Last night’s shooting catastrophe in downtown made me reflect on a recent and profound experience.
Last September, I presented an urban planning concept to 300 attendees at an AIA Conference that would use the entire river, creek and drainageway network of DFW, as a natural attraction to organize and grow future urban density along the shade and green.
Afterward, I received an e-mail from Ms. Cindy Lutz, the local director of Habitat for Humanity, who had attended my presentation and wanted to give me a personal tour of their current portfolio of projects in South Dallas. Honestly, I was a little puzzled by her interest in the concept. What could the Branch Waters Network offer Habitat for Humanity? She said she thought the idea would help transform the neighborhoods I was about to see by turning them into something extraordinary.
I have always heard about “South Dallas.” We’ve all heard or read things about the poverty and racial problems in and about South Dallas that sometimes erupt in a Dallas City Council meeting, in an article in The Dallas Observer or something on the nightly news.
I would have never believed what I saw during her tour, unless I’d seen it with my own eyes.
On a beautiful, bluebird Tuesday / work day, the first thing I noticed was one closed school after another. Boarded up. Abandoned. Next, neighborhoods and residential lots in Joppe, vacant lots were a numerous as the houses, and many of the houses didn’t appear to be inhabited. Then, there were the groups of people, eight or twelve at a time: men, women and children wandering down the street.
Since I hadn’t really grasped what I was seeing, I awkwardly made a remark that it looked like a holiday, until Cyndy apprised me they were all unemployed. And when you’re unemployed and have no schools to send your children or any hope or jobs or prospects about how to change your situation, the only thing you can do is “wander around.”
We turned onto a street (I can’t remember the name) and up ahead I saw a scene that looked like a ray of hope. Maybe sixty or a hundred people congregated around benches, under trees and the building got a little denser – it looked like the kind of textbook scene that any urban planner hopes to create in a neighborhood or town center. Apparently my enthusiasms clued Cyndy to this effect. She quietly suggested that I brace myself for what I was about to see.
This was not the “town center.” The human activity was generated by the local crack and meth house.
On my side of the car, we slowly drove passed a one story apartment building with only five units, open for business with all the doors wide open. Across the street a vacant lot had been turned into a kind of pop-up park with elderly men playing cards on makeshift tables and they had a grill going with the burgers on it. Other groups of women and teenagers were hanging around and enjoying what otherwise seemed like a nice day. Tragically, the human activity was not being generated by commerce or the kind of urbanism one might see in Uptown or the venerated Bishop Arts District. It was being generated by illicit drug activity.
All this taken together was happening in an area that is closer to downtown Dallas than Highland Park is on the other side.
I was profoundly struck by the image of an area that isn’t just poor, it has been abandoned by our society. It didn’t look like anything I recognized as America. And yet, this is a daily reality for millions of Americans.
Our problems are complex, and any solutions need to be multi-layered and comprehensive. To address racism, we need to address poverty. And to address poverty, we need to address racism. We need to address hopelessness. We need to address the lack of interest and funding in the areas where our brothers and sisters live and raise their children in this absolute desolation.
And yet, I see hope. Tragedies like the one we had last night have a way of rallying people to do something good. People who do their worst make the rest of us want to do our best. Let’s keep the momentum going. We need to heal. We need to support our law enforcement. We need to support Black Lives Matter. We need to heal the poverty that is like a gaping, festering wound on our city. As landscape architects and architects, WE ARE IN A UNIQUE POSITION TO MAKE A DIFFERENCE.
Let’s do it.