South Dallas 40: Below The River, A Population Left To Decay

While much of Dallas has benefited from a wave of development, South Dallas has not. The predominately African-American neighborhood has been losing population and viability.

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

Well, I wanted to check out that shiny new city that he was talking about. I'm outside now at Klyde Warren Park. It's in downtown Dallas, about five acres of beautiful urban green space right in the heart of the city, opened about a year and a half ago, and it's built over an eight lane freeway. I see it right there, ducking under this park.

WADE GOODWYN, BYLINE: You wouldn't have found it here 20 years ago.

BLOCK: And that's a familiar voice, NPR's Dallas correspondent Wade Goodwyn. Hey, Wade.

GOODWYN: Melissa, welcome to Dallas.

BLOCK: Thank you so much. And this was your suggestion that we come here. Why? Why this park?

GOODWYN: Yeah, this is the part of Dallas that the mayor would like everyone would see, all the tourists to come. It's got food trucks and people are out here playing putt-putt and yoga. It's really connecting two parts of Dallas that have been separate before, uptown and downtown.

BLOCK: Well, this is the prosperous part of the city, Wade, but let's talk about the other side of this. You heard Mayor Rawlings talking about the real challenges facing the city, income inequality, lots of poverty, and you're going to tell us a story about how race and geography factor into that equation.

GOODWYN: Yeah, the city's money, both public and private, is mostly invested in North Dallas, where the white population is living. South Dallas is the other side of the coin. For, you know, more than 100 years, African-Americans were forced to live in South Dallas. But when desegregation came in the 1970s, Dallas's black middle class and Hispanic middle class left.

And who was left in South Dallas were those who couldn't get out, the poor and working class.

BLOCK: And you're going to take us now to South Dallas, not very far from this park where we are right now.

GOODWYN: That's right. It's about 15 minutes south of here, and believe it or not there's open space, horses galloping in meadows. But turn a corner and you're smack dab back in the middle of urban South Dallas, and on the corner of Lancaster and Ledbetter is the Texas Barber College.

DWAYNE BROWN: We're out here at Texas Barber College. We have probably about 150 students here, and basically just educating them and getting them ready for gainful employment.

GOODWYN: Dwayne Brown is an instructor here. He also owns his own 15-chair barber shop in South Dallas. And in the back of that barber shop, Brown built a sophisticated recording studio which serves his alter-ego, rap artist Dooney da Priest.

For example, Dooney's latest hit is an ode to the president called "Barack'n It."

DOONEY DA PRIEST: (Rapping) Let's go. Barack'n it. Barack'n it.

GOODWYN: One of Dooney's top students is Mike Talbot(ph), who would like to follow in his mentor's footsteps and own his own barber shop.

MIKE TALBOT: Barbering is a profession that'll never go out of business. It's lucrative in amenities and things like that, but at the same time it's like right now we need some more jobs, man. Honestly, we do.

GOODWYN: It's not that barbering is Talbot's dream job, necessarily, but he made a calculated decision to put his eggs in that basket. After all, South Dallas is not exactly a job-creating machine. Many live here but travel significant distances to work someplace else in the metroplex.

REVEREND GERALD BRITT: The population has gone down some 40 percent in the past 50 years.

GOODWYN: For 22 years, Reverend Gerald Britt was the pastor of New Mount Mariah Baptist Church in South Dallas and a key leader in Dallas Area Interfaith, an interracial and interdenominational coalition of 50 churches. Britt says that long before President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, Dallas was known as the city of hate to people of color.

The John Birch Society was big in Big D which was also home to the Reverend R. E. Davis, who proudly admitted he was the leader of the national wing of the Ku Klux Klan. Violence and the threat of white violence meant black and Hispanic people were afraid that if they tried to protest, it'd be a bloodbath. So they mostly stayed silent but frustrated, very frustrated.

BRITT: I kind of describe it as a boil that never got lanced. And so, there is a lot of stuff beneath the surface. Even white people with good intentions find it difficult to work with some of the leadership in South Dallas. It all has to do with how people see one another.

GOODWYN: Over the decades, as the John Birchers died off and young talent increasingly moved to Dallas from around the country, the city slowly but surely began to change. Instead of expending its energy in active oppression, Dallas' traditional white business leaders began to take a broader and more civic approach. The monumental task of rebuilding South Dallas' worn out housing stock is at least underway.

Blighted buildings, instead of being left to fester, are now targeted and torn down to make way for new construction, if they can find some new construction. And after decades of mostly ignoring South Dallas, for the last seven years The Dallas Morning News has been agitating for and keeping a running score card of South Dallas' progress.

BOB MONG: A lot of these intractable problems, they're getting better.

GOODWYN: Bob Mong is the editor of The Dallas Morning News.

MONG: If you look at homelessness census, homelessness is going down. Teen pregnancy rates are going down. Violent crime is going down. The combination of good reporting, good policy, good nonprofits who are single-mindedly going after issues, beginning to make a difference. And so, I'm actually more optimistic now than I was 10 years ago.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ONE HOOD")

PRIEST: You know, "One Hood" is basically about brothers coming together...

GOODWYN: But the future of South Dallas won't be decided in downtown corporate boardrooms, but in its streets and in its neighborhoods. When Dooney Da Priest isn't cutting hair or writing hip-hop...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ONE HOOD")

PRIEST: (Rapping) (unintelligible)

GOODWYN: He's out on the streets trying to get the teenage boys who walk by his barbershop to stop smoking dope, pull their pants up and go home and do their homework. He badgers them day after day. Sometimes they listen. The fact that he's a talented rap artist who gives a damn imbues him with significant street cred. Dooney says please send reinforcements.

PRIEST: We need more leaders in our communities, political leaders as well as just leaders. Especially the younger generation, I would say 40 and under, they don't have any leaders down here they can relate to.

GOODWYN: While the city's leaders work to attract jobs and capital to South Dallas, Dooney builds its human infrastructure one teenager at a time.

Wade Goodwyn, NPR News, Dallas.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

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