Singer/songwriter Mac Davis wrote “In the Ghetto” about his childhood friend in Lubbock, Texas. In an interview, Mac said, “I grew up with a little boy who lived in the ghetto… And it was a part of town I could never understand why my little buddy had to live over there and I lived where I lived. And his dad did construction work with my dad…And I had always wanted to write a song called ‘The Vicious Circle’.”

The title was later changed to “In the Ghetto;” Elvis Presley made the song (and Mac Davis) famous when he recorded it in 1969.

* * *

In 1979, mr. hfc and I had just moved to Dallas. Mr. hfc was a carpenter and there was a building boom; it was the J.R. Ewing era. Big shiny buildings were cropping up everywhere. One of mr. hfc’s first jobs was rehabbing the West Dallas housing projects, which had been built in the early 1950s. The improvements were funded by a $13.5 million grant from HUD “for developments that have a high vacancy rate and are in poor condition.”

Perhaps the Dallas Chamber of Commerce should have taken better care of their investment. From a History of the Dallas Housing Authority:

EXPANSION OF LOW-INCOME FAMILY HOUSING IN THE 1950s

In 1950, the Dallas Chamber of Commerce and the Council of Social Agencies recommended that West Dallas be annexed by the city of Dallas as soon as possible and that DHA be authorized to establish 3,500 units in West Dallas. [snip]

Master Plan Engineer Harland Bartholomew, under contract with the city, published a report on Dallas housing that included these findings: Dallas slums and the blighted areas in which they lay were a definite danger to health and social and economic welfare of the city; and Dallas could not long continue to live with its slums without sickening from them.

In place of the slums that existed in West Dallas, DHA built dwelling units that were solidly constructed and with modern facilities. Several permanent housing developments were constructed by DHA in the early 1950s. [my bold]

From a photo caption in the Dallas Morning News, December 15, 1952:

Under construction in West Dallas are (1) 1,500 dwellings for low-income whites in the large area outlined, (2) 500 apartments for Latin-Americans in the small circle and (3) 1,500 units from Hampton to the left for Negroes.

From Wikipedia:

Then in 1956 a 3,500 unit public housing complex was to be built just north of the RSR lead smelter facility. The southern edge of the public housing complex was located 50 feet (15 m) from the lead smelter’s property line.

The RSR smelter is now a Superfund site.

In 1985, public housing in Dallas became the focus of a landmark racial discrimination lawsuit, Walker v. United States Department of Housing and Urban Development, in which seven African-American women “successfully argued that the historical segregation of public housing demanded remedies that would provide families with access to housing opportunities outside of the low income, racially isolated, and often deteriorated housing into which the government had effectively steered them by desire and design.”

The 1979 rehab was never completed and the West Dallas projects were eventually torn down and replaced with single family homes and more public housing units.

* * *

During his time on that ill-fated job, Mr. hfc met André Robison. Eighteen-year-old André, who lived in the projects with his mother and his sister, got a job as a laborer with the construction crew. Everybody fell in love with lanky, goofy André during that long, hot Texas summer. His standard uniform was cutoff jeans, cowboy boots and no shirt. By mid-afternoon, the breakneck work would begin to get to him and André (like everybody) would begin to slow down. Mr. hfc would tease him and yell, “Get up off of that turtle thang, André!” And that became André’s nickname among the carpenters: Turtle Thang. Mr. hfc brought André with him to his next job, working for a contractor who was renovating homes in one of Dallas’ historic neighborhoods. “We were gentrifying,” says mr. hfc.

One weekend, André made a point of visiting his boss, Gus, and each of his co-workers. André had not really ever been out of the projects. He acted like he was visiting a foreign country when he came to our apartment. He didn’t come right out and say it, but he was telling everybody goodbye. Six months before that, André’s sister had been raped and beaten and André had gone after the man who did it, shooting him and putting him in the hospital. Now the man was out of the hospital. André knew his life was in danger. He was right. A few days later, André was shot in the back on his front porch, in the projects, in the ghetto. He died in his mother’s arms.

* * *

I hadn’t thought about André in a long while. But yesterday the San Francisco Chronicle published a photo essay titled “Too Young to Die,” about some of the young people who were killed last year in Oakland. When I saw this photo of 17-year-old Lamont Price, I found myself right back in that funeral parlor in West Dallas.

André was too young to die. Mr. hfc and I were just kids our ownselves—25 and 19, respectively. Mr. hfc was a pallbearer and he didn’t even have a suit; he had to rent one. I had never been to a funeral, let alone a black funeral in the middle of the projects. Andre’s family owned a small piece of land somewhere in Texas that they sold in order to pay for his funeral; they spared no expense. There were five of us white folks, including Andre’s boss and his other co-workers, up in the gallery, packed in among more black people than I had ever seen. We’d already made our slow walk past André’s open casket and were waiting for André’s relatives to get through that terrible, awful ordeal. As they approached his coffin, women fainted; women screamed; some were carried out of the building. I had never seen such grief. I feel it now, 30 years later, because nothing has changed. André is dead. And his mama cries.

People, don’t you understand
The child needs a helping hand
Or he’ll grow to be an angry young man some day
Take a look at you and me,
Are we too blind to see,
Do we simply turn our heads
And look the other way