To know where you’re going, you have to know where you came from: our “New Eyes History Tour”

“[In the charrette process] history can teach us about why things are the way they are. Helpful hints for the future can come from answers to questions about the past:
Who has lived there?
How did they live?
What did they build?
What were their values?
What were their visions?
What forces shaped the boundaries, shape and condition of the site?” (www.charrettecenter.net)

This is going to be stepping on some people’s toes to say, but we live in a place and time that doesn’t often value history much. Texas has a reputation for having it’s high school football coaches teach the history classes on the side, because we all know that sports is where the fun (and value of a high school) is culturally. I learned history from the assistant football coach in my high school here in Dallas. But that to say, we decided one of the most important things we could teach our interns this summer as part of their community development and design process was how to be a student of history…how to deeply value it, because you can’t really set a good direction to move in unless you understand where you’re coming from. You can’t just erase your starting point and build a destination; you don’t want to do that. You have to journey there and still be yourself when you get there, albeit transformed by the experience.

Such is true of a neighborhood, if it’s to be called community development. So we decided to take our interns on a journey through the history of West Dallas, Bonnie and Clyde and all. Some of it they’d heard or experienced, and much of it they hadn’t because they are still young; they weren’t even born yet when the lead smelter closed in 1984, and the EPA cleanup was finally happening in the ’90s as they were just infants and toddlers. But some of them remembered the old housing projects, grew up on Rupert Circle or at the Fishtrap apartments. The old projects that were originally constructed in 1952 when the city of Dallas decided it needed more housing to solve the “Negro problem,” where City Councilman Roland Pelt declared that an entire “Negro City” be built to maintain orderliness between the segregated classes (and races) (Bullard, Robert. Unequal Protection: Environmental Justice in Communities of Color. Sierra Club Books, San Francisco; 1994.). The Elmer Scott projects housed the Latinos, George Loving housed the whites, and Edgar Ward housed the “Negros.” Within a decade or so (more or less) after the segregated housing was built, desegregation began as a process in Dallas, and the demographic lines between the projects became less clear.

We flipped through the original site plan book produced by the City in 1952 proposing this plan. Its cover was waterstained but its pages were still neatly in tact, having been flipped through seldom and carefully over the years.

1952 Site Plan

Introduction to the plan

A rationale for low-rent public housing

The Segregated Projects

Early in the week we took what we called the “New Eyes History Tour” of West Dallas. Our first stop was right out back of Mercy Street – the community center that used to be the old Edgar Ward center, and is the only physical piece of the original public housing structures still standing – at an old Oak tree next to a trickling creek. This creek, feeding into the Trinity River, used to be the wild Trinity itself before the river was rerouted after the flood of 1908 washed much of West Dallas and some of downtown away. Grand plans were proposed to make the Trinity a canal system for riverboats and barges to carry goods to and from the Gulf, and the plan almost went through, but was discarded at the last minute due to funding shortages or something of the sort, I imagine. Lots of ideas are considered good at the moment. The Oak rises majestic and taller than all other trees around it, and is at least 100 years old by our estimates. Its eyes have seen history unfold under it, images ranging from the starvation of black babies due to malnutrition and disease in the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s, to the old housing authority farm on its land that used to be where they grew plants for DHA properties around the city, to the hostage-holding of the white apartment managers by the Black Panthers trying to secure fair treatment of housing residents, to the construction and destruction of the Rupert Circle projects (and reconstruction to the now Villa Creek).

The old Oak

Trinity creek: the original Trinity River

From the old Oak we made our way to Fishtrap Lake and the small, overgrown La Reunion Cemetery. We squeezed through the fence and walked among the graves, noting the names and dates that were still legible. 1884, a member of the Reverchon family with a marble marker. Early 1900′s, a Latino woman with a brightly colored mosaic of flowers on her stone. Some stones overturned. Some with trees and bushes growing right in front of them so that it’s almost impossible to get to the writing. This is one of the oldest cemeteries in Dallas. La Reunion was a French and Belgian colony founded in West Dallas, just as the City on the other side of the river was beginning to be populated. Families such as the Reverchons moved in to start a Utopian society of their own; they instituted kibbutz-style equality and even open marriages, and they attempted to farm and completely live off the land. As members started to die, however, and it became clear that the community was unable to effectively produce enough to live on, they moved north and were founding participants in the downtown and surrounding areas. Their utopian communal cemetery remains in West Dallas, however, a permanent artifact to their short-lived attempt.

From La Reunion we spent a brief time at Fishtrap Lake, which began as the Vilbig Brother’s cement company gravel mining pit. Being one of the lower points in West Dallas, it became the runoff location for all surrounding industrial areas, a stagnent cesspool of contaminents from the surrounding cement, roofing, lead smelter, and metal fabrication plants. We even followed the railroad tracks from the old RSR smelter site to the hidden canal that channels the runoff water into the Lake, which has a drain directly into the Trinity. Bodies,cars, and grocery carts were often found in the lake during these hard days. In the 1990′s when the lake was dredged and cleaned of its contamination, it was turned into a recreation site for the local community. Some speculation (and a few good sources) say that the contaminated sediment dredged from the lake was actually placed right next to the lake, buried in a hill that rises artifically out of the landscape, next to the field where the old Navarro school used to be, the underlayers of which contain undisturbable radon gas from the landfill covered up there (one of 11 covered landfills in West Dallas that now serve as open space, baseball fields, or residential areas). Either way, it’s grassy and pretty and everyone rides bikes over the hill.

From the lake we ventured to the firehouse where the Eagle Ford historical plaque stands; Eagle Ford and Cement City were the first neighborhoods of West Dallas, and housing was originally built for workers in the cement industry and other industrial industries that sprung up. From Eagle Ford, we made our way down a short dirt road right off Singleton to the old RSR lead smelter site. The site is surrounded by a high fence with barbed wire and a sign that says something to the effect of “EPA: DO NOT ENTER.” Nothing exists inside the fence except spotty grass. It’s like visiting another old gravesite, except the victims were your relatives. Several of our youth had family living near the RSR site who remember the days when the smokestack belched clouds so thick you thought it was going to rain.

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