Tenth Street Lawsuit: Dallas Has “History of Enforcing Segregation” By Ordinance

Tenth Street

In 2013, the nonprofit bcWORKSHOP hosted Neighborhood Stories events, including one in the Tenth Street community, where people wrote their hopes for and memories of their neighborhood (photo courtesy bcWORKSHOP)

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.

Over the next weeks and months, we will be taking a look at two of those neighborhoods — Tenth Street, and Wheatley Place. Last week, we looked at three homes in immediate danger of demolition. This week, we look at one way the neighborhood is fighting back.

The lawsuit Tenth Street residents have filed against the City of Dallas does not mince words, nor does it pull punches.

“Tenth Street has historically been subject to de jure racial segregation by the City of Dallas,” it reads. “The City has a history of enforcing racial segregation in some neighborhoods by ordinance through direct decisions of its City Council.”

Much of this history is well-documented and comes courtesy of the government’s own record keeping. Redlining consigned Black families to specific sections of town, where the amenities and even necessities were not as robust as in white-only neighborhoods, if they existed at all.

1930-circa area description of Tenth Street by the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation (click to enlarge)

That history is something Jorge Jasso, a staff attorney with Legal Aid of NorthWest Texas, can prove easily. Jasso and other attorneys at Legal Aid are representing the Tenth Street Residential Association in their suit against the city.

Jasso points to a 1930s Home Owners’ Loan Corporation (or HOLC) map that has been digitized by the Kirwan Institute at Ohio State University that demonstrates the redlining that happened in Dallas.

To be clear, Tenth Street has been home to Black Dallasites for more than a century, and is one of the few remaining intact Freedmen’s towns in the nation. Settled by freed slaves after the Civil War, many of those families continue to hold on to the homes and land their newly-freed ancestors were undoubtedly proud to own.

The neighborhood’s genesis was in the 1880s, as it took shape south of the Trinity River in one of the few spots the Black community could own land. By now, the neighborhood would be considered the northeastern edge of Oak Cliff, bounded by Interstate 35, East Eighth Street, and Clarendon Drive.

Personal timestamps on a neighborhood map (photo courtesy bcWORKSHOP).

In 1944, the city designated the Tenth Street community a “Negro only” area. In 1947, the neighborhood was zoned for duplex and single-family residential use only.

But to add insult to injury, as desegregation became a drumbeat in the 1960s, construction of Interstate 35 was routed through the neighborhood.

Tenth Street, as seen on a redlining map from the 1930s (courtesy the Kirwan Institute/Ohio State University).

“If you zoom in, you can make out some of the street names in the Tenth Street Historic District,” he said. “Notice also how the redlined area interacts with the placement of I-35.”

“Not only did the construction of I-35 sever the majority-Black Tenth Street community from a predominantly-White Oak Cliff, but in demolishing homes and businesses along the way, the 1961 zoning change made the single family homes in Tenth Street non-conforming uses,” the suit said. “At this same time, similarly-situated White historic neighborhoods kept their residential zoning.”

The city had the chance to fix the zoning issues that changed the fabric of Tenth Street in 1984, when a new set of planning policies presumably prioritized stabilizing neighborhoods and quality of life. Those new policies also were enacted to protect residential neighborhoods.

But that wasn’t the case for Tenth Street. Since its zoning had been changed to nonconforming use in the 60s, it was instead named a Future Growth Corridor, meaning that it could now be home to commercial, regional retail, industrial manufacturing, and townhomes — a far cry from the residential zoning of its neighbors.

“The adverse commercial and industrial zoning and uses continue to injure the Tenth Street neighborhood,” the lawsuit stated.

But the city knew that this would be the case when it doled out that designation.

“This area has been found to hold a high level of cultural and historic significance for the black community,” city documents from that time said. “However, the existing Regional Retail (RR) and Commercial Service (CS) zoning in the area could destroy the neighborhood. Recent designation by the city will bring attention to the area, which it deserves, but it also could ultimately destroy it through inappropriate development.”

The neighborhood did eventually get its Landmark designation in 1993, but that has hardly proved to be a protection, as 72 homes of 260 in the historic neighborhood have been torn down since.

By comparison, the suit says, substantially fewer demolitions are occurring in predominately white historic neighborhoods, with (1993-2017) five demolitions happening in Peak’s Addition; four demolitions happening in Winnetka Heights and Munger Place; three in Junius Heights; two each in Swiss Avenue and State-Thomas; one in South Boulevard-Park Row; and none in Lake Cliff Park.

It’s also worth noting that several of those neighborhoods were not redlined, either, which means that they have always enjoyed better property values. Other neighborhoods on that list became more desirable and gentrified over time, even if they had originally been redlined.

Between I-35 and the continued impact of redlining, Tenth Street began to suffer neglect. But Jasso said current city policies only exacerbate the demise of what really is a tight-knit community, namely, city code that allows for the demolition of homes less than 3,000 square feet, regardless of whether they’re in a historic district or not.

That change to the demolition ordinance – Dallas City Code 51A-4.501(i) allows the city to remove the protections generally afforded historic homes if they fall under that allowed 3,000 square feet.

Codes like this — where none of the homes in Tenth Street are larger than 3,000 square feet — are indicators that the same segregation mindset is still, even subliminally, in play, Jasso said.

“The redline area coincides directly with the construction of I-35. It’s almost like they used the same redlining map from the 1930s to construct I-35 and its boundaries, and you know today the historic district and the demolitions and the neglect, I think it seems like a continuation if you see this story as it unfolds,” he said. “And it’s just a continuation of the redlining history that the neighborhood has suffered.”

A simple look at the neighborhood’s Facebook page shows a robust and caring group of neighbors — but the city’s policies have historically hit them hard.

“The 3,000 square foot rule in conjunction with everything that’s been going on historically, you know the neglect by the city,  the lacking of resources, it can diminish neighborhood pride,” Jasso said. “It’s all kind of a big melting pot of actions that have happened along the way.”

The suit addresses several things, but the overarching goal for the TSRA and its lawyers is pretty simple: Protect the historic landmark designation, quit summarily demolishing homes, and provide the district the same resources and time other historic districts in the city get.

“One of the biggest things we want to see is the city either voluntarily repealing that ordinance or a court saying that it’s in violation of the Fair Housing Act, because that ordinance that allows for demolition of homes with an area of less than 3,000 square feet makes it very easy to demolish in Tenth Street,” Jasso said. “And we have seen a rapid intensification of demolition since that ordinance was adopted in 2010.”

The other goal, he said, is to cement the district’s landmark status and guarantee it won’t be revoked.

“Another goal is just for the city to just provide the same resources to the neighborhood that it provides to other historic non-minority neighborhoods in the city, providing the equity and treatment basically to Tenth Street that it deserves,” Jasso said. “It’s been lacking for a long time I think.”

Next week, we’ll look at the proposed I-35 Southern Gateway Deck Park, and what it could mean to the fate of Tenth Street. In coming weeks, we’ll also talk to the families of Tenth Street, as well as look at Wheatley Place as it watches the historic school in its neighborhood head for a potential sale.