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Neighborhood associations carry big political sticks

The Dallas Morning News, May 18, 1982

By Keith Anderson
Staff Writer of The News

What keeps East Dallas fighting? The political savvy of its activists and the strength of its neighborhood associations. Both are examined in the third and final part of a 3-part series on East Dallas.

Margo Hall walked through her neighborhood, taking stock of what she saw as the damage to come.

The day before, Dallas City Council had voted to build an Abrams Road bypass around the Lakewood Shopping Center despite protests from homeowners. The bypass would curve through the northern tip of Mrs. Hall’s Abrams-Brookside neighborhood.

People called out to Mrs. Hall as she walked the curving streets of Parks Estates, a small area of Abrams-Brookside nestled between Abrams Road, the shopping center and the Lakewood Country Club.

“Well, it looks like we lost, doesn’t it? Said a man who was taking out his trash.

That just brought a smile from Margo Hall, who is president of the Abrams-Brookside Neighborhood Association.

“I’m not giving up,” she answered. “The concrete hasn’t been poured.”

Down the block, a woman was out walking her dog. She told Mrs. Hall that the bypass would cut right through her yard. She said her neighbors were talking about selling. Mrs. Hall encouraged the woman to stand her ground.

Then, she went to the home of another neighbor, Candy Slocum, a real estate agent and member of the neighborhood association. They sat down to plan their next strategy.

Mrs. Slocum’s attitude was practical.

“We have to get a barrier from the bypass, and that barrier has to be acceptable,” she said. “We’re going to have a bypass. There’s no question about that. So now we’ve got to protect the neighborhood.”

Margo Hall agreed, to a point.

“I am not going to give up on the bypass,” she said. “I am not going to concede that bypass until they put down the last ounce of concrete.”

It was a typical morning for Margo Hall and her neighbors. For more years than they care to count, homeowners in the area have been fighting to keep their neighborhood intact. The Abrams Road bypass was simply the latest in a series of struggles. Before that, the residents rallied to keep out a 6-story apartment house for the elderly and fought off developers’ attempts to build townhouses in the area.

To live in Abrams-Brookside means more than enjoying a short drive to downtown, relishing the cool shade of large trees and being within walking distance of the drycleaner, hardware store and grocery store.

It also means maintaining a permanent fighter’s stance. Not a month goes by without another development or political issue cropping up.

That’s true throughout much of East Dallas. After years of being threatened with roads, commercial encroachment and high-density development, the residents are known for their ability to fight. Almost every neighborhood has its own association; the associations mobilize homeowners on specific issues and speak for the neighborhoods at City Hall.

“I think East Dallas has more political influence than any neighborhood in the city,” says Doug Newby, an early activist in Munger Place.

“East Dallas knows how to organize,” sys Lee Simpson, who represents East Dallas on City Council. “They know how to stop a road or win a particular election. Every time you find a neighborhood that’s particularly on edge, you can guarantee they’ve already faced a zoning case or a road.”

Individuals also are emerging as a politically powerful neighborhood force. When D Magazine documented the new political power of neighborhood activists (“Developers vs. Neighborhoods: Who is Running Dallas?” December 1981), the magazine focused on two East Dallas housewives, Mary Nash and Norma Minnis.

Calling the women “urban guerillas,” the magazine said, “In town, in East Dallas especially, it’s people like Mary and Norma who call the shots.”

The success hasn’t come easily. East Dallas’ activists learned early that if they wanted to win their battles, they’d have to stay informed. They now attend meetings of every committee and council at City Hall. They search public records. They keep in touch with city staff members.

Such organization and political savvy have considerably altered the way urban planners approach East Dallas. At one time, for instance, the city could decide to widen streets and to build thoroughfares without telling homeowners who might be affected.

Eight years ago, City Hall didn’t solicit neighborhood opinions before laying six lanes of Columbia Avenue through the middle of several blocks and even a number of homes. Today, though, the city is having to respond to neighborhood outcry by scaling down its plans for roads in East Dallas. And last summer, when neighborhood activists helped kill the last two links in a cross-town express route, some observers called it a turning point in Dallas politics.

Still, there are East Dallas residents who wonder if the associations are too strong or if their causes are the wrong ones.

“I think they’re paranoid,” Suzette Seabury says, for instance, about homeowner opposition to the Abrams Road bypass. Ms. Seabury, a Lakewood resident owns Suzette’s Antiques in the shopping center.

The antiques dealer says she chose to open her store in the shopping center four years ago precisely because of plans to build the bypass. The road will reduce traffic through the center and make room for more parking space – something Ms. Seabury says the merchants desperately need.

Disagreement occurs even among the activists and the associations. Sometimes, the neighborhood forces differ on tactics and priorities, other times, they take opposite positions.

There was a split, for instance when two streets were closed in the Bryan Place development near downtown. Mary Nash still bristles about that action, which she says diverted traffic and put pressure on other streets in the area.

“Bryan Place needs to be the example, so it will never happen again,” she says.

However, Millcreek Homeowners Association president Rick Prindle says his neighborhood, which borders Bryan Place on the south, supported efforts to close the streets.

“The success of Bryan Place is tied directly to the success of our neighborhood,” he says. “We’ll live with the little bit of additional traffic on Live Oak to assist our neighbors.”

Prindle also is less concerned about high-density development than homeowners in areas farther east and north of downtown.

“I think it’s inevitable that some of what’s happening to Oak Lawn is going to happen to our neighborhood.” He says. “Millcreek is such a hodgepodge of zoning that we’re not so idealistic as the Munger Place and the Swiss Avenue historic district people. We’re more realistic. If we have a choice between a falling-down, poorly kept apartment building and a condominium, we’ll take the condominium.”

Dorothy Savage, who has been involved in the preservation of East Dallas’ Swiss Avenue for many years, worries about what she calls “the radical fringe of neighborhood conservationists.”

“I feel a dichotomy of feeling has been built – that either you’re a neighborhood person or a business person,” she says. “Well, there’s a dynamic balance between business interests and neighborhood interests. Both can be extreme and damaging.”

Mrs. Savage supported the Abrams Road bypass around the Lakewood Shopping Center when many neighborhood associations opposed it.

Mrs. Savage also believes an improved shopping center will benefit surrounding homeowners.

There are growing differences, too, about what some people believe is East Dallas “gentrification” – when urban pioneers nudge out lower-income tenants.

The Bois d’Arc Patriots, a group of controversial organizers in East Dallas, say they are concerned about the pioneers’ emphasis on housing not people.

“In a way, I can agree with (the urban pioneers),” says Charlie Young, a spokesman for the Patriots. “They’re preventing the redevelopment of Munger Place the way it happened in Oak Lawn. But a 2-story house in Munger Place is as unaffordable as an Oak Lawn condominium for a poor person.

The Patriots originally were formed to defend tenant rights. Since then, group members have operated a controversial federally funded, crime-prevention program in East Dallas, and they’ve helped to run a private elementary school in the area.

Young says the Patriots are talking with people in other parts of Dallas’ inner city about whom the neighborhoods belong to.

“The present residents are the substance of the neighborhoods,” he says. “One of the things we’re trying to do now is work with other inner-city neighborhoods to find some common ground and, partly, to address this problem.”

Newby, however, argues that wholesale gentrification has not occurred in East Dallas’ renewal area. Although most Munger Place homes now are restored to single-family status, he says many other homes in the original 85-block re-zoning area continue to be rented as duplexes.

“We still have homes that are available for tenants and we still have long-term tenants,” he says.

Considering the size and variety of East Dallas, it’s not surprising that residents have different opinions and goals. But there are similarities, too.

“It’s a real diverse group,” Newby says, “but there’s a certain aggressiveness, an assertiveness and self-confidence that’s a link between the residents.”

National award-winning Realtor Douglas Newby knows the most about Dallas.