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Legacies: Stopping the Bulldozers - The East Dallas Community Design Committee and Urban Renaissance in the 1970s

Legacies: A History Journal for Dallas and North Central Texas, Spring, 2013

By Susanne Starling

Conventional wisdom of the 1960s had it that Old East Dallas, from Lakewood to Baylor Hospital, from Central Expressway to Interstate 30, was to be razed.

Most of the area was zoned multi-family. Streets had been widened as businesses and apartments sprang up on Ross, Live Oak, and Gaston Avenues. Many fine, old homes were demolished or destroyed by suspicious fires; others were cut up into rooming houses. Tenants, rather than homeowners, were the rule. Absentee landlords allowed properties to deteriorate while the City of Dallas ignored the rapidly declining area. Banks “red-lined” East Dallas, refusing loans to homeowners. Properties were abandoned; vacant lots sprouted weeds and trash. The inner city was left to the poor as white, middle-class residents fled to the suburbs, in part due to fear of school desegregation.

By 1970, the situation was desperate. Census and survey figures revealed that, compared to the rest of Dallas, East Dallas had a disproportionate number of sub-standard structures, half-way houses, dangerous bars, and inadequate schools. The tenant population was largely white, male, low income, and transient. Those few, elderly homeowners who remained in Old East Dallas felt hopeless, helpless, and trapped. They could take little pride in a neighborhood that was essentially a slum.

As East Dallas reached a tipping point of blight and neglect, three organizations emerged with separate agendas for change in Old East Dallas. In 1972, homeowners on Swiss Avenue were approached by a young, visionary new-hire at the Dallas Department of Planning and Urban Development. Weiming Lu suggested that Swiss be declared a local historic district. Excited by the possibility, these residents formed the Historic Preservation League to pursue that goal. Also in 1972, a group of activists called “The Bois D’Arc Patriots” created a Tenants Alliance and set out to improve housing conditions. An umbrella organization known as the East Dallas Community Design Committee was formed by the City of Dallas to get citizen input on directions for change. These three organizations frequently overlapped and occasionally collided.

It was on Swiss Avenue that action to stop the march of deterioration began in earnest. Zoning allowed the building of the high-rise apartments on Swiss in 1971; that prospect alarmed some homeowners who could visualize the stately homes being demolished, as was happening at the time on Gaston Avenue. A group of residents hurriedly circulated a petition to save Swiss from a similar fate. Among them were key players: former Dallas mayor Wallace Savage and his wife, Dorothy, who had connections at City Hall and the Lakewood Bank; their daughter, Virginia McAlester (then Talkington), who belying her quiet appearance was fearless and tenacious; and Lyn Dunsavage, who became the “voice” of East Dallas and was a whiz at marketing and publicity. Delay tactics staved off development while Robin McCaffrey, another

architect/planner on the recently energized city staff, drew up a zoning overlay which made Swiss Avenue and adjacent Bryan Parkway Dallas’ first local historic district. Swiss activists realized almost immediately that they wanted to protect other neighborhoods; thus the newly formed Historic Preservation League (HPL, now Preservation Dallas) expanded its focus beyond Swiss Avenue.

A major concern was that few realtors showed property in East Dallas. To raise awareness of the area’s potential, McAlester and Dunsavage drove folks around on tours. A banker commented, “I would have left here long ago,” and a journalist asserted, “This isn’t going to work. Too much is gone . . . everything is trashed.” City planners doubted that East Dallas was salvageable. Planning staffer Janet Needham reflected, “Few believed at the time that people would want to buy old, cut-up, dilapidated houses, and live in the inner city.” Even preservationists held differing opinions on what properties were worth saving.

One exception was realtor Fred Longmore. A steadfast believer in East Dallas who had grown up in the area, Longmore talked passionately about the history and value of the “heroic” old houses. Charmed by the neighborhood’s mature trees and sturdy houses, lured by the idea of owning a large home close to downtown for less than $20,000, undismayed by the lack of financing and need of repairs, a trickle of newcomers began to buy houses in Old East Dallas. They dubbed themselves “Urban Pioneers.”

The newcomers joined old-time residents of East Dallas. Mostly they purchased houses that were owner-financed and renovated them on the cheap, doing the work themselves. These were the early risk takers, who reveled in the area’s diversity. They included some important artists, journalists, and college professors. This first wave of urban pioneers settled into the colorful milieu of Old East Dallas, which featured fires, murders, drug busts, prostitutes, and panhandlers by day; random gun shots, sirens, and searchlights from police helicopters by night. The neighborhood bonded around their shared experience remodeling old houses. They held fundraisers, Fourth of July picnics, open houses, street parties, and pinata parties for the kids.

Charlie Young, Liz Stewart and others who believed in direct action first began to organize East Dallas tenants around the issue of pest control. They called themselves “Bois D’Arc Patriots” after the tough Texas wood which was the foundation of many East Dallas homes. Passing out leaflets door to door, the organizers soon had tenants coming to them for help. From their office on Collett Street, the Tenants and Small Homeowners Alliance worked closely with Dallas Legal Services on tenant issues, including lack of utilities or repair, unfair rental contracts, eviction, and arson. They published newspapers called variously: Four Walls, Inside East Dallas, and People’s Voice, as well as a handbook on tenants’ rights. Taking an adversarial stance toward slum landlords and often the City of Dallas and State of Texas, the Bois D’Arc Patriots pushed their agenda and raised the level of noise coming from East Dallas. They established a food co-op, free legal and health clinics, and neighborhood clean-up campaigns but were better known for protests, lawsuits, and guerrilla theater, including the release of cockroaches in the City Council chamber.

The Tenants Alliance shared many goals with the HPL and the Design Committee. Their common enemy was the absentee landlord who “milked” his deteriorating properties. The three organizations also agreed on the need for better city services, improved streets, curbs, and sidewalks, code enforcement that preserved neighborhoods, and the need to eliminate dangerous bars, demolition of housing, and arson. Although his focus was on tenants’ rights, Charlie Young viewed the Design Committee with interest because of its potential for grass-roots input and information sharing. The Bois D’Arc Patriots participated, co-operated on some issues, and monitored the rapidly evolving situation as change came to Old East Dallas. Everything hung in the balance. Nothing was for certain.

The East Dallas Community Design Committee (EDCDC) was the most significant of the organizations of the 1970s since it brought together all elements of East Dallas. It was created by the city’s Planning Commission to get active citizen participation in shaping change. Momentum came from former mayor Erick Jonsson’s “Goals for Dallas” and a desire to improve the city’s image after the Kennedy assassination. At the behest of independent mayor Wes Wise, city manager George Schrader and Planning Department chief Jim Schroeder set out to develop a comprehensive land use plan for orderly growth.” Starting in 1970, architect/planner Susan Murphy organized citizen groups all over Dallas, but her attention and that of city planners focused on East Dallas because of its diverse population and severe problems. An East Dallas Demonstration Project received strong support from all city services and served as a model for other neighborhoods.

The city created a map of the targeted area in East Dallas and divided it into five neighborhoods, four residential (A, B, C, and D) and one non-residential (E). Each neighborhood sent delegates to the EDCDC based on population, with the largest (Neighborhood C) receiving the most delegates. [See map above] At-large delegates with special expertise were appointed by the Plan Commission and included bankers, clergy, landlords, and educators. By-laws written by the city allowed participation by anyone over the age of 18 who lived, worked, or owned property in East Dallas. The Design Committee had 27 members, seventeen elected from the neighborhoods and ten at-large. The City provided a meeting place, chairman, and clerk to take minutes. Anyone could attend the public meetings and speak during the Town Hall portion of the agenda. While the purpose was to reach consensus on land use plan, the Design Committee looked at thoroughfares, parks, schools, hospitals, crime and all aspects of needs in crumbling Old East Dallas.

Meetings of the Design Committee (often called the “Big Committee”) were usually packed, often with standing room only. City staff was present, including Susan Murphy, John Gilchrist, and Ron Morris, as well as Plan Commissioners Raymond LaPere, Glyn Strother, and Cathy Schoellkopf. Although it was the creation of the city, the Design Committee was never a rubber stamp. Members were not overwhelmed by slick slide shows on land use. Dynamic meetings elicited a variety of ideas and opinions; passions rose and strong personalities clashed, sometimes leading to shouting matches and angry walkouts. Present at almost every meeting were George Reeves, a landlord protecting his interests, and gadfly Ken GJemre, founder of Half-Price Books, who had a strong opinion on every issue. Jim Ball, publisher of the East Dallas Banner, was a virtual idea machine, throwing out a steady stream of suggestions. One might leave a raucous meeting with a headache, but most stakeholders hesitated to miss the fray.

The real work of the EDCDC was carried out in committees. In addition to monthly meetings of the Design Committee, each of the neighborhoods held monthly meetings. The EDCDC officers had an executive meeting, and there were meetings of the issue-related standing and ad hoc committees: Human Development, Finance, Physical Development, Coded Enforcement, Public Relations, Education, Justice and Law Enforcement, Thoroughfares, and Honky Tonks (beer halls). There were informal, behind-the-scenes meetings as well. Such a demand on time and energy speaks of the commitment of many dedicated citizens.

In its statement of purpose, the EDCDC expressed its “desire to create a ‘model inner-city community’ where residents . . . would find an enjoyable place to live and work.’” They aimed “to find a consensus on directions the community would take.” Pledging to work with all groups, they sought to arrest decline in East Dallas and bring its needs to the attentions of appropriate city agencies. The Design Committee was empowered to investigate and debate any situation or topic relevant to the neighborhood, issue public statements, adopt resolutions, and petition public officials. Since the organization had the ear of the city, there was the potential for great influence.

The Education Committee was very active in 1973, reacting to the Springer Report (1972) which showed nine of East Dallas’s thirteen schools to be inadequate. The schools were overcrowded, had high pupil to teacher ratios, transient student enrollment, and low test scores. The committee, led by Janice Maddox and later Yolanda Guerra, recommended bilingual teachers who lived in East Dallas and called for after-school programs to help working mothers. A prolonged desegregation case in federal court was a major issue from 1973 to 1976. Talk of closing East Dallas schools, including Woodrow Wilson High School, drew the attention of the education committee. A group of East Dallas parents filed an Amicus Curiae (friend of the court) brief with the desegregation court. Because of careful demographic research proved that East Dallas schools were already naturally integrated, the court was urged not to close Woodrow or bus students to North Dallas. School closures would have devastated hopes for an urban renaissance. A sigh of relief went up in 1976 when Judge William Taylor ruled in favor of retaining East Dallas schools.

Another committee active early on was the Public Relations Committee, headed by Lyn Dunsavage, who also did publicity for the Historic Preservation League. Dunsavage churned out press releases emphasizing a favorable image of Old East Dallas. Lyke Thompson of The Dallas Morning News was praised for his positive coverage of the area. Channel 8 television did stories on East Dallas as did D Magazine. Since the Design Committee had no budget, the HPL often took the initiative with publicity. First, there was a successful Swiss Avenue Home Tour, which attracted thousands of Dallasites to admire its impressive home; in 1975, the HPL sponsored an “Urban Pioneer” tour showcasing East Dallas, Oak Cliff, Oak Lawn, and South Dallas homes under renovation. Bumper stickers reading “I’m An Urban Pioneer: I live in Old East Dallas” were sported by area homeowners. Virginia McAlester and Lyn Dunsavage authored a booklet, “Buying a home in historic Old East Dallas,” which was distributed to potential buyers, banks, and realtors. The Public Relations Committee was determined to change the image of East Dallas, help residents take a sense of pride in their homes, and attract new homeowners to the area.

A Human Development Committee proposed ambitious goals for a neighborhood ombudsman, a health management organization, job training for the unemployed, a labor pool and craftsmen guild, and outreach to senior citizens, female heads of households, and disadvantaged youth. Since funding at the time was limited, these proposals were more hopeful than realistic.

In the fall of 1974, the city relinquished control of the Design Committee, cutting it free to pursue its many goals. The Plan Commission “felt it was time for the EDCDC to become a separate entity,” elect its officers, and revise its by-laws as needed. The city’s interim land use plan was approved, so a major goal of the Plan Commission was achieved. By this time the committee was meeting at the Old Lakewood Library, located at Abrams and LaVista, which became a sort of community center. Attorney Carol Barger was elected chairperson with Fred Longmore, vice-chair. Barger, quoted in a newspaper story, felt the EDCDC was a strong lobby at City Hall and was “more sophisticated than the typical neighborhood improvement association, not reacting to a single issue … This is a deteriorating neighborhood.” She stated, “We’re trying to turn the tables.” Susan Murphy and city staff continued to attend, keep minutes, and advise the committee. Staff was invaluable in clarifying procedure, explaining city positions, and questioning hasty resolution.

Getting loan money for purchase and repair of East Dallas homes was a basic problem dealt with by the Finance Committee led by Willis Tate, Jr. The Lakewood Bank played a key role in the solution of this problem: officers Don Wright and Artie Barnett served as at-large members of the Design Committee. Banks considered East Dallas a risky, unstable area and refused money for single-family residences in an area zoned multi-family. The secondary money market, including the Federal National Mortgage Association and the Veterans Administration, would not purchase or insure inner city loans. Lakewood Bank led the way, followed by Merchants State Bank and Comerica Bank, in making loans to Swiss Avenue and Munger Place residents. By 1976, federal money became available when FNMA (Fannie Mae) chose Dallas for its first inner-city loan program.

During the summer of 1976, the HPL acquired twenty-two houses on Munger Place for a two-year “Revolving Fund” program. A grant was received from the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Several individuals donated money for a line of credit at the Lakewood Bank. Virginia McAlester directed the program. Energetic young realtor Doug Newby identified absentee landlords willing to sell blocks of houses that had been divided into apartments. Dorothy Masterson helped tenants to relocate, and the HPL sold the houses to new homeowners for rehabilitation. As each house sold, the proceeds went back into the fund for purchase of more houses. A Sunday newspaper story with a sketch of houses on Victor Street left the impression that these specific two-story houses could be purchased for $15,000, causing a traffic jam and alarming homeowners whose doorbells were rung so they might be asked if their home was for sale. This program to attract private investment to East Dallas was wildly successful.

In 1974, the federal government decided to get out of the public housing business, passing the Housing and Community Development Act, which provided block grants to cities. This act emphasized local control and citizen input and was aimed at improving housing for low income families. Dallas received $27 million in Community Development (CD) funds over the next two years; as required, the city held public hearings, including one at Spence Junior High in East Dallas, but the meetings were poorly publicized and poorly attended. The Design Committee offered its suggestions on use of the money. Jim Ball thought East Dallas should be first in line for the funds; he stated hopefully, “This is probably going to be where we really take off.” Carol Barger commented that the public hearings were a mere formality and the city was not really interested in public opinion. In the end, the City of Dallas spent most of the CD money on capital improvements – lights, sidewalks, and curbs. East Dallas benefitted from these expenditures, but the Tenants Alliance was infuriated. Little of the money benefitted low income residents as Congress had intended. Charlie Young, angered by the use of an Army Reserve unit to survey housing stock in East Dallas, charged that the city was using CD money for condemnation of housing so that developers could profit.

Code enforcement, condemnation (red-tagging), and demolition were hot topics dealt with by a committee led by Marian Gibson and later Bruce Boardman. Code enforcement was difficult since absentee owners were often hard to locate. Some owners preferred to tear down or burn a structure rather than bring it up to code. Two to five percent of East Dallas houses were demolished each year. The Design Committee called for “gentle” code enforcement with a special code for older houses. Basically, the EDCDC wanted to eliminate high weeds, trash, and junk cars, but they strongly opposed “tear-downs.” Calling for a freeze on demolition, the committee passed a resolution in 1974: “That no structures within Old East Dallas be torn down by Urban Rehabilitation until proper study be given to their possible architectural and historic value and to the possibility of saving and restoring those found to be either significant or noteworthy.”

Out of the Physical Development Committee, an ad hoc committee on thoroughfares looked at the city’s traffic plan, which called for widening several East Dallas streets to six lanes. The city was intent on moving heavy traffic in and out of the Central Business District to the suburbs; East Dallas activists were concerned that “expressways” divided neighborhoods. The Design Committee mitigated the widening of Columbia/Abrams to preserve Lakewood Shopping Center, and it prevented widening of Abrams north to Mockingbird and of Greenville Avenue through the M Streets. The committee lobbied for off-street parking and left turn lanes on Live Oak and Ross Avenues, which were already widened. The EDCDC also strongly opposed creation of couplets (Fitzhugh/Collett, Bryan/Live Oak, Greenville/Matilda) to carry fast, heavy traffic through East Dallas. The Design Committee successfully opposed an expressway northeast to Garland and gained a tremendous victory in defeating the Roseland/Munger Crosstown Parkway.

Newspaper publisher Jim Ball called himself a “civic watchdog;” his particular interest was insuring adequate police coverage and crime reduction in East Dallas. His Committee on Justice and Law Enforcement urged well-equipped police beat patrols. Ball’s newspaper gave crime statistics for the area and announced neighborhood meetings. Since the Design Committee did not have nonprofit status and could not sell advertising, it was slow to publish its own newspaper. After nonprofit status was achieved, the EDCDC published the Old East Dallas Journal in 1975, edited by Mary Riffe.

An offshoot of the Law Enforcement Committee was the ad hoc “Honky-Tonk” committee, led by apartment owner Bob Logan. This group worked with police and code inspectors to close dangerous bars in East Dallas. They shut down bars with inadequate parking, those too close to schools or churches, or sites of felonies. Finally, in late 1976, the East Dallas Beer and Wine Ordinance provided that closed beer parlors not be reopened until they got a much more expensive liquor license, with a $10,000 bond and state oversight. In the next year, forty bars shut down. A major source of crime was eliminated. However, there was a strong backlash from bar owners who claimed their property rights were denied.

Fred Longmore, though he was called “The Mayor of East Dallas,” proved to be a weak chairman in 1976. Committees proliferated; debate degenerated into minutiae; meetings ran overtime. Frustration levels rose as nit-picking increased. Neighborhood D (East Side, Santa Fe, Mount Auburn) was defunct. Susan Murphy warned the Design Committee that its lack of cohesiveness and subsequent waste of time damaged its credibility. Perry Gross demanded that the committee “quit changing bylaws, cut out the nonsense, and get something done.”

Speaking before the Dallas City Council on zoning change, Longmore claimed, “We can attract high-income persons to our neighborhood without displacing low and moderate income groups.” The issue of stability versus diversity was a key ethical question which divided the community. When a second wave of newcomers bought property in Old East Dallas, they paid more for their houses, hired contractors, and were highly interested in protecting their substantial investment.

Zoning was the issue which broke the back of the Design Committee. It was clear that the blanket zoning to multi-family must be corrected. A very active Physical Development Committee led by Virginia McAlester pushed for rezoning early on. After a small demonstration project on short streets around Lipscomb Elementary School proved that back-zoning to single family was feasible, the EDCDC circulated a petition and gathered signatures to rezone most of East Dallas. In the fall of 1976, Perry Gross was elected chairman. Soon, he took the leadership on rezoning, removing that issue from the Physical Development Committee then chaired by Doug Newby. Though the land use plan called for planned development districts (PDs) with “mixed use” where each property was zoned for what it had been built to be and none would be “nonconforming,” Newby was convinced every property in Neighborhoods B and C should be zoned “single-family.” (R7.5)

Newby and Bob logan struck out on their own; calling themselves “Property Owners for Single-Family Zoning,” they gathered signatures from 800 of the 1,200 property owners in the areas. Such blanket rezoning was opposed by planning staff, the Plan Commission, and the Preservation League, all of which favored mixed use. Charlie Young urged owners not to sign approval cards which would make apartments nonconforming and drive out tenants. It was surprising to find the Tenants Alliance and the HPL on the same side of an issue. A public meeting on February 7, 1977, at Woodrow Wilson High School turned into a heated, noisy debate. Confusion reigned over what the petitions said and what area was covered. Despite the opposition, Newby and Logan gained the support of Mayor Bob Folsom, the Apartment Owners Association, and both Dallas newspapers. After a seven-month delay, on April 26, 1978, the Dallas City Council approved the largest back-zoning in Dallas history; a massive area from Haskell to Lakewood, Gaston to Columbia (100 city blocks, 700 acres) was rezoned single-family residence. If apartments burned or were demolished, they would be replaced with residences. Proponents felt the rezoning of this large “critical mass” would assure stability in Old East Dallas. Charlie Young saw the change as gentrification, with low income tenants being displaced by “yuppies” (young upwardly-mobile professionals).

City planners were devastated when the same pro-development mayor and city council failed to approve their comprehensive land use plan for orderly development of the city. Morale in the city plan department plummeted. The department was reorganized, its staff cut by a third. Schroeder was reassigned and Weiming Lu returned to Minnesota. Still, the eight-year effort of the planners did not go unrewarded; historic, conservation, and planned development districts proliferated over ensuing years.

Don Criswell was the Chairman of the Design Committee in 1977 and 1978. He imposed order on the committee, which had become almost dysfunctional. Disruptive activists left to pursue other interests. Many of the EDCDC goals had been accomplished. East Dallas was well represented in city affairs with Lee Simpson on the City Co0uncil, Lyn Dunsavage on the Plan Commission, and Harryette Ehrhardt on the School Board. However, the consensus was fractured.

Charlie Young gave up on the Design Committee, which he said was controlled by “heavy-handed bankers and high-minded preservationists.” If the EDCDC was not “an authentic forum for all the people ... then the hell with it,” declared The People’s Voice. Young allied with disgruntled property owners angered by the bar ordinance and rezoning. Tenants packed the neighborhood meetings at election time and gained a majority in several of them. In the fall of 1978, Legal Services Lawyer John Jordan was elected chairman and the tenant-dominated committee voted to decrease representation from Neighborhood C, whose delegates then walked out and refused to participate. The Design Committee collapsed and weas replaced by a tenant group, the East Dallas Neighborhood Association.

Representatives from Neighborhood C formed the Munger Place Homeowners Association; its “Texas style Prairie Homes” received recognition from the National Trust for Historic Preservation in 1979; and, in 1980, Munger Place became Dallas’ fourth historic district. Junius Heights, Peak Suburban District, and other parts of Old East Dallas organized active neighborhood associations that were the natural outgrowth of the Design Committee experience.

In summary, urban decay and gentrification were national phenomena in the 1970s; the East Dallas Community Design Committee was part of the Dallas response to urban blight. Susan Murphy drew together a group of vocal, savvy activities who shouted their way to the city’s consciousness. The Design Committee provided a platform, a forum for live debate on ideas which percolated up to change the city’s plans on housing and transportation. Like most democratic organizations, meetings were often uncomfortably contentious. Individuals, frustrated by the limitations of the EDCDC, sometimes acted on their own to accomplish the goals of the committee; but without the existence of the Design Committee, it is difficult to imagine how the city would have focused services to bring improvement to East Dallas. It was a rare instance of city planners not only listening, but nurturing and facilitating a community easter to shape its own destiny.

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