When Patricia Cox was a young girl, she would walk from her family’s home in the historic Tenth Street neighborhood of Dallas to Show Hill, a shopping center nearby that featured a laundromat, a barbecue joint, and the only movie house in Oak Cliff that Black folks could patronize at the time. On the floors above the cinema was a hotel that welcomed many famous Black entertainers. “I remember seeing Sammy Davis Jr. and Ike and Tina Turner,” Cox recalled recently, at age eighty. “I would be with my dad, who was a bartender at the Dallas Athletic Club, and he would say, ‘Honey, that’s so-and-so!’ ”

Just south of the Trinity River floodplain, the Tenth Street community originated after the Civil War as a freedmen’s town and grew prosperous thanks to a number of Black-owned businesses. But as the 1950s drew to a close, “I noticed my teachers at my school were moving out of the neighborhood,” Cox said. “I thought, ‘What’s happening?’ ”

The culprit was the construction of the R. L. Thornton Freeway, otherwise known as Interstate 35E. It tore through the heart of Tenth Street and, in the process, irrevocably altered the fabric of the community. In 1959, the anchor of Show Hill, the Star Theatre movie house, shuttered, and it was eventually followed by the remainder of the tenants. Today the land where Show Hill used to stand, just a few blocks from the highway, lies empty.

Now, more than six decades later, another infrastructure project supported by public funds promises to transform this corner of Oak Cliff: the Southern Gateway Park, to be built on top of a deck covering a portion of I-35E just south of what remains of the Tenth Street neighborhood. The five-acre park (phase one, the construction of the first 2.8 acres, is projected to cost $82 million) is the product of a compromise born of local and state officials looking to gain the community’s acceptance of a further expansion of the scar that the interstate cut through this section of the city. The building of highways through communities of color in Dallas, as in many major American cities, has a fraught, racist history—one that’s been tremendously damaging, both inadvertently and by design.

The nonprofit Southern Gateway Public Green Foundation was created to oversee the building of the park, which is a public-private partnership between the city of Dallas, the North Central Texas Council of Governments, and the Texas Department of Transportation. Its boosters routinely tout the park’s potential to “stitch” back together a neighborhood long ago divided by I-35E. But Cox and other Tenth Street residents remain wary. “It will not benefit us,” Cox said. “It will benefit the people who build homes, apartments, restaurants, and what have you.”

Cox, who is president of the Tenth Street Residential Association, and many of her neighbors worry the park will spur speculative land investments and new developments that will push up property values near the park and price out existing residents who can’t afford to pay higher property taxes. They believe public officials will fail to mitigate this gentrification. It’s not that the Tenth Street residents don’t like the idea of a new park. It’s that history has made them distrustful of the sales pitch.

Such concerns have stoked opposition since the park was first proposed in 2015, revealing a divide between residents living on opposite sides of the highway. Early support for the project primarily came from residents on the west side, where rapid development has brought an influx of white professionals into historic neighborhoods such as the Bishop Arts District. Meanwhile, many residents to the east, where majority Black, working-class neighborhoods predominate, joined with several Dallas City Council members against the park.

“It’s disingenuous to say it’s going to unite communities when it started with one community and didn’t include the other,” city councilwoman Tiffinni Young told the Oak Cliff Advocate in 2016. Scott Griggs, then the councilman for neighborhoods just west of the park site, was in favor of the project, while the councilwoman who represents Tenth Street, Carolyn King Arnold, derisively referred to it as a “wreck park” and “lipstick on a pig.”

But opposition to Southern Gateway Park inside City Hall dissipated as new faces joined the city council. Even Arnold eventually came around to the idea and has helped raise funds for the project. Exactly why she reversed her opposition isn’t clear. Her staff didn’t respond to multiple interview requests from Texas Monthly. Her shift has stoked suspicions among some Tenth Street residents. “That’s the question that everyone is asking,” said Larry Johnson, who sits on the neighborhood association’s board. “Why is a person who was so against the deck park now raising money for it?”

In an attempt to bridge this trust gap, the Southern Gateway Public Green Foundation conducted a series of meetings to collect community input and allay fears that the deck park will worsen the area’s gentrification. “There’s a lot of distrust in the neighborhood,” acknowledged Brittani Hite, an equity consultant who worked with the foundation during this process, in 2020. “There’s a legacy of broken promises that have been made. So it’s hard for some to believe that this new green space is going to provide opportunities that benefit the people who are there.”

Following these meetings, the foundation developed a lengthy “equitable development plan,” which features 46 recommendations, ranging from the creation of cultural programs and features, such as historical exhibits to recognize the communities of color who have long lived in the area, to policy solutions, such as incentivizing landlords to only gradually increase rents—potentially a tough sell in a state that severely restricts any form of rent control. “The concern about gentrification and displacement is a concern of ours as well,” April Allen, president and COO of the Southern Gateway Public Green Foundation, told me. “Which is why we’ve been intentional about the approach to equitable development.”

Yet it remains to be seen whether any of the proposals in the equitable development plan will be carried forward, if the park gets finished. Only one phase of the proposed two phases of decks upon which the park would sit has been constructed by TxDOT. A recent federal omnibus bill set aside $7.75 million for the park’s second phase, and the Southern Gateway Public Green Foundation has said it hopes to begin construction in June, but it still needs to raise another $13 million to complete the first phase. At this point, it’s anybody’s guess when that will be. The toothier recommendations for ensuring equitable development, such as “rent stabilization,” go far beyond the capacity of the foundation and would require state and local policy makers to act.

Where there has been movement, the details remain sketchy. About $10.5 million generated from a tax-increment financing district in the area has been earmarked to help homeowners near the park repair and keep their homes, but exactly how the funds will be distributed still needs to be worked out. On top of that, whether $10.5 million will be enough money to protect the existing homeowners—and if it will be distributed quickly enough—is difficult to assess.

As the clock ticks and the market shifts around the future Southern Gateway Park, Allen says there are additional approaches being considered. Among these is the creation of a community land trust, which could provide a mechanism for preventing displacement of low- or fixed-income residents by acquiring and securing land and then offering renewable ground leases that allow owners to stay in their homes without facing the pain of increasing property taxes. It’s a concept that’s been tried in other cities, including Austin, Atlanta, and Oakland. Johnson of Tenth Street told Texas Monthly he attended recent meetings about community land trusts but walked away skeptical that one would solve the neighborhood’s problems. “I don’t think it’s such a bad thing,” he said. “But a lot of us are concerned about the owner not owning the land.”

Other ideas, such as property-tax freezes for select communities, are also being considered, but they would require legislative action. A bill proposed by state representative Yvonne Davis, who represents a chunk of southern Dallas, would allow taxing entities to offer tax freezes to homeowners in rapidly gentrifying areas. The chances of the bill passing are unclear, and few seem to be counting on it. “We’re trying to do everything we can both from a policy perspective, and in terms of how we use our relationships and connections, to mitigate displacement,” Allen said. “If we could have our policy makers help us make this less of a potential detriment for folks, I think we would have less of the kind of knee-jerk reaction that this will be bad for them.”

About a half mile south of Tenth Street is Brentwood, a small neighborhood of modest single-family homes, some of which are already being flipped into luxury properties. It’s not a historic former freedmen’s town, but it is a predominantly Black and Hispanic community. Audrie Austin, president of the Brentwood Neighborhood Association, is less pessimistic about the park than her Tenth Street neighbors to the north. “I don’t see the park as a negative thing,” she said. “I think it’s a great thing. But I’m still concerned it will push a lot of people out. People ask, ‘Can the city do development without that happening?’ I believe they can. But will they?”

Some real estate investors and developers have already baked the park into their plans. Having purchased some 25 acres around the deck park site, Hudson Henley told the Dallas Morning News in August 2022 that he planned to construct 262 apartment units, thirteen townhomes, and new retail shops. Other developers have already broken ground on several large projects within a mile of the future park, including two mixed-income complexes that will, in total, contain over 500 “affordable” units—388 set aside for residents who earn 60 percent or less of the area’s median income and another 108 for those earning 80 percent or less—alongside more than 150 market-rate units. But some development experts and residents remain concerned that such options aren’t enough.

“Even if it’s affordable housing for some, it’s often not affordable housing for the people who already live on those streets,” said Melanie Ferguson, a director with the real estate development firm Matthews Southwest who has worked on programs aimed at preventing displacement. The market values of nearby properties can still increase and place unsustainable pressure on existing homeowners and renters, including by pushing up rents in existing affordable units, Ferguson said. “If we’re not talking about ways in which people can stay for longer than three years, or whenever the price goes up, it’s all just lovely PR.”

Meanwhile, developers such as Paul Carden view the deck park as an opportunity to reinvest in historically marginalized communities. The 32-year-old, who lives in Brentwood and sits on the board of the Southern Gateway Public Green Foundation, is working on a number of projects within a mile radius of the park, including a Black-owned brewery near Tenth Street, retail, some mixed-income housing, and a proposed townhouse community on a swath of empty land in Brentwood that would offer views of downtown Dallas. He favors the creation of some mechanism for prioritizing existing neighborhood residents for any new affordable-housing units in the area. “I also believe that we need to continue to leverage the opportunities created by the park,” he said, “to generate funds to improve infrastructure to areas such as Tenth Street, Brentwood, and other historically underinvested communities.”

Whether the promises of the Southern Gateway Park will be delivered to the residents of the Tenth Street and Brentwood neighborhoods will ultimately depend on whether the powers that be have the will to implement the sorts of ideas proposed by the foundation’s equitable development plan—and in a timely fashion. Otherwise, talk about “equity” will be for naught, and the park will fail to stitch together what many still view as an open wound.