A voice in the wilderness

For the first time in nearly a decade, the issues traditionally worrying neighborhood residents are no longer issues.

The national recession has made virtually every zoning dispute a moot point. The usually controversial traffic and thoroughfare proposals have, for the most part, been laid to rest.

But as 1992 begins, it’s not yet time for residents to enjoy the fruits of their labor. The old issues have been replaced by bigger, meaner problems: How to slow crime and maintain the integrity of East Dallas and Lakewood neighborhoods.

These are not issues that will divide the City, as many of the old problems did. New Mayor Steve Bartlett, who declined to be interviewed for this article, and the rest of the 14-1 City Council undoubtedly will hear the same cry from throughout the City, from Preston Hollow to Fair Park, from Oak Cliff to Pleasant Grove.

If anything, according to neighborhood, business and community leaders, the challenge for East Dallas will be to make its voice heard amidst the tumult. The Advocate’s survey uncovered five issues East Dallas needs to resolve for 1992 to be a healthy and prosperous year.

Remember the Alamo – Well, OK, Remember East Dallas

It’s a credo among East Dallas residents that the only time the City pays any attention to us is when it ignores us.

But that may be changing.

“I just don’t think it will be business as usual,” says Craig Holcomb, who represented East Dallas on the old 8-3 City Council in the mid-1980s.

“I think everyone there knows we can cause a stink if we have to.”

The reason for this change in attitude? Remember that East Dallas, under the 14-1 plan, has three representatives on the City Council. During the 8-3 years, we had only one.

Even more important, City leaders and bureaucrats finally may have realized they need East Dallas for the entire City to thrive. For too long, community leaders say, inner city neighborhoods such as East Dallas were the City’s unwanted stepchildren.

How else can you explain plans to all but close the Lakewood Branch Library or to lay off the civilian employees at the East Dallas Police Storefront?

Now, though, neighborhoods figure prominently in City improvement schemes. It will be all but impossible for the new Council to renovate Downtown, attract new employers to the central business district, or land the World Cup soccer tournament over the Goodwill Games athletic event – all goals of Bartlett – if East Dallas becomes a war zone, torn by crime and deteriorating buildings.

“We can’t provide economic development in these inner-city neighborhoods through manufacturing,” says Eloise Sherman, president of the Lakewood Chamber of Commerce.

“The only way to do it is to make the neighborhoods better places to live.”

Recognize Diversity as an Advantage, Not a Handicap

East Dallas boasts large Asian. Hispanic, African-American and Anglo populations, and no one disputes that problems come with such diversity.

A Voice In The Wilderness

But if the City faces the problems – substandard housing and lack of jobs among them – neighborhoods will improve, says Tom Kemp, center manager for the Multicultural Community Center on Munger Boulevard.

Few in East Dallas, for instance, think the problems are insurmountable, even with the City’s depleted financial resources. Opinion is united on this issue, from business leaders to social workers.

The most important goal for 1992 is to begin looking at the situation in a new light. Instead of complaining, looking for ways to take advantage of diversity.

“The City should be promoting recognition of the multiple cultures and the multiple visions in East Dallas,” Kemp says.

Be Innovative in Solving Problems

The only certainty in Dallas this year is that there isn’t any money left to throw at problems. The City’s tax base is declining, and its residents are reeling under the recession. The City can no longer count on large corporations moving here, bailing us out of our economic problems by bringing prosperity with it.

It’s time to discard the traditional ways of fixing problems.

“I don’t think we ought to focus on one blockbuster thing, but on lots of little things,” says Lon Williams, former chairman of the Old East Dallas Coalition. “That sort of innovation is just what the doctor ordered.

“There are plenty of opportunities, especially with the bad economy. We need to think with our heads and not our pocketbooks.”

These innovations could be as simple as increasing police bicycle and horse patrols, or as complex as devising tax breaks to help small businesses take advantage of the area’s countless vacant retail spaces.

Success could be as obvious as recognizing the potential of Lower Greenville Avenue – with its restaurants, clubs and shopping – to thrive in much the same way as the West End or Deep Ellum.

Success could be as subtle as the potential to turn parts of East Dallas into a Little Asia or Little Mexico, with the cultural benefits of each.

Recognize the Perception of Crime Is as Important as Crime Itself

City statistics indicate crime decreased in Dallas last year, but that’s not the general consensus among residents. Think about it: Do you believe crime has decreased?

In many ways, the perceptions of crime is more important than what occurs.

That means the police department and Chief William Rathburn must convince East Dallas residents that the department is genuinely concerned about residents’ safety – and that police action will make neighborhoods safer.

That sort of optimism is in short supply these days.

“There’s something wrong when grocery stores have to hire private security guards to stop people from stealing things out of cars in the parking lot,” Williams says.

More bicycle patrols and assigning officers to neighborhood beats may be partial solutions. But until mortgage refinancing rates overtake crime as the hottest party topics, the perception of crime remains a big problem.

Enforce Building Codes

If anything replaces crime as East Dallas’ watchword for the ’90s, it will be building code enforcement. The area is home to countless rental properties, and too many of them are substandard.

The City must begin targeting the landlords – absentee or local – who let sewage drip through open pipes or don’t abide by City regulations regarding abandoned cars and the like, neighborhood leaders say.

“What’s wrong with having truly livable and affordable housing in this area?” Kemp says. “How can you expect people to follow their dreams if they don’t have a decent place to live?”

The key to better code enforcement isn’t tearing down buildings, but enforcing existing regulations. City officials must emphasize to building inspectors that while it may be more difficult to cite an absentee landlord, the results are worth the extra trouble.


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