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Tribal vengeance

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In the southwestern United States, a primitive tribe dealt harshly with members who failed to conform to tribal custom, even if their only real sins were age and fear.

It is said that a man and woman, advanced in years, were afraid their dwelling might fall off a high cliff where heavy rains had eroded the once solid ground before them. But because the old woman and man had asked for help when it was not their turn to speak, the tribe sentenced them to stay in the house until the cliff collapsed and hurled them over the ragged edge into the abyss below.

And all of these cruel things took place, my brothers and sisters, in spite of the fact that the tribe had a city manager system.

The old people are not dead yet, and their house hasn't quite fallen off the cliff. But I'm standing right on the edge--about 35 feet above Woody Branch Creek in far southern Dallas. And I have to tell you: Even though Melton Barnes, who is 74, is standing next to me and seems OK with this, I am not OK.

We are standing on old boards he has jury-rigged out over the edge like the observation deck at Niagara. The dirt behind us is cracking. And that is 35 feet straight down. You could put a four-story building down there.

I've told him three times now that I get the picture, and I want to go inside.

The most amazing thing to me is that all of the principal parties to this nightmare--including a bright-sounding city engineer and a former city council member whom I have known and respected for years--admit right up front why Barnes and his wife, Cora, have been sentenced to fall off this cliff. Nobody is even ashamed of it.

The Barneses were cut out of a $2.6 million flood control project paid for by a bond issue because in 1997 they talked to the Dallas Observer about their problem. Then, in 1998, when additional funds were found to complete the last three properties on the creek that had not been protected, then-city Councilman Larry Duncan specifically saw to it that the Barneses--alone of all their neighbors--were left out again.

Duncan doesn't deny it. "I guess you could focus this one back solely on me," he told me during a long, friendly chat on the phone.

"Obviously, he [Melton Barnes] rocked the boat. He gave it a good shove. The [city] staff let me know they were not pleased. His outburst in the Observer shattered the cooperative spirit."


Other people up and down Woody Branch Creek got hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of free erosion control from the city, often far in excess of the value of their properties and in spite of the fact that the city says it is not legally bound to protect anybody's property on this creek at all. Huge rock-and-wire-terraced flood walls, tied down deep into the bank by steel piers, were a free gift to the people of this area from the munificent and tender-hearted taxpayers of Dallas.

All but the Barneses. They got nothing.

Well, not quite nothing. The city did take nine storm drains from streets in a new residential development nearby, tie them all into one big pipe, dig the pipe down into the ground, and then bring it out in the creek bank right across from the Barneses' property, aimed at them like a water cannon.

You think I'm kidding?

You should sit here with me, in the immaculate kitchen of their large, perfectly preserved 1960s ranch home, and look at these pictures. He sits next to me. She stands. Behind her on the stove are two dozen jars of freshly canned figs they harvested yesterday from a relative's farm in Wills Point. In the far gloom on shelves along living room walls and on tops of tables and bookcases are her various collections of glass and china novelties.

Melton Barnes is showing me stacks of photographic evidence, all telling the same stark story: Over the last 10 years, the Barneses have been eaten alive by water.

The pictures are incredible: huge oaks, outbuildings, fences, enormous volumes of soil, mammoth chunks of concrete--all ripped away. The house next door, which belonged to Cora Barnes' late mother, moves visibly closer to the edge in each chronologically arranged set of pictures, as does theirs.

When they moved to this corner of southern Dallas in 1965, the area was undeveloped, shaded by old trees on gently rolling hills. Country bridges crossed chattering gravel-bottom creeks cut deep into the ancient limestone bones of the land.

"Our house and the two next door were the first on the street," he tells me. "The builder gave me a plat, and I took a tape measure and walked the lot to see just how many trees would have to be taken to build the house."

Woody Branch Creek, at the back of their property and down a steep slope, was a trickle of bright water. Their children dammed the creek with logs and rocks in order to swim and catch fish.

"That all changed when Redbird Mall got built," he said.

Redbird Mall was completed in 1975, a few miles from them and upstream in the watershed. All the water that used to soak slowly into the ground now slid off the surface of the mall in a slick sheet and gathered in foamy brown floods at the storm-sewer grates. In rainy seasons, Woody Branch Creek changed from a country trickle to a dirt-gouging, root-ripping torrent.

By then the city had learned a new trick. In the old days, the city retained ownership of creek beds. But that just meant the city was responsible for keeping them up.

In the 1960s, when real estate development was already turning the watersheds into hydrological chaos, the city of Dallas managed to duck out of its responsibility for the creeks. The city began requiring developers to draw their plat maps so that ownership of the creeks themselves pertained to the adjacent private lot owners along the banks, as if the homeowners would know what to do with all of the water from Redbird damn Mall.

By the early '90s, many houses up and down Woody Branch Creek were in serious danger of collapsing and plunging over the brink. Even though the city had weaseled out of its legal responsibility to help the homeowners, the city council saw some political mileage in saving the lives of at least the nicer people.

Melton Barnes, meanwhile, had been hounding the city relentlessly over the huge storm-water pipe it had aimed at him in 1985. After the pipe already had gouged away half his mother-in-law's bank, he persuaded the city to modify it. They put a 45-degree angle on the end, so that now it is aimed directly at his property instead.

As part of the political deal to decide which homeowners on Woody Branch Creek would get protection from the '95 bond issue, the staff asked Duncan to request of the neighborhood that it tell Barnes to stop bothering them about the pipe.

"We specifically talked about that at the meetings I had with the homeowners," Duncan said. "The discussion was, 'Quit bugging the staff. You're not going to get their cooperation if you pester them every 24 hours.'"

Duncan says Barnes agreed to back off. Barnes tells the same story. "He said I was a pest. He told the homeowners meeting, 'If Mr. Barnes will agree to not go bother the city anymore, I might be able to get the money for this project.'"

Barnes agreed. But when the list of homeowners to be helped came out, he wasn't on it. Nor was his mother-in-law.

He panicked. If everyone else got a rock wall, if he did not--if he and his mother-in-law were the soft spot in the creek bank, and if the city's pipe continued to be aimed at him--he figured he was dead meat.

The pictures seem to bear him out. Barnes was a pressroom supervisor for big printing companies all his life. I don't think he's unintelligent, nor is his wife. They're not what I would call politically sophisticated. But the underlying truth is that when they found out three years ago that they weren't on the list for protection, they were in their 70s; they had paid taxes to the city of Dallas for 30 years; this house was everything they had; and they were scared.

"So I called the media," he told me. "Actually, I called The Dallas Morning News first, but they weren't interested. I couldn't get the TV out here, either. So I called the Dallas Observer."

We understand.

On July 24, 1997, the Observer published a story by Rose Farley called "Slip sliding away: A South Dallas couple takes on the city to save back yard."

Farley's story reported that the city had jimmied its own priority list in order to move several properties up ahead of the Barneses, including some that clearly were not as threatened as the Barnes property.

For example, one homeowner whose house was much less threatened but who nevertheless was given a big flood job by the city was then-city Councilman Don Hicks. Talking on his car phone to Rose Farley, Hicks said, "It's all right for a councilman to get some of his property fixed, isn't it?"

I talked to Steve Parker, a city engineer who has worked on this issue. Tongue-in-cheek, he said, "I am Mr. Barnes' personal city engineer. I'm the guy who gets up to speak at the property owners meetings so Mr. Barnes can stand up and disparage my character and I can respond politely."

I asked why properties were shifted up and down the list of those to be protected, especially if the list was supposed to reflect all kinds of engineering study and objective criteria. He told me that the ultimate decision on who gets helped and who doesn't "is up to the council."

I asked Duncan why people got moved up and down the list. Duncan explained to me that the money needed to protect the last three properties on the creek, including the Barneses, was in a fund controlled by city staff, not by him. "In order to get that transferred over, I had to have staff cooperation. I was so nice it hurt."

After the Observer article ran in 1997, Duncan says the price of staff cooperation was for the Barneses to go over the cliff. No help for them. Ever.

Duncan paid it.

This, brothers and sisters, is what we proudly call "The Civilized World."

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