land is sold for a certain value, it raises the value of properties throughout the area.

"I have some concern about comments about 'down there.' We are building south. And we believe that 'down there' has the same intrinsic value as every other part of Dallas. I would ask my colleagues to be conscious of any language that implies anything different."

The basic idea here is not unique to Hill. A very Dallas idea shared across class and ethnic boundaries, it is that wealth is the appearance of wealth. A person or a shop or an entire city block that appears to be wealthy is by definition wealthy, and therefore the way to make poor areas wealthy is to somehow impart to them a wealthy appearance.

I always have the idea that somewhere somebody needs to be making something. You know, like grinding it or stamping it or shoveling it. Stuff. Everybody can't just be standing round waving la-de-da.

Way off behind a high barrier wall you need a huge factory or a bauxite mine. Something. People producing something or digging something out of the ground. But I grew up in the Rust Belt. What do you expect? I'm just not in on the magic. I'm sure it explains why I look like this.

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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