Twenty-five years ago this summer, urban America burned. Last month, Los Angeles did an encore.

And who said nostalgia for the ‘60s was limited to Kennedy conspiracies?

There are any number of insightful observations to be drawn from all of this. My favorite? Post-modern America’s fascination not with solutions, but with assigning blame.

Yes, someone actually conducted a national poll addressing whose fault the L.A. riots were, with the Reagan administration trouncing LBJ’s Great Society by a 2-to-1 margin. This is undoubtedly a great comfort to LBJ, who has gotten some bad press over the years.

But there is more to what happened in May in L.A. and in 1967 in Detroit, Newark and Chicago than an opportunity for me to be flip. Glenn Linden, an East Dallas resident who teaches history at SMU when he is not keenly observing the Dallas political and social landscape, says this is an opportunity to learn something about saving urban American – a high priority for those of us who don’t live in the suburbs.

The lesson, Linden says, is all around us.

“There has been a willingness in East Dallas among residents – Anglos, black and Hispanics – to sit down and talk,” says Linden, who has lived in this area for more than two decades.

“We actually understand each other. We may not always like each other, but we know we have to learn to live with each other. There’s been a neighborhood sense here that is missing in a lot of other places. We’re not as polarized as other parts of the country.”

Linden says, for instance, we have a history of talking with each other about schools – Woodrow Wilson being the best example – and about neighborhood issues. East Dallas usually presents a solid front in dealing with outsiders.

What’s even more fascinating about our success is that we have had better luck facing down many of the same problems that have overwhelmed other neighborhoods in other cities.

Our gang problem isn’t as bad as that in Los Angeles, but most of our schools are just as crummy. Crime here is as bad, if not worse, than crime in New York or Chicago.

More importantly, we have been ignored – and at times, even conspired against – by a City government whose callousness is legendary. The federal government has neglected urban neighborhoods for only a decade; we’ve been neglected by our government for almost as long as we’ve been an urban neighborhood.

It’s hard to believe we live in a City that doesn’t permit liquor sales in two-thirds of its area, yet we can’t get a ban on liquor sales in a small part of our neighborhood – a high-crime area where liquor stores and bars almost certainly contribute to muggings, prostitution and drug sales.

We have come this far, of course, because we refused to let crime or an indifferent municipal government beat us. We have come this far in spite of the City and in spite of our problems. The Anglos who stayed in East Dallas stayed to fight; the blacks and Hispanics who came to East Dallas came to fight. Because we work together, we still have hope. Because we still have hope, we have tenacity.

East Dallas works. It doesn’t work as well as we want it to, and we have problems enough to go around. Just ask the people in the Gastonwood-Coronado area, who are struggling to keep gangs out of their neighborhood. And everyone who lives here knows better than to be smug about our successes, for failure is always around the corner, waiting to slap us with a blackjack.

So far, though, the blackjack hasn’t done its job. With a little luck, it never will.


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