Evelyn Amaya grew up in this southeast Dallas neighborhood near the Cotton Bowl and Fair Park, and now her four children do, only they’d hardly recognize the old ’hood.
“I let them know that before I used to see prostitutes, there were drugs and gunshots at night,” Amaya, 35, said. “They hear all the stories about how it was. They say, ‘Mom, was it really like that?’ ”
Now Amaya feels safe walking those same streets to and from work every day at the Jubilee Park Community Center, an attractive building of modern architecture that would look equally at home in any well-heeled part of town.
The center houses a children’s library, computer room and, among other amenities, a cozy “living room” with a big-window view to the 3-acre park packed with a soccer field, basketball courts, a walking path and more.
At the park’s far boundary are a series of one-story buildings of identical architecture, home to free daycare for more than 200 children, plus a resource center used by the Dallas Police Department, which prefers its officers to patrol by bicycle. In an area police once deemed a military zone, they now pedal past blue signs throughout the neighborhood that read “Thank a Cop.”
Twenty years in the making, this is Jubilee Park, the model for Las Vegas Trail, Fort Worth’s beleaguered west-side neighborhood.
“What they did worked, and worked well,” Fort Worth councilman Brian Byrd said. “There’s no reason why we can’t do the same thing.”
A one-time rundown neighborhood of apartments and dilapidated houses, Jubilee Park is now a mix of affordable, quality new construction single-family and multi-family housing on mostly safe streets where kids play outside and a refreshing sense of civic pride is conspicuous by the many green and purple butterflies — green representing Jubilee, purple representing the neighborhood’s Robert Owen Elementary School —that are symbols of hope and renewal pinned to homes and yard fences.
Gloria Lopez grew up here and raised her kids here. She has witnessed and participated in the transformation. She started out as a volunteer at the community center and now works there part time.
“We never thought this would happen to our neighborhood, but it has,” Lopez said, who offered advice to Las Vegas Trail residents yearning for a better future. “It has taken time, but it has happened and we see more change to come in the future. They need to get together with the people in their neighborhood and figure out where to meet and to talk about it.”
Jubilee Park is a nonprofit founded 20 years ago by Saint Michael and All Angels Episcopal Church. In celebrating its 50th anniversary, the church set out to identify the most underserved area in Dallas.
It pinpointed the 62-block Fair Park neighborhood, which took its name from the Episcopalian Jubilee, which signifies the church’s fight “against poverty and inequity and works to build up strong and empowered communities.”
Like Las Vegas Trail, Jubilee Park was and remains made up of working-class families in which 98 percent of the children are on free or reduced lunch at school.
The area’s progress has been gradual, starting with a single structure where the 10-acre campus now sits, and with the majority of the facilities being built in last seven to eight years.
Jubilee Park founders established five areas of focus: education, affordable housing, public health, public safety and economic development. Byrd has established those same focus groups, with United Way of Tarrant County CEO T.D. Smyers overseeing the entire project.
“We still have our struggles in the area, but the crime element has significantly reduced in the area, which is amazing,” Jubilee Park CEO Ben Leal said. “It’s getting people engaged, getting people involved and getting people out of their houses.”
Reducing crime on Las Vegas Trail is already taking shape with the city honing in on apartment landlords and motel owners with a track record of allowing criminal activity to take place on their properties. Two week ago, the city filed a lawsuit against Mira Monte Apartments, and could soon file one against Anil Patidar, owner of the Knights Inn.
Bird first visited Jubilee Park last month. Next week he will bring along the Las Vegas Trail Revitalization Project steering committee for a more in-depth look.
Allowing Jubilee Park to flourish is its unique partnerships with social services, foundations and corporations (ExxonMobil, PepsiCo and Texas Instruments, among them). For example, the T. Boone Pickens Foundation donated $6.1 million to build the community center. A recent partnership with Agape Clinic provides medical services. A partnership with the YMCA offers year-round athletics programs.
A new partnership with Dallas County Community College District, a project called Jubilee U., offers core courses for no charge and then upon completion, access to any Dallas County Community College campus.
Affordable housing has been a particular success in reshaping the neighborhood. Across the street from the community center sit 12 individual house-like apartments with 24 units. Named Gurley Place, it is housing for seniors, 700-square-foot apartments with $400-a-month rent. They are attractive, modern-looking spaces with small front yards and individual driveways.
A study conducted by UT Arlington surveyed residents’ wants in housing. Seniors wanted what Gurley Place provided. Families urged for three-bedroom, two-bath, two-garage homes of quality construction. Throughout Jubilee Park, new homes are standing and others are being built; and lifelong renters are being turned into homeowners through multiple partnerships that allow residents to purchase homes at reduced prices and take on manageable mortgages.
“We’re not about gentrification here at all, we’re about empowerment. We’re the catalyst for community renewal in the area,” Leal said, pointing at recently constructed home. “This was a $165,000 product to build. In this neighborhood, $165,000 is not affordable. What we’ve done is partnerships.”
The city of Dallas puts in $25,000 per house, Jubilee puts in $25,000 per house, Dallas philanthropist Trammel S. Crow puts in $15,000, then HUD puts in up to another $20,000 per house, Leal said.
“We’ve taken a $165,000 price tag and reduced it to $85,000, which is doable for people in this neighborhood,” Leal said.
It is no longer commonplace here for children to be sheltered indoors for fear of violence and drugs. The neighborhood has become a community. At the heart of it is the community center, an amenity that Byrd is working to bring to Las Vegas Trail. Several options, including one involving the YMCA on Calmont Avenue, are being discussed.
Jubilee Park is 20 years in the making. The work on Las Vegas Trail has only begun. But there is a blueprint to follow, and results that have to make the most skeptical person take a closer look.
“It was like that here as well,” Amaya said, referring to the neighborhood’s rugged past. “But now since the kids have somewhere safe to play, and not only just in our park, but outside on the street, you see more kids playing, you see them riding bikes, you see them interacting with other kids in the neighborhood.”