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The remaking of West Dallas did not happen all of the sudden; there was plenty of warning.
Years ago, before the zoning changed and the speculators bought and the builders arrived, there were neighborhood meetings. The residents, so many lifers amid the transients and transplants, were warned: Their West Dallas, full of quiet streets and chaparral hilltops and skyline views, wasn’t going to look the same. Residents were told, again and again: The bulldozers are coming, try not to get run over.
Now, residents say, there are no more neighborhood meetings. Because, perhaps, there is not much neighborhood left here, atop the perch behind the Belmont Hotel that stretches almost to the city pound.
"This area used to be called La Loma," 19-year-old Elizabeth Garcia said Thursday, as we sat in her family’s house along what’s left of Mobile Avenue.
The hill. With the prettiest views of the city now obscured by expensive miniature homes with all the warmth of movie-studio back lots.
"It’s history now," Elizabeth said of the only neighborhood she has ever known, where she and friends used to ride bikes to the overlook now cut off from trespassers. "But I will always call it that."
The thicket along Seale Street and N. Willomet Avenue has been partially cleared for the cluster of half-million-dollar town homes and new streets that PSW Real Estate has branded the "Meridian community." When my son was younger we spent many Saturday afternoons here, listening to music as we just stared at the downtown skyline. That view has since been sold. It is now off-limits to the public.
On a whim, nostalgic for those yesterdays, I drove through here New Year’s Eve just as excavators were tearing apart a house across from Stafford Park, which is down the street from what used to be our secret spot. Ten days later it was already scraped and prepped for a new development. A dozen other houses in the neighborhood, likely more, await their scheduled demise.
We all saw this coming, West Dallas residents and North Dallas tourists alike. That doesn’t make it any less overwhelming.
Elizabeth, who is studying communications at the University of North Texas, was born on this very street in a house razed a few years ago. In its place is a big white box with a for-sale sign affixed to the front. Her parents Leonardo and Maria moved three houses down more than a decade ago, to a modest white home Leonardo was working on when I met him a couple of weeks ago; he is in construction and brings his work home.
Here the Garcias raised their four kids and entertained friends so close they were considered family. Elizabeth’s best friend used to live in the house directly across the narrow street, which, too, has been knocked down, revealing the small, private late-1800s cemetery once hidden behind it. The house next to that one, too, has been rendered mud and gravel.
The only thing across the street now is a framed wooden box wrapped in bright-green weather barrier; Leonardo said crews haven’t touched the would-be duplex in weeks.
The Garcias are the last homeowners living on their block. Two houses are rentals; two others — one a tumbledown husk, the other a brick house of relatively recent construction — were just sold and await their demolitions. Marlene Luviano, the realtor who worked the deals, said the properties sold for close to $300,000 — "the value of the lot," she said.
The homeowners, she said, took their paydays and moved to Grand Prairie and Lancaster and points south, away from the center of a city in which they could no longer afford to buy and live. She has sold eight houses here in the last year — four on Mobile, three on dead-end Folsom Street, another on Stafford Street. All are coming down sooner than later.
"Everything there is tear-down," Luviano said, because town homes can now be built atop land once zoned for single-family homes. "All that neighborhood is going to be changing — and it’s not only the one. Everything close to downtown will change. Even Fair Park, South Dallas. In West Dallas a couple of years ago, nobody would go there because it was ‘dangerous.’ It’s just a matter of time."
This neighborhood, the realtor said, "is just the perfect example."
Luviano puts a good spin on this: Developers are creating the mixed-income neighborhoods City Hall says it wants in high-opportunity areas. The Garcias agree: They have been offered much money for their land, but will not sell — this is home. And if property taxes go up — and they will — so be it. It’s cheaper than moving.
"We lived here when it wasn’t the best neighborhood," Elizabeth said with a small laugh. "Now we live in a nice neighborhood."
Her father and I went for a walk through the butchered landscape along Mobile, through the barren lots next to the under-constructions across from the battered just-solds awaiting their demolitions. Across a short private drive called Wickmere Mews, Mobile turns into Malone Cliff View, a circle of sleek and bright cubes anchored by two small Tuscan homes and Mary McDermott Cook’s prized nest atop the cliff.
There we ran into the new neighborhood’s first resident, 79-year-old Frances Tynan, a former resident of Chicago and Manhattan who moved to Dallas 30 years. She worked for Mobil then, in human resources, but volunteers now with women in the nearby county jail and children in the nearby Dallas ISD schools.
Tynan was taking her power-blue Schwinn for a spin around the neighborhood. Everyone waved, exchanged pleasantries.
Jose Morin, who, since 1982, has owned in a fenced-off compound of modest homes now in the shadow of all this development, shouted as she passed by: "Hi, Fran!" The long-timers say Tynan is very kind; she adores them, too, and nervously awaits the day the Garcias and Morin and everyone else cashes out and moves away. Because that day is certainly coming.
"As long as they pay us enough," Morin said, grinning.
Tynan moved to this hilltop two years before Cook, for the view of the skyline Elizabeth Garcia often talks about. She said it’s what kept her sane after years of living in big cities. But Tynan, like Garcia, can no longer see downtown from her perch: A plastic surgeon is building a sleek six-story perch next door to Cook along the hilltop overlooking Sylvan Avenue. The house looks like something a Bond villain would sublease to Matthew McConaughey for a Lincoln ad.
I told Tynan it feels like a race for the view up here.
She stared at the monster that has cut her off from the city.
"The race," she said, "is over."