Morning News Editorial Writers Take Another Shot at the Working Poor

Today we have a lead editorial in The Dallas Morning News, our city's sole and only daily newspaper, which starts off with a certain mistake that wounds my heart every time I see it. Again today they say, "There's a troubled neighborhood along South Lamar where residential property has suffered from decades of steady encroachment by heavy industry."

As one who grew up in the great American Ruhr -- the Upper Midwest manufacturing belt of Ohio, Michigan, Indiana and Illinois -- it pains me to see a major American daily newspaper repeatedly refer to the scrap metal recycling business as "heavy industry."

Real heavy industry, what the word truly refers to, is something you would recognize the instant you saw it for the first time -- ore freighters docked at one end, miles of stacks rising to the clouds, a roar that shakes the ground, a stench that slaps your face and hundreds of thousands of people flocking straight to it from the four corners of the world with ferocity in their eyes, determined to walk into that hell and come back out with a brick house, two new cars and a bunch of kids in college. Apparently whoever keeps writing that line on the Morning News editorial board has never seen the real thing.

See also: Southern Dallas' Uncounted Workers Dallas City Hall versus The Car Wash

Instead what they are campaigning against again today is the scrap metal recycling business, a light, low-impact industry that rips nothing from the ground, puts up no sky-scraping smokestacks, may clang a bit but does not roar or stink. And it provides desperately needed scarce employment for the people who live near it.

Today's editorial is again urging appointed and elected officials at City Hall to use zoning authority to squeeze the recycling industry out of the South Lamar district along the river, an area that has been home to that business for more than half a century. It's not easy to propose persuasive reasons for squeezing out and running off a legitimate tax-paying payroll-meeting industry that operates within all of the federal, state and local environmental laws and strictures.

The editorial writers at the News today wind up with the one argument they have summoned repeatedly in the past, that the presence of the scrap recycling yards is a hardship for surrounding residential neighborhoods. I have seen this argument reality-tested only one time.

Some years back, there was a public hearing on the issue at City Hall. We were promised the neighbors would show up en masse to tell their tales of woe about the scrapyards. When I got there, even though I was early, it was tough to find a seat in the grand ceremonial theater we call the Dallas City Council chamber. The place was jammed with modestly dressed people who looked like neighbors, and I guess I expected them to rise up during the public speaking portion of the meeting and rip the recycling industry a new one.

That did not happen. One after another, those people trudged up to the microphone, some of them battling painful shyness, literally hat in hand, and they pleaded with the council not to shut off one of the very few sources of employment available to them. Repeated time and again was the same refrain I have heard from people working at Jim's Car Wash on MLK, another business the scrubbing bubbles of betterment would like to get rid of.

To paraphrase, it was this: "I've had a rough life. I have a record. I don't want more trouble. I want to work. These people will hire me. I can get there easy. All I want is to work so I can live and take care of my family. These are good people. They will hire me. Please don't shut them down."

I don't get moved to tears by much I see in the council chamber. I was that day.

Work is good. Bottom-level work, the work people can do when they are at the bottom of the heap, is ugly. It is ugly and good. Things don't get pretty until they get better. In the long run there is only one real way to make things better. Work.

A little over a year ago, we spoke here about the real wound in the heart of southern Dallas, which is the number of people counted as "not in the labor force." That's not unemployment. These are people who are not even included in unemployment numbers because they have rarely if ever even been employed.

In some census tracts, like the one near the exclusive corporate golf course the city is helping build in southern Dallas, more than 60 percent of residents are not in the labor force. Unemployment rates higher than 10 percent are stacked on top of that.

Making the area prettier by banishing good sources of employment is like providing a free shoe shine to a man with an open wound on his leg. It's so utterly inappropriate that it raises questions of true motivation. And, yes, when I think about those questions, I do find myself taking into account that this whole area, the site of the scrapyards and the car wash and the meat processing plants, is also the site of a massive real estate play along the Trinity River for which the city's only daily newspaper has been an aggressive partisan for the last 20 years.

A turnover in the ownership of large parcels of land in this area is in the direct interest of people who want to see the big new land play happen along the river. The Dallas Morning News is among them. I don't accept the reasons given for the paper's continued concerted assault on large parcel owners in that area. I'm that simple.

Call me tinfoil hat. I can take it. But just to prove me wrong, editorial writers, why don't you try this? Next time, before you propose anything that would remove a single source of work from this part of town, tell me first what you propose to do to replace that job.

Before you take away one person's ability to earn an honest living by working, show me how you are going to replace it. Then we're talking. I would love nothing more than to be able to take off this hat before another summer season arrives.

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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

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