The Austin Chronicle

Turning Taylor Around

By Jordan Smith, September 24, 2004, News

In the early Nineties, former District Attorney Ken Anderson (now a Williamson Co. district judge) played an integral role in the Turn Around Taylor campaign, which sought to clean up "The Line," a section of the old railroad-depot town just south of the train tracks that run along FM 112. Because of its proximity to the train depots, the Line had long been a freewheeling part of town, featuring booze and prostitutes, popular with train crews in town on a layover. During World War II, the area maintained its popularity among soldiers who were moving back and forth between camps Hood and Swift.

Although Taylor – in some ways the westernmost outpost of East Texas – is still an active railroad town, wild times on the Line calmed after the war. But the Line still serves a symbolic purpose: segregating Taylor's population. Many of the town's black residents live in the neighborhoods along and to the south of the Line; its white residents primarily live to the north. (See map, "Color by Numbers.")

By the time Anderson became DA, the poorer neighborhoods around the Line had a reputation for providing a haven for drug dealers. Created by concerned citizens and law enforcers, the Turn Around Taylor project was designed to scrub the area clean by busting the drug dealers and condemning the undesirable businesses and abandoned buildings along the Line. "We went from 40 major felonies in a two-block area to zero in a period of 18 months," during the TAT push, Anderson told Texas Lawyer magazine in 1995. "We shut four bars down and put 24 drug dealers behind bars."

Unfortunately, not everyone considered the operation a squeaky-clean success; critics charged that the campaign was prompted more by political ambition and racism than by any altruistic sense of civic duty. "It's a political thing. ... It's also racial. Anderson made a big deal out of bulldozing – literally – crack houses [along the Line]. He was always proud to say, 'You do drugs, you do time,'" recalled Austin attorney Keith Hampton. "Their solution is that once you arrest the black people you ... bulldoze the crack houses ... [and] use nuisance laws to get rid of properties." That policy, two South Taylor residents told the Chronicle, also effectively eliminated many of the black-owned businesses that were once popular community hangouts. The liberal application of nuisance laws, combined with overzealous policing, led to the closure of a popular barbecue joint and a small bar called the Walnut Groove, which hosted a weekly teen night. TAT and city officials have "prevented [neighborhood residents] from having businesses that other people didn't want," one resident said recently, while standing on the corner of Gano Street in the heart of Taylor's south side, just blocks from the Williamson Co. cotton gin. "Nobody has anywhere to go now."

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