South Dallas' Future Isn't Black and White. It's All About the Gentrifiers' Green.

The most stubbornly entrenched meme in local white culture — that “South Dallas” is a scary awful place — is the one most certain to flip in years just ahead. It will turn around 180 degrees. People of the green ethnicity, meaning the ones with money, will start scouring southern Dallas for deals.

Notice I switched up labels already from “South” to “southern.” More on that in a minute. We are talking about historically segregated black Dallas, which lies mainly in the southern hemisphere of the outer freeway loop.

My main argument is that people of the green persuasion will begin to infiltrate and gentrify that geographical realm in the not distant future if for no reason other than the sheer demographic power of the urban gentrification movement nationally and internationally.

Twenty years ago one of the world’s highest murder rates was to be found the former communist bloc satellite nation of Estonia. Near the railway station in the capital of Tallinn, a ramshackle rotted-out slum of wooden structures built in the early 20th century was home for squatters and dope fiends. Now aspirational Estonians are snapping up those same buildings for hipster lofts and coffee shops.

We think South Dallas has a bad name among white folks? Americans who aren’t even sure if New York City is divided into boroughs, bureaus or burros know the borough of the Bronx from an entire genre of film – Escape from the Bronx; Fort Apache, the BronxThe Bronx is Burning – not to mention Tom Wolfe’s 1987 novel Bonfire of the Vanities. These were all racial horror stories that helped sear the Bronx into the national cerebral cortex as a moonscape of Jungian nightmares, where errant white fools must surely be thrown into large pots, cooked and eaten while still somewhat alive.

Now according to one recent account, “If someone says the Bronx is burning, it’s because the real estate market is on fire.” 

Maybe the Bronx land rush is not yet at tsunami levels, but it’s strong enough to drive prices skyward. In fact, it was a casual reference to the Bronx in our own local daily newspaper, The Dallas Morning News, that got me thinking about places white people used to be scared to death of, about gentrification and about southern Dallas. (Did I switch names again?)

In a recent op-ed piece in the News about something or other, I sort of forget, conservative radio host and occasional columnist Mark Davis tossed off this gem:

“It is surely possible — in fact, wise — to identify behaviors that can increase our likelihood of crime victimization. I have often used the example of walking around the South Bronx waving a fistful of hundreds. You will be mugged, and when you are, it is the mugger’s fault. He is the criminal, but you were an idiot.”

Note to Dear Reader: I am not stopping to accuse Davis of racism, because I’m in a hurry. In fact, I’m not even accusing him of being entirely wrong on the facts. When I scouted around a little to find out what’s been going on in the Bronx in recent years, I came across this quote in a New York Times story from a proud South Bronx gentrifier: “If you walk around wearing gold chains and flaunting an iPhone, four 15-year-olds are going to take you down.”

Not too terribly off from what Davis said.

What I am saying is that the stereotype invoked by Davis is actually wearing thin out there in the rest of the real world. It has a half-life. The hoary racial codification of poor, black, segregated, inner city districts as horrific no-go zones for people with green won’t be a part of the culture forever, and its erosion will be accelerated by opportunity-seekers.

It can be done. What the lady in the Times story was really saying was that there’s a way to walk around the South Bronx and not just evaporate like spit on a griddle, even if people can tell you’re carrying a purse-load of green. Just be careful how you do it.

Why be careful? Why even do it? Don’t be silly. The money, honey.The New York Times' piece describes a 66-year-old grant writer who sold her Upper West Side of Manhattan one-bedroom apartment for $550,000, bought a two bedroom in the Bronx for $200,000 and salted the profit away for retirement.

Elsewhere in America the process of inner city gentrification has been radically shifting both prices and demographic settlement patterns for decades already. A story last year by Zak Cheney-Rice on mic.com used Federal Reserve Bank data to identify seven American cities where large numbers of homes have shifted from the lower half of the price scale to the upper half. In Boston, Cheney-Rice found that 61 percent of existing homes in the city had moved from the lower bracket to the higher bracket between 2000 and 2007.

Think what that must mean in tax base. You could probably recruit 100 corporate relocations and not come close, especially since the corporate guys all want tax breaks.

Almost nobody sees gentrification as an unalloyed blessing, I should mention. Nikole Hannah-Jones — as far as I can tell the nation’s top journalist on fair housing issues — did a piece for Grist last February in which she reported that gentrification not only doesn’t do much for inner city schools, it may hurt them. Hannah-Jones offered evidence that when the green people — who all send their kids to private schools — start moving into an inner city area, they drive down neighborhood student populations and hence reduce state support for local schools, which is handed out on a head-count basis in most states.

But it’s not as if rich white people have been showing up at the door in traditionally black neighborhoods and ordering people out. In an article about the black de-population of Seattle’s historically black Central District, Henry W. McGee, Jr., a Seattle University professor of law and Central District resident, points out an irony: gentrification of Central District was greatly enabled by two state laws in the late 1970s barring mortgage discrimination. “These measures,” McGee wrote, “made the trickle of blacks into the suburbs in the 1960s a flood by the early 1980s.”

The door to gentrification was left open in Seattle by upwardly mobile African Americans following the time-honored route from ghetto to suburbs, a path worn thin before them by immigrants of the world, by everyone, in other words, who wasn’t black. That same process of the door left open has been well underway in southern Dallas for 20 years as upwardly mobile black families have moved to the traditional land of opportunity.

Twenty years ago 44 percent of all Dallas public school kids were black, according to data from the Texas Education Agency. In 2014 it was 23.4 percent, a decline of almost half.

Black student populations have blossomed in the suburbs in that period, including the most far-flung and affluent of them. In quasi-ritzy Frisco in Collin County, for example, the black student population has increased almost five-fold in 20 years to more than one in 10 of all students now.

Obviously a shift of this magnitude, in which the ghetto becomes a new land of opportunity, won’t be accomplished without friction, and in Dallas in particular some of that friction will ensue from black people who have bitter memories of integration. Recently, Mary Catherine Loving, a college and high school teacher and native of southern Dallas, wrote a heart-rending essay about school integration in Dallas in the 1970s, published on the op-ed page of The Dallas Morning News — heart-rending both for the painful incidents she recalled and for her own apparent contempt for the process of integration itself:

“Misguided do-gooders and arrogant social scientists — black and white — tried to fix segregation by uprooting hundreds upon thousands of poor, young black children from their communities and shipping them off across the Trinity River,” she wrote. “It’s a shame that the city’s young, poor black children carried the city’s burden on their shoulders. My sister, and so many others like her, are owed an apology.”

In my rambles around the national coverage of inner city gentrification, I didn’t find any examples anywhere of black people who were just thrilled to look out the front window one day and see a young white couple moving in with two dogs, two bicycles and a rowing machine. Given these last few centuries, that might be asking a bit much.

But now let’s talk about that South Dallas/southern Dallas thing. Sometimes it’s called “The Southern Sector,” my least favorite term because it reminds me of a 2009 science fiction movie, District 9, in which they had all the extra-terrestrials penned up in a concentration camp.

Old South Dallas, which we might call true South Dallas, is a small confederation of neighborhoods clustered around Fair Park just southeast of downtown. At a certain point maybe 20 years ago, I forget exactly when, black people began to object to white people referring to the entire southern half of the city as South Dallas, because it was geographically inaccurate and because it was a euphemism.

What white people really were struggling to say was “black Dallas.” The operative distinction was about race, not the compass. Somehow “southern Dallas” was supposed to fix that. But I think it was the same problem all over again only with an additional syllable.

What’s ahead, what is actually already beginning to happen is the gradual erosion and inevitable loss of the distinction, whatever it’s called. New generations of Americans are sweeping back into our cities with entirely new ideas and sensibilities governing where and how they want to live. It’s going on everywhere in the country and across Europe. We do operate on a 20-year time warp here, but eventually universal gentrification will not bypass Dallas as if we were a bad stone in the oyster.

Then it won’t be North or South Dallas, just Dallas. And forget kumbaya. This is about the money. First ones in make the most. 

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