During my almost 20 years of living in Fort Worth, I can’t count the number of times in which I zipped by Las Vegas Trail on Interstate 30 without a second thought. Las Vegas Trail was nothing more than the name of a street on an exit sign.
You’ve heard of flyover country? Las Vegas Trail is drive-by country.
Then came the assignment that changed everything. In March, I was asked to join a Star-Telegram special project examining child abuse in Tarrant County. A doctor at Cook Children’s Medical Center, who has since left the hospital, had uncovered, through computer mapping, potential hot spots for child abuse across the city on practically a block-to-block basis. Research showed Las Vegas Trail, based on its high rates of poverty, crime and violence, among other vices, was prime territory for cases of child abuse.
For two months I made multiple trips a week to The Trail, a stretch of road barely one mile in length from I-30 south to Camp Bowie Boulevard. What I found was ugly, raw, painful and deep-seated. This four-lane street, lined on each side by low-income apartments and walked aimlessly by men and women of all races and all of hard luck, for me was like stepping into an alternate reality.
Yet it is reality. And it suffocates its residents, snuffs out their dreams.
Cramped, often neglected apartment units and overcrowded schools came, ashamedly, as a shock to this outsider, but it’s hardly news to the people who live it. They are trapped in a perceived inescapable bubble of day-at-a-time survival.
On Wednesday, the Star-Telegram will host a community forum, the first in a conversation among residents of The Trail and the many people who want to help burst that bubble.
‘I am The Trail’
Former Star-Telegram columnist and social activist Bob Ray Sanders will moderate the forum. It will feature a six-person panel that includes District 3 City Councilman Brian Byrd ; activist Abdul Chappell, a reformed gang member who grew up on Las Vegas Trail and recently founded the Build A Better Hood Foundation; Western Hills Elementary School Principal Alexandra Montes; Western Hills Primary School Principal Sonya Kelly; Fort Worth police Lt. Kirk Driver, the architect of The Leveraging Project, which is designed to bring social services directly to the people who need them most; and Amanda Guisto, a longtime resident and former prostitute.
Residents of the Las Vegas Trail area are invited to attend, with your children, and join the conversation. A one-hour discussion and Q&A will be followed by time to mingle with the panel and talk one-on-one.
Guisto is 37 and leads classes for women like her, and for younger women, teenagers, who feel pressed against the odds.
“I am The Trail,” Guisto said. “My mom worked three jobs, she was never at home and I was on the streets since 11 out here, getting it. It goes down from generation to generation. My mom was addicted to heroin and cocaine, she was abused. We went from shelter to shelter. I was in like three schools in a week. The next week would be another school.
“My sisters, two were strippers, in and out of jail. I’m the baby girl. I had a baby at 15, dropped out of school in the sixth grade. No one cared.”
The Trail needs help
Shortly after the Star-Telegram’s special report was published, city leaders including Mayor Betsy Price, Councilman Byrd and Police Chief Joel Fitzgerald and others took a bus tour through the Las Vegas Trail area for a long overdue firsthand look at what the gradual erosion of the quality of life over the past three decades has wrought.
That tour and Wednesday’s forum are steps toward what will clearly be a long struggle to reverse the many negative trends that have become entrenched here. At stake in no uncertain terms are the lives of many, many children being raised on Las Vegas Trail, growing up too often with one parent, too often unsupervised, undernourished and in the constant shadow of crime, violence and addiction.
Already we’ve seen the Fort Worth community mobilize. Chappell has reported a high volume of calls and emails from people asking how they can help. Same with the Western Hills United Methodist Church across the street from the elementary school. A Facebook page, LVT LOVE, was recently created and within a week had more than 500 members. They have started a school supply/backpack drive for students at the elementary and primary schools.
Coaches from Western Hills High School reached out to the Star-Telegram, asking how they could help.
Those efforts are tremendous, but for long-term success, we have to roll up our sleeves. Las Vegas Trail desperately needs a community center, more access to public transportation, fair and honest landlords. It needs business owners to take a chance. It needs to rid the violent criminals, gang members and drug dealers. It needs parents to embrace being parents.
In some cases, Las Vegas Trail is onto a third generation of children born into abject poverty. It, and all of Fort Worth, can ill afford a fourth.
“If we don’t talk about this stuff, it’s kicking the can down the street for the next generation to keep dealing with it,” Chappell said.
See you on The Trail, 6 p.m. Wednesday.
Jeff Caplan is a projects and enterprise reporter for the Star-Telegram. Reach him at 817-390-7705 or on Twitter @Jeff_Caplan
Let’s Talk About The Trail
Las Vegas Trail residents are invited to attend the forum, 6 p.m. Wednesday at Western Hills Primary School, 8300 Mojave Trail, Fort Worth.