As a bulldozer chipped away at the sides of a hideously blighted cinder-block building in South Dallas this morning -- forward, reverse, forward, reverse -- a crowd of community members and Dallas Area Habitat for Humanity employees and supporters stared ahead with childlike gazes. And then, finally, the 'dozer delivered one swift blow to the roof, and the single-story gray rectangle folded into a dusty cloud that rested over the block until the next gust of wind.
"Fight the blight, fight the blight," chanted someone wearing a Habitat for Humanity tee shortly after the collapse of 4702 Baldwin Street, a former sandwich shop turned bar turned motorcycle-club HQ but a crime problem no matter what the incarnation.
This demolition is part of the organization's 25th anniversary Fight the Blight campaign, during which it will destroy 25 blighted structures, many in South Dallas, to make way for new growth. Habitat is pruning the weedy locales marring Dallas: The organization says the city issues thousands of code violations and spends millions on the upkeep of more than 4,000 rundown buildings. Which is why it's making some of them disappear altogether, starting today.
"People think of Habitat as just building homes," Dallas Area Habitat for Humanity CEO Bill Hall told Unfair Park. "We are revitalizing the neighborhood."
The non-profit targets neighborhoods in need and builds homes as a catalyst for neighbors to improve their own homes and for retailers to establish themselves in the revitalized areas. "Habitat takes a long-term view," Hall said, adding that it could take five to 10 years for a neighborhood to change significantly. And it's more than an investment in time: Today's demolition, which required prior asbestos abatement, and an upcoming tear-down nearby will cost Habitat about $100,000.
"It takes a lot of time and money," Hall said. "People are taught to live with what's around them, and we need to teach them that this is unacceptable."
A representative for Habitat for Humanity said the organization, which will build 160 homes in Dallas this year, is the largest home-builder in Dallas. The streets around the demolition side are lined with modest, well-kept homes built by Habitat and several that are still under construction. "It means that Habitat is filling an ownership void that exists here," Hall said.
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During the Dallas Area Habitat for Humanity's 25 years of service, the organization has built 900 homes and invested $90 million in the city, Hall told the crowd during this morning's press conference. In about a month, another bar down the street will also disappear from the streetscape in a dusty cloud. "These properties become havens for crime, and we're here to get rid of those havens," Hall said. "Tearing down blight is absolutely central to our mission of revitalizing neighborhoods."
"I can assure you that the neighbors are very happy; I can assure you that this is part of a renaissance that is taking place," said former council member Diane Ragsdale, who now runs the Inner-City Community Development Corporation, a South Dallas nonprofit that works with Habitat to rid the area of blighted structures.
Wrapping up the press conference, Hall said, "We will start what everyone loves to see."
The bulldozer lurched ahead, and the walls gave way.