How Dallas' Barker Brothers Fight City Hall and Win

Ever have this feeling? Something pops up in the news in Dallas like, "Ribbon Cutting Today on Gigantic Mississippi Riverboat Floating Country Club for Rich People in White Rock Lake." And you're saying, "Wait. Ribbon cutting? Riverboat? Floating country club?"

Sometimes I pick up the newspaper, and I immediately look down to see if I have tubes coming out of my nose. Did I miss a couple years?

Because that's the way they get stuff done here. They start out way down in the bowels of the mountain, deep in the subterranean veins of City Hall, mining minutiae nobody even knows about, let alone understands, things more arcane and inscrutable than zoning even, like feasibility studies for advisory panels when the people on the panels don't even know they're on them.

Sometimes if I'm the only person in the City Hall cafeteria dining room on the seventh floor on an off day when hardly anybody else is in the building, I think I can hear them through the water pipes, way down there, far, far below, little gnomes with tiny jeweled picks and axes, chipping away at the next big surprise for the taxpayers. Do I hear merry little voices singing?

But on three occasions in just more than a year, the unheard of has happened. Three times since May 2012, the city has been caught. Red-handed. Dead to rights. And I mean caught way, way down in the bowels, down where the sun don't shine.

The first was Winfrey Point. City officials were already looking over the engineering plans for a parking structure on a lovely little rag of wild prairie on the shores of White Rock Lake. They had survey stakes in the ground. They had been talking about it and planning it for a year, down there in the privates where they thought nobody would dare to look.

Had it gone on another two months, there would have been a headline in The Dallas Morning News: "Ribbon-cutting Today on Soviet-Style Parking Behemoth on Former Terrain of Nature Hippies." But today there is no parking behemoth, because they got caught.

The next was the Mississippi riverboat-sized floating country club for Park Cities people, also to be built on poor little White Rock Lake. It would have turned the entire park surrounding the lake into a demolition derby track for cocaine-addled rich kids in their parents' Porsches, their Polo shirt collars turned up and their sunglasses on their foreheads as they buzzed around like crazed black flies.

But they got caught.

The most recent, which is still ongoing and not at all a done deal, is the horsey-horsey theme park for rich people from the Park Cities that City Hall wants to build on top of one of the region's most important archeological sites and a natural spring that was never developed after the first Euro-American pioneers settled there briefly in the early 19th century. We would have been reading a headline right now: "Ribbon-cutting Today on Horsey-horsey Park, Bye-bye Prehistory." But they got caught, again with the stakes in the ground already. Plans to ride roughshod over the archeological site and the spring are now on hold.

Lots of people have been involved in all three of these remarkable saves. If anything, the fact that City Hall could even be slowed, let alone stymied, is an indication that the nature of the city itself is changing. And City Hall is changing, too, for the better. But I can't help noticing something else.

In all three of these incidents, the same two guys pop up. The Barker brothers. They're the ones who dug out all of the deep-six paperwork that proved the city and the Dallas Arboretum were trying to pull a fast one at Winfrey Point. Then only months later, they came up with the secret plans for the Park Cities Bacchanalia Barge. They even found other party barges designed by the same architect, which they described unforgettably as involving massive piers resembling "a bunch of tall dick-like things that stick out of the muck."

The Barkers know how to focus attention.

The more recent breakthrough on the horsey park is impressive for a couple of reasons. First, the city has agreed to change earlier plans that would have sent horse trails right over the sensitive archeological and historic site in an undeveloped forested area near the Trinity River five miles southeast of downtown. If the current agreement holds, those areas will be protected.

But second and maybe even more significant for the long run, City Hall executives have been strangely decent and respectful in dealing with the alliance of naturalists and activists fighting to save the area, including the Barkers. A year ago, proponents of the Winfrey Point parking structure were describing the Barker brothers to me as dangerously unhinged hermits who sat on high branches and threw acorns at people by White Rock Lake. Now all of sudden they're elder statesmen. Well, not elder. My age. Mature.

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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