In One Man's Legal Victory Against DART, There Are Lessons For Us All.

Roscoe Betz won his lawsuit. I have written about him before. He's the 91-year-old man who sued DART, the transit agency, three years ago for damming up a creek and flooding his property.

DART argued there was no creek. The guy just thinks there's a creek.

Two weeks ago a jury ruled there was a creek and DART was up it. On May 17 Dallas County Court At Law No. 2 Judge King Fifer signed a final judgment ordering DART to pay Betz and five other plaintiffs a total of $31,000—the max allowed by law for this type of claim.

How could somebody not know there's a creek? There's a creek or there's not a creek, right? Maybe not. Depends on who's looking.

On one level the outcome in the Betz lawsuit is a great story about one man's fight for justice. But at a deeper level it's a parable about people in cities and the way we have ceased to understand water.

We used to see it. On the wall of my office hangs a century-old plat map—something I acquired two years ago when I was first writing about Betz—depicting two blocks not far from my home in Old East Dallas. Drawn down one side of the plat map is a body of water called Peak Creek.

Compared to computer-generated maps cities use today, this drawing by a late 19th century draftsman is a work of art. The creek is shown between wavy black lines that depict its meandering banks. I look at those black lines and wonder if each bump and recession was the draftsman's rendering of actual contours in the banks. The channel between the banks is filled with a faint blue wash of ink. I see that blue and ponder whether the water in the creek could have been that hue.

When creeks were above-ground in cities and neighborhoods—up where nature put them—people saw them every day. Pedestrians walked along their banks. In places where the land dropped suddenly, people heard the drop of the land and saw it in the rushing clatter of the creek over stones and roots. Where the land leveled out, people saw its flatness in the thick, still depth of the water.

When rain deluged the land, the creeks rose and roared, ripping out and scouring away whatever structures foolish man had placed in their paths. Watching the devastation was one good way to figure out where not to put a structure next time.

During the Great Depression of the mid-1930s the federal Works Progress Administration came to Dallas, as it did to cities across the nation, and carried out major construction projects aimed at ending urban flooding for all time. Good idea. The problem was "for all time." Turns out human beings don't really know what "all time" means. The concept is above our pay grade.

The WPA put Peak Creek in two tandem 10-square-foot culverts—buried square-walled pipes reaching four and a half miles across East Dallas from Mockingbird Lane and Skillman Street to an outfall into a huge paved ditch at Jamaica Street and 2nd Avenue in South Dallas, a third of a mile south of Fair Park.

Ali kazam, shazam! Peak Creek in East Dallas no longer existed. A thing of the past. Forgotten. No one walked beside it. No one saw or heard it falling across the land. The world was made by man, and the world was dry.

In 1986 just before voters created the new regional rail and bus agency called DART, the old city-owned bus system began construction of an employee parking garage straddling a block of Peak Avenue between Victor and Elm Streets. Today it's on top of what used to be a block-long stretch of Peak Creek. I can see the creek in that spot on my 100-year-old plat map, veering south from a bridge on Carroll Avenue to a bridge on Elm Street.

When the box culverts were being built in the 1930s, the WPA probably wanted to hold down costs by keeping the construction off private property. It ran the culverts down an alley between Victor and Elm streets, 100 feet or so away from the creek's natural streambed, behind a row of small houses on Alcalde Street. But that involved putting a couple of kinks in the flow of the water. Where the stream had curved over the land following natural contours, the culverts made right-hand turns, one into one end of the alley and another at the other end.

Water doesn't like to be told what to do. It especially doesn't like to be told to make 90-degree turns.

On March 19, 2006 in the heart of the region's annual spring monsoon season, rain drenched Dallas for hours. Water flowed across East Dallas in sheets, racing downhill and into the inlets where it was to be carried away by the two box culverts that had replaced Peak Creek.

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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