Metropolis: Wednesday, January 9, 2003
Restoring Lives and Landmarks

Probationers have been a major factor in local historic projects.


Restoring Lives and Landmarks

Probationers have been a major factor in local historic projects.


Paul Weir of Fort Worth says frankly that when he was convicted of marijuana possession in early 2001, he was a pot head who didn’t give a damn about anything. “My attitude was mainly about me,” admitted the 20-year-old father. Back then, Weir said, his pals were teen-age “troublemakers who did drugs and started fights.”

That all began to change when State District Judge Sharen Wilson sentenced Weir to probation, with 160 hours mandatory community service. Assigned to the Botanical Gardens, he worked alone in a creek bed pulling weeds. Three cases of poison ivy later, Weir requested a new assignment and found himself spending evenings and weekends mopping, decorating, and otherwise assisting at Fort Worth’s Southside Preservation Hall.

In the past six years, the landmark 1911-vintage former Methodist church on Lipscomb Street has been turned into a vibrant southside community center — and directors say they couldn’t have done it without workers like Weir.

At the hall, “I worked with sweet ladies who don’t look at me any different than their sons,” Weir said. He enjoyed the work so much that he put in more hours than required. “I actually helped out people,” he marveled.

Judges have been assigning probationers to community service for many years, with the idea of requiring offenders to give something back to the communities they have damaged. In the past year, in Tarrant County alone, officials estimate that probationers contributed more than $2.5 million in services to local nonprofit groups, doing everything from collecting trash to serving the hungry at soup kitchens.

In Fort Worth a particularly successful version of the program has helped save or restore several historic buildings — while simultaneously helping many probationers refurbish their own sense of self-worth. “Using probationers for historic preservation has proved to be quite rewarding,” said Dorothy Rencurrel, chairman of the Tarrant County Historical Commission, “not only to probationers doing the work but also to organizations receiving the work.” The idea of “restorative justice” has also taken hold in other places around the country.

At 801 West Shaw St., the Victory Arts Center is the latest local restoration effort to benefit from probationer labor. According to attorney Cary Jennings, the five-story building is being transformed into artists’ lofts by a special arrangement between the nonprofit Historic Landmarks, Inc. and its for-profit subsidiary, ArtSpace Texas, which has partnered with Fannie Mae to form Victory Arts Center LP. The VAC partnership has hired Daedalus Development Corporation to supervise and complete the renovations. Reconstruction began in earnest after the project received final financing in April 2002, and occupancy is now planned for March. The 68,000-square-foot Gothic brick structure, once a convent and school, qualifies for community service assistance due to its nonprofit management.

Over the past several months, probationers have worked weekends at the site, helping clear debris and move building materials. This is Daedalus superintendent Bob Locker’s first experience working with probationers. “Most of them are very willing and I’ve had zero problems,” he said. One man in his 30s even asked Locker about a paying job while still in the process of completing his service commitment. Locker hired him as a painter in December and, so far, has been completely satisfied. “This guy was very dependable during community service, showed up every time, and is real pleasant to work with,” said Locker. “In this business you know pretty quick if a person can do what he says he can.”

Probationers are still helping keep the Southside Preservation Hall in shape for the swing dance lessons, cooking classes, and wedding parties it now hosts. But in the mid-1990s it was run down and targeted for demolition. A historic designation saved it from that fate, and by 1996 a determined group of area residents had begun nurturing it back to life. A scant budget encouraged the group to seek help from the county probation department.

“Without our fabulous community service volunteers, we could not have made it,” said Rose Lynn Scott, director of the hall. She pointed to new electrical wiring, restored custom woodwork, and unsnarled plumbing as some of the jobs that probationers helped accomplish. Probationers even scoured the neighborhood on trash patrol. “We used to have potential wedding customers refuse to come in the building because they did not like the neighborhood,” Scott said. “Now we have so many weddings that brides-to-be have started taking any available openings.”

In the process of restoring old buildings, probationers like Weir often find new qualities in themselves as well. Russell Borth, 43, began working at the Southside Preservation Hall in 2001. In 18 months of service, the ex-drug addict remodeled and refurbished two bathrooms, plastered cracks in the chapel, and fixed water damage to the ceiling. Proud of his accomplishments, Borth brought his two children to see the results of his handiwork. “I’ve tried my best to be as open as possible with them about what got me into this. This whole thing has been a ‘Don’t do what Dad’s done’ kind of thing.”

A grandfather of seven, Don Tagg was sentenced to 320 community service hours at the Southside Preservation Hall when a man who borrowed his truck used it to steal a motorcycle. Self-described as once “mad at the world,” Tagg found he enjoyed the work so much that he upped his hours to four nights a week plus weekends. “People appreciated me for helping out there,” he said.

Director Scott takes pride in spotting aptitude and fostering talent in the probationers. “There’s usually not much push-back or animosity, but some people right off the bat have an attitude.” When she does encounter a problem, she quickly takes the individual out of earshot for a reminder, “I’m not the reason you’re here. Let’s try to make the best of it. If you’re not able to do that, I’m going to have to ask you to go somewhere else.”

The growing popularity of “restorative justice” in Texas and elsewhere is due in part to the tremendous financial savings it offers. Mark Siemers of the Minnesota Department of Corrections, for example, said that a chunk of the $6.2 million that probationers saved his state in fiscal year 2002 went to restoring historical sites for the Chisago County Historical Society.

One of the earliest examples in Fort Worth of preservation by probationers was the landmark YWCA on West 4th Street. In 1990, nearly 140 probationers helped mount a designer showcase fundraiser there. The intensive restoration and redecoration they contributed was valued at about $250,000. “Probationers did everything from installing Sheetrock ceiling to plaster repair, painting, and tile installation,” said Judy Bishop, executive director. A commercially done $4 million renovation followed a few years later, but the wood parquet floors laid by probationers still remain in two parlors.

Bishop said her staff felt comfortable with the probationers who worked throughout their building during that time. “Because we serve women and children, we didn’t allow anyone with any kind of violent or sex crime to participate, and none of the probationers were able to interact with the clients,” she said.

One YWCA member recently expressed concern when she learned that at one time she may have passed probationers in the hallway on her way to a workout. Jim Sinclair, assistant director of Tarrant County’s adult probation department, responds easily to such concerns. “If the offender’s on probation, they’re going to be in the community anyway. It’s better to have them productively engaged in volunteer work than having more idle time on their hands,” he said.

The “pro-social” environment of preservation efforts may help probationers flourish. Eight months after completing his community service at Southside Preservation Hall, Tagg returned with his 13-year-old grandson, and together they watched a monthly swing dance session. “I took him all around the building, showed him what I did,” he said. At home, Tagg is building 48-inch round folding tables for the hall, charging the center only for materials. Tagg said that even his wife finds him more pleasant to be around these days. “I wake up with a smile and go to bed with a smile,” he said. “I don’t like being miserable anymore.”

Weir, who shed his “bad-ass” friends many months ago, recognizes a similar transformation within himself. “I’m not the same person I was,” he said matter-of-factly. Even his divorced father, who was rarely present in Weir’s childhood and looked down on him for his arrest, has noticed the changes. “He says I’m more grown up,” said the younger Weir. “He’s starting to call, to ask me if I need anything.” The two have begun sharing movies and golf despite the hour-and-a-half drive between their homes. As Weir said with quiet pride, “Today, we’ve actually got a father-son type of relationship.”

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