Endangered Dallas: Neighborhoods Historic, But Hardly Preserved

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Photo courtesy Tenth Street Historic District

Editor’s Note: Preserving the historic neighborhoods that have shaped Dallas should be a priority. But despite historic district designations, Black neighborhoods that were home to Dallasites before, during, and after redlining are seeing a troubling amount of demolitions of homes that, residents insist, would be saved if in other historic districts — predominately white historic districts — in the city.

Today begins a look at two of those districts — Tenth Street, and Wheatley Place, where the Folk style, Victorian, and Craftsman houses that tell the stories of Dallas are felled by demolition crews at a rapid clip.

Robert Swann, to many, is the guy you go to when you want to learn about the Tenth Street Historic District. Swann, who has a master’s degree in architecture from Harvard, came back to Dallas and watched as the neighborhood declined.

In 2008, he began to look for a home in the historic neighborhood to buy — and when he found the vacant one he eventually purchased, he found that there were several heirs. That search touched off a personal quest to learn the history of the district.

So when Swann saw the irony in the fact that, during Black History Month, the City of Dallas demolished one house in the historically Black neighborhood on February 14, and had plans to demolish another house soon, he took to Facebook.

228 South Cliff (Photo courtesy Robert Swann)

“Apparently, Dallas celebrates Black History Month by demolishing homes in African American landmark districts,” he said, explaining that 228 South Cliff was demolished, and The William Smith House, located at 1105 E. Ninth St. was in danger.

“Because the City Plan Commission overturned the Landmark Commission’s decision on the house built by William Smith, son of freedmen, in about 1910, the house at 1105 East Ninth Street may be bulldozed at any time,” he said. “The William Smith House is a contributing structure in the Tenth Street Landmark District (Dallas, 1993) and the Tenth Street Historic District (National Register of Historic Places, 1994).”

The home is scheduled for a tax foreclosure hearing in September, a step that would clear the title so that a restoration-minded buyer could purchase it.

“Dallas, however, has rushed it to demolition, clouded title and all. This pending demolition will do NOTHING to alleviate nuisance in Tenth Street,” Swann said. “The demolition will take more than fifty percent of the market value out of the property, making it less desirable at tax sale. You, the taxpayer, will pay for this.”

Surely its historic status would mean that the city’s Landmark Commission would prevent such a thing from happening, several people questioned.

But that isn’t so much the case, and both Swann and a lawsuit filed by the Tenth Street Residential Association are both quick to point out that city code — specifically, Section 51A-4.501(i) — allows the city to obtain a court order to demolish a home less than 3,000 square feet, regardless of how the Landmark Commission rules.

“All the residences built by freedmen and their descendants in the Tenth Street Freedman’s Town are under 3000 square feet,” Swann said on Facebook.

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The Boswell family, left, Bert Boswell, right (photos courtesy Monica Boswell Mitchell and Robert Swann)

Swann — and other longtime residents of the thriving and proud Tenth Street Historic District — can tell the stories of the families who lived there, like George Lawson Boswell and his brother Bert, who lived at 1201 E. Ninth St. George owned the grocery store. Bert was educated at a school started and run by his family, and later went on to Meharry Medical College and practiced medicine in Oklahoma, Texas, and Los Angeles. His grandson followed in his footsteps and is a surgeon in Atlanta.

His brother’s home is now an empty lot owned by Dennis Topletz, according to Dallas Central Appraisal District records.

Even more of the area’s rich history can be found thanks to the nonprofit BC, which produced both this book and the video below.

Swann told us Friday that in addition to the William Smith Home, 1121 E. Ninth St. is also in danger, with a demolition order already in place and a certificate demolition pending. The Smith House, and 3708 S. Malcolm X Boulevard in Wheatley Place Historic District are in the direst straits, with certificates of demolition already released to code enforcement, which means demolition can happen at any time.

Local preservation groups have tried to put pressure on the city, but are now hoping public pressure and attention will help.

“We’re saddened that one of the last remaining Freedman’s towns in our country is losing its homes to city demolitions; especially structurally-sound, historic Craftsman-style homes that could otherwise be restored to original splendor,” Heritage Oak Cliff, whose membership area includes Tenth Street, said in a statement this weekend. “Heritage Oak Cliff continues to support the Tenth Street Residential Association in its efforts to protect and advocate for this historic and culturally important neighborhood, built over 170 years ago.”

“If the demolitions continue unchecked, it could lead to the demise of historic status for the neighborhood,” Preservation Dallas explained. The organization included Tenth Street in its list of endangered places last year.

“In addition, as the new deck park is built there could be additional pressure to redevelop the neighborhood with inappropriate new construction,” Preservation Dallas continued. “The neighborhood residents have recently formed a new neighborhood group that has been active in attending Landmark Commission meetings and opposing demolitions in the district, but with a court order the Landmark Commission is powerless to stop the demolitions.”

The 125-year-old Craftsman style home in the Tenth Street Historic District pictured above was torn down in December 2018 (Photos courtesy Robert Swann).

On Jan. 24, the TSRA filed a suit against the city, explaining that many of the homeowners impacted by the continued demolitions have lived in the district for decades.

“The members of the TSRA are African American and Hispanic property owners and residents of the Tenth Street Historic district. Many are homeowners who have lived there for decades. The members and residents of the Tenth Street Historic District include numerous low- and moderate-income homeowners of historic properties. 18. The members of the group have been injured by the discriminatory actions of the City that are set out in this Complaint. These injuries are ongoing and include, among other things, (a) increases in crime and illegal dumping; (b) diminishing property values; (c) unreliable or absent municipal services; (d) unsightly neighborhood appearance; (e) increasing flooding; and (f) lack of drainage. 19. The above has caused harm to TSRA’s members in the form of financial harm, harm to their health, safety, and welfare, and even injury to their physical well-being.”

In the upcoming days and weeks, we’ll take a look at this lawsuit, talk to residents, and examine the city’s history of redlining and segregation, as well as the fate of Wheatley Place and the historic school building within it.

 

2 Comment

  • Bethany,
    I suggest that you follow the unbridled activity occurring on Maple Avenue from Oaklawn Ave. to Mockingbird Lane and bordered by Cedar Springs Rd. and Harry Hines Blvd. The principal generators attracting developers into this old part of Dallas are the Trammel Crow World headquarters, UTSW medical center and Love Field. The DNT exits at Oaklawn Ave and Wycliff Ave provide the access to fuel rapid and unconstrained displacement of the former residents and businesses. This otherwise quite neighborhood consisting of single family residences, duplex family residences and local small business establishments occupied principally by Hispanic, African American and manual work entrepreneurs is being demolished and replaced by a characterless and culture absent urban/suburbia. If your publication reports on the proposed Preston Center development, then you will have a field day with MK Development which plans a project on the three block area on Maple Avenue from Wycliff Ave. to Lucas Dr. Known as “Maple Heights” the Project includes two 16 story towers, a hotel, commercial and residential, 1 million square feet supported by 2,600 parking facility.
    A sketch was shared with the neighborhood recently with more to come.

  • thanks for bringing attention to this. I hope your work pays off.