Going Deep

Leo Hicks stands at the intersection of Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X boulevards, which lies in the shadow of Fair Park. It's the only place in the United States where two streets with these names meet, and the imagery weighs heavily upon the shoulders of the man charged with dispensing money to people who come to the South Dallas/Fair Park Trust Fund seeking loans and grants to build businesses, erect parks and save old churches. Hicks sees on one corner a convenience store that looks shuttered; were it not for the people coming and going through the front door, you'd think the place closed. On another corner stands, barely, a dry cleaner in a run-down storefront that was once home to the first Southern Maid doughnut store. The Southern Maid sign remains, cracked and abandoned.

On another corner is a 30,000-square-foot slab of concrete, through which tall weeds jut out of thick cracks. This unloved land, surrounded by a chain-link fence and on the tax rolls at $175,000, belongs to the Dallas Black Chamber of Commerce, which has long promised to build its new home here; the symbolism is irresistible. The organization, currently housed in a building just up the street, has owned the property for years and allowed it to grow wild. Sources say retailers have been interested in purchasing the site, but the chamber of commerce has resisted all comers--oh, the irony.

Hicks, who took over as the South Dallas/Fair Park Trust Fund administrator last December, is not pleased with what he sees--the shuttered and decrepit buildings that line MLK all the way to Robert B. Cullum and the entrance to the fairgrounds, the vacant and overgrown lots overflowing with garbage, the residents loitering with no places to work or shop. But Hicks, charged with building hope on a foundation of despair, is optimistic. He takes umbrage with unflattering words used to describe the neighborhood. Where a reporter sees decay and blight, the civil servant sees only what could be, what must be for a neighborhood to thrive.

"It's my job to see the potential and to hype it up," Hicks says over lunch at Crayton's, a restaurant in Exposition Park built with a $50,000 loan from the trust fund. "Vision is the ability to see things not as they are, but to see things as they can be, to see things as they should be. I see a vibrant, bustling Fair Park-South Dallas that has the new construction that's so desperately needed, that has the retail outlets, that has the jobs by which people can go to work every day and take care of their families. And it's our job on the trust fund to say, 'We're going to make something happen regardless of whether the Cowboys are here or the Cowboys are in Irving.'"

Ah, yes. The Dallas Cowboys.

Last month, Jerry Jones announced his intention to return the team to its original home in Fair Park, 33 years after the Cowboys retreated to Irving and Texas Stadium. Of the 17 (or so) sites in Dallas and Tarrant counties surveyed by the team's owner, Fair Park emerged as the surprise favorite--surprise not only because it scuttles Jones' plan for a billion-dollar stadium-cum-retail development, but because the announcement heralds the Cowboys' return to a South Dallas considerably different from the one they left in 1971. A low-income neighborhood has become a no-income neighborhood; cracks in the concrete have given way to crack houses; disrepair has turned into a disaster area. Welcome home, Cowboys, to a place where so many of the homes are barely standing at all.

Of course, just because the Cowboys say they want to move back to Fair Park doesn't mean it will happen. The end zone is a hundred yards and a thousand miles away: Dallas County commissioners aren't happy with the Cowboys' proposal, which includes asking taxpayers to fork over $425 million for the $650 million project and comes with a June 30 deadline, which commissioners insist isn't a realistic time frame. And if the Cowboys and county--and the city of Dallas, to a lesser extent--somehow come to a financial agreement, the Republican-dominated commissioners court likely will keep the referendum off the November ballot, to appease GOP candidates fearful of drawing too many Democrats to the polls. Then there's the issue of getting the Legislature to change a law forbidding the use of county money for city-owned parkland, which has been back-burnered because of the acrimonious school finance debate under way in Austin.

Certainly, the Cowboys will be good for Fair Park itself; the art deco buildings will get fresh coats of paint, if nothing else. But what of the neighborhood outside the gates--the people whose vacant lots are filled with visitors' cars during the State Fair of Texas and trash during the other 11 months of the year?

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Robert Wilonsky
Contact: Robert Wilonsky