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West Side Stories: Part Three

Meadows students help preserve heritage and culture of West Dallas

In honor of the opening festivities surrounding the new Margaret Hunt Hill Bridge, SMU Meadows brings you this five-part Web series exploring our connections with architect Santiago Calatrava, the new bridge and West Dallas. Stay tuned for a new story every day this week, leading up to opening celebrations on the bridge March 2-4. The bridge will open to vehicular traffic in late March or early April 2012.

Read Part Two: Calatrava's Dallas roots date back to 1999 with SMU commission

He could see it coming.

Albert Valtierra and his colleagues at the Dallas Mexican American Historical League (DMAHL) knew that once the much-heralded Margaret Hunt Hill Bridge opened, gentrification was likely to gradually erase decades of West Dallas history and culture.

At once excited for the possibility of new retail businesses, jobs and stable neighborhoods but wary of the urban renewal sure to take place, Valtierra and DMAHL scrambled to gather photos, oral histories and mementos from West Dallas’ past. They collected interviews with neighborhood elders: people who had helped build the city of Dallas, ran mom and pop tacquerias, worked for the cement factories on the west side of the Trinity River. But DMAHL’s resources only went so far, and time was running out.

On a summer day in 2011, Valtierra and his colleagues met with Janis Bergman-Carton, associate professor and chair of the Art History Division at SMU. Was there a way SMU could help with their efforts?

Bergman-Carton saw an opportunity to not only assist DMAHL but to also create a new, hands-on, community-based course for SMU students. Inspired by recommendations from a report researched by recent Meadows Prize winner Creative Time of New York, Bergman-Carton thought of ways to bring art into the community, work in culturally rich locales and collaborate with off-campus community groups. Over the course of several weeks, she created a class called “Artspace: Mapping Sites of Social Change.”

The new course attracted 17 first-year Meadows Scholars from a variety of art disciplines. Soon, students from dance, journalism and theatre began working with residents in the West Dallas community, filming oral histories and learning about the barrios. But they were careful not to impose their “outsider” ways of thinking.

“We wanted to be able to tell their story without the filter of our own perspectives,” says dual-major student Abby Marchessault (Dance and Advanced Physical Therapy, ’15). “We learned as many facts as we could about the area and the people first, by listening to the residents and learning from them.”

Bergman-Carton says that at the beginning of the semester they had to feel their way. “It was a first-time collaboration,” she says, “and we couldn’t predict the outcome. The students took a leap of faith that everything would work out. And it did – it took on a life of its own; it became serendipitous.”

In addition to assisting DMAHL in its efforts to digitize and preserve West Dallas history, the Artspace students and their West Dallas colleagues showed the fruits of their labors through an art/performance event, “Artspaces 2011: Las huellas: footsteps in West Dallas,” held at the West Dallas Community Center and at SMU’s Doolin Gallery.

Valtierra says the collaboration worked well. “The steps SMU took in West Dallas have been beneficial to the kids and to a number of residents,” he says. “I have a comfort level with Janis like none before. She sees the passion that we in the DMAHL have and I sense her belief in it. Others from SMU seem to be as sincere as Janis and so I do believe this can be a mutually beneficial collaborative effort.

“In the long term, that can only help those in the West Dallas area as well as SMU.”

West Side Stories: Part One | Part Two | Part Three | Part Four | Part Five

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