Longform

Swann's Song

When Kimberly Tracey called the city to complain about her East Dallas apartment complex, she had a list of gripes. Maintenance was poor, the linoleum on her kitchen floor concealed rotted wood, and the roof leaked in several places. The entire building was a mess, she said.

City inspectors eventually made their way to the distinctive red-brick building at 917 North Haskell Avenue in the winter of 1994 and began stapling warning placards to the doors. "This building is in a hazardous condition," the red placards read. "Occupancy is prohibited." The tenants would have to move and the owner, Christina Swann, should have already been making arrangements to have the structure demolished.

It sounded simple enough, but the city didn't know it had cornered a wildcat. Swann--when she wasn't in jail on unrelated charges--blatantly defied the order. When code-enforcement workers put up the placards, Swann would promptly tear them down.

One day, after inspectors screwed boards into window sills to close off the building, Swann unscrewed them. If the city ran off tenants with talk of demolition and relocation, Swann simply advertised for new renters.

Despite Swann's repeated attempts to thwart demolition, the city remained determined to tear the property down, says Ramiro Lopez, a code-enforcement supervisor. "She's actually drawing the line in the sand and saying, 'Come on,'" Lopez told Channel 8 on Dec. 14, 1994, "but this is the wrong fight."

City officials would soon learn that Swann wasn't intimidated by government power and was determined to have her say and her way. Today, almost two years after the city first tangled with Swann, the German-born landlady appears to have gained the upper hand. In the process, she's become a sort of folk hero to haters of intrusive government throughout the area.

"It was all illegal, what they were doing," Swann says. "If they think that they have a person who is weak, with no backup, no lawyer or nothing, they've made a mistake. If they think in their sick minds that they can do something to you and get away with it, they will do it every time. They have no sensitivity for humanity. They are there to help people and they do the opposite. They destroy."

Jean Coyle, one of Swann's staunchest defenders, believes the landlady is a victim of government persecution. "I have looked at her files and it is incredible what has been done to her," she says.

A tall, gaunt, Nordic blonde whose once-beautiful face now has grooves of discontent slashing across it, Swann still speaks in the clipped cadence of her native German. An artist, she wears flowing clothes spattered with paint. She's a talker; her long, conjoined sentences often meander. She is, depending on whom you talk to, a worthy opponent of arbitrary city government, or a loon--an impossible pain in a bureaucrat's butt.

"She is unconventional and eccentric," says a former neighbor, J.T. Martin. "She seems to have her own kind of logical basis, and she looks at things differently than other people. She certainly doesn't seem to mind a fight."

Swann, 53, says she was a model before she emigrated from Europe in the early 1970s. Now she's a fighter. In January 1995, Swann, representing herself, took the city to federal court, alleging that it deprived her of due process in its efforts to demolish her building, and therefore violated her civil rights.

Legally, she had done her homework. She proved in preliminary hearings that the city failed to notify her of the hearing in which the Dallas Urban Rehabilitation Standards Board (URSB) ordered the building demolished, and pointed out that the list of repairs the city had demanded were problems she had fixed in 1992.

"The defendants have harassed, humiliated, and slandered Swann before tenants, friends, associates, and the business community, all in an attempt to drive Swann from her land and/or to cause her to voluntarily abandon her land," Swann stated in her petition.

Before the trial, however, the city had been trouncing Swann in the court of public opinion.

Her first introduction to the public came in December 1994 when WFAA-TV Channel 8 reporter Valeri Williams showcased Swann's eight-unit apartment complex on Haskell, and, with the help of a few tenants and city officials, painted a picture of an uninhabitable apartment complex run by a greedy and uncaring landlady.

"Spread the word" to renters, Dallas Tenants Association president Jeff Veazey trumpeted to Channel 8, which broadcast several segments about Swann. "There is a landlord in East Dallas who will steal their money, steal their property, and who will show no remorse." Swann is someone "who city housing authorities describe as one of Dallas' worst slumlords," Channel 8 anchorman John McCaa said during the same newscast.

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Denise Mcvea

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