Dallas' West End Rail Stop Is Crime Central Station

Early Saturday afternoon, nine days after he and a friend allegedly carjacked 37-year-old Sarah Hoff in her downtown Dallas parking garage before taking her car and credit card to a Pleasant Grove McDonald's, DART police found 17-year-old Ira Booker at a downtown train station. According to police, Booker initially tried to slip away from officers but surrendered when he saw they'd brought in the cavalry, Dallas PD’s mounted unit.

The carjacking grabbed attention as much for the way it galvanized downtown's growing residential community as for its random brutality, of which the gruesome selfie of Hoff's bloodied face was a potent reminder. But the incident was also notable for where Booker was arrested: teeming West End Station. The transit hub has emerged as a common thread linking several high-profile crimes in Dallas' core. Three weeks ago police arrested a pair of suspects there shortly after they allegedly robbed a man at gunpoint a few blocks away. The suspects in a string of armed robberies on the Katy Trail last fall were caught after surveillance footage showed one using a stolen debit card at a West End Station ticket kiosk a half hour after allegedly holding up a jogger. The station was also a reported hangout for the men arrested for a spate of recent attacks in Oak Lawn.

Partly, this is simply a result of West End Station being Dallas' busiest transit stop. It serves all four of DART's train lines and sits across the street from Rosa Parks Plaza and the CBD West Transfer Center, where nearly two dozen bus lines converge, offering plenty of getaway options for the criminal without a car. It has more than twice the ridership of DART's second busiest train stop, the Pearl/Arts District Station. But neighbors suspect it has a lot to do with the station being a hub of low-level criminality: drinking, panhandling, small-time drug deals and the like. These activities ebb and flow depending on the time of day and intensity of the police presence, but the loitering is constant. Dozens of people, mostly men, cluster along the edges of the platform watching trains cycle through — red, blue, orange, green, then back to red — without ever getting on.

DART spokesman Morgan Lyons says the agency has been addressing safety issues. "We've been very active in the larger West End area around our three facilities for years," he wrote in an email. "That's true day and night." The agency has partnered with Dallas police on a number of public safety initiatives, most recently the city's crackdown on panhandling. "We want to be very visible at those locations to attempt to deter any criminal activity."

Indeed, DART police can often be seen milling about the West End transit hub, and they've had a particularly heavy presence, West End regulars say, since news of Booker's arrest hit the news. On Monday and Tuesday afternoons, there were perhaps a half dozen DART cops and Downtown Safety Patrol members positioned around the station.

The area's stakeholders, however, remain skeptical. "It's not going to stop," said one veteran of West End, who asked not to be named to avoid getting crosswise with his boss. "It'll stop it for a while, but it'll just go back to the way it was."

Crispin Lawson, whose apartment complex overlooks the station and who passes through twice each day while taking the train to and from work, has a similarly dim view of what police will accomplish. For starters, he views DART's policing strategy as hopelessly passive. "You can tell when police are out there looking for specific types of behavior," usually things like jaywalking, he says. "The rest of time they tend to place themselves in trouble areas, which is good, but I don't think that gets at long-term solutions." A "really thorough crackdown" like the one that currently seems to be underway can clean things, but only for a time. "They don't have the resources to keep that up constantly."

Even if the cops had unlimited resources, Lawson doesn't think that a round-the-clock occupation would be much of a solution. "We really have to change the culture out there," he says. The only sustainable way to do that is for the surrounding community to take ownership of the space.

Urbanist Jane Jacobs described how this process played out in 1960s Greenwich Village in her seminal work, The Death and Life of Great American Cities. Commuters filled the sidewalks early in the morning, replaced by moms pushing strollers and shoppers patronizing local mom-and-pops, whose owners kept a watchful eye on goings on outside their businesses. Then came afternoon rush hour, which gave way to kids, casually supervised from surrounding apartments, playing in the streets, who ceded the street to bar and restaurant patrons. There were always eyes on the street.

This is hardly rocket science. It's the fundamental process through which humans have maintained public order since the dawn of civilization, but the process has broken down in the modern American cities like Dallas, particularly downtown. The dominant population of daytime office workers is essentially just passing through, not sufficiently invested in the area to care much about what's happening on the streets and sidewalks, and there simply haven't been enough people around after 5 o'clock to change the dynamic.

That's starting to change as downtown's population grows. There are more residents, more store managers and restaurant owners who have vested interests in making sure the neighborhood feels safe around the clock. But the West End remains a proto-neighborhood that lacks the density and diversity of use to naturally fix a place like West End Station. Lawson hopes to accelerate the process by turning the concrete plaza at the train station's northeast corner, in front of a McDonald's, into a more welcoming public space. "I think it would really help if they had more regular people who were out there to use the space."

In the meantime, maintaining order will be up to the cops.
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Eric Nicholson
Contact: Eric Nicholson

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