"It's Time to Celebrate Easter Early," Says Mayor Mike Rawlings About Resurrection of South Dallas's Bonton Neighborhood
For years, the city has wanted to do something, anything about the 60-year-old public housing project on Bexar Street known as Turner Courts, once described in a council briefing as "severely distressed," a victim of "elevated rates of vandalism and criminal activity" and in desperate need of demolition. Things were so bad, says council member Dwaine Caraway now, that Dallas Police officers refused to patrol the area.
Photos by Greg Howard Mayor Mike Rawlings, council member Dwaine Caraway and other officials broke a little ground in Bonton yesterday.
But those days, like Turner Courts, are long gone: Yesterday afternoon, Caraway joined Mayor Mike Rawlings, council colleague Carolyn Davis, Dallas Housing Authority President MaryAnn Russ and other officials to break ground on what will be known as the Buckeye Trail Commons, a $50-million, 322-unit DHA complex that will replace Bonton's Turner Courts and, officials and residents hope, transform that slice of South Dallas.
Appropriately, the groundbreaking ceremony was downright joyous. A mixed crowd parked their cars on freshly upturned clay and dirt and huddled beneath a white tent overlooking the already bulldozed site. The Lord's Missionary Baptist Church Sanctuary Choir led off the event by performing "Expect the Great," and by the end of the song, people were clapping and amen-ing. The day was warm, bulldozers were grumbling contentedly in the distance, and it felt like this time, surely, a new day was dawning.
"People had to live here," said U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development Regional Administrator Don Babers. "At one time it's because they didn't have a choice. Now, I hope it's because they want to live here, not because they have to."
The ceremony coincided with Rawlings's new ambitious growth plan for South Dallas, aptly named "GrowSouth." In the last couple of weeks, Rawlings has been traveling around Dallas, peddling a growth and development plan for southern Dallas that would create what he estimated to be "at least $8 billion" in growth for the city. His 10-step plan, if executed, will create businesses, improve the quality of life in the region and seamlessly join southern Dallas with the thriving sector north of the Trinity. Buckeye Trail Commons is one of the first steps toward that vision.
Council woman Davis grew up in the area and will acquire Bonton in 2013 following impending redistricting of the city. "It has come a long, long way from what it originally was," she said. " I remember a time when Bonton was not what you see now."
The councilwoman, who has also picketed in front of that Diamond Shamrock Kwik Stop in South Dallas, continued: "We want to make sure we create more African-American jobs in this community." She paused. "And there's nothing wrong with saying it!"
Velma Mitchell, a lifelong Bonton resident, was also there yesterday. "It's awesome, absolutely awesome," she told us as she looked at the vacant land full of potential at present. "I wouldn't believe this would ever happen to a place like this. Up until a few years ago, we weren't even on the Mapsco. Praise God." She said she plans on opening up a restaurant, Velma's Kitchen, across the street.
Rawlings spoke last, praising the way the federal government, DHA, the city of Dallas and private sector came together to finalize the process. Finally, he formally announced the demise of the old Bonton: "That old Bonton is dead. Now it's time to bring it back to life. It's time to celebrate Easter early."
In the end, politicians took pictures with shovels, tossing dirt into the air, before traipsing off to shake hands and slap backs, and Bonton citizens took their places to ceremoniously dig into the fresh dirt. The sun was smiling, and in the background, "America the Beautiful" was playing.