After a very bad night’s sleep, I felt I owed it to you, the reader, to revisit the pothole in my alley yesterday morning. The day before I had posted here what I now realize was an alarmist and poorly reported piece suggesting there might be people living in it.
I can tell you with some confidence that the evidence I thought I saw of human habitation of the pothole was misinterpreted by me, and I now see no persuasive evidence that people are living in it..
My thanks to Deb Huber, a helpful reader in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, who suggested that what I thought was an orange bucket purposefully placed on a crate at the bottom of the pothole might actually be an upside down orange traffic cone that had washed or fallen into the cavern below. When I looked the next morning, I saw that Ms. Huber was exactly right. It was a traffic cone. I still couldn't see the bottom clearly with the naked eye, but I reached my arm down there with my phone and snapped a picture.
I’m not offering this as an excuse, but I do think the traffic cone had been disarranged somewhat from the position it occupied when I originally saw it. I see from other comments that the pothole was visited overnight by thrill-seekers after I wrote about it, and I did see a pile of rags or something at the bottom that I hadn’t noticed before, so it’s possible someone else poked the cone with a stick to see what it was or even got into the pothole and moved things around. I did, once again, halloo into the pothole, “Anybody home?” But I heard only my own echo.
I’m trying really hard not to be defensive about my mistake, but I do think it was still worth mentioning – whether anybody was actually living in it or not — that a pothole near my house was even theoretically capable of being occupied by human beings. One of my concerns, in fact, has been this: Now that I have called attention to the existence of the pothole, to the fact that it could be lived in and that no one does yet … well, you connect the dots. Habitable space doesn’t stay empty long in East Dallas.
But that got me thinking. Have I been approaching this whole matter of a habitable pothole from too narrow and too selfish a perspective? Is a pothole not better than nothing?
As you may know, I have written a lot in this space about City Hall’s campaign to seize, demolish or shutter properties at the lowest end of the rent spectrum. And my colleague, Eric Nicholson, has written about the city’s plans to scrape a homeless camp called “tent city” under the overpasses of Interstate Highway 45 just southeast of downtown.
The mayor of Dallas recently toured tent city with Dallas Morning News metro columnist Robert Wilonsky. During that tour the mayor told some homeless people, “You guys should not be down here. This is not acceptable.” I should mention that his remark was part of a query in which he first asked the homeless people what the solution was to homelessness. Unsurprisingly, they did not know (hence their homelessness).
But the “unacceptable” part of the mayor’s remarks rang a bell with me, because I have heard the same justification for tossing poor people out of ugly houses, as well as out of ugly tents. Unacceptability, in fact, is almost a new social cause in Dallas.
When the city took Topletz Investments to court earlier this year over conditions in their rental properties, the judge asked to see a list of code violations at those properties. The city was able to produce none. Not one. But the city wanted the judge to seize the properties in question anyway, more than 100 of them, and give them to the city on the basis of their being “unacceptable.” The judge threw the city out on its ear.
But I personally would like to be more receptive to the whole concept of unacceptability and its inescapable obverse, acceptability. The people in tent city, for example, are about to get booted into the out-of-doors because their tents are unacceptable. But no one has told them what is acceptable.
Has that answer been right there in front of me all along? My neighbors have been begging the city for weeks to do something about the cavern in our alley, because it’s scary. Children and pets could be lost in it. Even adults. But the last I heard, the city had not lifted a finger. So could that mean that, at least in City Hall terms, the pothole in my alley is …
I am not suggesting that in a perfect world I would ever want to see human beings living in potholes. But do the math. 1) This is not a perfect world. 2) Homeless people have very little money, which is why they are homeless. 3) The mechanisms they have been able to find for staying in out of the rain with very little money have been extremely low-rent houses and/or tents under freeway overpasses. 4) Both of those are considered by the mayor and City Hall to be unacceptable. 5) But the pothole in my alley apparently is acceptable.
Take this into account as well: the fact that anyone in the entire city has a pothole in his alley big enough for people to live in is a very significant marker and indicator for the overall condition of the urban infrastructure citywide. It’s like pulling into the driveway to visit your ancient crazy aunt whom no one has heard from in five weeks and seeing a raccoon run out of her car. This isn’t going to be pretty.
I’m just suggesting that my block can’t be the only one with a cave in it. In fact, I received another very helpful comment from one of my neighbors, Jim Curtis, who suggested on Facebook that the hole in our alley is not a true pothole but really a sinkhole. He pointed out that we have always been told there are aging, enormous manmade caverns under our neighborhood capable of holding millions of gallons of storm water. I have never known if that’s really true or urban legend, but just for grins let’s go with true maybe.
Curtis suggested that the suction from these huge tanks could be sucking out all of the mud from beneath our alleys, possibly causing multiple sinkholes. The only reason we can see this one is that it reached up and joined a pothole.
I have to tell you, I read Curtis’ remarks very late at night just before falling asleep, and I was quite disturbed by them. What if while we slept the huge caverns sucked our houses into the underground? I woke up at 3 a.m. with a bizarre compulsion to vote for Donald Trump.
But enough about me. Maybe we should be thinking about the homeless. If we have told them that literally all of the ways they have managed to find shelter in the past are unacceptable, but if potholes big enough to be lived in are acceptable, do we not see faint outlines emerging of a possible win-win situation? I’m not telling you I have the solution. It’s food for thought, that’s all.
The very worst situation — something that really does give me pause — would be one in which all of Dallas’ homeless people were encouraged to live in potholes, and then one night the city was awakened by the roaring subterranean flushing sound of the very devil’s toilet. And then the next morning … no homeless people.
But I do have to wonder. Would that be … acceptable?
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