Tribal vengeance

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."

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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