Diamond in the Rough

Dawson's Can-Do Spirit Emerges in Pilot Project

"I was surprised by how in sync the residents and businesses actually were," says Dawson NA President Cynthia Medlin. "I got the impression that our businesses liked the neighborhood and valued South Austin the way it is."
photograph by Jana Birchum

Wanna talk about prostitutes? You won't find many takers among the leaders of the Dawson neighborhood, between South Congress and South First, and Oltorf and Ben White. "This neighborhood has gotten a bad rap" says apartment owner June Taylor. "The press often talks about the delicious issue of prostitution, and people forget that there are families here who've lived here for 40 years or more and who'd never think of leaving, no matter what." Guilty as charged - the last time we wrote about Dawson in "Corner to Corner," we indeed focused on the oldest profession, for which Dawson's stretch of South Congress is a notorious nexus. But now that Max Nofziger's on that beat, we can move on to other, less delicious but more nourishing subjects.

Dawson is preparing to bring to the City Council for approval Austin's first-ever official neighborhood plan. Do those words ring a bell? Seems that every public discussion about growth and development - that is, most all of our public discussions of any kind - ends up pointing to neighborhood planning as the solution to our ills.

Which makes Dawson, the first of three neighborhoods in the city's pilot planning project to cross the finish line (the others are Chestnut and East Cesar Chavez), a laboratory for the Smart-Grown Austin of the future. As one would expect, we've learned a lot about how to get there from the Dawson experience. What's still unknown, though, is how Dawson will attain the future it wants and deserves.

Last year, when the city solicited applications for the neighborhood-planning pilot, Dawson was part of three South Central Austin proposals - small, medium, and large. The latter two, which included the bigger, older, and better organized Bouldin Creek NA and South River City Citizens, included reams of data and echoed years of planning and organizing in the 78704 ZIP code. The separate application for Dawson alone was, according to Dawson NA president Cynthia Medlin, an afterthought.

"I was afraid our issues would get lost in these bigger applications, and frankly, I wanted my three pages," Medlin says, referring to the maximum length of the narratives included with the applications. "So we filed our own proposal. And we got picked."

With about 3,500 residents and one-half square mile of territory, Dawson turned out to be exactly the right size for the neighborhood planning project, says Robert Heil, the Dawson project's lead city staffer. "It was very good for being able to do intensive public outreach - such as door-to-door canvassing. A walkable neighborhood with less than 5,000 people works very well."

After Dawson formed its Neighborhood Leadership Team - chaired by Medlin - in August, the fun really began. To produce what, in its final form, is a document of about 50 pages, the awson team, Heil and other city staff, and miscellaneous other volunteers - about 35 people in all - met twice a month, walked the entire neighborhood, visited every house, surveyed every resident and businessperson (the latter twice) with an elaborate questionnaire, drafted a list of dozens upon dozens of action items, held public hearings, and staged a neighborhood referendum on the proposed plan, all in a little more than seven months.

"Another thing the Dawson plan has confirmed for us is that it takes a lot of work on the part of the volunteers from the neighborhood, and they've risen to the task admirably," says Heil. "But that's a cautionary note as well to any future neighborhoods who want to do a plan: Be prepared to work. Dawson has set the bar pretty high."

Along the way, the core of neighborhood leaders from the Dawson NA picked up volunteers from the multiple constituencies of the neighborhood. Among those is June Taylor, owner with her husband of the Oak Grove Apartments on Alpine and South First. "I thought it was time for me to get involved, because I was looking for a vehicle to support the neighborhood," she says.

Taylor ended up spearheading the involvement of businesses, most concentrated along the commercial strips bounding Dawson, in the planning process. One of the major strategies discussed in the plan itself is the formation of a Dawson Business Coalition, similar to the South Congress Coalition that represents business further up the Avenue. "We want to uplift the aesthetics, functionality, and mix of businesses and of land use along the edges of Dawson," Taylor says, echoing the language of the plan itself. "We want to be able to provide the services necessary to have an economically viable, functioning neighborhood where people can walk to stores that meet their needs."

The business community, and property owners like Taylor, make up only some of the broad base of neighborhood opinion that the city insisted be incorporated into Dawson's planning process. "The city pushed `inclusion' over and over and over," says former DNA president Donald Dodson. "It made the process very time-consuming - the door-to-door survey took us between 30 and 60 minutes at each house, because we had to include everyone's issues. But we did have a lot of people who took the time to participate - more than who vote in city council elections."

To make absolutely sure that business types supported the plan, the city required it to be reviewed by the Real Estate Council of Austin. "We knew it would be reviewed by an outside group, but we didn't know until the last minute that it would be them," Medlin notes. "And they were very interested, and ultimately very impressed, with the lengths we'd gone to get business input.

"I was surprised by how in sync the residents and businesses actually were," Medlin continues. "I got the impression that our businesses liked the neighborhood and valued South Austin the way it is."

Miles to Go

Dawson neighborhood, bounded by S. Congress, S. First, Oltorf, and Ben White, is one of the three neighborhoods taking part in a city pilot project on "smart growth" planning.

Medlin's emphasis is telling, since for years it's been tacitly assumed that Dawson was a bad neighborhood in need of sweeping revitalization, or at least gentrification brought on by the southward march of Downtown. (A real estate ad in last week's Chronicle refers to a property on Medlin and Dodson's block as "South Travis Heights.")

Much of the bad rep comes, as Taylor notes above, from the sex trade on South Congress, but Dawson has additional challenges. The East Bouldin Creek corridor has been dubbed a "transient highway," and a semi-permanent homeless camp lies in the woods directly behind the South Austin Multi-Purpose Center. "They're smoking crack right next to the day care," Dodson notes in disgust. "That's gotta stop."

Like many other working-class Austin neighborhoods, Dawson has heretofore fallen between the cracks in the public policy machinery. Folks in more affluent, trendier, and better-organized boroughs - like Dawson's neighbors in Bouldin and Travis Heights - are used to having some stroke at City Hall, while citizens in truly depressed areas, like Montopolis and Dove Springs, are helped by more extensive (though not necessarily sufficient) city service initiatives than we tend to see elsewhere.

So the neighborhood-planning process may be the best opportunity for a neighborhood like Dawson to grab the city's attention on long-standing issues. For example, the Dawson plan calls for the city to buy the lot that's home to the aforementioned homeless camp, which has been a problem for years. Another top priority is the creation of a real north-south route through the neighborhood for walkers and cyclists, another idea that's been on the city's table for many a moon.

As for the P-word, the plan talks about reducing prostitution rather than eliminating it. Indeed, in the survey of residents, burglary was a greater overall concern than prostitution. As much attention is devoted to providing HIV and other STD screenings in the neighborhood as to the Austin Police Department's ongoing crackdown on the SoCo sex trade.

What Dawsonites would like to see along with, and perhaps more than, a vice crackdown by APD is one by the Planning Commission. The plan calls for an overlay, similar to the one recently created to limit industrial development in East Austin neighborhoods, to keep "undesirable businesses" - adult bookstores, strip clubs, pawn shops - from continuing to locate along the Dawson commercial borders. "We need to attract the businesses that aren't tied in with the negative labeling of this part of town," says Taylor. "We're not a dumping ground."

It's not entirely clear how to implement all of the Dawson plan's 83 action items. Many will fall to the neighborhood itself; others involve outside agencies like Capitol Metro; still others cross departmental boundaries. One idea being discussed is an Austin version of Fort Worth's "neighborhood blitz," where every Cowtown city department descends in unison on a particular area for a week and fixes as many of its problems as it can. "That's a real visible, high-profile, and immediate payback to the neighborhood for the work they've done in creating a plan," Heil says.

The Dawson leadership team knows that its job is far from over; it's supposed to remain in existence to monitor the plan's implementation, which Medlin expects to be a two- or three-year process. As anyone who's been a NA leader knows, maintaining interest for that long is not easy; as Dodson notes, "We've already had people burn out on the project. In a less affluent area like this one, people don't have time, or the skills, to spend their days improving the neighborhood and doing public outreach. There's no way we could have done it without the city's staff help."

Self Help Available

This last point is worth remembering. Since the city simply doesn't have enough money to provide staff help to every neighborhood in town, it's developing a self-help strategy for neighborhoods to use to create their own plans without assistance. "It's democracy in action," Medlin says of Dawson's experience. "The plan reflects a hodgepodge of ideas and levels of participation, but a few people will ultimately make it work."

Some would say this is also South Austin in action - that the Southside's celebrated independent-minded, laid-back attitudes make it less likely to care and invest time in neighborhood wonkiness. (One of the comments collected with the neighborhood referendum describes the leadership team as "busybodies and do-gooders.")

But ultimately, says Medlin, "the fact that the neighborhood is so laid-back and diverse... is a huge advantage. A lot of our comments reflect a live-and-let-live attitude. So what if someone has five cars on blocks in their front yard? He doesn't steal, his kids are nice, he goes to church. Our homes and families and lifestyles are different, but we accept each other. Other neighborhoods can't deal with that; they want to control every detail and not include certain constituencies. They'd never be able to do what we've done."

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