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‘Clybourne Park’ And The History of Two Dallas Neighborhoods

Little Mexico buildingsLittle Mexico from KERA’s Little Mexico: El Barrio

Journalist Jimmy Breslin once said the history of American cities is a history of land fraud. He might have added, and of racial conflict. The Dallas Theater Center is presenting two plays with racial confrontations over real estate. A Raisin in the Sun is Lorraine Hansberry’s classic drama of a black family in 1959 moving into an all-white Chicago neighborhood. The second play, Clybourne Park, upates Raisin by 50 years with a satiric twist: It has a white couple trying to gentrify the same neighborhood, now all-black. KERA’s Jerome Weeks reports Dallas can certainly hear the echoes.

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In the second act of Clybourne Park, playwright Bruce Norris has fun making a young white couple uncomfortable. They’re planning to tear down a home in a rundown black area to build a McMansion with a koi pond outback. They’re meeting with polite representatives of the African-American neighborhood association because of possible historic designations, zoning restrictions and the like. So they’re feeling a little defensive.

The pregnant wife (Allison Pistorius exclaims, “The thing is, communities change!” After all, Clybourne Park had once been a German-Irish community. So, you know, the African-Americans are not exactly, like, original settlers or anything. They moved in, the Germans and Irish moved out, now it’s the African-Americans’ turn to … um, move on.

“Some change is inevitable,” agrees the young black woman (Tiffany Hobbs). “And we all support that. But it might be worth asking yourself who, exactly, is responsible for that change?”

Hard to argue with that (and, in fact, the argument proceeds immediately to skew away from her question and her implication). Attorney Sol Villasana certainly believes it’s true: Communities do change — unless you want to preserve them as an historical exhibit, in which case, they often cease to be vital communities.  “Neighborhoods just transition,” says Villasana. “I mean, they’re just going to transition. Now it can be done with some good common sense.

“Or you can do it the hard, old nasty way.”

The hard, old nasty way was how Dallas’ Little Mexico went. Villasana has written a history of the barrio which was once located near downtown, between Woodall Rodgers and the Medical District. It was the city’s largest barrio, he says, and as such, “sort of central to the Mexican community all around Dallas because if you wanted good pan dulce, you really had to come over to this area of town.”

As it grew during the first half of the 20th century, Little Mexico was relatively isolated from the rest of Dallas because of the Katy railroad tracks and Turtle Creek. But once Love Field opened in the ’40s and the northern suburbs began to take off, Dallas traffic patterns changed. Little Mexico was either highly desirable for what had once been an undesirable location (along the train tracks but close to downtown). Or else it was simply in the way. With the construction of the Dallas North Tollway in the mid-‘60s, Little Mexico was pretty much destroyed. Developers swooped in, bought homes cheaply, flipped the zoning to commercial and multiplied their profits. Twenty years later, the development of Uptown mopped up what remained (and took out the State-Thomas neighorhood while it was at it).

Villasana says what happened could have happened to any Dallas homeowner — black, brown or white. There was plenty of overt racism in Dallas, but he says the racism that actually sealed Little Mexico’s fate was more indirect. First, Mexican-Americans had little political pull downtown. In the ’40s and ‘50s, when conflicts arose, they had to resort to asking the Catholic bishop or even the Mexican consulate to intercede with City Hall.

Second, the mom and pop entrepreneurs who flourished in Little Mexico couldn’t get bank loans. That meant they couldn’t develop their neighborhood themselves. “If some of those entrepreneurs had had money to develop properties around there, they could have done it,” Villasana says. “But I think their access to capital didn’t exist. So that’s where I think racism kinda killed – and could still do that in any kind of minority neighborhood.”

Clybourne Park touches on some of these issues — the way a city’s commutes have changed, for instance, and how the young up-and-comers like the idea of living close to downtown, not out in the suburbs. As for the difficulties minorities find in trying to get their hands on capital, Raisin in the Sun gets around it (otherwise the play couldn’t happen) by having  Mama Younger (Liz Mikel) receive a $10,000 insurance check — over which, the family nearly comes apart. Obviously, neither play is about lending practices or real estate fine print. The implication of Clybourne Park is that, although the tables may have turned, the underlying racial tensions are the same.

Probably so. But it also implies we’ve learned nothing, except a new language to disguise all this.

DTC's Clybourne Park - wide - Jacob Stewart, Steven Michael Walters, Allsion Pistorius, Hassan El-Amin, Sally Nystuen Vahle, Tiffany Hobbs - by Karen AlmondTrouble in River City? Steven Walters, Allison Pistorius, Hassan El-Amin, Sally Nystuen Vahle and Tiffany Hobbs in Clybourne Park. Photo by Karen Almond

Eva Elvove was a little girl in Little Mexico. She says, “Where you have a lot of the original Mexican restaurants in el barrio? All around McKinney and Cedar Springs? That was my hunting grounds as a child.”

But when Elvove was six, her family was ‘displaced,’ as she says, across the Trinity to West Dallas, near Singleton Boulevard in the La Bajada area. A few years ago, Evolve saw changes going on and wondered if Little Mexico was happening all over again: “I noticed that all of a sudden, Singleton was being improved. And I thought, Okayyyy, here we go!”

But so far, the development of West Dallas hasn’t worked out like that. A plan called the West Dallas Urban Structure has been in place for two years. It’s hardly stopped new development. But it’s guided it, prevented it from overwhelming La Bajada. In the second act of Clybourne Park, some of the humor comes from tangled arguments over the language of real estate guidelines — frontage and easement and recess and what, truly, is the height of a house — until one character demands, “Does any of that really matter?” Meaning that these contemporary characters — with their lawyers and interrupting cellphones and their distracted lives — need to get down to the real issue: discrimination.

But in the play, when the characters stop bickering over real estate terms, they start trading racial jokes and threats. And soon there’s an angry explosion. It’s actually not clear what’s happening — home purchase-wise. Judging from the African-American neighborhood association’s presence and the fact that it’s only at this apparent last minute that the young white purchasers have learned about objections to their McMansion, it seems there’s been some movement to preserve Clybourne Park from runaway development. But no one says “historic preservation” or “historic designation” or anything like that (although there is a back and forth about what should have happened with some unnamed oversight). So we’re to assume the aim of the neighborhood delegates is simply to put some moral pressure, to express their objections and hopes against the rise of an inappropriate home and the destruction of one that has meaningful family connections. And the white couple feel they’re just being guilt-tripped.

In La Bajada, on the other hand, talk about real estate never stopped. (And yes, talk about racism and history and family homes and the serious need for economic improvement). Elvove says, all the public meetings eventually worked out trade-offs and guideliness. Homeowners could keep or sell their homes – without the fear that McMansions would take over. Where she lives, Elvove says, there’s a 27-foot limit. She — or anyone else — could tear down her house and build a new one, provided it’s only two-story tall, max. Exactly the kind of limitation the white couple is bucking against in Clybourne Park. Meanwhile, high-rises can certainly go up, and probably will — only a few blocks away, closer to the river.

With those desirable downtown views,.

“Not that we don’t want development, that’s not it,” insists Elvove. “We want to keep our neighborhood. This is home for me. ”

So as all communities do, La Bajada will change. But so far, not in the hard, old, nasty way.