Years ago, David Spence, an influential developer in Oak Cliff, was showing me around an area of North Oak Cliff where he was successfully re-imagining an early 20th century apartment building -- down-at-the-heels and slummy -- as a hip urban enclave. I asked him if it wasn't a problem that the surrounding single-family residential neighborhood was so decayed.
I don't remember exactly what he said, but it was along the lines of, "What do you mean, 'decayed,' white man?" He put me in his truck and drove me through the neighborhood I had just derided as dangerous and somehow off-putting.
I do remember that as we rolled through the sylvan, hilly and very quiet neighborhood, Spence cautioned me diplomatically not to mistake ethnic change for decay.
He knew many of the families who had settled there, many of them immigrants from the state of Guanajuato in Central Mexico. He had watched as they had rebuilt small frame houses left in semi-ruined condition by whites, some fleeing, some left behind and old.
He told me the Mexican families did the work on their houses themselves. They tended to settle in family groupings, so that several houses on a block might be occupied by relatives. Their use of space was Mexican, not Anglo: They fenced or walled the front yard and used it as an outdoor room.
Spence suspected my main reason for thinking the area had decayed probably had to do with paint colors. They used colors they like, not colors I like. I think he was right.
As for social conditions, he thought the outcomes were mixed but mainly good. If people were trouble, they tended to be trouble by families -- the whole family was a pain. But the vast majority were hard-working souls, gone from home a lot for work and when they were at home gathered in quiet family groupings around barbecues. They tended to listen to music they liked, not music I liked. The real estate values, he said, tended to go up, not down, slowly but surely.
An article in the December 2014 issue of The Journal of American History by A. K. Sandoval-Strausz, called "Latino Landscapes: Postwar Cities and the Transnational Origins of a New Urban America," argues that Spence was right not merely about Oak Cliff but about urban America. Sandoval-Strausz focuses on Oak Cliff to make a case for Latinos as something like the saviors of American cities.
He opens the article with a haunting passage from a 1992 Texas Monthly piece by Village Voice new journalist Grover Lewis, who grew up in Oak Cliff when it was all shiny white. Lewis recalls a culture based on, "absolute white supremacy, reinforced by old-time religion and male chauvinist prickism."
Lewis describes a trip through his old haunts: "The devastation was total, an entire neighborhood sunk in rot. The surviving houses were vine-choked, boarded up, literally atomizing in a ghastly mockery of the thriving community I recalled."
Of a stroll down Jefferson Boulevard, he says, "I groped for terms to encompass the scope of the disaster: systemic collapse, municipal cancer, de facto apartheid, social time bomb, a thousand points of dark."
It's interesting to read those word now. I find myself wondering, "Are you sure it's not just the paint colors?" But to be fair to Lewis, he was writing about what the white people left behind, before the Hispanic renaissance Sandoval-Strausz recounts.
In the Journal of American History, Sandoval-Strausz says of the Lewis piece: "He was seeing Oak Cliff in the darkness before dawn. Thanks to a strong, sustained influx of Latinos, the neighborhood had stopped losing residents and achieved significant population growth for the first time since the 1940s. Many of the newcomers had purchased homes in the area and opened new businesses that were attracting customers and reviving the commercial district. And the streets were becoming safer as the city's crime rate began a dramatic decline that would continue for two decades."
Sandoval-Strausz recounts an entire tradition in American urban studies in the late 20th century in which scholars made the same assumption I did that day with Spence -- that the departure of white people from American cities had to spell the decay of the areas they left behind. In Oak Cliff he offers evidence of a trend by which the arrival of Latin-American immigrants brought new economic and social vitality to those areas, with perhaps less emphasis on white male prickism.
It's a trend that he argues is national, of which Oak Cliff is only one good example. The Latin Americans who have taken over urban realms left behind by whites bring to those areas a new sensibility that has much more emphasis on shared public conviviality -- the plaza -- and on walking.
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When he was here five years ago doing his research, Sandoval-Strausz and I met in North Oak Cliff and talked about the phenomenon of urban hipster influx into these areas. I expected him to view the hipsters -- bikos, I call them -- as a gentrifying horde bent on pillage and rape, but his view was much more nuanced. He said he thought young Anglos, dying of burb-a-boredom, were drawn to North Oak Cliff because of the social template they saw there established by the Latin-Americans. He was optimistic about the possibilities for a happy marriage of cultures.
That's certainly what I feel that I have seen happening since then. The Anglo merchants and residents of North Oak Cliff don't exhibit the kind of ethnic/social chauvinism that drives scorched-earth gentrification. They like that it's a jumble. They seem to want to fit in with what's there, not push people out.
We're a strange lot, human beings. Why did we think we had to abandon our homes because of paint colors? Like a 1950s sci-fi movie: "THE PAINT COLORS ARE COMING!" We're weird, are we not? But we come around.