Along Dallas’ Ross Avenue, ‘progress’ threatens a Kenyan immigrant’s business
Hinga Mbogo and his wife, Grace, run Hinga’s Automotive Company on Ross Avenue. The city of Dallas has given Hinga, who has been fixing cars in the same location for over 25 years, until next month to leave or face forced closure.
By SCOTT K. PARKS
I drove my daddy’s car down to Ross Avenue and I sold it.
I guess I should have told him.
Alluded to police that someone stole it.
– From “Mother Blues” by Ray Wylie Hubbard
When Ray Wylie sold his daddy’s car back in the 1970s, the stretch of Ross Avenue east of Central Expressway was lined with used-car lots, seedy bars, cafes and nightclubs. Prostitutes walked the street.
Most of those businesses (and all of the hookers) are gone now. Real estate developers and City Hall planners are promoting Ross Avenue as a gateway to the Dallas Arts District, and they’re determined that it should look the part, with upscale mixed-use developments and hip new restaurants and shops.
Yes, progress has roared onto Ross Avenue like a souped-up ’57 Chevy fishtailing toward the future. But some business owners wish progress would tap its brakes.
“The progress is welcome,” said Hinga Mbogo, a Kenyan immigrant who has owned an auto repair shop at the corner of Ross Avenue and Villars Street since 1986. “The problem is that progress is forcing itself on us at a bad time.”
Mbogo’s shop is among the last of a dying breed on Ross — the automobile-related business. In 2005, the City Council created, in the bloodless jargon of zoning ordinances, Planned Development District 298.
The types of business now allowed on the stretch of Ross Avenue where Mbogo operates — referred to as Subdistrict 1 of PDD 298 — include hotels, motels, town homes, apartments, restaurants, dry cleaners, florists, churches, art galleries, museums, furniture stores, theaters and medical clinics.
But not car repair shops.
In April 2010, City Hall gave Mbogo three years to close down his business. The deadline is next month, but he isn’t going quietly. He’s paid the city a required $7,500 fee for a review of his case. His hope is that the City Council will award him a special use permit to keep operating on Ross Avenue.
At age 60, Mbogo has no interest in shutting down his repair shop and starting a new business on the premises, one that would conform to PDD 298 regulations. Nor does he want to relocate.
All he wants is to work a few more years, then retire to Africa.
“You don’t go to a fellow after 26 years and say, ‘Hey, you’ve got to get up and go.’” he said. “Would they rather we just board the place up, instead of continuing to serve the public at this location? Would that be better?”
Angela Hunt, the City Council member over PDD 298, said she has not taken a position on Mbogo’s case. But she has supported the plans for Ross Avenue’s transition from used-car lots to new developments.
“It’s a tough balancing act,” she said. “Creating new businesses for the entryway to downtown is a good idea, but it might be possible to integrate some of the old businesses that people need, like auto repair shops.”
‘I belonged here’
Mbogo, who speaks softly in a lilting British accent, grew up on a farm in Nairobi, Kenya. He is a Kikuyu, a member of the largest tribe in Kenya. As a child, he developed an interest in mechanics while working on his father’s tractors and other machinery.
“I never thought about college until I met a Peace Corps volunteer who started talking to me and gave me a list of colleges I could attend,” he recalled.
In 1974, he landed in Miami and enrolled in a college program to learn airframe and power plant mechanics. He tells the story of how he arrived in Dallas.
“I came here for a job interview out at Love Field. I didn’t get the job, but liked the city and decided to stay. I worked on taxi cabs for a while and then opened my own business on Commerce Street in 1983. I called it Universal Auto Repair. Unfortunately, it burned to the ground in 1985 after a car caught on fire in the shop.”
Mbogo then cast his eye toward the property at Ross and Villars. He bought three lots right next to the Dallas Independent School District’s headquarters, and Hinga Automotive was born. He became a U.S. citizen in 1999.
“I kept thinking I would go home to Kenya,” he said, “but I never did. This country gave me a chance. I made a living here and felt I belonged here.”
Mbogo and his wife, Grace, work side by side in the repair shop. They’ve known each other since they were kids in Kenya. African art hangs in the office, and a curio cabinet is filled with jewelry, sandals and purses made by Kenyan women.
“We long to retire in Kenya,” he said. “We just aren’t ready yet.”
Downtown’s angular skyline looms in the distance as one travels west on Ross Avenue. Weedy vacant lots sprouting “For Sale” signs sit next to new pharmacies. Hard-hatted construction workers are building a new strip center at Ross and Annex.
Carwashes, bank branches, public schools, tire shops, furniture stores and convenience stores share the street with abandoned buildings awaiting demolition. A new luxury apartment building — 600-square-foot units starting at $1,100 a month — sits at the corner of Ross and Hall. It’s the model of what planners now want.
Across the street from Mbogo’s business is Woodard Paint & Body Shop, owned by three generations of Woodards going back more than half a century. Under pressure because of the zoning issues, Allen Woodard, the current owner, sold out and will be closing the shop’s doors next month. An apartment complex is to take its place.
Woodard said he visited the cemetery where his father and grandfather were buried and talked to them about the fate of the business they worked so hard to build. He is 57. Like Mbogo, he’s not inclined to start anew somewhere else.
“I lie awake at night and ask myself, ‘What am I going to do?’” he said. “My customers ask me where they are going to take their cars to be fixed. I can’t even answer that question.”
Bryan Place, a pioneering planned residential development of roughly 780 homes, spreads out a couple of blocks south of Mbogo’s shop on Ross. Many of those homeowners support him because he’s ethical and dependable.
“We need a place to get our cars maintained and repaired that is nearby,” George B. Burris II said in an email to the city plan commission, which will eventually hear Mbogo’s zoning request.
The Bryan Place Neighborhood Association and its officers wield influence over what happens in PDD 298. Even though Mbogo has many devoted customers in the neighborhood, the association says it’s time for him to leave.
“This has been a long and somewhat painful process,” said Eric Williamson, the association president. “But we are seeing the results that the city intended. We know it’s hard for Mr. Mbogo to move, but many other businesses have done it.”