Nobody (at least, media-wise) is asking, but we did. And from the candidates who responded to our questionnaires we sent out a few months ago, we know where many of them stand on an ordinance that is allowing the slow death-by-demolition of one of the country’s few remaining intact Freedman’s towns — the Tenth Street Historic District.
Yes, I said country. It’s also one of the city’s few remaining intact Freedman’s towns, but it cannot be stressed enough — the death of Tenth Street would also be a blow to the preservation, history, and story-keeping of our country, too.
Periodically, I drive through to see the homes that are slated for demolition, knowing that at any one of my drives, I could be looking at an empty lot where there was once a home where a family lived, overcame, thrived, and loved.
There are stories in this neighborhood, and most (if not all) of them happened within the walls of the homes the city of Dallas is capriciously stripping from the community, lot by lot by lot. They’re the stories of a community that has survived in spite of what the city has done to it, not because of what it did for it.
If you want a driving tour of privilege, start at almost any of the other historic districts in Dallas, and then drive to Tenth Street. Officials came for it first as they redlined the area. Then officials razed homes and businesses and plopped a highway through it, cutting it off from the rest of Oak Cliff. And when that didn’t do the trick, the city tried to kill it by zoning and ordinances.
What the city has done to Joppee, to Tenth Street, to other historically Black neighborhoods in Dallas, was malevolent throughout much of its history, and at the very least egregiously negligent at its most recent history. Some would argue, and likely rightly so, that malevolent is still the correct term.
Today, not only do the homes come down and the taxes go up, but city services and infrastructure improvement rarely arrives. One resident told me last week that despite not having adequate street lighting, drainage, and roads, her property taxes continue to go up.
Last Thursday, I did one of my periodic drives through the Tenth Street Historic District — only this was one of those times I stopped, because I had been invited to a press conference announcing that the district had been added to this year’s list of endangered places compiled by the National Trust for Historic Preservation.
It felt, to be honest, a little sad and happy at the same time. It was a relief to have the signal boost, you could tell. It was a relief to have another way to hopefully get the city’s attention (although one would think a lawsuit would, too). But its also sad that it’s come to this — a public, national shaming of the city of Dallas.
And should citizens have to sue and shame to get their city to take care of them? If you’re sitting in your North Dallas kitchen, sipping coffee after walking your dog on a fairly well-maintained sidewalk today — how hard did you have to work to get the city’s attention to get that sidewalk? If you’re kicked back next to the pool at your Lakewood home, is your house completely cut off from the rest of the city by a major highway? How quickly can you get to a grocery store?
Thursday, residents talked about the dry cleaners, the stores, and the homes that were destroyed when I-35 was built. Those were going concerns, where people shopped and worked, flattened in the name of the same progress that the neighborhood was always asked to make way for, but never really allowed to enjoy.
Yes, we all have to demand a lot of our city right now, but imagine having to do this for more than a century — and rarely to never getting the desired outcome.
Which brings me to the premise of this column today. Dallas — can we talk about the city council and mayoral runoff races?
Because, as I said, there is a question you should definitely be asking candidates, and nobody really is.
It may not seem as sexy as whether we need to get rid of VisitDallas or which candidate is ruder or blocks more people on social media, but to the residents of Tenth Street and other historically Black neighborhoods and Freedmen’s towns, it’s a really big question. And maybe, if we all ask it enough, we can help amplify.
Ask candidates if they feel Dallas City Code 51A-4.501(i), which allows the city to remove the protections generally afforded historic homes if they fall under 3,000 square feet, is fairly applied to all historic districts in the city.
Spoiler alert: It is not. And any candidate that answers differently, or prevaricates, should be pressed on this. Since the Tenth Street Historic District was given its landmark designation by the city in 1993, 72 homes of 260 in the historic neighborhood have been torn down.
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.
If you’re doing the math at home, fewer homes have been demolished in eight other historic districts combined, compared to the 72 in Tenth Street alone.
We sent out questionnaires to candidates prior to the general election. It’s a little disheartening that nobody from the district Tenth Street sits in has answered the questionnaire, despite repeated queries via email, social media, and more. However, I know (because I’ve seen them discuss it elsewhere) that both candidates are keenly aware of what is happening to the neighborhood.
But we did ask, and got answers from a few of the other candidates, and now we’ll share the answers from the runoff candidates who did respond (note, we’ll also be sharing the full questionnaires this week).
“Do you feel that Dallas City Code 51A-4.501(i), which allows the city to demolish structures 3,000 square feet or smaller even if they are in a historic district, is applied fairly and evenly across the city? Why or why not?”
Adam Bazaldua, District 7: “In District 7, we have residences that are over one hundred years old, including some of the oldest African-American communities in Dallas. At that period, residences weren’t as large as they are now. The cultural significance of the structure and the neighborhood as a whole needs to be more important than the square feet.”
Erin Moore, District 9: “No, it’s not applied fairly or evenly. It disproportionately affects lower-income neighborhoods and is used as a blunt tool to acquire desired properties.”
Paula Blackmon, District 9: “When this ordinance is applied across the city, this negatively affects our historic districts in lower income neighborhoods where we are working to preserve not only the structures but also the heritage and culture of that community. Not only should this be changed so we can protect historic structures, but we should look to work with communities and owners of these structures to preserve or replace them as well as possibly changing zoning such as what took place in State Thomas – allowing small businesses or single-family housing to exist within these structures.
When we have a historic district on the National Register of Historic Places we need to place a moratorium on demolition until the various departments of our city government can come together on a way forward. We continue to put on a public display over demolitions for public safety when both the owners neglect and city fail to enforce code. Tax liens leads to these situations which cause irreparable harm to the districts as well as our reputation as a city for engaging in the destruction of a historic legacy of the post-civil war era that is a community of color. These communities have remarkable achievements built on culture and it harms those that continue to reside in these historic districts.”
David Blewett, District 14: “As someone who has lived in a Conservation District and values historic homes, I believe the city must respect existing property owner rights in any neighborhood. Any demolition must be taken on a case by case basis and applied evenly.”
Philip Kingston, District 14: “Obviously not. This poorly conceived rule is being used disproportionately against black-owned structures.”
Hopefully, before Election Day, we’ll have more answers from more candidates. But as you attend forums, meet-and-greets, and debates, ask candidates if they feel the ordinance is applied fairly. And ask what they plan to do about it, and how they plan to get better infrastructure to that neighborhood, which has been neglected by the city.
Oh, and sign the petition from the National Trust for Historic Preservation. It’s possibly the laziest way you can help, and will still do a great deal, considering the Trust says that fewer than 5 percent of the sites that make it on the list end up being demolished.
To see more of our coverage of Tenth Street, go to our Endangered Dallas series.
Bethany Erickson is the education and public policy writer for CandysDirt.com. She is also the Director of Audience Engagement for Candy’s Media. She is a member of the Online News Association, the Education Writers Association, the International Academy of Digital Arts and Sciences, the National Association of Real Estate Editors, and the Society of Professional Journalists, and is the 2018 NAREE Gold winner for best series and a 2018 Dallas Press Club Hugh Aynsworth Award winner. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.