Scrap-Yard Owners Evolve to Survive Assault by City Hall and the News.

After an afternoon spent talking to people down on Rock Island Street, I drove back for something the next day. As I rolled south on Industrial Boulevard — ground I've covered a zillion times over the years — a huge smile broke over my face.

Instead of just staring straight ahead at traffic, I was watching the ground the way Louis Okon had told me to do on the day before. And there it was, right where he said it would appear — an entire natural river course with high banks on both sides, camouflaged beneath pavement and buildings.

It's called Rock Island because it's a real island, surrounded on all sides by water until the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers changed the course of the Trinity River in the 1950s. The old river bed is mostly dried up now except when it rains, cut off from the main channel by the levees. But once you see where it was, all of a sudden the odd isolation of this hardscrabble little cul-de-sac district makes sense.

Tucked into the northwest corner of Interstate 30 and I-35E, Rock Island is bordered on its west by the eastern Trinity River levee, on the north by Reunion Boulevard and on the east by Industrial Boulevard, which I think is now called Rivverdivverdoo or some crap. I can't keep up. They gave it a fancy new real-estate name.

Okon, proprietor of Okon Metals at 2001 Rivverdivverdoo, showed me a lithograph on the walls of his conference room depicting a bird's-eye view of Dallas in 1892, with Rock Island big as life, a land mass of maybe 30 acres. The Trinity River splits at the upriver northern end of the island, encircles it and then rejoins in a single channel at the downriver end.

I've driven here, as I say, a zillion times with my wife to visit Orr-Reed Wrecking, an architectural salvage yard right across Rock Island Street from Okon Metals. I never once thought to wonder what the name of the street meant. It certainly never occurred to me I was standing on a natural island. But here's the really neat thing. The people on this street know it's an island, and they think of themselves as islanders.

"I grew up on Rock Island," Hannah Hargrove told me. She's 22 years old, right out of college with a handsome fiance in tow, exploding with ideas about how her father, John Hargrove, who owns Orr-Reed, needs to totally change everything he does about running the business. Hargrove stood behind her while she told me her plans. He looked sort of proud, sort of scared to death.

She's very high energy.

Okon Metals also is a family business. At the southeast corner of the property is a billboard without caption, a huge blow-up of an old black-and-white photo on Okon's conference room wall. It's a picture of his great-grandfather, a very sturdy-looking immigrant who started this business a century ago this year.

"He came over from Poland with nothing, the shirt on his back, and started collecting animal bones," Okon told me. "He would sell them to the fertilizer and feed companies. Then someone told him there was more money to be made by selling scrap metal.

"The reason he was doing it was because no one else wanted to. That's where you find people who've been in this industry for 100 years. It starts with people who find themselves in a situation, back against the wall, nothing to lose, and they start doing what no one else wants to do and figure out how to make money out of it.

"So here's a picture of him with my uncle, and interestingly the scrap metal all looks the same [as now]. He's standing there with a magnet hanging from his belt, the same as mine." Okon proudly shows me the magnet that hangs at his waist.

Wait. Let me make sure you understand. The great-grandfather was the tough immigrant who picked up bones for a business. These families, these people who own and run the family businesses on Rock Island, are all college-going, money-giving, philanthropic pillars of the community now. That's what generations of hard work and tough, smart business practice have wrought, not to mention a bunch of employment and who knows how many zillions in taxes paid over the decades.

Hannah Hargrove's eyes flash electrically as she shows me the area of the salvage yard where she intends to bring in sculptors, artisans, glass-blowers and antique brokers to work from the materials gleaned from vast snow-drifts of salvage in her father's yard. When her father nods and agrees — "We're gonna have glass-blowers," he says — it's part assent, part question.

I'm looking at her and listening; I'd say they're going to have glass-blowers.

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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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