Before its current owner, Jeanne Crusemann Daniels, poisoned it by acting less like a landlord than the lord of the land, the TarryTown Shopping Center, in West Austin, was one of my favorite places to pass the time. Built in 1939 by Daniels’s grandmother and great-uncle, it was the first of its kind in the city and one of the first in Texas; people drove from all over to marvel at this new concept in marketing. Nicely arranged on either side of Exposition Boulevard just north of Windsor—less than a ten-minute drive from the state capitol—it was an appealing cluster of one- and two-story shops and restaurants with red tile roofs and faux California-Spanish architecture, embedded within an upscale enclave of reasonably tolerant people and fine homes. But in 1999, after she inherited the property from her mother, Daniels—a loyal supporter of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals—proceeded to wreck it with her loony crusade for animal rights and veganism. Merchants who did not obey her lifestyle edicts were sent packing. For some years now Daniels has lived in Houston, leaving the dirty work of tenant relations to her lawyers and property manager. Her flunkies insist that the center is “thriving” and point to its 93 percent occupancy rate, but there is no place to buy groceries, no place to eat lunch, no heart, no soul.

Its demise happened in the blink of an eye, or so it seems. I used to live on Exposition, less than a block away. Everything I needed was within walking distance. There was a bank, a branch library, a post office, a pharmacy, a grocery, three or four good places to eat, tree-lined sidewalks, and a reassuring sense that this was a neighborhood at peace with itself. Many of the businesses had been there for thirty or forty years, a few even longer. Ralph Moreland’s Holiday House, which sold burgers and comfort food and anchored one corner of the center, evolved into an unofficial community gathering place. Old folks walked to the Holiday House for breakfast and lingered until mid-morning. Teens migrated there after school. The late Bob Bullock, who also lived nearby, huddled with other politicians over endless refills of coffee. Bible study groups convened there, as did a chapter of Alcoholics Anonymous. I went there to read and be left alone.

And yet I hadn’t heard of Jeanne Daniels, or realized that her purge was in progress, let alone virtually complete, until I read in January that Bill Broaddus had been obliged to close the Chevron station that his father, Scott, had opened 66 years ago. The Chevron and the Tarrytown Pharmacy, which opened in December 1941—the same weekend as the attack on Pearl Harbor—were the only longtime tenants still in business; now one of them was gone, and the other might well be when its lease is up in 2010. The Grocery, which sold gourmet wines, cheeses, and choice cuts of beef, shut down eight years ago, followed by Texas French Bread (a bakery), Holiday House, Formosa (a Chinese restaurant), and several other popular venues. Though they closed or moved for various reasons, all of them had run afoul of Daniels’s unyielding restrictions, which prohibit the sale of animal products and items that might be deemed harmful to animals. By animals, Daniels means not just cute furry or winged creatures but also ants, rats, and even fish eggs. The liquor store was forced to stop selling gift baskets that included jars of caviar. The owner of a shoe repair shop had to move leather laces to the back, though Daniels still permits him to shine and repair leather shoes. (When I asked her about this apparent hypocrisy, as well as her leasing a storefront to a Seattle’s Best Coffee franchise, which serves food made from animal products, Daniels—who would answer my questions only through her publicist—replied, “The Center is a work in progress, evolving toward its goal.”) Mousetraps at the hardware store, leather eyeglass cases at the optometrist, and shoes and belts at the children’s clothing store became contraband. Nancy Owen was told to stop selling memory books made with leather at her wedding accessories shop, which she did, but when she complained a few years later about an infestation of ants and requested an exterminator for the shop’s exterior, she says that one of Daniels’s henchmen told her the pests would be trapped and “relocated.”

The Broaddus family’s gas station was typical of the professionalism and old-fashioned commitment to service and quality once common not only at the TarryTown Shopping Center but all across America. When you pulled in with a strange knock under the hood, Julio or Leroy or one of the other mechanics who’d worked there for so long rushed to your assistance. Bill Broaddus is a large man with an easy smile and the sort of relaxed attitude I find comforting when talking about cars and other mysteries of life. Eventually I moved to another part of town, but I kept coming to Tarrytown to fill up, knowing he cared about me and my machine.

Broaddus got crosswise with Daniels because he sold candy bars made from milk that was presumably ripped from the udders of helpless cows. He agreed to get rid of the offensive candy, but when his lease came up for renewal, the new contract was so packed with oppressive demands that he moved his station to West Lake Hills. “I grew up two blocks away,” he told me, sorrowfully. “This was more than just a job.” (Another gas station that leases from Daniels, Tarrytown Texaco, has stayed open by toeing Daniels’s hard line.) Likewise, Owen decided the fuss over the ants was too much and elected not to sign a new lease when her old one expired. Among other concerns, she said she would have had to share her profits and probably open her books if she had renewed.

It would be hard to count the number of loyal employees who have lost jobs because of Daniels’s obsession—Holiday House alone had at least five waitresses and cooks with thirty-plus years on the job—or how many merchants have seen their hopes and dreams whacked. In the early nineties, Harvey Tack and his wife and business partner, Sherry Stepanian, moved to Austin from Los Angeles, where he was a successful tax attorney and she ran a waste-collection business, because they wanted to open the Grocery, a mom-and-pop food market in Tarrytown. Their plan was to someday sell the business and retire, but they never got the chance.

For years the shopping center was owned by Daniels’s mother, Mary Lee Crusemann, a glamorous redhead who drove a vintage yellow sports car (either a Jaguar or a Cord, depending on which old-timer does the recollecting). Mary Lee inherited the property from her husband, Paul Crusemann, a great-grandson of former Texas governor E. M. Pease. Paul’s mother, Margaret Graham Crusemann, and uncle, Niles Graham, developed the shopping center on part of the Pease family estate of Woodlawn and named it for Tarrytown, New York, a favorite family retreat. Mary Lee was a popular presence, a tough but fair businesswoman. “She was very loyal to her tenants,” recalls retired realtor Eden Box, whose company leased office space from her. “If a business wasn’t making money, she’d ride out the tough times with them. Her daughter is just reckless. She has no feeling of compassion or responsibility to the neighborhood.”

Nearly every neighbor, tenant, or former tenant who agreed to talk to me said the same thing: Daniels’s crusade on behalf of animals comes at the expense of the residents of Tarrytown. “She put a lot of businesses under,” says Judy Willcott, the founder of Texas French Bread. Willcott tried to save her Tarrytown franchise by agreeing to drop all meat products, including turkey and tuna sandwiches, from her luncheon menu in return for a one-year lease extension. It was a disaster. “The change in the menu led directly to the closing of that store,” Willcott told me. “It was very costly for us.” It was costly, too, for the neighborhood, where the quality of life has suffered measurably with each business closure. An investment firm now occupies the Grocery’s old space (hawking pork bellies and cattle futures, I suspect). ReForm Pilates has replaced the wedding shop. The Texas French Bread is now a package-shipping operation. The Holiday House’s exit made way for the NuAge vegetarian restaurant, which closed not long ago following a family emergency. “The tenants are terrified to speak up, but all of us think she has hurt business,” a current renter told me privately. “Her response is ‘The entire economy has been down.’ That’s BS. The economy has been thriving except for here.”

If a landlord had shut down this many popular businesses in East Austin, protesters with hayforks would be storming city hall, but demonstrations are considered gauche in Tarrytown. In the ripple of outrage that followed the closing of the Grocery, the leadership of the West Austin Neighborhood Group debated requesting a meeting with Daniels, but even this mild attempt at rebuke failed to get the necessary votes from its members. Daniels still owns and occasionally occupies the Crusemann family home, which is on a cul-de-sac down the street and around the corner. Neighbors say she is as secretive and unapproachable as her mother was gregarious. “She has an attorney represent her at neighborhood meetings,” says one who asked not to be named. When Mary Lee owned the property, the neighbor told me, she permitted kids to cut through her yard on their way to Reed Park. “Now there’s an iron-gated fence across the front and no mailbox.” People who knew Daniels at Austin High remember her as overweight and standoffish, a wallflower who didn’t mix well. Now in her mid-sixties, she is reportedly slim and attractive, though still not much of a socializer. Some speculate that by trashing the shopping center, she’s taking revenge for some perceived slight years ago.

The only person willing to take on Daniels publicly has been Austin American-Statesman columnist John Kelso, who has posed such rhetorical questions as “How can you be cruel to a fish egg?” and once threatened to eat a different animal every day until she agreed to be interviewed (she never did). Kelso was able to flush her out briefly earlier this year when he published a photograph taken in 1975 of Daniels wearing what was identified as silver fox; she sent word that it was a coat trimmed with feathers and that, in any case, she hasn’t purchased or worn fur since 1986, when she had her animal epiphany and joined the board of the Houston Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. The organization opened her to a world of information about the treatment of animals, Daniels informed me through her publicist, then proceeded to share that information in excruciating detail.

One doesn’t have to be a vegetarian or vegan to understand the cruelty of the slaughterhouse or the horror of skinning creatures for their fur. As the owner of three (terribly spoiled) dogs, I’m constantly reminded of our responsibilities to creatures great and small. I have written and spoken about corporations that subject animals to unspeakable cruelties, pollute our rivers and air, and cost us billions in subsidies to farmers. I admire and respect Daniels’s passion for animal rights and her generous contributions to the Houston SPCA and PETA. I equally appreciate her right as a property owner to let her ethical perspective drive her business decisions. But what she’s done to Tarrytown strikes me as a crime against nature far worse than eating meat or wearing fur.

Daniels doesn’t see it that way, of course. When I asked if she felt a moral responsibility to her neighbors and tenants, she replied that her moral responsibility was “to stand up against the most egregiously immoral industry of our time, the factory farm.” She dismissed complaints from people who told me they bought a home in Tarrytown partly because they could send their kids across the street for a loaf of bread or a decent turkey sandwich. “To buy a home … with the expectation that nearby retail businesses will never change is unrealistic,” she said, pointing out that such “inconveniences” pale compared with the cruelties of the slaughterhouse.

Besides, she might have added, she’s willing to inconvenience herself too for the greater good. In 2002, for instance, she ripped the leather off the seats of her brand-new, $92,000 Mercedes-Benz CL500 and sent it to PETA, which had activists in cow suits personally deliver the shreds to DaimlerChrysler’s corporate offices in Auburn Hills, Michigan, and Stuttgart, Germany. In a subsequent letter to the automaker, Daniels explained that she had tried repeatedly to buy a Mercedes with cloth seats. In frustration, she had the CL500’s seats recovered with cloth. When I referred to this fit of pique as a “theatrical demonstration,” Daniels replied that, in fact, it was very effective. Because of the publicity her stunt generated, she told me, DaimlerChrysler decided to make leather-free interiors available on all models.

If true, it’s a victory for animals and rich folk alike, and we all owe Daniels an apology. The rich deserve ethical treatment too.