American Postcard: At Last

Highland Park, Texas, one of the wealthiest enclaves in America, is a beautiful village, refined and leafy, filled with parks, set in the heart of Dallas. Together with its slightly less affluent sister town of University Park, home to Southern Methodist University, the two Park Cities are often referred to in Dallas as "the bubble," as though the big city, with its real-world problems, seldom intrudes.

Karen Watson is moving to Highland Park for the very same reasons as most of the residents. She loves her gracious 1928 Mediterranean-style home, the lushly landscaped streets and its excellent schools (earlier this month, NEWSWEEK ranked HP High as the 14th best school in the nation). But unlike most of the other new arrivals, Watson, 36 and her husband, Joshua Lazu, 38, have attracted a fair amount of attention even before their moving truck has pulled up to the house. The local newspaper, Park Cities People, features Karen Watson on the front page of its current edition.

Here's the lead of the story: "Guess who's coming to dinner-and staying for a while?"

Yes, Karen Watson is African-American.

The story, with its startling reference to the 1967 film starring Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy as the white parents of a young woman who brings home her black fiance, Sydney Poitier, has created quite a stir. Angry complaints have cascaded into the paper, according to John Clare, the reporter who wrote the piece. Most people have objected to the opening sentence, he says. "People have been e-mailing and writing ... [saying] 'We're appalled,' and 'How could you?' and 'How embarrassing for this poor woman'." The paper's editor was lambasted on local television and talk radio has debated the merits of the piece.

But putting aside the patronizing lead and a few other troubling references (Clare calls Watson a "girl"), there's something far more shocking about the story.

The Watsons may well be the first African-Americans to buy and live in a home in Highland Park. Ever. It's difficult to know with absolute certainty. The 2000 census does not break down homeownership data by race but it did record 34 blacks residing in Highland Park (or .4 percent of the total population of 8,879). Whites accounted for 97.3 percent. The paper Park Cities People consulted town historians and officials who, after searching their memories and a few documents, agreed that the Watsons are in fact the first. "[Former Dallas Cowboy star] Herschel Walker is rumored to have lived here," Clare says, "but that's not true. He did not own property in Highland Park, at least under his own name."

The paper noted that a black person owned-briefly-at least one other house in Highland Park but did not reside in it. In the 1960s, an HP matron daringly willed her house upon her death to the Dallas chapter of the Black Panthers. When the head of the group came to pay property taxes, residents were horrified. "He wore a full-length calfskin coat and a funny hat," the paper quoted a long-time resident as saying. "He paid his taxes with a check and left. Well, that caused quite a stir." The group soon sold the house to the town. About the only person not outraged by the story is Karen Watson.

"Surprisingly, I'm not that disturbed by it," she said. Disappointed, yes. Watson is a very successful mortgage loan officer-she moved to Highland Park because many of her wealthy clients live nearby and recommended it-and she knows well how pernicious discrimination in housing can be. She's happy that at least the unfortunate story has started a more serious conversation about race in Highland Park and Dallas.

"I would have preferred that they not have said, 'Guess who's coming to dinner'," she says. "But since I am an African-American woman, and I am in the mortgage business, I have seen first-hand a lot of racism in mortgage practices. So the fact that we are talking about it is good. It's like some hidden child in the closet, like it doesn't exist. There are some racial topics we should delve into and housing and employment are still troubled areas. I would rather people start talking about it because if they do, at least their weird ideas get out in the open and if you shine a light on them, they start to fade away. Hopefully people will try to be more sensitive to other people and see them as people instead of as labels."

Still, Watson says she was shocked to learn that she and her husband, a salesman, may be the first black people to own and live in Highland Park. Her own mortgage-loan processor told her that the underwriter of the loan had actually questioned her race after reviewing her application. "The underwriter told him the race must have been incorrect," she says. "People have these weird concepts that African-American women don't buy million-dollar-plus homes, especially in Highland Park."

They haven't, especially in Highland Park.

For decades, racial minorities were actually legally prohibited from buying in the town. When the town fathers formally organized Highland Park in 1913 (Wilbur David Cook, the town planner who helped create Beverly Hills, Calif., was asked to create a similar village in Highland Park), they created deed restrictions prohibiting ownership by racial minorities: "[S]aid premises shall be used for residence purposes only, and by white persons only, not excluding bona fide servants of any race, and shall not be used for the purpose of selling intoxicating liquors." Such deed restrictions were common in many communities in the early 20th century, but the courts eventually struck them down and outlawed such overt racial discrimination.

Even so, Highland Park has remained, as reporter Clare calls it, "lily white." There is a smattering of nonblack minorities who live in the town (Texas Rangers star Alex Rodriquez is one) but the racial makeup of the town has changed very little over the years. It's not as though there aren't wealthy African-Americans who live in other expensive, exclusive neighborhoods. Karen Watson is moving from a wealthy section of Plano, a northern suburb of Dallas.

But Highland Park has never presented a particularly welcoming image to minorities. In 1981, 104 people filed a class-action lawsuit against the town alleging police deliberately targeted blacks and Hispanics-often charging them with being "drunk in car," a crime that lawyers for the plaintiffs said did not exist on the books. The goal, of course, was to keep outsiders, particularly blacks and Hispanics, out. Police officials denied the charges but the practice was so egregious that even the Reagan administration's Justice Department got involved. Federal officials reached an agreement with the town in 1983 to stop detaining people "solely on the basis of that person's race, national origin or non-resident" status.

For their part, the editors of Park Cities People say they have learned a valuable lesson. "In retrospect, that opening line we should have changed," Clare says. "It was a little flippant ... We felt that was a ground-breaking movie back when and we felt [Watson's arrival] was kind of a ground-breaking event." Clare says that no one on the editorial staff understood why the story might be offensive. In fact, he says, they were too busy fighting over the original headline to really concentrate on the story. He won't say what that headline was (one shudders to think. BOYZ IN THE BUBBLE perhaps?) but that it eventually became the more benign AREA'S FIRST AFRICAN-AMERICAN FAMILY WELCOMED. The newspaper has no minority editorial staff, Clare says. "In the future, anything touchy or controversial or iffy, we have already made plans to send the story out to a couple of people who have agreed to take a look at. A Hispanic, an Asian and an African-American."

Wouldn't it be better to hire a real, live minority? "We don't have the money. We have cut back," Clare says.

Some of Watson's friends, including those who live in the Park Cities, were worried enough to ask her if she had really thought through the decision to move to Highland Park. "I have had people say, 'What? Karen, are you sure?'" But she says the neighbors she has met have been nothing but welcoming and kind. She still eagerly looks forward to moving into her house, located on Beverly Drive, one of the most prestigious streets in the town, once it's repainted. She brushes off the controversy. "Gosh," she says with a slightly rueful laugh, "if I can get to the point where I can buy a house on Beverly, you can imagine I've been through a lot worse."

Living well is always the best revenge.