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.
Rock Island Street
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.
Okon showed me huge sculptural metal panels he is fabricating in collaboration with Dallas artist Paul Warmus to be erected along the periphery of the Okon yards in time for an "interactive arts festival" June 9. Warmus has consulted on other public art projects up and down Rock Island Street, where panels and murals and fanciful gates are gradually giving this once very gritty street a hip new face.
So what the hell's going on, right? Why are scrap yards and salvage yards and other blunt-force industrial occupants trying to make an industrial street look hip and cool?
Did I mention that this is an island? It's all business, non-residential. If anything, the freeways, thoroughfares and other properties around Rock Island have cut it off even more effectively now than the river did in 1892. In spite of that, The Dallas Morning News editorial page has carried out a two-year-long vendetta aimed at scouring the businesses off Rock Island as impediments to the paper's cherished Trinity River project.
Two years ago Morning News editorial writer Tod Robberson described the effect he said salvage and recycling yards have on the city: "Neighboring properties are almost worthless," Robberson wrote. "And when homes are abandoned, scavengers move in and gut them. Next come the drug users and homeless people."
So, wait. A guy goes out on Rock Island a century ago, starts a business that actually cleans up the environment before the concept of environment was even invented, and that makes people abandon their homes and take drugs?
Look. Nobody believes that. Tod Robberson doesn't believe that. It's all bullshit, an absurdly contorted argument to make something happen for some other agenda, some handful of cards close to the vest.
That's not a conspiracy theory. That's a theory that what Robberson says is so transparently stupid, we can't be expected to believe that he even believes it. So it's some kind of scam. Somebody wants that land for something else, and they don't want to pay what the businesses on Rock Island would have to be paid in order to vacate voluntarily.
At exactly the time the News started its editorial campaign for the real estate cleansing of Rock Island, the city launched a unique campaign of aggressive unilateral rezoning for the entire area along the river. Most rezoning efforts are initiated by somebody who owns some of the land in question. There may be division and controversy among neighboring owners, but at least the original impetus for new zoning comes from the neighborhood.
The Trinity River rezoning, however, has been almost entirely top-down, initiated by and from City Hall. Okon told me he got a notice a couple years ago telling him he was going to be rezoned and that the rezoning would require him to get off the land. That's the kind of junk his great-grandfather probably left Poland over.
He and the other owners started going down to City Hall. He says this all winds up being a good story about the City Council, where they actually found sympathetic ears. A deal was struck by which Rock Island would be left the hell alone if the owners came up with some kind of dramatic improvement to the place within two years. The royal rezoning project was deep-sixed, at least for Rock Island.
The June 9 arts festival is Rock Island's coming-out party — a way of showing City Hall some gratitude for extending a bit of mercy as well as proving that the owners have done what they promised.
That's cool. But here is the even cooler part. Louis Okon and the Hargroves absolutely loved doing it.
I asked Okon if this whole arts festival thing wasn't just a huge pain in the ass foisted off on them by fools and meddlers. Why should a scrap yard have to be an art project? He hesitated. I thought he might have been waiting to answer until we were out of earshot of his mother, who works just around the corner from his office.
"I've been having an awful lot of fun with it," he said softly.
Hannah Hargrove, explaining how she and her fiance plan to put the entire Orr-Reed inventory on the Internet, said she thought the whole Robberson/rezoning battle had been "a blessing in disguise." I asked why a blessing.
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"It gave Orr-Reed a chance to revolutionize," she said. "Orr-Reed has been an amazing community asset that, well, not entirely as all Daddy's fault, had deteriorated slightly. It's time for it to become something that gives back to the community."
John Hargrove, watching me scribble notes, winced. "Well, I don't know if I would say it has 'deteriorated.' But it certainly hasn't grown with the times."
Here's the thing. Rock Island is a wonderful little world unto itself. These people are deeply proud of what they do, what their forebears accomplished, where it all came from and where they want it to go. Their stories are woven from the legendary fabric of this country.
This festival June 9 will be a bridge inviting the rest of the city to come into that little world and look around. How can that not be a great thing for this city?