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Leadership Academy Is Enough to Make You Feel Almost Optimistic About Dallas

It’s all downhill from here. No good will come of this. Time to cut our losses. There’s no more getting lucky. But enough about me. What about Dallas? Oh, well, Dallas. That’s another story.

This last weekend I had one of those recurring experiences — I have them every once in a while now — that persuade me the city is going to be just fine. In fact finer than fine. This city is going to be cool.

The thing this weekend was a seminar on gentrification —Oh, I know, I know, what kind of life do you have if you attend seminars on gentrification on your weekend? — but bear with me. Actual real-life interesting things happened. And anyway it was a short seminar.

The event was put on by the Latino Center for Leadership Development (LCLD), a new think tank and academy launched last spring by Dallas entrepreneur and school reform activist Jorge Baldor to develop new Latino leadership for Dallas.  The discussion kind of boiled down to a central issue: When an area like North Oak Cliff gentrifies — it becomes hot, everybody wants in, property values go up — does that have to mean that all the people who were in that area before gentrification get screwed?

Maybe you saw the stories about the guy with the ice cream shop, La Original Michoacana on West Davis at Haines in the Bishop Arts district in North Oak Cliff. He had been there for years. His rent was $1,600 a month. He found out his lease for next year would be for $6,000 a month. He had to shut it down and relocate outside the city.

But what does that mean? The people at the seminar talked about the irony of a bunch of young white people coming in from the suburbs where they grew up, smart people genuinely eager to live in an interesting, diverse place and escape the suburban sensory deprivation chamber. But they show up en masse, and the effect is to run off all the diversity. Does it have to be that way?

This was a very bright group. The president of LCLD is Dallas schoolboard member and past board President Miguel Solis. The executive director is Rebecca Acuna, who has a long resume in legislative and congressional staff positions and was statewide press secretary for the 2014 Wendy Davis gubernatorial campaign.

The LCLD plan is to take on 10 fellows a year between the ages of 25 and 40 and train them for both elective and community leadership positions. The first class of 10 is made up of promising young lawyers, bankers, educators and other professionals. Not all are Latino. Not all are from Dallas.

But, look, I admit it, I was a little down at the outset, and not just because I was attending a seminar on gentrification on my weekend instead of, I don’t know, you know, skydiving or break-dancing or something. Solis starts out the afternoon with the story of La Original Michoacana, the ice cream guy. He asks if there’s any way to avoid the downside of gentrification. I’m sitting there thinking, “Nothing springs to mind.”

Solis put together a panel consisting of former San Antonio City Manager Alexander E. Briseno; Sol Villasana, a Dallas Little Mexico native, now a lawyer and of counsel at White & Wiggins; Monte Anderson, the new urban pioneer developer who redid the Belmont Hotel; and me, for comic relief.

In San Antonio from 1990 to 2001, Briseno was city manager of the only Texas city with a real history of community organizing and social activism. Villasana, in his 60s, has lived the twin sagas of his own upper mobility and the extreme gentrification of his home community, Little Mexico, most of which is now called “Uptown.”

Anderson brought his own personal story — his family were among the last of the white people in South Oak Cliff — and a very interesting global intellectual view of gentrification here and everywhere.

Villasana kind of set the tone by laying down the basic reality. “Follow the money,” he said. When people who have a lot more money than the inhabitants of an area start wanting to come into that area, then face it. Things are going to change.

Briseno, who presided over and helped manage enormous growth and change in San Antonio, talked about the importance of community organizations, not just in giving voice to under-represented constituencies but in pressing for real substantive political change so those communities don’t stay under-represented forever.

I thought it was Alexander who brought it together. He talked about a guy I wrote about recently, Charles Marohn of an organization called “Strong Towns.”  Marohn, who calls himself a recovering civil engineer, has assembled a body of evidence to show that cities actually get screwed on the long run by big-box, Wal-Mart style, mega-project development including massive apartment complexes.

Anderson offered the example of small businesses on Jefferson Avenue in Oak Cliff that are paying five and six times the tax on a square-foot of land than a typical Wal-Mart in Dallas pays. The place where the community profits is not on big fat car-hungry projects that suck up all kinds of infrastructure repair over the years but on small-scale organic development that stays in place, is stable in ownership and sits relatively light on the municipal infrastructure.

The other stuff — the mega-project that sweeps in demanding tax abatements —has a half-life of about 10 years. Even if they paid for new streets and sewerage when they came in, that all wears out in a couple decades, and then the city is stuck for the repair bill. Meanwhile the rents are down by then and so are the taxes the city can collect.

And anyway, that’s all suburban style. It doesn’t belong in the city in the first place. It’s a bad fit.

The remarks from the fellows were deeply probing and thoughtful. Joe Carreon, on the staff of the provost at SMU, speculated about new ways to tax land to foster ownership stability rather than turnover. Byron Sanders, a vice president of U.S. Trust, talked about school reform as a way to give poor kids a shot at holding their own in a pushy world.

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Villasana was the starting point. He’s lived it. When the money starts coming in, people need to assume that change is not far behind. Briseno has managed it: He knows people can manage change in their community if they organize.

But Anderson offered the key: A city can choose the way it wants to change. If it doesn’t want brutal turnover and disruption, then it needs to stop subsidizing suburban-style raw-land development by giving those guys tax abatements and free infrastructure.

Do something instead to make it easier for people to stay where they are. Fix the streets. Fix the schools. Make the city strong.

Anyway, I left the seminar with the sense that Dallas will figure out its destiny just fine. Lots of new cooks must come to the kitchen for that to happen, with fresh ways of looking at the world. But isn’t that exactly what’s happening?

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