He’s the guy who owns a car wash on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard in South Dallas — the one I call the only white man on MLK even though I’m pretty sure that can’t be true. I just call him that because I think it captures some of the tone of what’s going on.
The city forced Davenport to close his car wash on the grounds it was a public nuisance and that it encouraged bad behavior on MLK. It came out in court that the city’s own data showed the car wash to be an island of law and order in a sea of lawlessness, but, oh, never mind. They shut him down anyway.
Weeks after the closing, none of the behavior has changed. I’ll circle back to that here in a moment.
Davenport owns the car wash with his dad. They’re East Texas guys. They take their property seriously. So even after the business was closed and the property fenced under court order, Davenport, who owns other businesses and sits on the board of a bank, still drives in from East Texas in the heat and picks up the trash on his property himself.
He also picks up the vacant lots behind his car wash — property he doesn’t own. He puts all of it in black contractor bags and piles it on the curb on the side street right where the city has picked it up for 26 years.
But on about Sept. 1, a neighboring business owner calls him and tells him the city trash truck just came through and drove right by his trash bags without touching them. The bags are still out there, the neighbor says.
Davenport drives back into town, finds his trash on the curb but also finds a notice from the city for “violation of exterior premise inspection.” Checked off on the violation notice are warnings that he must remove the trash from the property himself within seven days or face a fine.
To my regret, the rest of this story I have mostly from Davenport alone. To no avail, I have been trying to reach the regional code compliance person, Odie Hayes, at the city’s Southeast Service Center, and Carl Simpson, the new director of code, by both phone and email.
Some of Davenport’s story is corroborated by Dustin Grant, an independent documentary filmmaker who accompanied Davenport to city offices at one point. And in 15 years of writing about Davenport, he has never misled me.
This is what he tells me. In his first call to the city’s sanitation department, he winds up on the phone with someone who tells him that he no longer qualifies for trash pickup, because his business is closed. And if that happened, that’s just crazy right there.
He pays his taxes on the property. It’s not any of sanitation’s business whether his car wash is operating. It’s completely weird that anyone at the city would even have this jacked-up story about his business being closed in their head or at the ready.
But Davenport, who has been around the block with the city two or three thousand times, is not a man to be bluffed. That’s when he finds his way to Odie Hayes at the Southeast Service Center. He tells me that Hayes tells him she has checked the records, and she says he never received the notice he’s taking about. It doesn’t exist. He’s imagining it. He doesn’t have a copy with him.
Enter Grant, the filmmaker. Grant is traveling all over Texas, digging up piles of files in Austin and elsewhere and interviewing dozens of key players for a documentary he is making about the city’s efforts to force Davenport to sell his land.
With Davenport and Grant sitting there, the four or five suits call Hayes. She tells them there is no ticket. But Grant has a copy of the ticket on his phone. He sends it to her.
“We’re in a conference room with all these people for a trash ticket? Something is not normal here.” — Dustin Grant
She calls back and tells everybody she has never seen this piece of paper before and has no idea where it came from. The suits tell Davenport they will look into it. It’s time for him to go away. So he does.
Add this up. Four or five City Hall geniuses take an unscheduled conference with a guy over a trash ticket, but they lack the authority or the fortitude to resolve the matter. Now, to give them a break, I have to concede that a documentary filmmaker is also sitting in the room with a zillion dollars worth of camera gear staring them in the face, so maybe they’re nervous.
But if they’re nervous, why do they go into the room with the filmmaker and Davenport in the first place? Do they want to make sure they get recorded looking stupid for four dozen hooting audiences at film festivals not to mention NPR and posterity? Because I think that’s what they just did.
Let me give you some other context here. In order to get to Davenport’s car wash to write him a notice, the code inspector, one Audrey L. Dodd, according to the signature on the notice, had to drive past the Dallas Black Chamber of Commerce building one block east of the car wash on MLK. On his way to write a notice for Davenport for neatly stacking up his and his neighbor’s trash in black bags at the curb by his car wash, Inspector Dodd must not have noticed the trash drifted against all sides of the Black Chamber building, the beer cans and wine bottles stacked on the window ledges or the fat white mattresses posted against the front wall.
I tried by phone message, by a message left with a person at the Chamber and by email to reach Hamilton Blair, president of the Black Chamber. I did not hear back.
I said I would circle back to the bad behavior issue, or, as I think of it, the behavior issue. As I have reported here before, the intersection of MLK and Malcolm X by the car wash has for decades been the site of an impromptu Saturday night car festival. White people don’t go there. That’s one reason black people like it.
People gather at a nearby city park, and when it closes at 8 p.m., they drive to the intersection, show off their cars and drag race. When the car wash was still open, it served as an informal gathering place for the car owners.
I guess you can cut this a couple different ways. You could say people should not be allowed to block traffic and drag race and the city should shut it down. Or you could say it’s kind of an informal festival and community gathering. The city should leave people alone and just ride herd to make sure nobody gets hurt.
But you can’t say the only white man on MLK is making it happen. And shutting down the only white man’s car wash is not going to make it go away.
Last Saturday night I got calls from multiple sources telling me MLK had been taken over by drag racers right in front of the closed car wash. I couldn’t make it, and, anyway, I’m not sure how well my 10-year-old four-cylinder Toyota pickup would do in a drag race. But Grant went, with cameras blazing.
I think the cops were handling it about right. They were there. They were watching. If things got out of hand, they were ready. But otherwise, they were letting it happen. You know, people do have to have a little bit of fun once a week. Just a little bit.
Davenport tells me this notice he has received is only the second he has received in 26 years of ownership for a code violation. And it’s so clearly a botched attempt at a setup. Someone who badly wants Davenport to sell has some ability to manipulate city staff. Just not enough.
This is not unlike the local judge who ordered Davenport to hire a force of full-time security guards to patrol his closed business. That requirement was thrown out by a higher court, but, had Davenport not gotten it reversed, the order would have made it extremely expensive for him to hold onto his own property. It would have been taxes times 10.
We have talked here about the soaring land values all around the car wash and about a major development company that has taken an interest in the full length of MLK from The Cedars to Fair Park. We also have spoken about the fact that this area is now a federally designated “opportunity zone” offering huge capital gains tax breaks to investors. Statutory deadlines set out in the federal 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act have the effect of adding time pressure to the lucrative tax incentives offered by the zones.
The zones were created by the governor. I’m not sure I believe the governor’s subsequent decision to flood South Dallas with state troopers was unrelated.
I do know two things for sure. One, somebody wants to clear this ground. Fast. And, two, I don’t care who it is or what they think they’ve got, they’re not going to push Dale Davenport off his land, unless by means I shrink from imagining.