“I hate to say it,” says 54-year-old East Dallas housing project resident Louise Brooks, “but being poor is a business. Politicians, drug dealers, anybody with something to sell comes right here.”
Family troubles forced her into the Roseland Homes public housing development at North Central Expressway and Hall Street three years ago. She found a 611-unit hellhole, and residents terrorized by drug dealers.
“The dealers used to shoot AK-47s on the lawn. Those 9mm pistols were nothing – that was baby talk. Everybody’s life was in jeopardy.”
Intolerant of anarchy, Brooks did something most of us wouldn’t: She said: “Enough”.
“I decided they were going to respect me, and now I believe it’s caught on. I did a lot of sneakin’ on the telephone, but I had to get it done. Now I walk the development any time I want, night or day. People don’t like snitching, but they like the result. They can sleep now.
“Public housing isn’t a bad place to live. It’s the people who treat it like a dumping ground that makes it a bad place. People expect you to act like this if you’re from public housing. When I get on the bus every morning to go to school, there’s no way people can look at me and tell I live in public housing, because I’m clean and neat.”
People who have no place to go in Dallas find their way to public housing. It’s a saving place, a “Catcher in the Rye” for the unemployed, the unwed mothers and others who need a place to land while they figure out how to take control of their lives.
But in recent years, public housing residents found little incentive to move out and up. The plumbing may quit, the drug dealers may wave guns in the courtyard, but the rent’s paid and nobody’s asking you to leave.
Come for a week, stay for a lifetime.
Roseland Homes, an intimidating mass of faded red brick east of Central between Hall Street and Washington Avenue, was one more trouble housing project before a lawsuit prompted City Hall and the Dallas Housing Authority (DHA) to begin making changes.
It all began in 1985, when seven public housing residents sued the DHA, alleging racial discrimination in Dallas’ public housing program. To settle the lawsuit, the City in 1990 agreed to spend $118 million improving nine housing projects during the next eight years.
As part of the agreement, two police officers – working out of an on-site Neighborhood Assistance Center – and DHA security officers patrol Roseland Homes day and night. A corresponding decline in public drug dealing followed. The problem hasn’t gone away, though: Officers recently made three drug-related arrests in one six-day period.
As for improvements, the City has installed security lighting, a new playground, and a concrete basketball court. A new police storefront awaits final construction bids. Teens enrolled in Project Lead meet weekly for lessons concerning self-esteem and safe sex. (“What things can you do for fun without having sex?” asks a DHA caseworker.)
A staffer for Volunteers In Service to America (yet another acronym, VISTA) supervises basketball and drill teams for youth. A teen center and library will open this summer.
Even better, Roseland Homes residents are preparing to take control of their development. On May 1, the Roseland Homes Resident Management Corp. (RHRMC) became the second Dallas development to sign a dual management contract with DHA. Perhaps within a year, DHA officials will step aside, and residents will take full responsibility for their home.
Residents at about 200 of the 3,400 U.S. public housing developments are in similar training, and 20 resident corporations now manage their own developments. Eventually, the federal government will offer public housing units for sale to tenants.
“These are people who have long been considered by the public as the permanent poor, the permanent underclass,” says Bertha Gilkey, a consultant who travels the world to teach resident management skills and spends three days a month at Roseland Homes.
“We can show that given the proper training and self-esteem, the residents can not only manage their site, but own it.”
The nation was emerging from the Great Depression when federal and local housing authorities finished building Roseland Homes in 1942. Segregated by law, Roseland provided low-cost housing for black families who worked to get out and buy their own homes. Residents pay 30 percent of their income as rent.
Now only two percent of the families in Roseland have two parents; black, single mothers are the predominant heads of households. About 10 percent of the residents are seniors, and 1,500 children ages 6 to 18 live there.
Still, manager Enacia Lewis finds something positive in those figures.
“I see people at Roseland Homes who are allowed to be heads of households. A lot of people still come into Roseland Homes, get a job, and move out. In the private sector, they wouldn’t be able to afford a home,” she says.
Public housing grew, becoming a $1.4 billion institution marked by fraud and mismanagement. (Dallas has avoided the list of troubled public housing authorities. Gilkey praises DHA director Alphonso Jackson and his staff, and Dallas Mayor Steve Bartlett, who pushed for resident empowerment legislation while in Congress).
Under Housing and Urban Development (HUD) director Jack Kemp, the picture has begun to improve.
“I can truthfully say now since Steve Bartlett has been mayor, things are better,” Brooks says. “Steve Bartlett was our congressman before he became mayor of Dallas, and he has helped Roseland Homes a lot. He has increased the police protection out here, and it is better than it was when I moved in.
“At night, somebody better know you. But it’s not nearly as bad as it was in ’88, ’89 and ’90. They would mug even the senior citizens then.”
Bartlett and Kemp are on the guest list for Roseland Homes’ 50th anniversary celebration, to be held June 5-6. Events including a picnic and parade will be open to the public. Meanwhile, staff members are seeking original Roseland residents who may contribute a sense of history to the anniversary. They won’t have to look far to find Charlie Mae Ransom.
“We had some of the most beautiful yards you ever did see,” says Ransom, 72, a Roseland resident since 1942.
The pervasive red East Dallas rose-bushes decorate the outside of her corner apartment across from the Pilgrim Rest Baptist Church.
“There have been some good times, some pleasant times. I raised two children, one boy and one girl, and I haven’t regretted a day. I hope to live here until God calls me home.”
Bertha Gilkey believes in Charlie Mae Ransom’s Roseland. Gilkey is helping the members of Roseland Homes’ management corporation-in-training maintain their place in the community. Dallas is one of 10 U.S. cities and six foreign countries where Gilkey spends 25 days a month leading residents with loud, specific instructions through leadership training.
On a recent April evening, the group hammered out the details to manage one of Roseland Homes’ four laundry rooms – typically a source of problems in the community.
“We’re going to make the people of Roseland Homes want to use our laundry room,” Gilkey says. “Then we can convince DHA to give us the contract for the other three.”
She assigns homework and promises a test on a magazine article, “The Silent Scandal: Management Abuses in Public Housing,” “so you don’t make the same mistakes.”
These are low-income, slightly worn people used to minimal expectations and responsibility – an unlikely group of heroes.
The corporation president, Marshall Colvin, lives in Veterans Administration benefits. Louise Brooks, one of Gilkey’s interns, has two young grandchildren at home. The director of finance, Glenna Gambrell, has a baby on her arm and a cast on her leg. Thirty-one-year-old Angela Carter, the group’s assistant secretary, was born without feet and is working toward a computer-programming career.
But they wore cap and gown during January’s graduation ceremonies, following the first phase of leadership training.
Jobs are scarce and a particular source of pride in public housing, and the trainees understand that months of work await before they will be formally employed.
Twenty years ago, Gilkey began one of the first resident management campaigns at her home, Cochrane Gardens in St. Louis, Mo. She is now president of the Cochrane Resident Management Corporation and of her own firm, Urban Women Inc.
“I have lived in public housing since age 11. My children are the third generation that grew up in Cochrane,” Gilkey says.
As a teen, “I watched a beautiful community I grew up in turn into a Vietnam – a jungle. That’s when I decided we were going to take back our community. We were not going to live like this.”
And so the residents of Roseland Homes follow the path to empowerment and learn lessons in responsibility and self-esteem. One day, they hope to make their mark in the world outside public housing. The management trainees hold hands and pray and then Gilkey leads them in song.
“We’re gonna keep on walking,” they sing, “walking up to freedom land.”
With all its hopeful future, though, Roseland Homes remains an island in a moribund community laid waste by Southland Corp.’s stalled Cityplace urban development. The area suffers a hangover from unchecked 1980s land speculation. Roseland residents who want to shop in their neighborhood have only a variety of package liquor stores on Hall Street from which to choose.
During the previous decade, Southland bought up many surrounding homes from black residents and knocked them down in preparation for its massive Cityplace project. But the company built only a few upscale garden apartment complexes, some wide, untraveled boulevards, and one large, admittedly distinctive building that serves as a beacon for the area.
“When Cityplace was buying up all the homes and property in this area, the agencies that were serving Roseland Homes, like the YMCA and YWCA, moved away to West Dallas and Oak Cliff,” says Walter Travis, who has attempted to fill the void as director of the Washington Street Presbyterian Mission.
Presbyterian churches throughout the City donate money for mission programs that serve the Roseland Homes community. The mission has donated $10,000 to pay youth to assist Roseland Homes’ resident block captains this summer, and operates a tutoring center over the police storefront at the Neighborhood Assistance Center.
Travis, a former Roseland resident, has led the mission for 25 years. He’s worried about the neighborhood’s future.
“All of the agencies that used to be here left because they wanted to move on to a viable area. West Dallas, Oak Cliff and South Dallas are stable. This is a dying area,” he says.
“There’s nothing left but 611 apartments of Roseland Homes and a few other private homes. Unless Cityplace builds around Roseland Homes with some moderate- and low-income housing, eventually Roseland Homes will be gone.”
Don’t bet on it, says Cityplace Co. president Neil Sleeper: The Roseland Homes neighborhood will rise again.
To its credit, Cityplace donated 2.5 acres across from the development to create J.W. Ray Park. And 15 employees spend an hour each day tutoring J.W. Ray students. They’ve formed strong ties in the process.
Sleeper also envisions a large grocery store and general merchandise discount store in the Lemmon Avenue-Haskell Avenue area, within easy walking distance of Roseland Homes and Cityplace’s own housing developments.
Low- and middle-income housing are also on the agenda.
“We’d like to do something like that next year,” Sleeper says.
“One of the things we’ve observed in the area is that there are not many housing opportunities that would fall in between the income levels of (the people who live in) Roseland Homes, and a Bryan Place or our Park Gates apartments on the north side of Haskell.
“We would like to fill in that area with moderate-income housing so there would be some logical next step for the people who have been in Roseland.
“I think it’s going to be a question of what programs are available to make that viable. The low-income housing deals we’ve looked at – the tax credit deals, for example – are pretty tough. We’re trying to find some way to make that economically feasible, and I think we will.”
Louise Brooks has big plans for her future, too. Every day, she boards a DART bus to attend an El Centro Community College computer programming class. But Brooks is separated from her diabetic husband, one son is in jail and a daughter is “on drug row” in South Dallas. Brooks is caring for her daughter’s two young children.
Brooks has another son and daughter who are following their mother’s example, but her situation begs the question: How could such a nice woman bring up two troubled kids?
“I raised them so straight. Nobody got by not going to school,” Brooks says.
“I’m going to tell you what my daughter told me: She decided if she ever got grown, she’d be a junk-food kid. She didn’t get the drug habit at home. She said it was something she had to experience for herself, and she got hooked. And my son has a good brain going to waste.
“A lot of people like to deal with the ‘in’ crowd. Some people have to have it to feel like they’re living. I don’t happen to be one of those people.
“These kids, most of them have lived here all of their lives. And this is all they know; they know nothing about life on the outside. To them, all the gold and the watches and rings and the jumpsuits and sweatsuits, that’s what life is all about. And they figure the only way they’re going to get it, and get it quick, is to sell drugs.
“But everybody in Roseland Homes is not like that,” Brooks says. “We keep up with our kids. We know where they are.
“Anything worth having, you’ve got to work hard for. There’s a young white woman in my class who can’t read. I found that hard to believe. There’s no reason in today’s world for there to be an illiterate person under the age of 18. When you can’t read, you’re in trouble.
“Nobody knows it all,” Brooks says. “That’s why I’m going back to school, to keep learning and to improve my life.”
East Dallas’ Own War Memorial: The Wall
Blues music pours out the door of Sand’s Place, where owner Benny “Red” King stands with a pool cute in his hand and watches the people go by. Up and down Hall Street, men who are out of work, tired of looking for work or too old to work, drink beer from quart bottles wrapped in brown paper bags.
Hall Street, which runs south of Roseland Homes, is a magnet for people who recall the exciting days of the community they still call North Dallas.
“You can change the name but you can’t change us,” says Hall Street regular Kenneth Edward.
Across from Sand’s Place, an old man sits drunk on a concrete post that blocks an otherwise useful parking spot at the package liquor store. In articulate, helpless as a baby, the man flails his hands angrily at those who look at him.
During their two daily walking tours of the Roseland Homes neighborhood, Dallas police officers Jennifer Mecaskey and Craig McPhail regularly visit this corner at Hall and Munger Avenue. McPhail likes to try to talk sense to the aimless men. Mecaskey makes friendly conversation and seems to be just passing the time while her eyes take in the activity around her.
Today, the men gather to explain the significance of the Memorial Wall on the street behind Sand’s Place. Here, people have painted the names of their own war dead – youth who have died in the urban gang and drug wars.
“In memory of the fellas,” the wall reads, and the names include Corie and Derrick, Ballhead, Joe B., Man and Bobby Johnson. It’s signed with the gang insignia of Gangsters of the Projects, North Dallas Posse, Girls Got Guns.
“Most of them was kids. Maybe one was 20 years old. Now the City wants to take it off,” says King. “But it’s not graffiti. It’s those people’s names like a memorial.”
Police anti-gang officers say they know of no gang activity in Roseland Homes. Jamaican drug dealers openly worked in the area, even firing guns to keep nosy residents indoors, until police ran them off. Mecaskey and McPhail say youth gangs still operate, but not as overtly as in the past.
“The gang problem is minimal now. Most of them are off to the penitentiary,” says Jim Cooper, a real estate company maintenance worker who visits his grandmother at Roseland Homes twice a week.
“Corie got killed on the corner in a drive-by shooting. Derrick got into an argument and was killed about three months ago,” says Cooper, who wears a black Malcolm X hat. “To the teens, this wall is very important.”
The Hall Street regulars tolerate the officers’ presence, but would rather not see them.
“We don’t ask for that much. We just want to be left alone,” says King, whose T-shirt reads “Fear of a Black Planet.”
In contrast, Mecaskey and McPhail are welcomed by mothers out walking their children through Roseland Homes, by the older people and the staff at nearby J.W. Ray Grade School.
This is their job as cited in the City’s agreement with public housing residents who sued for improved services – to walk the streets and let good guys and bad guys know police intend to make Roseland Homes a decent place to live.
“We’re here because the people in the projects said they wanted us here. And it is unsafe. I wouldn’t live here,” Mecaskey says. “But you’ve always got that friction going on. There are always going to be people who say: ‘I don’t want you here.’”
On her tours, Mecaskey admires the flowers and pays special attention to children. McPhail maintains a sense of the ironic, smiling when some residents pointedly ignore his friendly greetings.
“It’s difficult to get the community involved,” he says. “In years past, relations between the residents and the police department were very poor. One of the reasons we’re here is to change that image.”
Construction has yet to begin on a new Neighborhood Assistance Center near Roseland Homes on the lot across from Sand’s Place. The City is committed to a police presence here, and the effects are apparent. Even the Hall Street crowd clears out by early evening, where once they remained until 2 or 3 a.m.
One day, urban renewal will take this street, too.
“This street is filled with people, but most of them don’t even live in the community. We know one man who has been coming to this corner for 40 years, and he’ll be doing it until the day he dies,” Mecaskey says.
McPhail says: “God only knows what that man sees in the course of a day. But it’s not any information he’ll ever give us.”
Click to sign up for the Advocate's weekly news digest and be the first to know what’s happening in Lakewood/East Dallas.