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Beyond Dallas’ white history — city officials work to preserve Black, Asian and Latino landmarks

Casa Guanajuato in Oak Cliff, Dallas
Courtesy of Victoria Ferrell- Ortiz
Dallas resident Tereso Ortiz "Don Tereso" is the founder of Casa Guanajuato in Dallas' neighborhood of Oak Cliff. Students come to the center to take boxing classes after school.

The City of Dallas has tried to identify places or buildings with historical significance in the past. But the history of Black, Latino and Asian communities was often overlooked.

The city is trying to change that. The city manager’s proposed budget would invest $1 million over the next two years to conduct historical surveys that will determine which places should be preserved. The last time the city conducted surveys was more than three decades ago.

“There is a distinct and deliberate emphasis on southern Dallas,” said Murray Miller, director of the Office of Historic Preservation.

The budget money, if approved by the city council, would focus on underrepresented communities of color as part of the city’s recently approved Racial Equity Plan.

Dallas has over 80 structures designated as historic landmarks, which include the Adolphus Hotel, the Magnolia Building and the Wales Apartments. And 20 historic districts including Lake Cliff, the Sears Complex and Swiss Avenue.

“One of the key purposes of historic preservation is to identify places that represent distinctive and important elements of the city's past. It's essential to understand which places may have significance in order to develop appropriate strategies for their protection,” Miller said.

Places or landmarks can be preserved because of their historical and architectural significance. But Dallas historian Victoria Ferrell-Ortiz said that there’s more to preservation than just beauty, cultural significance should play a part.

"Traditional preservation has been set up to highlight architecturally beautiful buildings and structures” she said. "Sometimes some of the buildings are not — by traditional preservation standards — beautiful. But they are significant, and they have historical impact and they're just as crucial to be designated and to amplify stories.”

Dallas Little Mexico.jfif
A group of dancers celebrate Fiestas Patrias at Pike Park in Little Mexico on Sept. 16, 1978.

Ferrell-Ortiz said historic preservation has been used in the past as a tool for colonization. She points to the Mexican-American community called “Little Mexico,” which is now considered the Uptown area of Downtown.

"There's so few remnants of Little Mexico, even though it was the thriving hub for our [Latinx] culture — a cornerstones and the heart of our Dallas,” she said. “... Considering that large impact and the cultural significance of that space, it still wasn't important enough to the city of Dallas to be prioritized.”

Maintaining accurate and up-to-date historic resource surveys is a key obligation outlined in the Certified Local Government Agreement with the State of Texas. The last time City of Dallas did historic resource surveys was more than 30 years ago, according to Miller.

“It is the local government's responsibility for updating surveys every five years or as conditions change. And we know in the Dallas Metroplex area there has been a lot of change since the 1990s,” Miller said.

Miller said it’s important to tell “the full story of Dallas." Up-to-date inventories of historic places inform land use decisions and the development of the city.

Some historians say the lack of preservation in the past makes it difficult to find spaces to preserve today.

“There are many barriers to historic preservation for BIPOC [Black, Indigenous, and people of color],” Ferrell-Ortiz said. "Highways, red lining, environmental racism, gentrification and displacement, the list of injustices goes on… This is an opportunity for BIPOC people to be centered and for our histories of physical spaces to be amplified. We cannot afford to miss.”

The council will vote on the budget Sept. 21.

Boxer at Casa Guanajuato in Dallas
A boxer jump ropes in front of a mural of Mexico's city of Guanajuato. The mural is located in Casa Guanajuato, a center in Oak Cliff, that a Latina historian says should be historically preserved.

KERA asked three historians what places they would like to see be preserved by city of Dallas leaders.

Casa Guanajuato

Barrio historian Victoria Ferrell-Ortiz would like to see this community center in Oak Cliff on the list. The facility, which opened in 1994, is home to educational, sports, and cultural programs. Ferrell-Ortiz said all around the building there are tributes to the Mexican diaspora from the State of Guanajuato and the Federal Government of Mexico. Ferrell-Ortiz works to document Latino history in Dallas.

East Dallas Community Garden

Stephanie Drenka says this is an important space in the history of "Little Asia.” The garden was a sanctuary for a community of Southeast Asian refugees who were resettled in Dallas in the 1970s.

“The garden is one of the last remaining physical remnants of "Little Asia" in East Dallas, where developers and investors seem to favor building modern properties over historic preservation,” said Drenka, who cofounded the Dallas Asian American Historical Society. The society preserves and highlights the stories and legacy of the city’s AAPI community.

Drenka said people from Vietnam, Cambodia, Burma, and Somalia have grown foods in the garden from their homelands for more than three decades.

Roseland Townhomes

This aging Dallas Housing Authority complex, not far from Uptown, was originally built in the 1940s and opened over 600 units for low-income black families.

Amber Sims, an activist that documents Dallas Black history, describes it as one of the few remaining relics of a historic Freedman’s town.

“While built to provide housing for Black residents, the project also displaced hundreds of Black homeowners and renters,” Sims said. “With ongoing development what will become of this community?”

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Alejandra Martinez is a reporter for KERA and The Texas Newsroom through Report for America (RFA). She's covering the impact of COVID-19 on underserved communities and the city of Dallas.