There's a Gap in News Coverage of South Dallas Improvements

The Dallas Morning News editorial page subscribes to the belief that our mayor accomplishes a great good when he calls attention to disparities between the city's white and not-white hemispheres. I assume the paper also would give itself credit for doing the same with its years-old editorial page campaign, which they call "Bridging the Gap," and for which I have my own name, "Hey, Did You Hear About the Gap?"

I'm all for people hearing about it. I can even make myself shut my own mouth, sometimes, when I'm tempted to say, "How could anyone in Dallas not know about the gap?"

But here we are, many years into calling attention to the gap, and I don't see much measurable change on the ground that can be fairly attributed either to "Bridging the Gap" or to the mayor's initiative, which he calls "Grow South."

So, wait? Did I just say nothing has changed? Did I just say South Dallas, as I usually still call it, is still cut off from the prosperity of North Dallas by a racial Berlin Wall? No. I don't believe anybody who was familiar with South Dallas 20 years ago, as I was, can drive it today and fail to see real positive change.

I didn't say nothing has changed. What I would offer instead is that the major changes I do see on the ground have precious little to do Grow South or Bridging the Gap -- both admirable efforts at reaching in from beyond to do good works -- and a lot more to do with the efforts of South Dallas' own leadership, and maybe it would profit us to ponder that possibility.

A Morning News editorial two Sundays ago ticked off the accomplishments of the mayor's Grow South initiative, now in its third year: 1) identified $75 to $100 million in possible real estate investments for somebody, but no money yet; 2) failed in an attempt to "create scores of neighborhood associations as a way of invigorating formation of crime-watch groups and increasing the reporting of code violations" but found funding for seven VISTA volunteers "to fan out across key areas to create what he calls a 'catalytic relationship,' in which the city helps residents help themselves; 3) is working with something called WINS to identify needs; 4) also working on setting up a new web page to aggregate public information on crime and code violations that is already available on other aggregator sites; 5) already has another new web page up that presents only positive facts; 6) intends to "crack down" somehow on half a dozen families who own a lot of low-rent residential properties.

The editorial concludes: "This is the kind of hands-on problem-solving approach that distinguishes Rawlings and his staff. Once again, his overall progress on GrowSouth exceeds our expectations."

OK. Fine. No snide remarks here about low expectations. In fact at the top of its editorial the paper states its true expectation: "In each of our previous semiannual GrowSouth updates, we've noted how groundbreaking it is for a Dallas mayor to devote this level of attention to the imbalances between the northern and southern halves of the city."

So that's the real expectation -- announce publicly that the north is rich and the south is poor. Consider it done. And I'm not saying it's a bad thing or a waste of time to call attention to it, because it's a true fact.

But then you have the issue of actually changing the facts on the ground. Somebody has done a lot of that, because South Dallas has changed for the better over time. But if those changes were not brought about by VISTA volunteers or web page designers, who did bring them about?

Two names immediately come to mind -- City Council members Carolyn Davis and Dwaine Caraway. I have found myself on the other end of the stick from these two at times, because anytime somebody at City Hall pushes through a major change in the landscape, somewhere along the line an underdog gets kicked, and kicked dogs are my people.

Davis has been instrumental, for example, in fostering substantive private sector investment around Fair Park, which has put her on the opposite end of the stick sometimes from my friend, Dale Davenport, who owns a car wash on MLK Boulevard. But if I back off from the car-wash issue and take a broader focus on that whole area, I see all kinds of new shiny retail and investment there that was not even in anybody's imagination 20 years ago, and a lot of the credit for it in the last few years goes to Davis.

One small example: A little over a year ago when plans finally were unveiled for tearing down an overhead freeway through her district -- a plan that had been welcomed with open arms by the business community there --some businesses and a prominent private school were dismayed to learn the plans included the elimination of a freeway exit they considered crucial to commerce in their neck of the woods.

Davis went to work literally overnight with an aide to state Sen. Royce West and engineers from the Texas Department of Transportation, and together they came up with an affordable compromise that all of the interested parties were able to sign off on. That kind if thing shows what can be accomplished -- and quickly -- by leaders who are deeply plugged into the communities they serve.

I called Caraway last week, because he and I have talked for years, and, right or wrong, I feel OK about tricking him a little. I did not tell him I was comparing his own efforts with the mayor's or the News' programs. If I had, he wouldn't have told me anything, because Caraway won't talk bad about anything good in South Dallas. So I just asked him a standard reporter question: What, if anything, have you ever done that was worth a damn?

That worked. He started off talking about the redevelopment of the Lancaster Road corridor between the Kiest DART rail station and the Veterans Administration Medical Center about five miles due south of downtown. The fact on the ground is that this area, pretty much a wasteland when Caraway first took office as the District 4 council representative, is now home to an impressive array of private and public investment including big box stores, the rail station and a major rebuild of the street itself.

"When I first got on the council," Caraway told me, "Lancaster corridor was not even mentioned. The only thing that was being mentioned was Southwest Center Mall (the former Red Bird Mall, six miles farther southwest).

"I had to battle to bring the necessary attention to Lancaster Boulevard and make sure they knew the Lancaster corridor was the core of our southern Oak Cliff community just like Jefferson Boulevard identifies the west side of Oak Cliff."

Before he could even talk to anybody about putting money into that area, he had to do something about crime magnets so vicious that they scared off legitimate investors. Joining forces with the late Bishop Larry McGriff of the Church of the Living God, Beverly Mitchell-Brooks of the Urban League and Park Board member Michael Davis, Caraway led the fight to shut down whorehouse motels that were also illegal drug distributorships.

"We cannot grow until we clean up," Caraway told me. "Who and what investor is going to want to come into an area that is unsafe and not clean, with drugs and prostitutes and all these different kinds of crime.

"We didn't just fight 'em and shut 'em down," he said. "We had 'em torn down, then found the people and provided the opportunities so folks could come in and properly be funded with development support so we could transition the area."

He ticked off a number of other areas where he felt he has had an impact, always giving credit to his allies in those fights, including former Mayor Tom Leppert. And allow me to state again that nothing Caraway told me about his own accomplishments was intended by him as any kind of invidious comparison with efforts by the current mayor or the Morning News.

Caraway really doesn't operate that way. From his major economic development efforts to things like his campaign against sagging pants, Caraway always seems to operate out of a sincere desire to uplift his community based on a deep lifelong knowledge of that community. I myself claim credit for whatever invidiousness you may sense here.

And by the way, heaping praise on Caraway and Davis is a bit of a reach for me. Some of the activity for which they claim credit is problematic for me because of the use of public money for ends I'm not always sure it's intended for. For example, Caraway spoke with great pride about improvements to the Corinth and 8th streets area about two miles south of downtown. Some of that activity -- running off legitimate businesses and concentrating new subsidized housing -- gives me the willies.

But I do get Caraway. He sees a slum. It's in his backyard. He dreams of making it gleam. He's not here to debate philosophical fine points.

By no means has every elected official from South Dallas achieved the successes that Davis and Caraway can claim. Council member Vonciel Hill, for example, will be remembered for a messed-up money-pit development across from the VA Hospital called Patriot's Crossing, which we have discussed here at length in the past.

I'm not here to denigrate Grow South or Bridging the Gap so much as to wonder why, every time the mayor and the Morning News set out to measure progress in South Dallas, they only measure their own efforts. There are ways to get a lot more good news than that.

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