One resident called it “a very positive first step.”
An overflow crowd of more than 400 people crammed into the Western Hills Primary School gymnasium Wednesday night for a forum aimed at beginning to find solutions for the poverty-stricken Las Vegas Trail area.
Hosted by the Star-Telegram, the “Let’s Talk About the Trail” event attracted a mixture of old and new concerned residents, a surprise and welcomed appearance by Mayor Betsy Price, Fort Worth schools Superintendent Kent Scribner, members of the Police Department and an array of social service agencies. It featured a diverse five-person panel that included new District 3 Councilman Brian Byrd and former gang member turned social activist Abdul Chappell.
The panel answered questions for more than an hour from those in attendance, many of whom became emotional as they spoke of their deteriorated neighborhood and the desire to reverse its high unemployment rate, overcrowded and highly transient schools and the rampant violence the more than 1,400 elementary-school-age kids who live there are exposed on most any day.
“It’s a very positive first step,” said resident Tasandra Simpson, a mother of three and an activist with the Build a Better Hood Foundation created by Chappell. “I haven’t seen this many people on Las Vegas Trail for something to do about Las Vegas Trail. That is a roomful of hope in there.”
The issues that plague Las Vegas Trail are varied and complex. Many were unknown outside the mile-long stretch of end-to-end low-income apartments that line the street from Interstate 30 to Camp Bowie Boulevard on the city’s west side. Many of the issues were brought to light by a recent Star-Telegram project that focused on child abuse. Since then, Price and other city leaders have taken a closer look at the area with a focus on ending the cycle of abject poverty.
Byrd on Wednesday announced the formation of a Las Vegas Trail committee that will consist of five subgroups that will focus on specific issues such as education, economic development and security. It will meet for the first time Oct. 24 at Birchman Baptist Church, and the public is encouraged to attend.
If a first-step solution was presented it was the need for multipurpose community center, a “family life center” as Derwin Harris, director of Restoration Center, calls it. He has found a long-vacant lot a block west of Las Vegas Trail, within walking distance for residents on both the north and south ends of the street. However, Harris said he’s been informed by the city that the land has is zoned for a park.
While that might sound nice, it is a point of contention with residents, who fear a park will simply turn into another gathering spot for drug dealers and pimps when day turns to night. It’s a prime example of how the city and the community will have to work together to understand the needs of those who live there.
Harris and others such as Chappell who have advocated for a community center envision a recreation center for children and teenagers but also a hub for adults to seek education courses, job training, health and wellness, money management classes and other valuable life skills.
“We need a place where we can breathe life into the community,” Harris said. “What I’ve learned working in this community is there are jewels here. There are people with different gifts and talents, but they have been down so long, they don’t know how to get up.”
It is true the Las Vegas Trail area has been ignored for far too long, but now optimism is creeping in. Residents just hope the words they heard Wednesday night lead to actions.
Byrd, a physician and entrepreneur, concluded the evening with a powerful message in the wake of last week’s dispiriting events in Charlottesville, Virginia.
“I just wanted to say this: Guys, our country is tearing itself apart, different races, people that don’t look like us, we’re tearing each other apart. And we have an opportunity, we’re right on the cusp of it, and we can show the world, we can show the nation, that here in Fort Worth, we can come together, every race, creed and color to solve our problems. I believe we can do it, we’re going to get started on it, please join us.”
Jeff Caplan is a projects and enterprise reporter for the Star-Telegram. Reach him at 817-390-7705 or on Twitter @Jeff_Caplan