Monday, November 8, 2010

Bread and Circuses, Beer and Barbecue - Same Thing

An interesting day yesterday. I, along with a pastor from the neighborhood, attended a 'block party' thrown by the scrap metal yard owners on Lamar Street in South Dallas. I had gotten wind of this event a couple of weeks ago and subsequently found out that during the event there would be unveiled a 'compromise' with the community regarding their presence in the neighborhood.

For nearly two years, CitySquare has been working with neighborhood, church and business leaders, to develop a plan which has turned to be an alternative to the Texas Department of Transportation's redesign of the S.M. Wright Freeway. The plan is actually more comprehensive than just the 'road project' proposed by TxDOT. It calls for redevelopment along the Lamar Street corridor and for the relocation of the heavy industrial usages along the Lamar. Initially, the owners of Gold Star Metal Recyclers was a part of those conversations. While not in total agreement with the design that didn't include this business usage, the residents were clear and have repeated, that the metal recyclers should be a part of the redevelopment but that scrap metal yards were not compatible with the type of neighborhood they want to see. Subsequent meetings have not only reiterated this, but with mutual assurances that the sides would 'work together'. In fact, invitations were extended to meet with community leaders to hear any plans the business owners had that might serve as a compromise in this planning.

What happened on Sunday was a commercial for the viability of Gold Metals, its 'love' for the community and it's desire to work with them. Complete with free barbecue, t-shirts and soft drinks, the virtues of the owners, employees and their families were extolled and politicians were on stage to sing their praises. There was also a video that showed their 'vision' for the area. The video rendering showed a boulevard effect, with commercial and residential usages - commercial that includes the scrap metal yards...

As has been repeatedly stated: no one views the owners of these recycling plants as bad people. No one views these businesses as bad businesses. In all of the local and national conversations regarding 'green' businesses, this is a frontline industry. They simply don't belong in residential areas!

There is a point to which they get a pass for being here in the first place. Gold Metal owners remind us that they have been in the area for 35 years. But they have been there because the city allowed zoning that was incompatible for the community. It happened during a time when the city of Dallas' minority representation was limited to two African-American councilmen (no Hispanics) and only one of the black council members represented the entirety of South Dallas proper. This after years in which the entire black community only had one black councilman.

The effect of this rezoning and the previous construction of S.M. Wright Freeway, was to drive down property values. The collateral public disinvestment in the area, including the lack basic city services led to the diaspora of the areas middle class further south where the neighborhoods were nicer, the homes were larger and the schools, opportunity for shopping and a commuter culture made for a better quality of life. Dallas is not dissimilar to other areas of the country in this regard. As these areas lose their middle class, as property values are depressed. As businesses leave, what remains are those who are poorer, investors are more skewed toward speculators and business that cater more to the weaknesses of those who remain proliferate.

Changing times are bringing to light greater needs for the entire city. And those who oppose the plans developed by the South Dallas Hope Initiative and Unify South Dallas don't take those needs into account. Citizens to the north, which has benefited disproportionately (when compared to the Oak Cliff section further to the south) from the disinvestment in South Dallas, now carry at least 80% of the tax burden. City leaders mistakenly tout the development of downtown as the answer. The answer lies south. Dallas cannot expect to grow more prosperous as long as 80% of its land mass carries a shade over or under 20% of the tax burden. But the problem is it can carry no more of that tax burden as long as it remains under developed or undeveloped. While there are those who decry the expense of the investment necessary to correct this disparity, the fact is failure to do so, means more of the same.

So, 'playing it safe', by trying to 'redevelop' South Dallas 'around' the mistakes of the past (freeway traffic and heavy industrial usage), while paying lip service to wanting to attract a minority middle class (or any middle class, for that matter), a number of whom have fled as far south as Waxahachie, is sheer folly. People, in South Dallas and beyond, who cannot imagine the area as anything more than what it is, are the problem. They either cannot see, or choose not to see, that South Dallas can be redeveloped over time, in ways that stave off massive gentrification, but make way for an area that is economically viable, evenly distributes the tax base for the city and enhances the quality of life throughout the city. And why do people who live in low-income communities have to accept any kind of business, simply because it represents some form of 'economic development'. In suburbs throughout the area, along lower Greenville Avenue, neighborhoods have organized to oppose bars, restaurants - even WalMart. Why are poor people doomed to have their interests trumped by any and every type of commercial endeavor? Political representation which feeds on the status quo, does not have the courage to promote a new vision, or is so beholden to the type of non-profit participation which, because of limited capacity, restricts redevelopment to piecemeal efforts are also a part of the problem.

Owners of the scrap metal yards along Lamar Street, are businessmen with an economic self interest. This does not make them evil. The relocation of their businesses - or a truly acceptable compromise - will cost millions of dollars. It will cost them AND it will cost the city of Dallas. But correcting mistakes born of systemic injustice is expensive. It ought to be. There are people whose hard earned investments will never yield the benefit that it could have because of the inequity. But it must be done. The politicians who championed the 'vision' of the scrap metal yard owners as if they were coming to the rescue to get the off the hook of making courageous choices regarding public investment, are both fooling themselves and being unfair to the rest of the city. The reason why South Dallas remains the way it is, is because it benefits some of those responsible for making - or at least proposing - the changes necessary for its redevelopment.

Residents, business leaders, church leaders and others have voiced their willingness to work for change. Even to the point of developing alternative proposals. There are politicians who have refused to work with them. There are city officials who have refused to take them seriously, because, frankly, to do so serves as a challenge to their professional expertise. And there are those who simply believe that it will cost too much money. But, Dallas is at a point where the status quo and simplistic reasoning have yielded all they can possibly produce. The officials who supported the commercial that unveiled the scrap metal yard owners vision for the community, without creating or calling for a forum and venue in which that vision could be deliberated and debated, fed into the stereotype of their own people that is both shameful and degrading. In centuries past, the Roman emperor 'bought' the will of the people with 'bread and circuses'.

Sunday, politicians, instead of doing the hard work of engaging with their constituents over the type of future they want, joined with the owners of the metal recycling businesses in trying to buy their will with beer and barbecue.

It's the same thing...and they ought to be ashamed.

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