Since June 2008, Brent Brown and his bcWORKSHOP have been rebuilding a handful of century-old single-family homes that line Congo Street, in the Jubilee Park neighborhood near Fair Park. Their award-winning efforts -- which began with construction of the so-called Holding House, a temporary residence for families displaced by the redevelopment -- have been well-documented on the Congo Street Initiative Web site. But the extreme makeover must been seen in person to be believed: I drove down Congo with the kiddo last weekend, and though there's much work left to be done, it's a far cry from the ramshackle row of shotgun shacks Walt Humann showed me in 2004.
"Congo Street was a forgotten place," Brown tells Unfair Park today. "It was evident that the Dallas way of development or redevelopment -- which is to ignore places till eventually somebody buys them out and tears it down -- was going to happen. As an architect, yes, it's old and tired, but still beautiful, and the people who lived there didn't want to move. They had no choice: They could sell for $5,000, $7,000 and then what? Rent an apartment?" Which is why The Real Estate Council Foundation, the Meadows Foundation and the city of Dallas have given grants allowing bcWORKSHOP to redo Congo, house by house. Four have been finished; one's in the process of getting a makeover; a sixth remains on the to-do list.
At this very moment, Fred Bowie's house is the latest to get the start-from-scratch -- he's the man who donated the land upon which the Holding House was built, matter of fact. Bowie and bcWORKSHOP had a special guest today: former Dallas Cowboy Emmitt Smith, who brought his wife and kids and extended family down to Congo Street early this morning to spend this Martin Luther King Jr. Day of Service lending a hand on behalf of Central Dallas Ministries and AmeriCorps.
Dr. Lara Ashmore, executive director for Pat and Emmitt Smith Charities, tells Unfair Park that the former running back got involved after Emmitt had been invited to become an MLK Day ambassador of service through the White House's Corporation for National and Community Service. Smith was presented with "a number of projects," Ashmore says, and settled on Congo Street because "he has a commercial real estate business, and he's interested in revitalizing communities, and this project if a great example of using unique ways to do just that."
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So, does that mean Congo Street can expect further participation from the Smiths' charity? "We're definitely interested in exploring that," says Ashmore.