No Place Like Home

In the now infamous Dallas suburb, redevelopment is king, the lawns are immaculate, and illegal immigrants are no longer welcome.

May 2008By Comments

What’s in store: Tim O’Hare believes that upgrading the Four Corners shopping area is vital to his town’s future.
Photograph by Roberto Sanchez/Al Dia/Dallas Morning News

Last year Farmers Branch, a Dallas suburb of some 26,500 people, erected a giant American flag on the edge of town, in the middle of a few acres of mowed grass. “You need a little imagination to see what this is going to become,” I was told by Tim O’Hare, a first-term city councilman and candidate in this month’s mayoral election, as we drove past. He was showing me the town—or, rather, two towns, the one that exists and the one that he envisions. The field had been christened Liberty Plaza, and following the construction of a long-awaited Dallas Area Rapid Transit station, it would one day anchor a bustling new neighborhood. Instead of a scruffy strip of land, “there will be residences and offices and shops,” he said. “It will be a mixed-use little urban living area. Farmers Branch will actually have a downtown”—albeit on the town’s eastern periphery.

O’Hare has spent most of his 38 years in Farmers Branch, where he believes he must have been, at five feet eight, the smallest wide receiver from his high school ever to make first-team all-district. Now an attorney with his own practice, he is clean-cut and confident and says he doesn’t think of himself as a politician, though this is a statement seldom uttered by anyone but politicians. Clearly he has given some thought to how his town is seen by outsiders. As we toured around in his sizable black SUV, he kept gesturing in one direction or another to indicate hypothetical passers-by—people coming in from DFW Airport or driving along Interstate 35 or traveling by light-rail—who he hoped would take notice of the improvements, which would be “neat” and “nice” and “incredible” and “unique.” Of Liberty Plaza he said, “Eventually we’re going to get a giant sculpture. We haven’t picked what yet, but when I say ‘giant sculpture,’ I’m talking about an Iwo Jima-type memorial. It will be the kind of thing that when you’re watching the Dallas Cowboys play on Sunday, they’ll show it during the commercials. You know how they show the landmarks of their city? It will be that.”

In fact, O’Hare had already drawn considerable attention to Farmers Branch after suggesting in August 2006 that the city try to rid itself of illegal immigrants. At the time, the national Republican party had made immigration a top issue, and the town of Hazleton, Pennsylvania, had passed an ordinance that barred employers from hiring illegal immigrants and landlords from renting to them. (More than thirty towns have since tried to implement similar regulations.) Meanwhile, in Farmers Branch, two illegal immigrants had been charged with the murder of a toddler. That November, the city council passed an ordinance that would have required landlords to verify that new tenants were either citizens or legal immigrants. O’Hare found himself giving one interview after another—to radio stations, to newspaper reporters, to CNN—nearly all on the subject of immigration.

Over time he began to feel that the deluge of press had portrayed the city in a lopsided fashion: “Illegal immigration is important to our residents, it’s important to our council, but we are about so much more than that, and that’s all media folks want to talk about.” O’Hare, on the other hand, wanted to talk to me about the cast-iron street signs with finials that the city had installed, about a city program to encourage people to remodel their homes, and about the need to redevelop the old, elephantine shopping centers at the intersection of Valley View and Josey lanes, known as the Four Corners, which once served as the city’s de facto downtown. In a blog on O’Hare’s campaign Web site, his boosterish posts apprise readers of his conversations with developers, who with any luck will soon bestow fountains and condos and a SuperTarget and “Chili’s or Chili’s-type restaurants” upon the city. Warding off illegal immigrants is just one component of that program.

Texas has seen such things before. In the 1850’s, following the Mexican War, Austin and Seguin expelled Mexicans on the grounds that they were horse thieves and insurrectionists, as David Montejano recounts in Anglos and Mexicans in the Making of Texas 1836—1986. Six decades later, a spike in immigration prompted dire warnings; one University of Texas professor lamented that because of Mexicans, whole neighborhoods were “slowly passing into decay.” Much as O’Hare might object to the comparison, the troubles he has attributed to illegal immigrants—itinerancy, crime, slummy apartment complexes—echo the age-old complaints.

After the city council raised the question of how to curb illegal immigration, a non-Chili’s-type restaurant called Cuquita’s, which had recently opened in the Four Corners, became a locus of the opposition. This was an accident, according to co-owner Elizabeth Villafranca, whom I met one morning at the restaurant. “I was sitting at home, drinking my coffee and reading the paper, and I saw this article about this city councilman blaming the city’s problems basically on Hispanics and illegal aliens,” she said. She decided to attend a council meeting that night, thinking it would serve as a civics lesson for her daughter. “We made a sign saying ‘We mow our lawn, we pay our taxes,’” she said. “We showed up, and there was nobody else there. By default I was interviewed by all of the media, but not because I was any kind of leader.”

Soon she was collaborating with other residents, the ACLU, the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, and Bickel and Brewer Storefront, the pro bono arm of the Dallas law firm Bickel and Brewer. Several lawsuits were filed, charging that immigration enforcement should be left to the federal government and that the way in which the ordinance had been adopted had violated the Texas Open Meetings Act. Opponents united under the slogan “Let the voters decide” and petitioned to put the ordinance on the ballot. The petition succeeded, but in May a revised version of the ordinance was approved by a wide margin: 4,059 to 1,944. A month later, a federal judge issued an injunction to prevent it from going into effect until it had been tried in court.

A cheerful woman with a pageboy haircut, Villafranca described her activist turn as “an incredible, life-changing experience” and pointed out that although her side had lost, the campaign had brought many new Hispanic voters to the polls. At lunchtime her friend Paul Heller happened to come to the restaurant, and he recalled the sort of cartoonish antagonism the campaign had inspired. In his yard he’d attached a “Let the voters decide” sign to an eight-foot inflated Uncle Sam—“I have a whole variety of inflatables,” he explained—only to find one day that someone had slashed and deflated it. The fallen icon lay on the lawn for more than a week until Heller received a written warning from the city that, unless he removed it from public view, he would be subject to a citation.

And that, Heller said, was typical of a city government that had become incrementally more repressive, imposing new rules regarding lawn upkeep—no grass higher than eight inches, no visible empty flowerpots—and devoting more resources to code enforcement (9,724 violation notices were issued last year in a city of 8,000 single-family homes). Then there were the city’s efforts to discourage the use of Spanish: The council had passed an ordinance proclaiming English the city’s official language, and subsequently the lone Spanish-language channel was pulled from the televisions at the Farmers Branch recreation center. The council also revised the instructions printed on city-distributed trash bags. Because health-and-safety-related matters were exempt from the language policy, the instructions regarding garbage collection were kept in both English and Spanish, but the recycling guidelines were printed in English only.

Farmers Branch is graced with abundant parkland and wide avenues split by grassy medians, but it lies outside the cone of more-recent development spreading north from Dallas. Over the years, as McMansion builders moved farther out, more minorities and immigrants arrived—a demographic shift common to many inner-ring suburbs. The population is now an estimated 37.2 percent Hispanic. Whereas to an interloping reporter its modest midcentury houses and mature trees might make the city more appealing than late-vintage sprawl (as might the taquerías, the Guatemalan bakery, and the fruit-and-vegetable store catering to immigrants), those things don’t draw the sort of retail that leaders would like to see in Farmers Branch—purchasing power does. O’Hare told me that when he’d e-mailed a grocery chain about opening a store in the Four Corners, where a Super Saver lies vacant, a representative responded that the area lacked the per capita spending level to support a new supermarket.

“People have labeled us as trying to get rid of all the poor people,” O’Hare said. “That’s nonsensical. But we do need to increase our spending per capita.” To that end the council has dedicated itself to sprucing up the city; hence the new street signs and the city’s recent purchase of a ramshackle house across the street from Farmers Branch Church of Christ (which O’Hare attends), so as to raze it and build something else, like a fountain or a gazebo. On a much larger scale, the city commissioned a Los Angeles design firm to work with Farmers Branch residents, business leaders, and city officials on the Four Corners Vision Plan, in which the current shopping centers—big surface parking lots surrounded by purveyors of cash advances, auto parts, cheap haircuts, and quick lunches—would be replaced by a mix of comelier retail stores and residences. One drawing that accompanies the plan shows a sidewalk cafe and a Gap store on a street reminiscent of downtown Santa Barbara.

Before the Vision Plan can be implemented, developers will have to negotiate with as many as 33 property owners in the targeted area. Yet to judge by a flap in March 2007 over a potential tenant for the Super Saver building, a vocal faction has already invested itself in a particular vision for the Four Corners. After a rumor spread that a Carnival grocery store, designed to appeal to Hispanic shoppers, might open there, a city council candidate named Tim Scott sent out an e-mail recommending that residents call Carnival’s parent company to protest. Scott, who now sits on the council, told the Dallas Morning News that his objection had nothing to do with race; he just didn’t want another “ultra-discount” store to open in the city. In the same article, O’Hare said that he also opposed a Carnival store: “If a fast-food joint was coming into the Super Saver parking lot, and I said, ‘Hey, can’t we get a Chili’s?’ who am I discriminating against?”

It’s difficult to assess the impact illegal immigration has had on any given community, all the more so in a Dallas suburb, where residents may be working, shopping, and drawing upon services like hospitals in other parts of the Metroplex. O’Hare has said that illegal immigrants are overburdening the schools, but in interviews school officials disagreed with that notion. He has also complained that some illegal immigrants are committing crimes, and while that is true, they don’t appear to be committing any more crimes than the rest of the population. (Police chief Sid Fuller noted that in a community where violent crime is very low, illegal immigrants stand out only when it comes to driving without a license or insurance.) Nonetheless, O’Hare insists that his constituents are fed up: “They would go through drive-throughs and the people on the other side couldn’t understand English. They were getting frustrated over pressing ‘one’ for this and ‘two’ for that. We had a Montessori school owner complain about how she’d find used drug needles and used condoms in front of the school, right across from a place everyone knows rents to illegals.” And he has the evidence of last May’s election to back him up. “We did what an overwhelming majority of our town wanted to do,” he said.

Nationally, immigration-related laws have seen their prospects rise and fall and rise again. Although last year several courts had sided with groups who opposed the laws, in December and January state statutes were upheld in Arizona and Oklahoma, while a federal judge upheld a local ordinance adopted in Valley Park, Missouri. In January the Farmers Branch council approved a new ordinance that had been drafted with the help of Kris Kobach, who had been the chief adviser on immigration law for former U.S. attorney general John Ashcroft and who had participated in the Hazleton and Valley Park cases. Tailored to satisfy the latest court rulings, this ordinance would require all prospective renters to obtain a residential occupancy license from city hall and is set to go into effect after the case against the previous ordinance is resolved.

On February 21, Gene Bledsoe, a businessman and real estate agent, declared that he would run for mayor against O’Hare. He’d planned to make the announcement in front of city hall, but it was a cold, blustery day, so he and a handful of his supporters gathered in a corner just inside the building. “I think the city is headed in the wrong direction,” said Bledsoe, a tall, bald man who spoke carefully and briefly. “It’s gotten away from its fiscal conservative roots. As mayor I will represent all citizens of Farmers Branch, not just the rich, not just a few builders, but our older citizens, our poorer citizens, and our Hispanic citizens.” Afterward a heckler asked whether he was “for illegal immigration.” Bledsoe said he was not.

There is no very long tradition of political activism in Farmers Branch, as far as I could tell. In speaking with the ordinance’s opponents, I sensed that theirs was a dedicated but small group and that as much as Bledsoe wanted to represent the city’s disadvantaged and its minorities, he would have a hard time getting them to the polls. The lack of a downtown seemed symbolic: Without its own newspaper, without so much as a Four Corners grocery store where residents might interact, it was as if Farmers Branch had yet to get its municipal mind around its own diversity. Of course, suburban anomie is not a new phenomenon, but I wondered whether here, mingled with residual anxiety over 9/11 and all the hoopla around illegal immigration, it had turned a few distressed shopping centers and apartment complexes into an immigration crisis.

When I last spoke to O’Hare, he was on his way to a meeting of his volunteers, who were planning to stage an Easter egg hunt behind his campaign headquarters. “The big thing in Farmers Branch is we kind of let our town go for a while,” he said, “but now people are getting excited to see things are happening.” After all the notoriety the ordinances had brought Farmers Branch, both candidates for mayor seemed to want to distance themselves from the topic of immigration. But it wasn’t going to disappear just yet.

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