Jim Crow segregation. Discriminatory housing policies. Racial violence. These are inescapable elements of America’s urban history. In every city, it’s the same story, manifesting in a different way.
A new documentary explores how these forces shaped South Dallas, which still faces economic and social disparities compared to the city’s North. “It’s the history of Dallas, and you want to have an appreciation for the city that you live in beyond this rosy history that everyone knows and talks about,” Craig Weflen, the film’s director and a trained architect, told Art and Seek magazine. “It’s important that we recognize these things that have happened in our city as we look forward to building a better Dallas.”
The film, Bonton + Ideal, is named after two historically black South Dallas locales. In it, residents of these neighborhoods recount what it was like growing up in rickety housing, without amenities like running water, electricity, playgrounds, good schools, and public services. These residences were built on the Trinity River flood plain, which means that floods were routine. “South Dallas was sand. When the wind blew, it would leave a hole in the road. When it would rain, that hole would fill up with water,” Willard Dotson, who lived in the area, says in the film. “When it rained hard, Bexar Street looked like a river.”
The black families who lived in Bonton and Ideal were physically fenced off from the rest of the city—and economically isolated, as well. If they tried to move out to other, better neighborhoods, they were terrorized. “As blacks started to come home from the [World Wars], they didn’t want to live in the ghetto anymore,” local historian Donald Payton says in the film. “Over in South Dallas, people would buy houses and the next night somebody would throw dynamite into their house and blow up their house—bringing the fear.” Even their children weren’t spared, Payton adds. In one incident, a hostile crowd attacked a South Dallas school bus with bottles, and rocked it so hard that kids inside had to lay down on the floor of the bus.
“It wasn’t explosive bombs, but it was … symbolism,” he says. As a result, more and more families moved back to Bonton. Sometimes, locals called the neighborhood “Bomb town”—a reference to the violence that forced them to return.