Southern Dallas: Land of Opportunity?

By LASHONDA COOKS  

The Dallas Examiner

South Dallas is the land of opportunity. That’s what city officials have been saying for the last 30 years. So when Mayor Mike Rawling’s administration presented its Grow South Initiative back in February declaring South Dallas as the “city’s biggest growth opportunity,” and offered a 10-point to-do-list for the area’s economic success, to some it sounds like little more than a scratched record.

“I admire whatever he’s trying to do,” Reverend Washington, the owner of Robert’s Ready to Wear stated.

“[But] we still have the same needs that we’ve had in this area for the last 40 something years,” he added.

Washington’s clothing store has stood at the corner of Harwood and Martin Luther King since the 1960s. He admits business has been on a downturn since the late 1990s.

“Business comes from people. And our people went somewhere else and scattered about. It makes it hard for the business community to survive,” Washington somberly sighed.

The city officially turned its attention southward in 1981, when the Economic Development Advisory Board presented a 192-paged document entitled “Encouraging Economic Development in Southern Dallas” with 20 recommendations for Mayor Jack Evans and the sitting City Council.

“The City Council, aware of the disparity between two great sectors of the City, expressed concern in the summer of 1980 that if the current trend continued indefinitely. . .economic deterioration in parts of the Southern Half would continue, increased traffic and road congestion would exist in the Northern Half, development would continue into the suburbs as developable land in the Northern Half disappears,  and severe hardships would be placed upon Dallas residents who live in the Southern Half of the City [who are] dependent upon jobs in the Northern Half,” the plan began.

They were looking into a crystal ball. Eight years later, The Bruton Center for Development Studies at the University of Texas at Dallas presenting the same concerns in “Southward,” a study that compared South Dallas’ competitiveness with the rest of the city.

“Much of northern Dallas County is approaching buildout conditions, resulting in high levels of traffic congestion, high land prices, and high prices for commercial and residential property. The avoidance of southern Dallas locations in favor of historically higher growth areas such as northern Dallas county are likely to exact increasing costs from the businesses through the higher land and housing prices, higher traffic congestion, and higher wages to compensate for the increased commuting times of their workers,” the study found. It cited educational attainment as the most significant barrier to the area’s economic development.

“Although southern Dallas has been slow in its development compared to the northern half of Dallas County, a series of factors will tend to operate against this trend in the future,” it predicted.

But in October of 1994, city’s Dallas Plan revealed that South Dallas’ fate had not improved.

“South Dallas is now the home of 40 percent of the City’s population and includes almost half of the City’s land area, yet it contributes only 15 percent to the City’s total taxable property value. Action by the City of Dallas is essential to promoting this Dallas community,” it stated.

Ten years later, in May of 2005, the City of Dallas’ Economic Development Stakeholders Task Force issued a similar call to action:

“Land development patterns must shift. Northern Dallas, the traditional engine of economic growth, has limited geographic options to expand, whereas Southern Dallas has 79 percent of the city’s developable, but traditionally unproductive, land,” its executive summary read.

Fast forward to 2012: South Dallas is still 15 percent of the city’s total taxable property value, a tell-tale figure that has not moved since 1990. Yet some southern Dallas residents are optimistic about the Mayor’s Grow South Initiative.

Gail Terrell is one of them. Terrell and a group of fellow home owners and crime watch group members from the area bounded by I-35, I-45 and Loop 12 met with Mayor Rawlings and City Manager Mary Suhm to discuss what they were looking for.

“We wanted to let the mayor know we appreciated him for making the first step towards economic development in the southeast,” she stated.

Terrell served as the Chair of the Southeast Oak Cliff Steering Team for the South Dallas Taskforce, created in 2008 by former Mayor Tom Leppert. Then, her team’s primary objective was bringing more retail opportunities to Bonnie View and Simpson Stuart Road.

“The missing ingredient always has been money,” noting her excitement about the $20 million private investment fund the Mayor is building.

“He’s not afraid to find this private investment in order to jumpstart [this initiative],” she exclaimed.

But Southeast Oak Cliff resident Allen McGil is a bit more hesitant.

“Someone has to go first,” he noted.

While appreciative of what he deems Rawlings stepping beyond the parameters of former mayors, McGil emphasized that retail development of the area will still not be a cakewalk.

“For regular and medium-sized businesses, I think we’re going to find the going is going to be rather tough,” he predicted.

Southern Dallas’ underdevelopment is no coincidence. An editorial printed in The Dallas Express in 1938 entitled “Are Negroes to Be Condemned to Filth?” shed light on Dallas’ historic Negro districts hubbed at Harllee, Thompson, Wahoo, Wheatley and Hall:

“When the Chamber of Commerce advertises the desirability of this Texas metropolis, nothing is said of the open privies within the city limits or the hovels without sewerage, light or heat. The [Federal Housing Association] study made here in 1935 showed Dallas to be one of the sore spots of the South when it comes to housing for colored people. Talk about surveys, any open-minded person in Dallas can spend one hour and dig up more filth and downright nastiness in sections where Negros are forced to live than he could write in a thousand pages,” it read.

The Dallas Express, then the South’s oldest and largest Black newspaper, wrote the editorial to pressure the city to support a 626 unit federal low-income housing project for Blacks that the Negro Chamber of Commerce and Voters League were also pleading for.

In 1917, Buchanan vs. Warley pitted White real estate agent Charles Buchanan against Black civil rights activist William Warley in the court of law and declared Warley victorious as the Supreme Court proclaimed Louisville’s racial zoning ordinances unconstitutional. But in Dallas, as in other places in the South, as The Dallas Express article reveals, the practice of racial zoning was exercised long after the 1917 ruling, with Negro districts intentional receiving inadequate social and economic services.

As Mayor Rawlings works to reverse years of underdevelopment and seeks to counter long-held negative perceptions of southern Dallas, real estate mogul Al Herron offers this advice.

“More businesses by people who live there to provide both products and jobs is the key,” he stated.

He also noted the importance of more moderate and higher-income housing in southern Dallas and evaluating potential home owners by more than just their credit scores. Rawlings’ plan calls for the demolition of 250 houses by the end of this fiscal year and a total of 750 homes demolished by the end of 2015.

Herron is the owner of Century21 Galloway-Herron, the city’s largest Black real estate sales organization.

Charles O’Neil, the former president of Dallas’ Black Chamber of Commerce echoed Herron.

“You just take economic development by its roots: develop an economy. You cannot develop an economy by exporting capital from it. Simple.  If there’s a business owner in this community that their fortune’s not improved by what you call economic development, then it’s really not,” he noted.

But as the past 30 years of dust-laden plans and withering promises show, turning around an economy takes a village. O’Neil noted that too often city leaders, well-intentioned as they may be, rely on the wrong people for advice.

“They listen to a set of voices and far too frequently those voices are voices attempting to curry favor or exact some favor in return, which has nothing to do with the quality of their advice or the direction that they lend in,” he cautioned.

Local activist Marvin Crenshaw points to both City Council representatives and Black Chamber of Commerce as responsible for ensuring the continued development of southern Dallas’ economy.

“You have to have a Chamber of Commerce with vision that knows what to do with dollars. We don’t have that in the African-American community,” he stated.

Sonya Hoskins, who became Chair of the Dallas Black Chamber of Commerce in January, says the chamber has been promoting the southern sector.

“The Chamber has met with the City of Dallas, and other business owners and corporations, encouraging them to come to the Southern Sector in efforts to develop that particular area. We’ve been meeting with business leaders, politicians and community leaders encouraging them to do that,” she insisted.

Rawlings’ “Grow South” initiative seeks to strengthen and engage neighborhoods, create a culture of clean, strengthen schools and communities, debunk myths and rebrand Southern Dallas, implement creative financial and investment funds, continue downtown momentum, implement West Dallas’ design plan, build out Lancaster Corridor, make Jefferson Boulevard “The Main Street” for Southern Dallas and build infrastructure for Paul Quinn College and UNT Dallas’ shared Education Corridor. The plan’s goal is to grow the tax base of Southern Dallas by 50 percent over the next four years.

While many southern Dallas residents remain skeptical, those like Terrell are ready to roll up their sleeves to ensure this plan becomes reality.

“Now, we want to work with the mayor and the city to try and put that into play,” Terrell exclaimed.

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