I have long since believed that Dallas cannot afford to lose a single talented person. So it will be hard to say goodbye to Peggy Anschutz when she leaves at the end of May, to live in Cape Cod. Peggy Anschutz virtually has been the mayor of Forest Heights neighborhood in South Dallas. Nestled in a triangle bounded by Interstate 45, Martin Luther King Boulevard and Lamar, only a short space from the Trinity River, this is a section of the city that was harassed by the vilest kind of degradation until Ms. Anschutz arrived and willed it into renewal.
Where once stood the Baby Doll strip club with tables for dancing and cubicles for joys of the night, also noted for the four naked women who greeted designer Antonio Dimambro when he stopped by at Ms. Anschutz’s behest to uncover other uses for the land, now stand a hair-and-nail salon and a catering shop called Wings to Go, open for an entirely different kind of business. Down the street is an apartment building the Forest Heights Neighborhood Development Corporation, until recently chaired by Ms. Anschutz, bought and refurbished, with 14 units now leased to low-income families.
There are houses nearby, built by the corporation and sold to people in many lines of work, from the janitor at St. Michael’s and All Angels Episcopal Church, where Ms. Anschutz’s husband, Mark, is retiring as rector, to a couple of high school teachers to an events planner at the Fairmount Hotel. If they need financing, Ann Arnott, executive director of the Forest Heights group, helps them get it, at mortgage companies or at banks such as Northern Trust National or J.P. Morgan Chase.
When thousands from New Orleans landed at Reunion Arena after Hurricane Katrina, the Anschutz-Arnott corps scooped up two families and settled them into Forest Heights houses for free. As their circumstances improved, they began to pay half the rent, and the time will come when they can pay it all.
Just last month, a new community center opened in Forest Heights on land where once stood the infamous Cotton Club, with the Royal Palace nearby. Now Dan Meyerson runs daily programs including bingo, Al- Anon, exercise, Bible study, book and current events clubs and classes on the management of money. There is no charge for anything at the center. No alcohol is allowed either.
To kids in the neighborhood ages 14 to 16, the corporation offers after-school jobs, up to 10 or 12 hours per week. For $5.15 an hour they cut grass, clean up trash, do chores for older residents living in Forest Heights’ Elderfriendly facilities, where the perennial garden is beginning to bloom and vegetables are just popping up in their beds. Students are required to open checking accounts and learn how to husband their earnings. This is vital training, Ms. Anschutz explained, since no other employer is nearby to teach them the discipline of work.
Ms. Anschutz is especially pleased with the security cameras mounted all over the place, because they are making vandalism less attractive and more costly. Those cameras record tapes that are admissible in court. She’s also happy with City Hall which suddenly is paying attention, beefing up the lighting and building curbs and sidewalks. There children finally have a place to ride their bicycles when they not playing on the volleyball or basketball courts or in the freshly planted park.
“We’ve been scratching at the city for a long time,” said Ms. Anschutz, but now City Manager Mary Suhn, Assistant City Manager Jill Jordan, and Mayor Laura Miller “know we’re here.” Police Chief David Kunkle, she said, has been a great help too. Her hope is that eventually the security cameras will be monitored by police. Her other immediate concern is that the Trinity River project not pass right by Forest Heights and never notice it. She wants a clear way to reach the water.
“We are not in the business of taking the neighborhood away from people who have lived here all their lives,” said Ms. Anschutz. What she does hope the corporation will do is bring residents more of the things they desire, such as the simple pleasures of a place to buy an ice cream cone or a pair of panty hose, or to have lunch with their families on Sunday.
Some of those pleasures are already present, at the new community center, where the large room for gathering is called “Peggy’s Place.” It certainly is, and always will be.