Tuesday, July 20, 2021

Paved A Way: Tenth Street

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I don't think I ever heard the terms the Black Bottom, Tenth Street, or the Heights before reading "Paved A Way." Or, the only Heights I heard of were Richardson Heights and Lin-Manuel Miranda's "In the Heights." But here I'm talking Oak Cliff, or south Dallas, and a neighborhood decimated by the construction of I-35.

I'm reading "Paved A Way: Infrastructure, Policy and Racism in an American City" by Collin Yarbrough. The city is Dallas, Texas. I'm blogging as I go, using whatever parts of the book catch my attention. Today, we look at how infrastructure development cut a path of destruction through south Dallas.


Beaty’s settlement, originally known as Hord’s Ridge, was platted as the Whites-only Oak Cliff in 1887. Miller’s Four Acres’ subdivision planted the seed of Tenth Street freedmen’s town just east of present day I-35 and south of Eighth Street: the current northern boundary of Oak Cliff Cemetery. These particular four acres were outside Oak Cliff town limits and the Hord Survey area, meaning it was available for purchase by newly freed Black slaves. It has been described as "a plot of land on the eastern edge of Oak Cliff accessed by a street with no name."
Paved A Way
Combined with "The Bottom" and "The Heights", Tenth Street made up the Black community just outside Oak Cliff. In the early 1900s, it contained churches, grocery stores, a drug store, a dry cleaner, and dozens of homes. But we're still talking about another freedmen's town and another Black cemetery. You should know by now where this is headed.
Like the path of a tornado, I-35E clear cut a strip the size of a football field through the neighborhood. The Black Bottom, Tenth Street, and Heights neighborhoods were physically separated from the predominantly White neighborhoods in Oak Cliff west of the highway. The City had officially designated it a 'negro only' area just a decade before.
Paved A Way

What the highway didn't take, urban renewal would. The first step was a zoning change.

In the ’40s, Tenth Street was zoned for duplex and single-family residential use, meaning it was a true "neighborhood area." Two decades later, the neighborhood zoning changed, and the homes were no[w] considered "nonconforming." Unfortunately for Tenth Street, this meant all of the homes in the area were no longer considered "conforming" to the land use, which is a precarious existence if homes fall into disrepair.
Paved A Way
Yarbrough explains the technicalities that make it precarious to own a "non-conforming", aging home in an area that real estate developers covet. The bottom line is in the roof counts.
The three to four decades following the construction of I-35 saw population and housing stock decline in the Tenth Street neighborhood, very similar to North Dallas. Residents continued to leave and housing stock diminished. By the early ’90s, a third of the lots in The Bottom, Tenth Street, and Heights areas were vacant, and 583 buildings in those neighborhoods were demolished between 1979 and 1995.
Paved A Way
Was there no effort to save the neighborhood? Well, yes there was. Yarbrough tells the tale of Robert Swann, who noticed an abandoned house on Tenth Street. Swann spent the next seven years fighting the City of Dallas to purchase it and restore it.
Eventually, Robert [Swann] gained ownership of the house in 2015, nearly connecting the house’s entire chain of custody in the process. Protecting one structure in Tenth Street took seven years. Getting a structure demolished in Tenth Street takes considerably less time.
...
Since being registered as a historic district, over a third of the 260 structures contributing to the district designation are no longer standing.
...
Predominantly White historic districts saw fifteen demolitions across eight neighborhoods between 1993 and 2017. Three times that many homes (seventy-two) were demolished in Tenth Street over the same time period, a comparatively disproportionate rate of demolition.
Paved A Way
Why is that? The City of Dallas ordinance makes a distinction between large houses (more than 3,000 square feet) and small houses. The small houses more easily qualify for accelerated demolition. Not surprisingly, many of the houses built by newly freed slaves tended to be on the small side. When enough individual houses get demolished, the entire historic neighborhood goes, too.
Robert Swann describes the nature of Tenth Street as being a lot like the organic and conversational development of American Jazz. Tenth Street wasn’t about star architects or anything like that. It was about "houses that spoke to each other, the way jazz musicians speak to each other." Robert said, "You can no more understand Tenth Street by preserving a single house than you can understand American jazz by preserving a single note."
Paved A Way
There are a few holdouts trying to preserve the neighborhood, but the last notes of jazz on Tenth Street are fading out.


Prior excerpts of "Paved A Way":
Paved A Way: "Dallas Doesn't Give a Damn About its History"
Paved A Way: Extermination as Government Policy
Paved A Way: The Battle of Village Creek
Paved A Way: Redlining
Paved A Way: Boulevards and Parks
Paved A Way: Freedman's Cemetery
Paved A Way: Deep Ellum
Paved A Way: Little Mexico
Paved A Way: Tenth Street

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