Maybe I need to do a mid-course correction. Beginning last Sunday, Dallas Morning News City Hall reporter Steve Thompson had what anybody would consider a terrific series of stories in the paper about an ill-fated slum clearance and renovation project on Bexar Street in South Dallas in which the city appears to have blown between $20 and $25 million.
Rudy Bush of the paper's editorial board and I have been yip-yapping at each other on Twitter (twip-twapping?) because I wrote a piece here Tuesday disagreeing with an editorial in which the paper bought into a certain line about whose fault it was. So, before anything else, my mid-course correction: Thompson's stories so far have been wonderful, even brilliant. Think about it.
Twenty million dollars? And what we get is a bunch of empty retail and some supposedly sold townhouses (more on that in a moment)? Really the most astonishing thing to me is that before Thompson teased out the money figures, nobody at City Hall had ever added this up and nobody at City Hall had ever asked. This is the kind of reporting everybody says never gets done any more because of cutbacks in the daily newspaper business. These stories ought to be game-changers. But for that, people have to know what the game is.
Who did this? The editorial to which I objected puts the blame pretty squarely on the shoulders of retired city housing director Jerry Killingsworth, a banker who went to work for the city in 2002. And, indeed, as Bush pointed out in one of his tweeps at me, Killingsworth obligingly wrote an op-ed piece for the News this week in which he did kind of a mea culpa.
In my twap back at Bush, I objected that the Jerry-did-it narrative ignores the whole history of the Bexar Street project. That deal came out of South Dallas leadership beginning the better part of 20 years, pushed by one influential family at first, then piled on by council members and community leaders. They are the ones who demanded not only that City Hall do it but that City Hall do it their way, without the safeguards Killingsworth, the former banker, was pushing for.
Rudy twaddled at me: "Tell you what, you do the distant past and we'll do the news." I said, "Deal!" So here goes.
Had the News editorial board merely done a search of its own previously published articles, it would have stumbled upon an especially illuminative op-ed piece published in 2011 by Gerald Britt, vice president of public policy at City Square, a nonprofit devoted to affordable housing. In that piece Britt describes how he and a person from another advocacy group flew to Baltimore to derail funding from a group there for a lease-purchase arrangement for townhomes on Bexar, an idea pushed at the time by City Hall.
Britt and the other advocate regarded lease-purchase, with City Hall holding the leases as a way to watch over its investment, as a betrayal of the long-range goal of private home ownership. That goal had been sought for two decades by members of the Mixon family, who, through the Ideal Neighborhood Association, were the originators of the entire Bexar Street effort. Together, the Mixons and their allies succeeded in forcing city officials to abandon the lease-purchase idea and instead provide half a million dollars in "mortgage subsidies."
Gerald Britt, whose civic involvement has earned him a reputation for integrity, intelligence and commitment, has argued in the past that these subsidies were not grants but "soft second mortgages" designed to reduce interest costs for first-time home-buyers. I have a feeling that point probably is over my head.
The bigger point in the immediate context, however, is that the $20 million Bexar Street imbroglio didn't just leap full-grown out of the forehead of a just-hired City Hall bureaucrat in 2002. Instead it was an organic movement that originated in the very heart and core of the community. (For a different take one who gets credit for Bexar Street -- back before credit became blame -- check out our report from 2011: City Officials Celebrate As Bexar Street Revitalization Project Begins to Take Shape.)
It also was an expression of a deeply held belief in both black and with leaderships in Dallas that the way to cure poverty and foment affluence is to build affluent-looking buildings. I happen to think that's what cultural anthropologists would call a "cargo cult," but I've already stated my lack of academic credentials.
I have no idea why Killingsworth is so eager to take the blame. He's an honest man. If he really believes he made all of this happen, then all I can think of for him is counseling.
I have no idea why city officials in recent talks with me have been almost casual about blaming Killingsworth, since he has a history of suing people who cross him. It seems awfully convenient for this apparently willing scapegoat to offer himself up only days or perhaps hours before the U.S. Department of Housing is expected to hit City Hall with a tough list of edicts based on HUD's finding that housing policy here has been screwed up as a junk pile.
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I do suspect City Hall of a self-serving agenda, but I do not suspect the Morning News editorial board of conspiratorial complicity in that agenda. What I suspect the editorial board of is an all too predictable superficiality born of a deep-seated disinclination to plunge the scalpel deep.
The Bexar Street story, brilliantly reported by Thompson, should make us all ask ourselves some very deep questions. Do we know what causes poverty? Can poor people who are also victims of racism ever lift themselves up to a better life through blame and reparations alone? I'm not against blame, by the way. I just wonder if it's a real job.
If we were to look these questions hard in the eye, then we would have to take up a lot of other very painful issues on all sides of the ethnic/racial divide. When do we get down to normal relations between human beings and that thing they call, "Real Life?" These are the questions the editorial board fears ever to touch the knife to, and that's why they have bought off on the absurd "Jerry did it" story.
Got to go now. All this talk about blame has caused me to remember I still seem to be in hot water for allowing the back yard mosquito mister to freeze last winter, ruining its pump. Thinking out loud: I wonder if I should call Jerry.