It was important information--a clue that, buried beneath decades of architectural scar tissue, Spence would find the bones of good taste and sophistication.
He shows off a single-bedroom apartment with entry through a narrow kitchen. The kitchen, redone with period-looking black-and-white small tile, is ingeniously crammed with a new stove, dishwasher, refrigerator, and other small appliances. In an adjacent open closet are a new clothes washer and dryer. The front room is airy, with what must be a fantastic view of downtown by night.
The lines of the rooms, the clean symmetry of the woodwork, and the flow of the floor space demonstrate the "real high-class" look the old caretaker had promised would be there beneath the years of patches and paint.
But a few blocks away at 425 Neches is what Spence calls "the zenith of my efforts"--Bishop Green. Again he knows the history: two Victorian houses that stood here originally were wrecked in the 1920s, and a two-story brick veneer apartment complex was built using scrap lumber from the houses. Beneath the plaster are sections of wall, he says, still covered with Victorian wallpaper.
What he has brought out in the building are the stick-work brackets, Mission-style metal lanterns above the doors, and other details. The unit he shows is a second-floor two-bedroom with its own dramatic hardwood staircase up from the front door and a lush view of the huge back yard.
Planted with berry bushes, broken by little rocky dells and crossed by water, the back yard is designed to attract wildlife. Spence, who recycles plants and rocks from demolition sites nearby, is applying to the National Wildlife Federation to have the yards at three of his projects declared "back yard habitats."
This building is not an expensive rental venue for Dallas, but it's not cheap, either. A space of 1,300 square feet goes for $1,100 a month, and the people who live here are mainly professionals. Spence calls them off proudly: "A paralegal, an actress, a nurse, a sales rep, two ad execs, a librarian..."
But isn't it fair to wonder, then--wonderful though this building may be--how all of this fits in with Spence's original idea of helping the poor? Nobody poor lives in Bishop Green. Poor people probably did live here back when it was still junked out. So isn't this just gentrification and displacement, even if it's happening at a gentler pace than what went on in East Dallas in the 1980s?
Walking down Bishop Avenue, a broad thoroughfare that slopes gently down toward Methodist Medical Center, Spence argues that what he and Bartosh are doing will not become the fatal Yuppie nose under the tent--the beginning of the displacement of the people who are already here--because in this neighborhood, he says, those people aren't going anywhere. Their fortunes are improving, too, he says, and as that trend continues they will dig in deeper and improve their own properties.
"The Hispanic population is so strong, so upwardly mobile," he says. "I hope nobody has the hope that we are going to turn this into Yuppieville, because that is not going to happen."
On another day in another conversation, Trey Bartosh expresses pretty much the same view. If anything, he sees the increasingly Hispanic population in the area since the mid-1980s as its own form of gentrification.
"It's amazing how the demographics have changed. It was much more white, mainly little old couples." Most of them, he points out, were beyond the point in life when they could do much for their houses.
The Mexican-American families who have moved in, he predicts, "will continue to achieve more economically and will be able to reflect that in their houses and their yards."
Lupe Garcia, proprietor of Calvario Funeral Home on West Davis Street and a pillar of the Hispanic community in North Oak Cliff, says the Hispanic people he knows applaud what Spence and Bartosh are doing because they see it as enhancing their own property values.
"What they're doing, they're taking these decrepit buildings that are boarded up and waiting for the bulldozer, and they turn them into a beautiful piece of jewelry that melds with the surroundings. But inside, it's the state of the art."
On another walk through the area, Spence points out all the houses that have been painted and fixed up by the families that live in them. Silent midday streets roll gently up and down through tidy green lawns. At moments there is a strange sense of dislocation. The sharp towers of downtown are in full view across the river, and yet the neighborhood itself is velvety quiet like a small town, an odd, appealing, elfin little town exactly midway between Mexico and Mayberry.