Dy­namo lifts up a ‘for­got­ten’ area

Dy­namo, her non­profit have spent years lift­ing up ‘for­got­ten’ area

The Dallas Morning News - - Front Page - Twit­ter: @Sharon­f­grigsby

The Fer­gu­son Road Ini­tia­tive is per­haps Dal­las’ best ex­am­ple of a com­mu­nity com­ing to­gether, tak­ing own­er­ship and im­prov­ing qual­ity of life, says Sharon Grigsby.

More than two decades af­ter Vikki Mar­tin be­gan fight­ing for the Fer­gu­son Road cor­ri­dor, just north of In­ter­state 30, the most fit­ting name for her part of town too of­ten re­mains “For­got­ten Far East Dal­las.”

The Fer­gu­son Road Ini­tia­tive, Mar­tin’s non­profit, still has a long to-do list as it cel­e­brates its 20th an­niver­sary this week­end. But Mar­tin and her crew have ac­com­plished a lot of what other neigh­bor­hoods are still just talk­ing about.

Mar­tin’s grass-roots or­ga­ni­za­tion rep­re­sents 37 neigh­bor­hoods that are home to about 93,000 peo­ple in an area bounded by Gar­land Road, In­ter­state 635, the Mesquite city lim­its and In­ter­state 30. It is per­haps the best ex­am­ple in Dal­las of a com­mu­nity com­ing to­gether, tak­ing own­er­ship and im­prov­ing qual­ity of life.

And FRI, as it’s known, ex­ists and has suc­ceeded be­cause Mar­tin dug in and re­fused to ever let go.

She’s al­ways been in­clu­sive, too. Her group rep­re­sents a di­verse part of the city that is home to both pock­ets of great wealth and pock­ets of deep poverty and crime. The de­mo­graphic break­down is 46 per­cent His­panic, 30 per­cent white and 20 per­cent African-amer­i­can.

The di­ver­sity is what makes the com­mu­nity healthy, she said.

“We don’t say, ‘We only want th­ese kinds of peo­ple in our com­mu­nity,’” Mar­tin said.

Ask the peo­ple who work for her, with her or even against her — and they’ll say Mar­tin is the kind of leader, cat­a­lyst, coach and in­spi­ra­tional force Dal­las needs more of.

Real es­tate in­vestor Ruel Hamil­ton, who lives in For­est Hills, met Mar­tin dur­ing her ear­li­est work. “We fought like cats and dogs be­cause I rep­re­sented the owner of an apart­ment com­plex she didn’t like. I thought she was pos­sessed.

“What I came to learn was that she was ob­sessed — she just loves that neigh­bor­hood.”

FRI grew out of Mar­tin’s con­cerns about poor schools and high crime in her Clare­mont neigh­bor­hood. She or­ga­nized a town hall meet­ing in 1995, only to re­al­ize res­i­dents ei­ther didn’t know how to voice their con­cerns — or were cer­tain no one would lis­ten.

“City Hall knew Lake­wood, Swiss Av­enue, For­est Hills, Old East Dal­las,” Mar­tin re­called. “But they didn’t know parts far­ther east. We had no iden­tity.”

In the years since, Mar­tin has helped shut down prob­lem mo­tels and apart­ment com­plexes. She’s pres­sured oth­ers to clean things up. She’s re­ported ab­sen­tee land­lords and code vi­o­la­tions.

The woman must not sleep. Some­how, Mar­tin man­aged to jug­gle her neigh­bor­hood work along­side teach­ing art at Epis­co­pal School of Dal­las un­til she re­tired in 2017.

Now 65, she serves as FRI’S ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor. An ac­com­plished pain­ter, she di­vides her days and nights be­tween Fer­gu­son Road and an art stu­dio lo­cated in the same house she and her hus­band bought when they came to Dal­las in the late 1980s af­ter they grad­u­ated from the Univer­sity of Texas at Austin.

Phil Rit­ter, one of Dal­las’ civic stal­warts and part of Mar­tin’s kitchen cab­i­net, said she “ex­em­pli­fies lead­er­ship and pub­lic ser­vice — and all of Dal­las is bet­ter for it.”

Facts and fig­ures about FRI’S suc­cesses are im­pres­sive — crime is down, home val­ues are up, the White Rock Hills Branch Li­brary was com­pleted in 2012. But none of that tells the story the way Mar­tin’s “good, bad and ugly” tour does.

As we drove the neigh­bor­hoods last week, she veered her car off the planned route time and again — all the while main­tain­ing an un­bro­ken nar­ra­tive.

“I’ve got to show you this, it’s a great story,” as she pointed to a for­mer nurs­ing home, once van­dal­ized re­peat­edly and cov­ered in graf­fiti but now part of prop­erty con­verted into a 12-step re­cov­ery cam­pus.

On to High­land Road, where she ex­pects con­struc­tion will bring a bike path in 2019: “We will be able to con­nect to trails all over the city.”

Then a big cringe as she drove through the in­ter­sec­tion of Fer­gu­son and High­land roads. “Here we are right in the mid­dle of a food desert. Where do th­ese peo­ple shop?”

Her mood bright­ened just mo­ments later as she showed off a $10 mil­lion mem­ory-care cen­ter, set to open in Jan­uary. Not far from there, she was fired up again over an­other atroc­ity: “A top­less bar right down from a school.”

For many years, FRI’S crime-re­duc­tion ef­forts were su­per­charged by $2 mil­lion in fed­eral Weed and Seed grants, aimed at re­duc­ing vi­o­lent crime, drug abuse and gang ac­tiv­ity. Af­ter Wash­ing­ton ended that pro­gram in 2011, lo­cal busi­nesses, home­own­ers and other sup­port­ers funded the non­profit’s work.

Mar­tin rel­ishes neigh­bor­hood vic­to­ries like a proud par­ent — and she’s not de­terred in the least by the worst of it.

Nor is she de­terred by set­backs. Mar­tin points to a long-promised, never-de­liv­ered com­mu­nity re­cre­ation cen­ter as the big­gest ex­am­ple of City Hall still fail­ing to de­liver for Far East Dal­las. Al­though the city has in­vested $6.5 mil­lion in land for the cen­ter, Mar­tin’s best ef­forts failed to score much fund­ing in the 2017 bond pack­age.

So where did Mar­tin go from there? She worked with City Coun­cil mem­ber Mark Clay­ton to get ground bro­ken next month on the park por­tion of the site. And she part­nered with White Rock United Methodist Church to con­vert a closed church into a stop­gap com­mu­nity cen­ter.

Clay­ton told me that Mar­tin isn’t just per­sis­tent, she’s kind and thought­ful — even when the an­swer is not what she wants. He de­scribed Mar­tin as “the life and breath of FRI.” “Most peo­ple fade in and out,” he said. “The stamina to do this for so long is im­pres­sive.”

Mar­tin says she doesn’t plan to slow down and still wants to face down more chal­lenges. But 20 years in, it looks to me like the or­ga­ni­za­tion’s big­gest chal­lenge is where it will find its next Vikki Mar­tin.

Carly Geraci/staff Pho­tog­ra­pher

Vikki Mar­tin founded and serves as ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the Fer­gu­son Road Ini­tia­tive, which is cel­e­brat­ing its 20th year and rep­re­sents 37 neigh­bor­hoods that are home to about 93,000 peo­ple. She has been laser-fo­cused on im­prov­ing the area’s qual­ity of life.

SHARON GRIGSBY sgrigsby@dal­las­news.com

Carly Geraci/staff Pho­tog­ra­pher

Thomas Quar­tararo of For­ney rides his skate­board at Lake­land Hills Skate Park. The park is one of the im­prove­ments made avail­able with help from the Fer­gu­son Road Ini­tia­tive. The group’s founder, Vikki Mar­tin, says she’s ea­ger to face down more chal­lenges.

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