Dallas Architecture Forum: Fair Park is a LULU

Packed house for Dallas Architecture Forum's Fair Park discussion

Packed house for Dallas Architecture Forum’s Fair Park discussion

Apparently in architectural parlance, “LULU” is an acronym meaning “Locally Undesirable Land Use.” That just about sums up Fair Park — a walled desert surrounded by acres of concrete that blooms once a year.

On Tuesday, Jan. 26, the Dallas Architecture Forum hosted a panel discussion centered on what the city should do with Fair Park (not to be confused with the City Council’s open-door session on Fair Park at Fair Park on Feb. 8 at 5 p.m.). There are multiple plans to review and countless old plans to remember (adopted by city councils who never spent a dime on implementation … are you listening Preston Center Task Force?).

While there was energy radiating from the panelists, it was strained by the personal experience of one too many broken promises to resuscitate the park. The result was an almost “going through the motions” delivery seen in actors reciting the same lines year after year, decade after decade.

In her opening remarks, Virginia McAlester from Preservation Dallas noted that if someone were to compare the condition of Fair Park in the 1980s (when she first got involved) to today, they would notice little changed (except light bulbs, if you ask me).

Monorail torn down in 1964 after just eight years in operation

Monorail torn down in 1964 after just eight years in operation

Like many a neglected Dallas park, Fair Park has had its share of attractions that were left to rot before being filled in or torn down. It was estimated of a total 277 acres, something less than 70 acres remain of greenspace (not including the privately-owned parking lots ringing the site). One of the recurring buzz phrases heard throughout the night was “Put the PARK back in Fair Park.” What we have today is a concrete park, something only the Portland Cement Association, long-ago builders of a model home in the park, would likely appreciate.

A quick glance through history sees the State Fair purchasing the raw land in 1886 to house an exhibition site. In 1904, the city buys the land for $125,000 and in 1906 Fair Park is born (the second city park) as part of George Kessler’s master plan for the city of Dallas. Many of the buildings we associate with Fair Park were designed by George Dahl and constructed for the 1936 Texas Centennial. Over the years the park has grown, adding parkland and parking. Even the State Fair organization (who sold the original plot to the city) purchased its own land in 1993 to house maintenance activities that were moved out of the Coliseum dating from 1910.

White people on their annual pilgrimage to Fair Park

White people on their annual pilgrimage to Fair Park

Reviving Fair Park comes down to two words: money and race.

When Fair Park hit its heyday surrounding the Centennial, the surrounding neighborhood was affluent, white, and Jewish. Many names have been changed to reflect today’s ethnicities, but Shearith Israel Memorial Park offers a shred of this history. These business leaders’ mansions, slowly being reclaimed on Park Row and South Boulevards, would give Swiss Avenue a run for its money back in the day.

Interestingly, the Jewish community in that era faced some of the shunning faced by the modern black community. Granted, they had money and more influence, but their WASP peers in northern Dallas were as likely to invite a Jewish guest to dinner as a black one. As the Jews moved out, the area fell on hard times (redlining?) and blacks increasingly moved into the area. Their limited earning power saw the area depress economically with all the resulting negative outcomes … including the walling-in of Fair Park.

South Boulevard mansions

South Boulevard mansions

As several presenters and audience members pointed out, the neighborhood views Fair Park a little like Willy Wonka’s factory … something that’s on display infrequently even though it sits in their backyard. An audience member pointed out that many children in the area have no idea what’s behind the walls. Imagine a child growing up in the shadow of the Texas Star, imprisoned behind a wall, a constant reminder the park wasn’t for them. Removing the walled garden aspect of Fair Park and re-engaging with the community drew strong cheers from the community any time it was mentioned (and rightly so).

Reversing the separation of park and people to create sustainable, purposeful usage for its largely underutilized (and decaying) buildings requires large sums of money be spent in a location with little political power.

Panel 1 SM

One only had to look at the dais to see the irony of five Caucasians out of six presenters addressing the concerns of a largely black, low-income neighborhood.  The only person of color was Vicki Meek of the South Dallas Cultural Center. When the time came for audience questions, the vast majority were black, and they were very pointed in their desire for Fair Park to be used as a tool to elevate the neighborhood (hear, hear).

Of course there’s always a boob in the bunch. City planning commissioner Neil Emmons’ prepared speech comments offered proof that not only can’t white men jump, they can be tone deaf to their audience. (I suspect his cloying missive about always attending the State Fair on opening day – even if he was in the witness protection program – was intended to ingratiate himself to the presenters, not the community).

Concerned residents (rightly) were most eager to speak to the panel

Concerned residents (rightly) were most eager to speak to the panel

Given Texas politics, the spin will probably be to revive Fair Park (a once-a-year Caucasian mecca – of which, I too am guilty) with the neighborhood coincidentally coming along for the ride. (Is that pragmatic or jaded?)

Park Revival has Consequences

Many presenters mentioned the greenspaces of Klyde Warren Park (a gift from a billionaire and named for his son), Kessler Park and others. They also called out parks in other urban areas like New York’s Central Park, San Diego’s Balboa and Chicago’s Millennium as examples of urban park renewal achieved via public/private partnerships.

But at the same time, one panelist admitted it was difficult-to-impossible to get donors to spring for unglamorous but desperately needed things like roofs, HVAC repair, plumbing and the like. To me this smacked of donors being uninterested in funding projects they can’t slap their names on for all to admire. Somehow the Klyde Warren Air Conditioner or the AT&T Sewage Line don’t have the right level of brag.

These were the strings they failed to connect: purse strings. Until Harlem got hip, the north end of Central Park was less spruced than the southern, more moneyed area. Until the area surrounding Balboa Park gentrified with the California real estate boom of the last 20 years, it, too, was unkempt. Chicago’s Millennium Park got its major overhaul as the name says, for the millennium, but also because tony condos and an overall area rejuvination was taking place at properties bordering the larger Grant Park area. In each of these examples, gentrification was code for well-off white people.

And that’s the real danger for the residents in the area of Fair Park. I fear attracting the investment required to revive the park will either be the result or cause of a large-scale gentrification that would whitewash displace the community as it is today.

Be Careful What you Wish For

This gentrification-displacement cycle can be seen everywhere from south London to global gayborhoods to Dallas. Here, formerly unpopular areas, close to the urban core like Oak Cliff, Oaklawn and M Streets were gentrified. The results displaced the existing community as neighbors were either priced out or sold out. Are there examples where communities were able to raise their standard of living to keep pace with a gentrifying neighborhood? I’m no expert, but I’ve never seen it happen long-term.

Some of the community commenters seem to understand this dilemma. Several tied Fair Park’s revival to increased educational opportunities and marketable job skills for residents to help them keep pace with the eventual economic change. Let’s face it, you’re not going to see something as large of a draw as Fair Park returned to all its glory while sitting in the middle of a poor area.

One only has to read the tea leaves of Reverchon Park to understand its rebirth coincides with multi-million dollar projects like the Limited Edition, Stoneleigh Residences, Republic Bank Building re-do and other equally moneyed projects.

One neighborhood resident wanted to know how much profit the State Fair generated. Oddly the presenter who headed the State Fair didn’t know off the top of his head. It was an improbable but convenient brain-fart. But the real question isn’t how much money the tenant is making but rather how much the landowner (the City of Dallas) is charging and reinvesting in their property.

Clearly, not enough of either.

 

Remember: Do you have an HOA story to tell? A little high-rise history? Realtors, want to feature a listing in need of renovation or one that’s complete with flying colors? How about hosting a Candy’s Dirt Staff Meeting? Shoot Jon an email. Marriage proposals accepted (they’re legal)! sharewithjon@candysdirt.com

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