The Southern Dallas Toll Is at the Heart of the Mess There

An unquestioned tenet of local political culture is that white-owned companies that want to do business on the turf officially designated by Dallas as "southern (black, maybe brown) Dallas" must pay a toll. Five days ago I reproduced here a 2009 Dallas Morning News editorial that gave an explicit rendition of the doctrine of the toll from the traditional white establishment view:

"Suspicions run high among many in southern Dallas that outside investors, particularly from white-owned companies, only want to exploit workers and reap big profits without giving something back to the community," the city's only daily newspaper said on its editorial page five years ago. "Many are eager to prove that they, too, can launch big projects and are loath to let outsiders do what they can do themselves.

"Going forward, white-dominated companies must keep foremost in mind the unique history of southern Dallas. It is not simply a great business opportunity to be exploited for maximum profit. Any successful business plan must include a vision of how outside investment can not only add jobs but also create opportunities for local business to participate -- and profit."

First, please note: This doctrine is not being espoused by black people, not here anyway. Take note of the fact that the speaker is the primary organ of the old white establishment.

Second -- and damn, I hate being put in the position of sounding like crazy old Ayn Rand all the time -- but let me ask you a question: Reap what big profits? This sounds unkind, I know, but what big profits does southern Dallas have lying around on the ground like loose nuggets ready to reap? Crippled by multi-generational unemployment and a whole lot of social dysfunction, southern Dallas frankly is not a place big money is dying to invade.

One would think that here in Dallas, which postures itself as a very pro-business free market capitalism kind of a town, everybody would understand that starting up a business in southern Dallas is a way to put money into the area, not take it out. If anything, isn't it pretty much commonly accepted wisdom that places laboring under a lot of negative factors usually need to offer serious incentives to draw in investment?

The doctrine of the southern Dallas toll is a serious disincentive. Two weeks ago I told you about a commenter/whistle-blower here on the blog, a person calling himself "bigbexardaddy," whom we assume to be a City Hall insider. Big Bear Daddy alerted us to $800,000 in paybacks the city was forced to give the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) because HUD ruled that the city has misspent federal funds.

Since then Councilman Philip Kingston from East Dallas has been shaking this like a bone, going back to city staff again and again for an explanation of two things: 1) Why did the city have to pay the money back? 2) If the city did have to pay the money back, why didn't the city manager tell the City Council about it?

I have a column coming up in the paper later this week about a particular part of this involving former Dallas City Council member Diane Ragsdale and a nonprofit housing entity she runs called Innercity Community Development Corp. (ICDC). HUD balked when it found out the city was lending Ragsdale's outfit federal funds for land purchases but the funds were not all being used for land purchases. Instead -- and I will explain this in my column -- about $70,000 went to ICDC for "consulting."

City Manager A.C. Gonzalez is planning a briefing for the council on all of this later this month, in which his argument will be basically "no harm, no foul." Gonzalez has said publicly already that the seller of the land in question was happy with the money he got. Ragsdale, meanwhile, performed genuinely worthwhile consulting services. The $70,000 check-off from the land purchase money was just a way of getting her paid.

Here are some problems with that. In demanding the $70,000 back, HUD told the city it doesn't want the city to say it's spending federal money on land when it's not spending the money on land. That seems to me like a pretty easy concept to grasp.

But here's a bigger question: Why is a former City Council member in the middle of this deal anyway? Ragsdale's group was set up as the prime contractor to build more than 50 new houses on land vacated by the demolition of the old Frazier Courts public housing development in southern Dallas, but most of the houses were actually developed by Habitat for Humanity of Greater Dallas, working as Ragsdale's subcontractor.

Habitat for Humanity is a national organization with enormous national prestige -- presidents of the United States doing photo ops for them with hammers in their hands and nails in their teeth. Habitat is politically sophisticated, from the Washington level to local communities everywhere. It has its own impressive financial capacities. So why wasn't Habitat the prime contractor?

Why is Ragsdale even in this the picture? Ragsdale sent me a long detailed list of the work ICDC did for the project, including basic design and lobbying at City Hall. It's impressive. I can see why she wanted to be paid.

But what did she bring that an outfit like Habitat needed? Are you telling me Habitat couldn't have done the design? Habitat couldn't have handled the City Hall end? When I rack my brain, I can find only one contribution that Ragsdale is capable of making that is truly unique. She has the political means to say no, to put up her hand like a traffic cop and say, "Stay out of southern Dallas."

She could have invoked the toll, no doubt with full-throated support from The Dallas Morning News editorial page shaking its long bony finger at these rapacious white-owned entities that come marching into southern Dallas to pillage and loot. Like Habitat for Humanity.

What do you even call that? Is it a con? Or a mental illness?

In his briefing to the council, I anticipate that Gonzalez will talk about "building capacity" among nonprofits in southern Dallas. That language will be greeted with sincere empathy and enthusiasm by black council members from southern Dallas, by a certain cadre of white council members from northern Dallas and obviously by the collectors of the toll. It's a Dallas tradition.

Hispanic community leaders tend to be less interested in the toll, because their people are all out there in their pickup trucks making money the old-fashioned way. They don't need no stinking toll.

Please also take note of this aspect: You and I and our elected officials would have known not one word of this had it not been for Big Bear Daddy and Kingston. This entire universe of influence and money revolving around the toll is opaque, hidden from us and operating on its own internal laws of physics, unless somebody like Big Bear Daddy cuts us a window.

I had a chat with somebody about this recently. In the past I have described all of this as a plantation culture. This person argued that it can't be a plantation, because at least on the plantation the plantation owner came in and planted some damn cotton.

He was right. It's not plantation culture. It's a form of reparations. The toll itself is reparations. I get the rationale, I really do. But what has the toll ever really done for southern Dallas?

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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