Stark Disparities Between Neighborhoods: A Wake-up Call for Dallas’ Civic Leaders

Author: G. Thomas Kingsley
Date Posted: June 1, 2017

For a more complete case study of this experience, see Chapter 6 of Strengthening Communities with Neighborhood Data, by G. Thomas Kingsley, Claudia J. Coulton and Kathryn L. S. Pettit (Washington, DC: Urban Institute, 2014)

In 2005, the Foundation for Community Empowerment, a data intermediary that served as the original NNIP partner in Dallas, noted how the national media helped to elevate the issues of disparity between rich and poor New Orleans neighborhoods in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. There were similar disparities in Dallas, but nothing had been done to focus the public’s attention on them.  Foundation staff thought they might be able to do that by creating and publicizing a new measure: the Wholeness Index.

They defined wholeness as a situation in which each person in a city enjoys an equally productive and satisfying life, regardless of where in the city he or she lives. In a whole city, residents of every part of town have an equal opportunity to achieve financial success, are equally self-sufficient, and are equally active in political and civic life.” The Wholeness Index was composed of 12 individual quality-of-life indicators, including health, housing, education, and other indicators of resident opportunity. Each measure was presented in color-coded maps with explanations of its significance. The disparities in quality of life between neighborhoods in the northern parts of the city and the troubled south were consistently dramatic, whether the measures related to jobs, poverty rates, homeownership rates, housing quality, or education. The summary index measure made it easy to communicate the cumulative effects of disadvantage across the various domains.

The report was widely disseminated and updated in 2007 and 2008.  Results were highlighted at annual conferences attended by hundreds of policymakers, researchers, and advocates. In addition to high-profile keynote speakers, panels of experts and practitioners examined specific issue areas. 
Even so, the issue did not gain traction in policy circles until it captured the attention of the editorial board of the Dallas Morning News, which played a major role by elevating it in the city’s 2007 mayoral election. They formulated candidate questionnaires that focused on issues of disparity and published the results for voters to review.  In the fall of that year, continuing to work closely with Foundation staff, the editorial board formally launched the Bridging Dallas North–South Gap project, “a crusade to address the longstanding economic and quality-of-life disparities between the northern and southern halves of the city.”

After the election, the new mayor instituted the Mayor’s Southern Dallas Task Force in response.  This divided Southern Dallas into 10 neighborhoods and brought citizens and business leaders together over two years to suggest plans for improvement in each neighborhood. Strategies ranged from smaller steps, like neighborhood branding campaigns and new security cameras in business areas, to larger ones, like reopening a hospital or bringing more retail to the neighborhoods.

Despite raised expectations, the task force recommendations still did not get definitive support from the City Council and other key policy-makers.  In 2009, the Morning News staff again worked with the data intermediary to consider how to further elevate the issue (by that time the Foundation had been reconstituted as the Institute for Urban Policy Research – IUPR – and moved to the University of Texas at Dallas).  Instead of a stand-alone editorial, the Morning News decided to reinforce its argument by offering a special section of the paper on South Dallas. This would include neighborhood conditions and advocate for explicit policies and programs to improve conditions for residents there.

The Morning News/IUPR team  identified five focus neighborhoods in South Dallas and developed  new  data  on their demographics, health conditions, crime, and education levels.  IUPR also conducted a windshield survey of the area; training residents of South Dallas communities, to systematically collect information about land use, housing conditions, walkability, and other quality-of-life factors. These data were then assembled into a mapping program that allowed the exploration and summary of these physical characteristics by neighborhood.

All of this work was brought together in a major eight-page spread in a Sunday edition of the paper in September 2009, complete with maps, data, and stories.  The collection of articles documented current disparities, highlighted programs that were helping to close the gap, and called for additional investments in the neighborhoods. This impressive feature section earned the Morning News staff a Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing in 2010.. 

Both IUPR and the Morning News continue to keep neighborhood disparities in the local policy spotlight.  For example, the editorial staff has a monthly feature, 10 Drops in the Bucket, which notes specific persistent problems in South Dallas (such as a dangerous vacant property with code violations or traffic safety issues).  And the city continues efforts in response.  Its Grow South initiative, launched, in April 2012, for example, pursues 10 goals in South Dallas neighborhoods, including strengthening schools, educating the public about assets in South Dallas, and investing in economic development. The initiative tracks a number of indicators to hold itself accountable for results.

The Dallas community still faces enormous challenges in overcoming decades of disinvestment in its southern neighborhoods. But, incrementally, progress is being made.  Few would disagree that the Wholeness Index was the foundation, and that the continued use of data has been powerful in sustaining momentum.

This story was written by staff at the Urban Institute, drawn from documents and interviews with the editorial board of the Dallas Morning News. The Institute for Urban Policy Research is the Dallas partner in the National Neighborhood Indicators Partnership, a learning network in 30 cities coordinated by the Urban Institute. All partners ensure communities have access to data and the skills to use information to advance equity and well-being across neighborhoods.

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