Mariana Griggs Reflects on Change, Courage and Living in Oak Cliff

"I remember when Lake Cliff Park was a really scary place to go to. ... It’s not like that anymore," Mariana Griggs says.
"I remember when Lake Cliff Park was a really scary place to go to. ... It’s not like that anymore," Mariana Griggs says. Mandritoiu
The fun thing about being a reporter, the payoff, is getting to talk to interesting people. So that’s what I have been doing lately — calling people and getting them to talk to me without a specific agenda.

Mariana Griggs, a 40-year-old mother of two young children, is a longtime community activist, especially in North Oak Cliff. Years ago, she was an early bike lane pioneer, first in painting some “renegade bike lanes” of her own and later in persuading City Hall to paint legal bike lanes all over the city. She also was a pioneer in the early establishment of community gardens. She once delighted many people and horrified others by turning a Dumpster into a neighborhood swimming hole. A product of Brownsville, she is the wife of Dallas District 1 City Council member Scott Griggs.

I asked one question: “Oak Cliff?” She said:

“We moved here in 2002. I worked for the medical examiner. I was working nights, and one of my friends in the lab was moving to Oak Cliff. He said, ‘This is where I think I’m going to buy a house. You better come and look over here.’ We were looking in East Dallas and in different places.

“When we moved here, we moved to a nice neighborhood. Stevens Park was a nice neighborhood already, and yet we had bars on every window and an iron gate for the front door. I look back on that and the way it has changed. We don’t see that that often anymore.

“We had six break-ins in the first year that we lived here, six different times. We got to a point where we were the ABT [home security] salesman’s best customer. We had cameras and all kinds of stuff, and now it’s the opposite. I think I could probably, without giving away too much, tell you that there are neighbors now that don’t lock their doors at times. It’s great. It feels nice to have that.

“I worked nights. At night when I would come home, it was almost daily that I would [see] at least two prostitutes from Fort Worth Avenue. Those no-tell motels are starting to look somewhat decent these days. Poor people still live there month to month, but it’s not quite as bad as it was before.

“On the street there’s less litter. There are more businesses to go to. Some businesses have left that I miss, but it’s a new cycle. People in the area have a place to shop.

“We have some people who have very high expectations. They don’t necessarily understand why businesses will not just appear because they want them to. We do have quite a bit of that, and so it’s hard to explain to people that business follows income. Just because they have the income to shop at a business doesn’t mean the income exists as a pool. That is difficult to explain to some neighbors.

“We do have a lot of money coming in, and we have people moving in from lots of different places. They are showing up with lots of money. They are willing to pay very high prices for homes as long as they have some amenities that they really like.

“When we found Oak Cliff, it was dry. We used to go across the river to stock up our beer fridge. There are things that you forget about. Then we went to Cockrell Hill where they had those beer barns. Now those have closed down. Now there isn’t anywhere you go where you can’t just pick up beer and wine. It’s at the Tom Thumb. We just take it for granted.

“The private clubs, those were really fun, where they brought out the little machine and you would put your ID in it. They would give you a slip that you had to sign.

“Lake Cliff Park. I remember when Lake Cliff Park was a really scary place to go to. You kind of knew you were going to get mugged if you walked around the lake. It’s not like that anymore. People walk, and they take their kids, and they have their birthday parties there.

“Stevens Park Pavilion, oh! I remember going there, and there were used needles on the ground. There was a creepy guy in the parking lot who would sit there early in the morning and late in the evening and just smoke cigarettes. All you could see was the smoke coming out of his window. I used to call the cops a whole lot more, years ago, that’s for sure.

“I miss Gennie's Bishop Grill. I miss the line out the door and the style of restaurant, kind of a buffet. But I love Hunky’s [Hamburgers] too. Things just cycle out and change.

“Overall the changes have been really good for the neighborhoods. In general, I see that the activism has come full circle. Apparently last month somebody put in a renegade bike lane facing the wrong way into traffic, so it’s actually really dangerous for cyclists.

click to enlarge "I remember when Lake Cliff Park was a really scary place to go to. ... It’s not like that anymore," Mariana Griggs says. - MANDRITOIU
"I remember when Lake Cliff Park was a really scary place to go to. ... It’s not like that anymore," Mariana Griggs says.
“In my own case, I am looking at some of the programs that have been overlooked. We have a high rate of poverty still in our area. We have an income gap that is growing by the day. And so, for me, my activism has turned more toward the Salvation Army. They are my pet project. And the after-school programs, tutoring, education, lifting that sector of poverty in some way. I do think that’s still on the frontier of activism.

“We’re going to change our country one life at a time. I’m not going to change it so much by putting on a new bike lane. It’s wonderful that so many people are riding bikes now. I don’t have to do that anymore.

"We have been an incubator, and that’s what we want. That’s what activism is supposed to be about." – Mariana Griggs

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“Also, I think it’s important to listen and watch and see that as a city we have evolved. We have changed. We’re never going to be Amsterdam, but I think we’re closer now than we ever have been. We have been an incubator, and that’s what we want. That’s what activism is supposed to be about. It’s supposed to be about branching out and showing other people what can be. Maybe if we show people how we can lift up our poor people and lift up our kids who don’t have that many opportunities, maybe that will trickle out. We all grow together.

“We also have to understand the other side, understand how they feel, because branching out on your own is scary. It really is. When we made the Dumpster pool, I will never forget, Debbie Denmon [former WFAA-TV (Channel 8) anchor and reporter] must have asked me five times how I felt about swimming in a dumpster that may have held dirty diapers. I mean five times. I thought, ‘You are really focused on this.’

“It’s scary for people to go somewhere where they don’t know the language, where they don’t know how to ask for something. One of the best things that I have seen is a guy showing up at the Mexican bakery. And so the rule in general at a Mexican bakery is that you walk in, you pick up a tray that’s like a lunch tray and a set of tongs, and you walk around and you pick up whatever bread you want.

“And if you’re Mexican or you grew up that way, you already know what the breads are. You know what they taste like, and you know how to do all of it. You know that you take your tray up, and they put it in a bag for you and they charge you.

“Well, this man was standing there, just kind of not, you could tell, not knowing what to do. And that feeling must be so overwhelming. That fear is paralyzing. What does he do next? Does he ask someone, or does he just walk away?

“He asked. And that’s the difference. That’s the kind of person who stays here. He is the one that doesn’t walk away. He asks. That’s brave. It’s really brave.”
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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