Except for a cracked slab, the remnants of a front porch, and a sheet-metal gray mailbox that reads 3116, there isn’t much left of the old poker house behind the Forest Theater on South Harwood Street.
The party is over now, but oh what a party it must have been. I can’t entirely say, never having been inside. No one extended me an invitation, and I knew better than to ask. But on a few late nights, when I was curious enough, I did wander over there. I sat in my car on the street and watched as the cars pulled in and out of the fenced and gated lot next door and the gamblers came and went through a caged porch under the watchful eye of big men and mounted cameras.
The closest I ever got to going inside was the empty lot. It was a bright May morning in 2010 and Dwaine Caraway, who at the time was Dallas mayor pro tem, took me in either his gray BMW or his black Mercedes — I have trouble recalling now.
I called Caraway after a colleague shared a tip that the cops were trying to crack down on the place by handing out tickets to people parked in the empty lot while they gambled the night away. The tip was that Caraway was telling the cops to back off. So I called him and asked if it was true.
Meet me downstairs in the garage, he told me, referring to the basement garage at City Hall. I picked up my recorder, hit the red button, slipped it in my pocket and away we went. We drove from downtown to the poker house, traversing a few blocks of physical space and an immeasurable distance in privilege.
Caraway pulled into the driveway, rolled down his window and touched the button on an intercom box. Three men looked out on him from inside the little porch, locked up top-to-bottom in steel bars painted white.
“I’ve got the Dallas Morning News with me,” Caraway said to whomever was on the other side of the box. My mind reeled on what that person must be thinking. There was a hesitation, and Caraway touched the box button again, reassuring someone it was all OK.
It took a moment, but the wide gate swung open. Caraway pulled his car in and the gate closed behind him. I had no idea what would happen next. I half expected I would be invited inside to sit down with a proprietor, who would tell me I had it all backward. No one gambles here. It’s just a social club. Some nonsense. I had the faint idea I might be in deeper trouble than that.
But no one planned to let me in. Instead, Caraway and I stood in the white stone parking lot and — to my astonishment — he just confessed the whole thing. It poured out of him with hardly any questions from me at all. Yes, he had gambled there. Yes, his father gambled there. Yes, he told the police to back off. Yes, the law should focus on more important things. No, he hadn’t done anything wrong.
Nevermind that residents around the place had been complaining for years. Nevermind that they saw the house as a hive of trouble in their lives.
The story ran, and Caraway called me the next morning to tell me I had ruined him. He suggested he hadn’t said the things he said. I let him know I’d been running tape.
I wasn’t exactly a young journalist then. I’d been around the block, writing about plenty of corruption before, and I understood how things work. But I was naive or proud enough to think maybe I had ruined him, maybe his political career was over. I took no pleasure in it. I liked Caraway the way you like the scamp. He was always a good quote, always had an interesting tip, always returned a call. But the story seemed like a blockbuster. Something would happen. Things would change. We’d ripped back the curtain on the ways things work at City Hall and one of the big reasons southern Dallas struggles to get traction.
This was an important lesson in humility. Nothing changed. The cops did back off. The party kept going. Caraway is in prison today, but it had nothing to do with the poker house or the way he used his political power to push the cops out. No, Caraway had plenty more cooking than that. To my knowledge the poker house never even raised the feds’ eyes.
The poker house is only gone now because economies are changing in the area. Forest First, a group of good people including CitySquare chief executive emeritus Larry James are getting in before the money-first developers do — at least I hope that’s what’s happening. They purchased the Forest Theater, and they bought the poker house.
They plan to build a mix of market-rate and affordable housing, James told me. It’s not a surprise to anyone paying attention. This is a beautiful and historic area of Dallas and somebody at some point was going to figure out a way to make development work there. Gentrification, with all of its complex concerns, is coming. When it does, it won’t be as easy for someone like Caraway to have his way in this part of town. But it won’t be as easy, either, for the people who have lived there for generations to keep living there.
I tried to get over to the poker house for one last look before it came down, but it was gone by the time I arrived.
What’s left is all fenced off now. I stood on the sidewalk and looked at the parking lot, the S.M. Wright Freeway running high and long behind it like a line from a Mellencamp song.
The house across the street was crumbling on its foundation, and just past it the downtown skyline shined. I tried to freeze the image in my memory. Soon, it will be gone.