Although the demolitions continue unabated in the centuries-old Freedmen’s town, residents in the Tenth Street Historic District got at least a little bit of good news Thursday morning as they gathered in one of the many vacant — yet freshly mowed — lots for an announcement.
It’s an area that hasn’t seen a lot of great news — since it was given its landmark designation by the city in 1993, 72 homes of 260 in the historic neighborhood have been torn down. The community formed the Tenth Street Residential Association to take on the city, and has filed suit to stop the demolitions and to shore up the historic protections it is supposed to have.
But Thursday, the neighborhood got a bit of a boost in its quest to improve its lot, as the National Trust for Historic Preservation announced that it had named the district to its 32nd annual list of America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places.
“This list has called attention to hundreds of threatened sites and places across the country and has helped galvanize communities to defend them,” Meg Lousteau, associate field director of the Trust’s Houston field office, told those gathered, adding that the list has been so effective in the past that fewer than five percent of the sites named to it have been lost.
“And now we’re here in the Tenth Street Historic District, a neighborhood that has been ravaged by disinvestment, neglect, and rampant demolition,” Lousteau said.
The news means that the district will now at least have more attention and muscle behind its efforts. In the past, that support from the Trust has included everything from legal assistance, grassroots advocacy campaigns, and publicity in the organization’s magazine and website.
“We are on sacred land … cultivated by those who were enslaved, and then were no longer enslaved,” said Demetria McCain, President Inclusive Communities Project. The ICP has been working with residents on numerous issues regarding the fight to stop the demolition and improve infrastructure in the community.
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.
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. As desegregation became a drumbeat in the 1960s, construction of Interstate 35 was routed through the neighborhood, severing the majority-Black neighborhood from then predominantly white Oak Cliff, but it demolished homes and businesses in its path.
The decade also saw another hit to the neighborhood — a zoning change that made the single family homes in Tenth Street non-conforming uses. 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.
“If you want to see neighborhood inequity in action, you found it,” said Inclusive Communities’ Planning and Community outreach director Jennifer Rangel, adding that compared to white historic districts, abandoned homes in black historic neighborhoods are more likely to fall prey to demolition by the city.
“Despite the Inclusive Communities’ requests to the city council to amend or repeal the ordinance, they have not done so,” Rangel said. “The City of Dallas has a duty to affirmatively further fair housing. It must repeal this ordinance that singles out and affects Black historic districts and its residents.”
How do all these homes in a historic district get demolished? Basically, thanks to a 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. 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.
Compared to the 72 demolitions from 1993 to 2017 in Tenth Street, substantially fewer demolitions occurred in predominately white historic neighborhoods during the same time, with 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.
“Understand that in the City of Dallas, on the corner of Worth Street and Fitzhugh, you’ll find a very large dilapidated, old building in a white historic district,” McCain said. “It’s over 3,000 square feet. However, it still stands, and if you go by there today, it’s being renovated. Why is that? Because it’s in a white historic district.”
“I invite you to drive by Worth and Fitzhugh, and you can see, no matter how dilapidated, many of these structures actually can be saved.”
Patricia Cox, Tenth Street Residential Association president, has watched her neighborhood be torn down bit by bit for years now.
“We started seeing our homes disappear,” she said. “We started getting new neighbors who wanted to refurbish their homes, but they were on the demolition list.”
So the residents coalesced to become an association aimed at addressing the rampant demolition and to hopefully wrest some sort of stay of execution from the city.
“We tried to work with the city — still trying to work with the city, to no advantage,” she said. “So we’re still here, fighting a battle, and we will be.”
Residents told of the history of the neighborhood — what was here when the community wasn’t cut off from the rest of the city by I-35, and then builder and developer Larry Johnson stepped up to speak. Johnson said he’s been working to save and renovate homes in the district for some time, and has attended meetings with the city — with Mayor Mike Rawlings and people in the Mayor’s office, as well as landmark commission and pretty much any city office that could slow the piecemeal — yet devastating — bulldozing of the freedman’s town.
Johnson and his sons routinely make sure the now vacant lots, as well as the outward facing properties in the neighborhood are mowed regularly. Is also helping a property owner nearby refurbish their house because, he said, they “want Tenth Street to be beautiful.”
Keeping the community’s history intact, he said, is vital to Black Dallas, and its children.
“My other personal fight to save Tenth Street is steeped in knowing that people that look like me, we perish for a lack of knowledge,” he said. “The reality is that a lot of the things that we do, we do because we don’t know where we’ve come from. We don’t know about the accomplishments of people that look just like that.”
“Tenth Sreet is the answer to that issue,” he said, to applause. “Tenth Street was settled by freed slaves, that when an emancipated, had nothing, but according to records, were able to buy land within three to five years of emancipation.”
His admiration of the people who eked out first survival, and then thrived, on the land the crowd stood on Thursday was palpable.
“They didn’t act out of desperation. They didn’t let hard times get the best of them,” he said. “They rose above the situation, they did not let their circumstance dictate their outcome and they did the best that they could and they built a beautiful community.”
“And that’s one of the main reasons I’m fighting so hard.”