In West Dallas, Bulldozers Clear the Way for New Homes and New Residents

Claudia Hernández didn't know the house across the street from her home would become bulldozer fodder until a few minutes before it happened Saturday afternoon.

"We saw people looking at the property [over the past few weeks]," Hernández said. "But we had no idea they'd do this!"

Not that she's upset. For years, the eyesore of a duplex at the corner of Pueblo and Puget Streets in West Dallas has been a problem for neighbors and police alike. Hernández, whose family has lived in the neighborhood for 15 years, said there were robberies and sometimes arson. Eddie Washington, 57, another neighbor who's lived here most of his life, said the property started as a "bootlegging, gaming shack" before turning into a drug den. As the house comes down, the bulldozer's teeth make it look as flimsy as cardboard, and Hernández smiles.

"Now the kids have a safe place to play," she said, hugging her young son. "They can take the bus to school, and I won't have to worry."

The ceremonial wrecking of the old duplexes -- and we have a slide show here, as well as video after the jump -- marked what many West Dallas residents hope will be the end of an era of crime, instability and neglect. But the event focused less on the houses -- or, for that matter, the neighbors -- and instead highlighted the bigger forces behind redeveloping West Dallas: the nonprofits, the foundations, the city and the mayor.

"In West Dallas, we have so much potential," Mayor Leppert said to a crowd watching attentively from an empty lot behind the houses. "We are very interested in rebuilding and revitalizing [West Dallas]," he added. "This investment is going to spur more."

Leppert lauded the nonprofits involved -- Habitat for Humanity, Builders of Hope, the Rees-Jones Foundation and the Dallas Faith Communities Coalition -- for working together, calling them "organizations that have their heart in exactly the right place. He passed the mike to T. Hardie of the Rees-Jones Foundation, which is providing the money behind a comprehensive grant for Habitat and Builders of Hope to purchase, clear and rebuild 42 properties in West Dallas.

"We have had our challenges with respect to these properties," said Deputy Chief Rick Watson of the Dallas Police Department, who spoke after Hardie. "But we won! Like the mayor said," Watson went on, "Long time comin'!"

People cheered; the excitement was palpable. The bulldozer waited under a tree like a sleeping dragon. Watson passed the mike to Phil Wise of the Dallas Faith Communities Coalition, who made an ambitious promise: "We will be building 300 new and renovated homes in West Dallas over the next four years," Wise said to fervent applause. (Regina Nippert, the DFCC's executive director, later explained that that number includes homes that have yet to be purchased, plus some subsidies, and that DFCC's role is as a facilitator; the actual building will be done by Habitat and Builders of Hope.)

Next came District 6 Council Member Steve Salazar, who mentioned weatherizing programs for the new homes as part of the federal stimulus package. After a closing prayer by Begin, the crowd was quiet, and the bulldozer growled to life.

While the demolition proved a popular event, Builders of Hope president Norman Henry found time to catch up with Unfair Park. What would replace the old duplexes and empty lots, Henry said, would be 42 brand-new, affordable single-family homes that Henry says will encourage families to move in and discourage crime.

"West Dallas is really on the move," Henry said. "Families have hope." But while he recognizes that building new homes (and demolishing problematic old ones) is a good thing, he's not oblivious to the challenges. "We can't change a community without changing the people in a community," Henry said. "There's an underground economy providing jobs; we have to bring everything above ground."

To do so, Builders of Hope employs young men from West Dallas who have recently been released from the criminal justice system; as we speak, they're directing the bulldozer and moving rubble. "Young men -- Hispanic and black -- are left out in a big way," Henry explains. "We try to get the hard to reach."

Meanwhile, the old building was falling; soon, it would be little more than a pile of trash and a rising cloud of dust.

"I wish I could drive that truck!" said Marsha Foulks, the West Dallas community prosecutor, who was watching the demolition with her daughter. "New houses here and there, lot by lot? That's going to make a difference.

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Alexa Schirtzinger