Second Thought: Wednesday, March 31, 2005
Making Downtown Safe for the Rich


Making Downtown Safe for the Rich
Tarrant County wants to build some more jail space, and youíd think that the well-meaning citizens around here would be all for it. This is conservative country, full of those quality family values based in religion, and one of the major tenets of that way of thinking is that you go to jail when you break the law.
If your community is tough on crime and convicts more criminals, youíve got to put them behind bars. So you pony up the money and build the jail space. And anyone who has worked in planning these local jails will tell you that having them near the courts is preferable. It cuts down on costs of transporting prisoners around on buses and there is also the issue of safety ó you know, fewer escape options.
So, I was a little perplexed when I saw that many downtown business leaders ó Downtown Fort Worth Inc., the Fort Worth Chamber of Commerce, property developers ó are opposed to a new jail near the downtown court buildings. Their reasoning was that downtown development is really taking off, and with more expensive condos coming, the new residents wouldnít mix well with a jail. A ďpedestrian-friendlyĒ neighborhood doesnít mix with people behind bars. So they want the jail built in the suburbs ó or anywhere else but downtown.
And that got me to thinking a bit. There is already a jail down there, and in all the time Iíve spent downtown, Iíve never seen prisoners being paraded around on the street. They have tunnels under the street that move the bad people around, so you donít really see them.
If youíre buying a condo in the old Bank One building, itís hard to see how a jail four or five blocks away would make any real difference. I figure it this way: Living downtown means you have great advantages: lot of restaurants and being near work, no lawns to mow, being able to walk to a show over at Bass Hall. But downtown living also includes some drawbacks: expensive parking and traffic jams, noise and exhaust pollution, and some of the strange people who might be hanging out on the street.
I went downtown one day to see why a jail might not work well with a ďpedestrian-friendlyĒ neighborhood. I stood out on East Belknap Street in front of the new RadioShack corporate headquarters, which also happens to be right across the street from the current Tarrant County Corrections Center. And in four hours there, I did not see one prisoner in an orange jump suit anywhere.
But now I know why all these business people are so against another downtown jail. Because on East Belknap that day, it was the visitors to the jail who were out on the street. Not criminals, mind you, just people trying to visit a friend or family member, doing their legal best to help out by things like raising bail money or meeting with lawyers.
And here is the crux of the matter: Those visiting the jail are not people who buy $500,000 condos (check the federal courthouse a few blocks over for more of those kinds of defendants). These are working people who drive cars that appear to have only a few thousand miles left on them. This crowd is also younger, and when they open up their cars doors, you can sometimes hear hip-hop or Spanish-language music. Some even wear those drooping, baggy pants and have tattoos.
So itís not the prisoners ó who get moved around in underground tunnels and arenít seen ó itís the poorer crowd that the prisoners attract that is the problem here. RadioShack has them parking on the street in front of their headquarters. This new headquarters cost $200 million, and you canít expect RadioShack to have common folks parking in front of that ó even if their property is still owned by the taxpayers.
Maybe RadioShack has forgotten about the $35 million in tax breaks they are getting for that building (which of course replaced several solid blocks of poor peopleís homes). And maybe the downtown real estate developers are forgetting all the public handouts they have gotten. Maybe they are forgetting that there are civic responsibilities that come from public money being used to subsidize private business.
Tarrant County Sheriff Dee Anderson said the new jail would be more cost-efficient and safer for the public next to the current jail and the courts. Jails and courts also work better in downtown areas given their central location and proximity to public transportation.
Hereís the deal the Tarrant County Commissioners should offer RadioShack and The Tower developers and the other downtown business types who think this jail will mess up their new downtown: If you donít want the jail as your neighbor, give back all the tax breaks youíve gotten. Tarrant County can then use that money to move the jail and all the courts to some poorer area of the county where the rich folks wonít have to see the social aspects of criminality that upset them so.
That would be a fair deal. Because a major factor in downtown urban areas is that they are used by a variety of interest groups. One of those interests is the criminal courts and jail confinement. And if you donít like that crowd, then donít buy a $500,000 condo downtown and complain that a jail ó which keeps those bad boys off the streets ó hurts your new neighborhood and your wonderfully wealthy neighbors.
Thatís what gated communities in the suburbs are for.

Dan McGraw is a Fort Worth author and freelance writer.

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