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It Takes The New York Times To Tell Me about My Neighbors

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Apparently if you really want to get one of your neighbors to open up about herself, you need to send somebody over to interview her for The New York Times. I learned more about my neighbor Virginia Savage Talkington (lotta names) McAlester from the pages of the Times yesterday than I ever knew from living around the corner for 30 years. Then again, it's a long corner.

I should have known -- of course my wife did know -- that McAlester is either the reigning national authority or one of the reigning authorities on American residential architecture through her book, A Field Guide to American Houses written both as a history of house architecture and a manual for anybody trying to figure out what they've gotten themselves into. The very long Times piece was about the new edition of the book just now coming out but also about her long, difficult and apparently victorious struggle over the last year with a near-fatal disease.

McAlester's parents, no longer living, were Dallas Mayor Wallace Savage (1949 to 1951), and Dorothy Savage, one of the original champions and enforcers of historic preservation in Dallas. While mayor, Wallace Savage gave Dallas its first dose of racial justice by integrating the city ambulance service.

Many years ago I was out walking my dog after writing something for The Dallas Times Herald in which I had said that the Dallas Citizens Council, the private group that dominates city politics to this day, bore no official ties to the white citizens councils that grew up in Southern cities in the 1950s in opposition to integration.

He and Dorothy were out walking, too. They button-holed me. He said he didn't know anything about the Dallas Citizens Council being connected to the white citizens councils, but he said while he was mayor the Dallas Citizens Council hired a new young executive director from the national staff of the Ku Klux Klan in Atlanta. That guy informed then Mayor Savage, who had just integrated the ambulances, that he would never again receive support from the Dallas Citizens Council and might as well step down after one term, which he did.

"I don't know if they were connected with the white citizens councils," he told me, "but they were connected with the Klan. That ought to be good enough."

I know that nowadays historic preservation is viewed as sort of hoity-toity -- an opinion I sometimes share -- but back in the 1970s when Dorothy Savage set out to save Swiss Avenue, it was bare-knuckled slum politics. She was trying to save a whole neighborhood of old wrecks teetering on the brink of ruin. Her challenge was to stop Dallas from doing to Swiss Avenue and surrounding streets what it already had done to many other old neighborhoods, using zoning laws to turn them into barren wastelands of tenements and used car lots.

Ask anybody who ever went up against her. She was tough. I wrote a critical article about her once -- something about a traffic plan she was pushing for a nearby shopping district. Out walking the dog again, saw her and Wallace coming, thought maybe the better part of valor might be to duck down an alleyway, but they waved me over as usual. She was laughing. "Can't be in politics if you let your feelings get hurt," she said. Of course, there was also the fact that by then she had won.

Our street, as I said before, is around the corner from the grand mansions of Swiss. We would have been left out of the whole preservation thing had it not been for Dorothy. In designing the ordinance that saved Swiss, she made sure the district took in more modest adjacent areas. She also made sure that preservation would be a viable alternative all over the city.

We got our own taste of Savage family ferocity in 2005 when plans were announced for the demolition of a longtime incurable eyesore of a house on our block to make way for what was supposed to be a tasteful new replacement. Virginia manned the battlements to stop bulldozers from taking the house. It split the block in half. We literally had neighbors going after each other with baseball bats at one point (just waving them).

I had mixed feelings. I was pro-preservation all the way, but I secretly admired the neighbors who wanted to see that horrible old eyesore bulldozed, because at least they were forcing action one way or the other.

It went the Virginia way. Funds were raised, and the house was saved and beautifully restored at what had to be a totally uneconomic cost. We sometimes say our neighborhood was saved in part by our shared lack of business acumen. But the other part was the Savage-Talkington-McAlester clan, all of whom, including her kids, have inherited the grandparents' cheerful lust for battle.

The battle woven through the background in the Times piece yesterday was Virginia's year-long struggle with myelofibrosis, a bone marrow disorder that manifests as leukemia. She has always been very private about personal matters, so I was surprised to see the Times guy prying a few reluctant disclosures out of her about the disease. My wife told me I could have kept up better if I read emails from anybody but Bass Pro Shops. Whatever.

The news at the end of the story was that, like her mother, Virginia is feeling chipper and ahead of the game, and, like her mother, she has won, not that the two things are necessarily connected. These are the people who make the city.

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