When city officials were revising Dallas’ thoroughfare plan last summer, they skipped East Dallas. This came as no surprise to certain East Dallas residents.
While other neighborhoods had to fight proposals to turn quiet, residential streets into virtual commercial highways, there was no need to rally the troops in East Dallas.
That’s because city planners already had been convinced the East Dallas street system was fine as-is, and there was no need to turn Greenville Avenue into a six-lane thoroughfare or to widen Skillman Street where it passes Tietze Park.
The planners had been convinced by the work of a dozen or so East Dallas homeowner groups and neighborhood associations.
“We can make the city pay attention to us,” says Jonathan Vinson, president of the Dallas Homeowners League and past president of the Belmont Neighborhood Association.
“We have a pretty good record in East Dallas, and that’s because we’re organized – probably better organized than anywhere else in the city.”
In many ways, East Dallas – that part of the city between North Central Expressway and White Rock Lake, and between Northwest Highway and Interstate 30 – is the only legitimate big-city neighborhood in Dallas, the only part of the city that compares with Chicago’s Near North Side or the residential sections of Brooklyn.
But if that atmosphere offers advantages such as affordable housing, proximity to downtown, and a neighborhood identity, it also includes most of the problems plaguing urban areas in the 1990s – high crime, an inefficient public school system and indifferent city government.
That’s where the neighborhood groups come in.
“I’m convinced that if it wasn’t for the neighborhood groups who stand up and argue, this neighborhood would be destroyed,” says Dan Patterson, who moved to East Dallas from the Park Cities in 1986 and has since been president of the Swiss Avenue Historic District Association.
“If the neighborhoods weren’t organized, East Dallas would be in real bad shape.”
The neighborhood groups act as everything from social organizations to political action committees. Their members have planned picnics and dances, and they’ve lobbied City Hall. They deal with everything from area events to zoning disputes.
“They definitely have some impact on what I do,” says Dallas City Councilman Glenn Box, who represents East Dallas. “There are so many issues that there’s no way one individual can know everything about what’s going on. The groups help keep me informed about what’s happening.”
Their victories in the battle to improve the East Dallas quality of life – the goal of virtually everyone involved with neighborhood groups – are impressive.
• The repeated failure of the city to impose a thoroughfare plan opposed by the neighborhoods. “They’ve stopped proposing changes because we’ve shown them none were needed,” Vinson says.
• The formation of the Old East Dallas Coalition, which is lobbying the city for zoning changes and tighter code enforcement. One special project involves requiring special-use permits for liquor stores along Columbia Avenue.
• The addition of bicycle police patrols, whose wheels were paid for in part by the Swiss Avenue group.
• A variety of street beautification plans, including medians along Munger Avenue and parts of Lower Greenville Avenue.
“This is a battle no one thought we would ever have a chance of winning,” says Dorothy Savage, who has lived in East Dallas most of her life. She has been active in neighborhood organizations for more than 40 years.
“But what’s happening now is that the groups have come of age. They’re becoming more mature and more sophisticated.”
Of course, there have been failures for the East Dallas neighborhood groups. There are fears the thoroughfare plan will reappear once construction begins on the lower portion of North Central Expressway. The Lower Greenville Homeowners Association was founded after a disagreement split the Belmont neighborhood group.
And several neighborhood groups have had to hire off-duty policemen to patrol their streets, hardly an indication the city is paying attention to cries from residents about an increase in crime.
But in the long run – and every neighborhood group is in this for the long run – few activists are pessimistic. That’s why they are always looking for new members, whether it’s people who are new to the area or longtime residents who haven’t been aware that the groups can make a difference.
“These are clearly bright, intelligent people who give their time, because they consider it important,” says Patterson, who wasn’t involved in neighborhood groups prior to moving to East Dallas.
“I was sort of surprised when I moved here. The groups were much more politically powerful than I thought.”
But it shouldn’t have been surprising. After all, these people are working to preserve not only their neighborhoods, but also their way of life.
Says Vinson, who moved to Dallas from Austin six years ago: “The first thing real estate agents tell you when you move to Dallas is that you have to live in Plano. But that’s not true.
“We like where we live – it’s pleasant, it’s got a small-town atmosphere, and a good mix of people.”
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