City Hall

Whatever Else, Fair Park Reformer Walt Humann is Not a Silly Person

This week Robert Wilonsky at The Dallas Morning News and Peter Simek at D Magazine both have been telling some of those important but very painful stories we all need to hear about the city's racial history. I just want to make sure we don't throw the old guy out with the bathwater.

And do I have some special brief for old guys in general? To be discussed at another time. For right now, let’s just talk about one old guy – civic activist and former Hunt oil executive Walt Humann.

Humann does not work for the State Fair of Texas or for the mayor of Dallas, exactly, but he is trying to broker a deal closely associated with the mayor’s plan for a private takeover of Fair Park, the sprawling 277-acre exposition park a mile south of downtown where the fair takes place once a year.

The Humann plan is in competition with another set of ideas, but both concepts include proposed private takeovers of the park, after what most people view as at least a half-century of non-management by the city and the fair.

In his piece in the paper Monday, Wilonsky reported on a belt of ramshackle real estate that the State Fair of Texas has acquired over the years in poor neighborhoods adjoining Fair Park. Wilonsky quotes Dallas County Commissioner John Wiley Price, who links this pattern of quiet real estate acquisition to the city's certifiably racist use of eminent domain in the late 1960s and early 1970s to extinguish a black neighborhood adjoining Fair Park.

The fair says it acquired the lots for parking. The lots do look like crap, as I can personally attest. So does a lot of the property around them.

What Wilonsky probably will get to next time he heads that way, however, is that a surprising amount of wholesome new housing of the type called "in-fill" graces those same hardscrabble streets.

In his piece in D,  Simek makes the excellent point that it doesn't help a neighborhood to saddle it with a bunch of weedy vacant lots with trespass signs. He’s so right. That kind of back-handed treatment of the land is an especially bitter pill in a neighborhood where people have been investing courage, heart and money against stiff odds.

Simek’s headline in D is, “Why It Is Not Enough for Fair Park Leadership to Merely ‘Cheer’ for South Dallas.” His piece is based on Wilonsky’s story and also on an earlier story in the News. The earlier one described Humann’s view of the new private Fair Park entity’s role. And we do have to go a little carefully from here on out, because this gets weedier than one of the fair's vacant lots.

Simek recounts some of the more brutal history of oppression associated with Fair Park in the past. Then he says of Humann: “I started thinking about what it meant that the head of the effort to privatize the park, retired Hunt Oil executive Walt Humann, understands the new entity’s role as that of a ‘cheerleader’ for the neighborhoods around Fair Park. That word, ‘cheerleader,’ struck me as woefully inadequate, if not more than a little condescending — and even borderline offensive.”

First off – and this is not an accusation of misquoting – Humann does not use that word, cheerleader, in the News story. The reporter does. So if Humann didn’t say it and Simek implies he did, why isn’t that a misquote? Well, I think I’ve heard Humann use that word a million times. He probably did say it at some point to the News reporter. The reporter just didn’t put quote marks around it.

So why on earth does it matter? Why are we even talking about this? We are talking about it because Simek’s ear, which is very good, picked out that word. What about the word? Cheerleader. What’s wrong with a cheerleader?

Oh, come on, you know. In reference to a territory drenched in the blood and sin of the past, saying you’re going to be its cheerleader is an old-guy, country-club-clueless, way-too-sporting old-chum kind of a thing to say. Simek’s ear isn’t wrong. The word is a marker.

But, look, none of the old-chum caricature I just created fits Humann. Do you remember my mention of the in-fill housing in the poor neighborhood we’re talking about? First thing I need to tell you about that, if you don't already know, is that Humann is a major reason any of that in-fill investment ever happened.
For the better part of two decades Humann has been personally and deeply involved in efforts to rebuild the Jubilee Neighborhood just east of Fair Park where a lot of those State Fair-owned lots are. He has done it not in any association with the fair but through his North Dallas church, St. Michael and All Angels. Over many years, he has been walking those streets, knocking those doors, getting to know every preacher in the neighborhood and every school activist and every crime watcher, probably half the criminals – everybody.

In fact it's hard for me to imagine there is another white guy in Dallas — certainly not another old well-off white guy who might talk about being a cheerleader— who could possibly claim to have the kind of personal roots in that neighborhood that Humann does.

Yes, he’s a retired Hunt oil executive. And look, I think I’ve been on the other side of those guys on every local issue I can think of. But Hunt Oil happens to have a long tradition of local civic involvement by its employees – Jim Oberwetter, Jeanne L. Phillips, John Scovell – including a willingness to dive into the scrum, mix it up and maybe get a little mud on their socks. That’s a hell of a lot better than the little Park Cities unicorns who jump over a bush and disappear if they didn’t meet you first at the Dallas Country Club (so they always jump for me).

I have no idea whose side I’m on in the whole Fair Park debate. I think I’m upside down and all around the block. The competing side, pretty much headed up by former Trammell Crow CEO Don Williams, has some very powerful arguments going for it.

But so does Humann. And the one thing you really can’t nail him for is being a Johnny-come-lately or a dilettante. He has paid his dues in the neighborhoods around Fair Park over many years of toiling and caring deeply.

You know sometimes it’s sort of easy to characterize … no, no, I told myself I was not going to go there, not going to get into the whole International Brotherhood of Old Guys thing. I’ll just say that old guys don’t get a lot of second looks in this world. Not even too many first looks. But Walt Humann is worth a first and a second. Really. It would be just topping of you to do so.

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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