The Struggle in Oak Cliff to Save One of the Last Freedmen's Towns in the U.S.
As you drive through the 10th Street Historic District in Oak Cliff, you can almost hear the ghosts of former Civil War slaves singing old gospel songs to celebrate their freedom. For a moment, you can imagine the excitement and pride they must have felt while gathering in the yards of the small, new homes they had built with their own hands. But glancing around the neighborhood today will quickly jolt you back to reality.
The Two Houses of Oak Cliff
This historical district south of the Trinity River in Dallas is one of the last freedmen’s towns in the United States, and it’s a storied piece of black American history that needs to be preserved. Nothing drives that message home more than two craftsman-style houses sitting side by side on Cliff Street near the intersection of Church Street, which the Dallas Morning News describes as “fear” and “hope.”
In contrast, the two small houses could easily be framed as a before-and-after picture. The vacant first house at 218 Cliff St. is a picture of dilapidation and decades of neglect, complete with boarded windows and “no trespassing” spray-painted across the front. But the newly renovated house next-door at 220 Cliff St. is occupied, sporting a new coat of paint.
The future of the 218 house is uncertain. Since its historic designation protection has come and gone, its history can be erased in a heartbeat by the same wrecking ball that’s wiped out hundreds of old houses in the neighborhood over the past 40 years. However, the renovated 220 house portends new beginnings much like it did when former slaves built it.
Merging New and Old
The ideal balance for revitalizing the 10th Street neighborhood is generating new construction on the hundreds of vacant lots dotting the historic district while preserving the history of the homes still standing.
"I think historic preservation is often viewed as an impediment to development, but I think really preservation is a tool for economic development," Kathryn Holliday, an architectural historian at University of Texas at Arlington, told the Dallas Morning News. "[It] is a really powerful tool that respects history and actually does provide flexibility for how neighborhoods can adapt to future uses."
According to the News, Jay Taylor—a designer architect with the international firm HKS—is onboard with that philosophy. He initially visited the neighborhood on business with HKS colleagues and other professionals, and he opted to stay. After purchasing a lot that had been vacant since the 1980s for $12,000, he started building his new upscale home on 9th Street, which he recently completed.
Aside from his house, Taylor likewise designed or managed more than a dozen homes that he’s expecting to sell on other vacant lots in the neighborhood. He’s already sold some homes to young professionals who fell in love with 10th Street’s history.
"The idea is that it's infill housing," Taylor said. "The goal is not to tear down. All the housing I push people towards are infill lots, empty lots. [The Dallas Morning News] has written about tearing things down. But nobody ever talks to the people trying to turn things around."
The Threat of Demolition
Court ordered demolitions are the greatest threat to freedmen’s homes in disrepair. The population of the neighborhood is below 20,000 residents, yet 580 homes have been demolished in the past 18 years—which is significant.
The Landmark Commission’s hands are tied without a title on a home it’s trying to save. Whether owners died without a will or their heirs have been unreachable, titles on many homes in jeopardy have been unobtainable. Then, there are savvy owners who realize the value of their property revolves around the land, so rather than attempt to make even minor repairs, they let history crumble while the Landmark Commission helplessly watches.
Katherine Seale, who heads up the Landmark Commission, told the newspaper she hopes that changes will come to preservation ordinances to protect old homes when landowners are impossible to find.