Okon Metals Heads Downriver to Escape Widder Belo's Disapproving Eye

It looks like Okon Metals, a fourth-generation-owned scrap recycling company, may have found safe haven after all. If nothing else, at least Okon's proposed move to a site even more isolated than its current address on an island between downtown and the river will put it out of the prying eyes of The Dallas Morning News and, perhaps more important, the paper's owners at A.H. Belo Corp.

The editorialists at our city's only daily newspaper have taken an attitude toward Okon and any and all other industrial employers in the city's benighted southern sector that always brings to mind the words of Huck Finn describing his treatment in the home of Widow Douglas:

"She makes me wash, they make me comb all to thunder; she won't let me sleep in the woodshed ... the widder eats by a bell; she goes to bed by a bell; she wakes up by a bell -- everything's so awful reg'lar a body can't stand it."

The paper's editorial page today stays in character with a description of all employers like Okon that offend the eyes of the watchful Beloans: "Metal salvage operations are noisy, dirty, ugly and help accelerate the decline of nearby residential neighborhoods," they intone. "Besides, southern Dallas already has more than its share."

See also: - Scrap-Yard Owners Evolve to Survive Assault by City Hall and the News - Southern Dallas' Uncounted Workers

The scrap yard's proposed move will require City Council approval. In spite of its opprobrious tone, today's editorial actually endorses the move. If I had a lick of sense and wanted to be helpful, I would clap a hand over my mouth and pray it all goes through. That's a big if.

Here is my issue. I spent some time recently interviewing people in this same general part of town who scrape together a living washing cars, picking up cardboard to sell to scrap yards and the like -- honest toil, some of it hard as hell but a way they can survive and stay within the law. In that reporting, I ran into many able-bodied men and women striving to stay clean and legal, who were unable to find regular employment because of past felony convictions, often incurred during teenage years.

A bitter reality that few of us ponder -- I had not, before working on that story -- is that a felony conviction for anything at all, like one dumb kid selling dope to another dumb kid, is a life sentence. Several people I talked to on the streets told me how they had poured themselves into vocational training in prison, determined to come out into the free world and live lives that would never put them back behind bars again, only to emerge into the harsh light of a world in which people with felonies on their records can never ever expect to find regular employment of a type that most of us take for granted.

The whole thing seems like a huge waste of money and human potential. But that's a conversation for another day. My point here is that recycling yards have always been a traditional reliable source of work and money for people who are shut out of other opportunities. Okon Metals was founded by the great uncle of the current owners, an immigrant who came to this country with nothing and was welcomed nowhere.

He got his hands on a wheelbarrow and walked the city scraping up dead animals to sell to rendering plants until somebody told him there was more money in metal. That guy with a wheelbarrow full of dead dogs founded a family that is now a philanthropic mainstay of the community.

I have attended one City Council hearing where the issue of scrap yards and their residential neighborhoods was addressed, the only one on this topic that I remember. The neighbors showed up in a throng begging the city to get off the scrap yards' backs because they are a crucial source of employment.

Look, I'm a product of the rust belt. I grew up in the Detroit area at a time when people called the thick stench of heavy industry the smell of money. And obviously by now I know a little better about air quality.

I'm glad Okon may now be able to get out from under the watchful eyes of Widder Belo. I should keep my mouth shut. But I guess I can't. Just can't let it pass.

This is my point: Nothing is more beautiful or heroic than people getting themselves covered with grime so they can take care of their families and do it in a way that doesn't hurt anybody else.

In all the hectoring, no one has ever come up with a serious environmental hazard ensuing from one of these outfits engaged in simple recycling. Absent those hazards, the banging and the clanging should be music to our ears. Those mountains of rusty junk ought to look like the serene Swiss Alps of opportunity.

In my heart of hearts, I know the daily newspaper means well. I just wish they would put down that hairbrush and let people get to work.

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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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