Virginia Manor

The violent scene that plays out in my imagination is so foreign to the small, quiet space, populated with stuffed creatures and plastic animals, walls plastered with color-washed doodles, that it is almost humorous – like one of those zany transitions between sketches in Monte Python’s Flying Circus.

But the reality is sobering, and very real. At some point in the near future – maybe six months, maybe over a year – this bright-spirited toddler’s room will be torn to shreds by a behemoth, yellow, smoke-belching earth-eater.

When the bulldozers will finally come to destroy this space is still unknown, however their anticipated arrival has already displaced this child from her first bedroom – as it has displaced many of the other residents at Virginia Manor Apartments off Plymouth Road and Fort Worth Ave.

Virginia Manor is the latest acquisition by the InCap Fund, a real estate development firm that has been purchasing many apartment complexes in North Oak Cliff to raze and replace with stylish, high-end condominiums.

Although InCap has been primarily buying apartment complexes near Davis Street surrounding Kessler Woods, the case housing subdivision in the West Kessler neighborhood, the development firm is set to close on Virginia Manor in October.

They may continue to operate the apartments for a few months or a year after that, but at some point, the whole community will come down.

Led by Uptown Dallas pioneer Alan McDonald, whose Cityhomes built some of the first Uptown townhouses near where the West Village stands today, InCap has been on a buying binge in Oak Cliff.

The fact that the InCap Fund has purchased another Oak Cliff apartment complex and plans on redeveloping it is not news.

CliffDwellers have been hearing about these large scale development plans since the developer threw a party last November at Kessler Woods developer Matt Holley’s three story house. To a packed crowd of chic, potential condo buyers, McDonald and Holley announced their plans to create an urban neighborhood that, as they put it, could become even better than Uptown.

The rest of Dallas became familiar with InCap’s plans when our former councilmember Ed Oakley made them the centerpiece of his mayoral campaign, dressing up the tearing down of aging apartment complexes as a crime-fighting initiative.

Get rid of the derelict buildings and their poor residents and get rid of the crime, the argument seemed to go.

But InCap has never sold its plans for Oak Cliff as a crime fighting program. From that first public announcement last November, the idea has been to create an innovative urban environment, a walkable community with neighborhood shops, bike paths, and friendly neighbors.

At that November party, McDonald spoke about his travels around the world and how the cities most people love to live in and visit are the ones where you can buy flowers at a corner shop or walk to a café for an evening glass of wine.

It sounded promising, and after toasting the future with apple martinis on the roof deck of Holley’s home, I walked up Oak Cliff Blvd. and Plymouth Road to my apartment in Virginia Manor.

It is strange living in a building destined for demolition. Even though not much has changed physically since the first surveyors and men in suits showed up on the property, knowing the buildings are coming down weighs heavy on the minds of residents.

Rumors fly about potential plans for the site; neighbors talk of nearby apartments with similar rents, or more often, the lack thereof. Moving trucks are an almost daily sight, and more and more neighbors apartments are dark and empty.

My wife, daughter, and I moved to Virginia Manor a year and a half ago. We had been living in a bungalow on Winnetka Ave. near Kings Highway, but had to move out when we finally admitted that a community journalist’s salary weighed down by a slew of medical bills couldn’t afford our comfortable life in the single-family, detached house.

After we hunted for a new home, touring duplexes, four-plexes, eight-plexes, we realized the salary couldn’t afford many apartments in Oak Cliff either, and we soon became discouraged.

That’s the emotional state many people are in when they find Virginia Manor. We were recommended the apartments by friends of friends who had fled to Dallas after Hurricane Katrina and found room at Virginia Manor. After we moved in we heard similar stories of flight. Neighbors who moved back to Virginia Manor after losing their homes to hard times, or their long-term partners to heartbreak. Others moved after losing their health to things like cancer or diabetes.

What became quickly apparent, however, is that although many people living in Virginia Manor were pushed out of somewhere else, when they arrived here they found something that made them stay.

Unlike many Dallas apartments, it is not uncommon for a resident at Virginia Manor to be living in the same apartment unit for 10, 15, or 20 years.

What keeps residents in Virginia Manor is that, unlike most Dallas apartment complexes, renters feel able to put down roots and carve out a permanent living space here. Even though they don’t have mortgages or property rights, they plant, paint, and construct their homes.

A neighbor and an Oak Cliff native summed up the appeal in one lazy Sunday afternoon last fall, while he was smoking chicken wings over soaked pecan chips outside his back door.
“It’s real tranquil,” he said.
Tranquility begins to get at what is so enjoyable about living in Virginia Manor. There are the woods, the many green spaces that back up to apartments. Residents have hung a rope swing from a towering pecan tree. Bird baths are filled and watched. Flower beds have been meticulously cultivated, not by management, but by residents.

On any given afternoon, sheets flap on the clotheslines, cats nap on sidewalk paths, and children’s voices can be heard a few buildings over, roaring wild in a game of tag.

Even more than the apartment’s embrace of its natural surroundings abutting a thickly-wooded creek bed, Virginia Manor’s tranquility is inextricably linked to the vivacity of human life that reveals itself when living in close proximity with so many other people – the comfort derived from catching random glimpses of parallel lives engaged in the unassuming moments of daily routines.

Driving by on Plymouth Road, Virginia Manor looks plain and unremarkable.
It was built in 1949 and, according to an article published at the time in the Dallas Morning News, was one of the last complexes built to accommodate the influx of soldiers returning from the war.

And yet somehow, after nearly 60 years, Virginia Manor, with its richly colored wood floors, period hardware, and woodwork accents, is in remarkably good condition. The condition of the apartments has everything to do with building manager and minority owner Daryl Nance.

Nance has poured his life into the apartments during his time as manager, work that is reflected in more than the upkeep of the structures.

Nance has managed to keep rents as low as possible, employing maintenance workers who live in the apartment community and avoiding flashy upgrades that look good on leasing signs. Utility bills, paid in common, are also exceptionally low for this era of high gas prices – around $60 total a month. The result of this affordability is a remarkably stable tenant base and very high occupancy.

It is obvious Nance cares as much about the life of the apartments as he does about the bottom line, which is why he has perhaps taken news of the sale to InCap the hardest of all.

Nance said he was surprised when he first heard of the unsolicited offer to buy Virginia Manor.
“I had been planning to operate it for another 10, 15  years,” he says.
The offer to buy, however, was accepted by Virginia Manor’s majority owner, who is getting older and was understandably attracted to cashing in on a life-long investment.

But Nance did not want to see the apartments come down, and so he searched for partners to buy the complex. He said most banks turned him down flat, and even when he began to pitch the purchase of Virginia Manor as a condo conversion project, most potential investors said a large scale renovation wouldn’t be worth the investment.

Nance told me the hardest part about the pending sale and demolition of Virginia Manor is the difficulty he feels getting across to tenants just how heartbroken he is about all of it. He hates to see the buildings destroyed, but he also doesn’t want to see his residents displaced.

These days moving dominates discussions among those of us who live in Virginia Manor. Many of my neighbors have already moved out, fearing the possibility of coming home after a long day of work and finding an unannounced eviction notice on the door.

My wife and I are also looking for a new home, and have resigned ourselves to higher rent, since a similarly located and priced apartment that also offers a little green space for our daughter is virtually impossible to find.

Some neighbors have moved to the nearby Wedgewood Apartments where at least rents are similar, if not the grounds and sense of community. But moving will be more difficult for others, especially the elderly.

Nance said he is helping one resident struggling with the early stages of Alzheimer’s figure out where to go, but the forced move will likely mean she will end up in a nursing home sooner than expected.

My next door neighbor is also having trouble weighing his options. Joyously, he found out a few months ago that the throat cancer he was battling had all but disappeared. But still recovering, he said he will likely have to move to live near family in Tulsa, Oklahoma, since finding another living situation in Dallas that could replace the support system he built up over the 10 plus years in Virginia Manor is unlikely.

The day I spoke to Nance about the development situation, he called back in the afternoon excited that he had heard the closing had been moved back to October and that the developer planned to operate the apartments for perhaps as long as a year and a half after the sale. Nance could accept short lease extensions again.

Yet, like many of my neighbors, my wife and I have nonetheless decided to move. Living in the emptying Virginia Manor these days is surreal. The walls of my small apartment seem ghostly – they still stand but seem already gone, their future clipped and unreal.

After some time, a home – even a rented one – becomes a very personal thing. You learn its quirks and tricks, decorate its walls, spill wine on the floors. A hundred years ago families lived in the same houses for generations. Walls absorbed histories, squeaks and spirits took up residence in the basements and attics. But today most people move very often, and older structures are scrapped to make way for new homes.

Yet this change in the fashion of living hasn’t affected the way homes soak up the lives they shelter. Perhaps this is why it is always so sad to see any home torn down: walls split open and spaces once reserved for family dinner tables, children’s playhouses, marital beds, revealed to the open air.

Although we do not hold deed of title to our apartments at Virginia Manor, these spaces seem all the more full of remnants of the past because so many lives have shared them over the past half-century.

It is why even with the stress of making practical arrangement for the immanent move, the most arresting thought during this time of transition is that of the yellow bulldozer smashing its way into my daughter’s room.

Yet when that day finally comes, it will not just be the loss of my daughter’s home, but the simultaneous destruction of so many homes at once – the loss of an entire community we residents shared, held in trust.

These thoughts are all the more sad since this will all be lost simply because the economics of the dirt underneath these homes has suddenly spiked in value. And therein lies the troublesome realization: that in the name of building a new and improved Oak Cliff, InCap’s purchase of Virginia Manor shows that some of the principle architects of that anticipated future are too blinded by the profitability of a future investment to recognize and perhaps decide to respect a community that already exists.

That is something that should be saddening to a CliffDweller, no matter where in the Cliff he or she lives.


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