Dallas’ Tenth Street Historic District Celebrates Temporary Halt on Demolitions
With its urgent call for attention and action, the National Trust’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places list is a powerful tool for catalyzing change for threatened places. Case in point: a big step forward for one of its 2019 listings, the Tenth Street Historic District in Dallas, a rare remaining Freedmen’s Town first settled after the Civil War that’s still an active neighborhood today.
On August 14, 2019, the Dallas City Council unanimously approved a resolution that temporarily halts the use of public funds on any further demolitions in Tenth Street—an important move given that to date, at least 70 of the district’s 260 homes have been demolished. Thanks to a broad-based coalition effort bolstered by the media attention of the 11 Most listing, this vote removes the immediate threat to the neighborhood and helps advance the cause.
As the community and the coalition celebrate, we spoke with Demetria McCain, president of the Inclusive Communities Project, and Jorge Jasso, staff attorney with the Legal Aid of NorthWest Texas’ Community Revitalization Project team, about their work with Tenth Street Historic District, the 11 Most listing’s impact, and the future of this special place.
These interviews have been edited for length and clarity.
What makes Tenth Street Historic District unique?
Jorge Jasso: Following the American Civil War, many freed slaves came together to form self-governed African American communities separate from their white counterparts and protected from the effects of Jim Crow. These Freedmen’s Towns, as they came to be called, were founded throughout the South, as well as in the north and eastern parts of the United States. The vast majority of these Freedmen’s Towns dissolved due to reasons such as economic decline or demolition and redevelopment, with few remaining today.
Only 12 Freedmen’s Towns are listed on the National Register of Historic Places, granting them additional protection and preservation. Tenth Street is the most intact Freedmen’s Town on the National Register, with a currently inhabited residential neighborhood with original structures.
In contrast, other Freedmen’s Towns on the National Register have few original structures or inhabited residential structures, such as the Freedmen’s Town Historic District in Houston, Texas, or the Nicodemus Historic District in Graham County, Kansas. Still other Freedmen’s Towns on the National Register are merely archeological sites, or [they consist] of uninhabited and inaccessible structures, such as Jackson Street Freedmen’s Cottages in Charleston, South Carolina, or the Africatown Historic District in Mobile, Alabama.
Demetria McCain: The history about the neighborhood, the newly freed Africans who settled it, and the pioneering heirs who lived thereafter is fascinating and should be taught to people of all ages. It is a neighborhood that sits atop a hill that directly faces Downtown Dallas, just a stone’s throw away. The story of Tenth Street is Dallas history, Texas history, and American history.
Describe the threats facing Tenth Street.
JJ: Once home to a vibrant and thriving African American community, the neighborhood has been plagued by blight, demolition (both private and City-initiated), and public disinvestment over the past several decades. In 1994, the National Register Form identified demolition and powerful development pressures as two of the most significant issues that the neighborhood faced. Almost 35 years later, the same problems not only persist, but have worsened.
DM: In 2010 the City of Dallas passed an ordinance setting 3,000 square feet as the benchmark for residential structures that could swiftly be demolished without first seeking alternatives and resources that might save them.
Residential structures built by the newly freed Africans in the Freedmen’s Town were understandably modest and far smaller than 3,000 square feet, as opposed to the larger structures found in historically white historic districts. Concurrent with new construction of the City’s nearby deck park and freeway renovations, Tenth Street demolitions have been taking place at a rapid pace and are likely to continue as interest in the neighborhood increases.
JJ: Our research shows the demolition rate has at least doubled in the neighborhood since the implementation of the City’s 3,000-square-foot rule. The only historic district residential structures with 3,000 or more square feet are in majority-white historic districts.
The powerful development pressures combined with the disparate rate of demolitions threaten both Tenth Street’s historic status and the housing stability of the district’s current residents, who are almost exclusively minority and extremely low-income. (Approximately 35% of residents in the census tract live below the poverty line. The median income for the area is $27,955.) On an almost daily basis, residents are targeted for predatory loan scams and pressured to sell their homes to speculators and developers. Their housing security is further at risk due to rising property taxes and aggressive Code enforcement in the neighborhood.
“The story of Tenth Street is Dallas history, Texas history, and American history. ”Demetria McCain
What does the pause on demolition mean for Tenth Street, now and moving forward?
DM: Passage of the resolution was a win that I think we all needed to help us keep up the fight. The meeting attendees’ applause and the Council’s discussion preceding the vote showed a growing number of people who see how wrong the city’s ordinance and actions have been in demolishing structures in Tenth Street. TSRA’s advocacy and the media attention [from the 11 Most listing] have played a huge role.
JJ: The temporary halt is needed for stakeholders to come together to search for strategies to solve the demolition issue—a chance, finally, to consider what's next for the neighborhood. If it was not already, City Council is now aware of the demolition ordinance that has decimated the Tenth Street Historic District. The advocacy both locally and nationally played a major role in swaying public and political opinion.
What’s your vision for Tenth Street’s future?
JJ: The future of Tenth Street depends on its residents. They do not want to see their neighborhood disappear as has happened to other historic minority neighborhoods in Dallas. In the name of urban renewal and revitalization, most of Dallas' other early Freedmen's Towns have been bulldozed to make way for high-rise shops and trendy apartments, or have just been lost through attrition and ruin. In order to prevent displacement, current residents believe affordable housing is needed.
Tenth Street was once home to a mixed-income community. There, you could have found lawyers, doctors, teachers, and laborers living all within walking distance of each other. The architecture of Tenth Street still tells this tale as shotgun houses and two-story vernacular Queen Anne-style homes can be found in the same neighborhood.
A mixed-income neighborhood with affordable housing, while keeping its historical integrity and architecture, would go a long way to prevent displacement. And it would resemble what the community used to be when it was forced to be self-sustaining during a time of official redlining and discrimination. Affordable housing is key during an era of declining black homeownership, especially in neighborhoods near urban area cores such as Tenth Street.
Tell me one of your favorite stories about Tenth Street.
DM: Robert Swann, Tenth Street resident, landmark commissioner, and historian in his own right, contacted and brought Monica Boswell Mitchell from California to speak in Dallas earlier this year. Ms. Mitchell is the great-granddaughter of Anthony Boswell who was a pioneer when he bought plots of land in the district in 1888.
The stories she told about her grandfather, his experience living in the Tenth Street community, and his personal journey as a black physician in America were moving, sad, and invigorating. It was moving to hear how ancestors rose professionally despite discrimination of the day. It was sad realizing how much of the Tenth Street District has already been demolished and lost. And it was invigorating knowing how important it is for us to persevere to save Tenth Street.