Friday, April 9, 2010

Are South Dallas Residents Citizens or Not?

I'm not trying to get into the middle of any fight - at least not this time. Nor am I trying to position myself as someone who has simple answers to a complex problem. At least not this time.
But, at best, there's an interesting juxtaposition of points of view. Or at worst, a journalistic food fight in which an important point is being lost.

The Dallas Morning News has run editorials which call for the relocation of metal recycling and rendering plants that are inappropriately close to residential neighborhoods. It is something with which I wholeheartedly agree. I state that agreement in my monthly column in the Morning News today.

For me, it is a clear issue. People who live in low-income neighborhoods should not have to put up with the noise and air pollution, nor the eyesore that heavy industrial businesses impose upon them. In Dallas, it is the result of decades long poor zoning that never took into account that people actually lived, worked or worshipped across the street from businesses that required the transportation of heavy metal on dump trucks and eighteen wheelers, literally seven days a week. In Dallas, along Lamar Street, I clearly remember the old Proctor & Gamble plant which, when fully operational, emitted the most horribly foul odor one could imagine - right across the street from single family and multi-family homes (the plant is shut down now).

There are some non-profits which are valiantly trying to redevelop the area. There are residents who want to leverage highway redesign into a serious economic opportunity and community revitalization. Yet, within less than a mile of these residents are scrap metal yards which keep this area from being an attractive place to live.

DMN editorials have called for the relocation of these businesses to an area near the Inland Port, in the southernmost area of Dallas. When the economy turns around, it will be an area that will include warehouses, commercial traffic and industrial business. It's a good idea to me. I've proposed it (as I say in my column), but the answer I usually get is that the area is zoned light industrial. I am absolutely befuddled at how ordinary citizens, albeit of low-income, can be consigned to live listening to the rumbling of eighteen wheel trucks in the early morning because of the most egregious zoning travesty, but we cannot rezone a light industrial area!

Here's where the differing opinion or the food fight comes in...

Jim Schutze, a journalist for the Dallas Observer (whom I happen to like, by the way), is suggesting that there is some ill motive behind the suggestion. I don't know where that comes from. There seems to be controversy as to whether or not the idea was proposed to a council member by editorial writer Tod Robberson, or whether the council member proposed it to Tod. That's the point at which I confess that I'm not on the inside to know which is which. I've not agreed with the council member or Tod 100% of the time, but I've never known them to be dishonorable. And while I've questioned conclusions that Tod has reached about race, poverty and how to solve the knotty problems that result from those two issues, I believe him to be a sincere and honest journalist. He's just never shown me anything different.

Schutze courts controversy. That's what he does. And while the edge and conspiracy theories he presents about government and the Oberver's nemesis (the DMN) are sometimes far fetched, they are interesting. And, at times, provide a fairly valuable alternative view to that of the city's newspaper of record. But here's the thing...

I could care less about who brought up what solution to whom. I am far more concerned about the fact that good people: some elderly, some church members, some young daily have to deal with a decades old mistake. It is a mistake borne of insensitivity, racism and disregard to the quality of life of people who are low-income. This mistake allowed these businesses to grow and thrive when virtually no other residential neighborhood would have allowed it without a near riot. The very existence of these businesses depress the values of home and has led to their neglect by the city in ways that are unconscionable: vacant houses remain vacant for years; hulled out business structures are never torn down; vacant lots are never mowed; loitering is tolerated and know wholesome commerce, beyond an occasional fast food restaurant has been in the area for years. Not a dry cleaners; not an ice cream shop; not a barber shop; not a bakery. These conditions continue in part, because people grow to accept the environment around them. Its easier to believe that no one cares and that you have no support, when no one shows you they care and no one provides support.

Rendering and recycle plants are not bad businesses. They just don't belong in residential neighborhoods. And these are areas where the neighborhoods were here first. And I'm very tired of the suggestion that any kind of business operating in poor communities is better than no business at all.

Let's be clear: it will take millions of dollars to relocate these businesses. The Inland Port may not be the best idea. Maybe the best idea is to relocate the residents. That will take millions of dollars. But city government made this mistake. In so many ways, its not the fault of metal recyclers and heavy industrial businesses people. They're not evil, they're not mean. They're conducting an honorable business. The city of Dallas allowed them to conduct that business in the wrong place. And whoever moves the city has to bear some fiscal responsibility.

So at the end of the day, no one is well served by who made what suggestion to whom. The question really is - are South Dallas residents citizens or not?

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