The aftershocks are subsiding slowly since associate editor Eric Griffey and I wrote an article about a local couple’s attempts to transform an abandoned incinerator in southeastern Fort Worth into an art collective, skatepark, community garden, concert and event venue, and tiny-house community.
When it came to our attention, the Incinerator Project sounded lofty and bold – to the point of absurdity. We embarked on the assignment thinking Erin and Sergio Razo were do-gooders working with reputable people in town to create something unique and valuable despite long odds. That perspective crumbled quickly. Our story portrayed a grossly inept or possibly shady couple running a ruse (“Flamed Out,” April 25, 2018).
Among the manipulated innocents were artists, skateboarders, car show organizers, various volunteers, and a local nonprofit.
After our story appeared, the conniving couple removed their social media pages and kept a low profile. Our article won two awards – the Dallas Bar Association’s Philbin Award and the Society of Professional Journalists’ First Amendment Award.
More than a year later, people remain bitter about being fooled.
“That was real embarrassing for me to get all my friends involved, drag everyone into it, spend a bunch of money, pour a bunch of concrete, and do a bunch of free work that led to nothing,” said John Shea, who recruited friends to build a skateboard ramp on property the Razos said they owned but didn’t. “I took the bait and ran with it, and it sucked.”
The sneakery humiliated Shea but didn’t detour him from his longtime goal of making Fort Worth more skateboard friendly. This spring, he was back helping organize Open Streets, the annual outdoor event on West Magnolia Avenue on the Near Southside that promotes non-motorized rolling activities.
Opal Lee, a longtime Eastside activist, cut ties with the Razos after they tried without success to spend money under the guise of working for her nonprofit, Unity Unlimited, Inc. All these months later, Lee has moved forward with her customary upbeat outlook.
“I’ve been schemed and screwed before,” she said. “It’s just another something that happened. No biggie. I’ve had worse, I tell you for sure.”
One of the most buoyant among the people fooled by the Razos is Kenny Kirk, a motorcycle enthusiast who owned Chopper Supply Co. in the Stockyards at the time and liked the Razos’ plans for creating affordable housing with tiny homes.
“I wasted a month of my life messing with those guys,” Kirk said. “I finally smelled a rat and pulled back.”
He felt schemed and screwed but inspired, as well. He had been envisioning a wonderful place where families could find affordable housing with community gardens and outdoor activities such as skateboarding and biking, and he thought he’d found kindred spirits in the Razos. After they flaked out, he began pursuing his own vision of the dream on his wife’s 50-acre family farm near Azle.
That plan changed after a truck and a marriage became mired in ditches.
Plan B might work even better. If not, there are 24 more letters in the alphabet, and Kirk doesn’t discourage easily.
“Get out of that mud, Clovis!” Kirk hollered at one of the youngest of his seven children.
The 3-year-old was jumping up and down in a mud puddle for no reason other than it was a wonderful way to spend a sunny morning after a midnight soaking. Kirk didn’t mind so much but worried about his wife’s reaction to Clovis’ clothes being caked in muck. He and his wife separated in December, but Kirk stays close, living on a friend’s property nearby, watching his kids when needed, working contract labor and contributing money to the family, and envisioning – always lots of envisioning – a rural paradise called Camp CSC (Camp Chopper Supply Co.).
Kirk and his wife, who did not want to be interviewed for this story, adopted five children to add to the two children they already had. The couple has fostered 14 children over the years and adopted the ones in danger of being overlooked and aging out in the foster care system.
“They were all removed by [Child Protective Services] from households that were unfit due to methamphetamine, crack, drug use,” Kirk said. Three of the kids “come from the same mother, an Eastside Fort Worth prostitute. She smokes crack, turns tricks, gets pregnant, smokes crack, turns tricks, gets pregnant – just stuck in a cycle.”
The children are of mixed races, given up at birth and rejuvenated on a patch of farmland in northwest Tarrant County. In addition to still loving his wife, Kirk feels an obligation to stay with her forever.
“I didn’t adopt all these kids to give them a broken home,” Kirk said.
Interviews for this article began in April. Back then, Kirk was convinced his wife was softening and would allow him back in their family home soon. Two months later, a reunification hadn’t happened, but Kirk remained upbeat.
Five years ago, Kirk quit a prosperous construction business to open up Chopper Supply Co. in the Stockyards. Last year, he closed that shop to focus on building motorcycles in Azle while creating his outdoor event center on their property.
His wife, he said, preferred the steady paychecks.
“Seven kids, we’re in a little old farm house,” he said. “We’re kind of strapped for cash. She told me I needed to pull my head out of the clouds.”
The clouds are a fitting description of what Kirk is working toward. His myriad plans keep expanding and include establishing a private school and orphanage. His depiction reminded me of a hippie commune, and I suggested jokingly he call it Camp Koresh. Kirk laughed ruefully and said he needed to be careful about characterizing his plans lest neighbors become antsy.
Kirk’s dream can’t be described in 10 words or less, certainly not by Kirk, who tends to ramble on most topics, particularly the one dearest to his heart. An inability to concisely explain such a broad vision is what doomed Erin Razo when she met with city officials to seek support.
Worse, Kirk hammered his wife relentlessly with details. Describing his vision in the nth-degree helped corral his own thoughts into a fuzzy semblance of a business plan but didn’t help his marriage.
“She’d heard it so many times,” Kirk said. “She was tired of hearing me talking about it. It is such a big plan and so consuming. I’d be trying to figure it out and using her as my sounding board. That wasn’t smart.”
Unlike the Razos, however, Kirk has relied on his own toil and sweat so far.
“If I’m not swinging a hammer and making a move myself, I can’t expect anyone else to do anything,” he said. “I envision a kind of arts festival, music festival type of thing that is very family-oriented. Age segregation to me is as bad as race segregation.”
Will people view him like the Razos? Lots of talking and planning with little to show? Kirk hears the questions in his own brain.
“Am I doing the same thing?” Kirk wondered aloud. “Am I trying to line everything up but not doing anything?”
He answered with a quick, firm resolve.
“No,” he said. “I’m working every day. I’m willing to do the sweat equity.”
Kirk’s plans zig or zag as required, and the original plan to build Camp CSC on his wife’s family farm has shifted. Now it’s being built farther down the road on the property of Big John, a friend Kirk met last fall after a road mishap. Big John was driving a crane along a narrow dirt road and came upon Kirk’s teenaged son driving a passenger van. The teen pulled the van over to make room for the crane and became stuck in a ditch. Big John fetched a chain and was pulling the van back on the road when Kirk arrived on the scene.
Kirk and Big John bonded quickly.
“We started hanging out, and I thought, ‘This is a really genuine guy,’ ” Kirk said.
Their properties are situated a mile apart. Big John, his wife Panda, and their son lived with their dogs on 10 acres with a house and a large metal shop for working on engines and motorcycles. In Big John, Kirk found an ally who works for himself in his own shop on his own property with his family nearby helping as needed. If the kids aren’t working, they’re riding bicycles or motorcycles on trails or climbing trees, camping out at night for fun, listening to music around campfires, living real life rather than an online, video-generated one.
Big John and Kirk became partners in Camp CSC, and now the trailblazing and briar-clearing has shifted to Big John’s acreage.
“I came over and looked at it and thought, ‘Woah, this piece of property is really cool,’ ” Kirk said. “Big John was like, ‘I got this shop. We can start building bikes out there.’ ”
They’ve built a custom chopper with the Chopper Supply Co. logo painted on the gas tank and are in the process of building more bikes to sell. They filled in an abandoned swimming pool with dirt, created a fire pit, and surrounded it with large tree stumps cut for sitting and listening to music. Trails twist and turn among the property’s small hills and dirt mounds made for jumping.
The workshop contains large flags hanging from the ceiling, including a Confederate flag. To some people, that flag represents hate. Kirk said he’s a fan of history, not racism. Three of his adopted children are African-American.
Kirk resembles the stereotypical biker, although he’s also worked as a pastor, truck driver, plumber, and jack-of-all-trades. On our first meeting, he wore his long hair tied back under a gimme cap, a long bushy beard, denim Levi jacket, faded jeans, leather boots, and a large knife sheathed at his waist – not vertically on his hip but horizontally and rakishly across his groin. His demeanor and appearance leave no doubt he’s logged plenty of highway and philosophical miles.
Tattoos cover the tops of his fingers, the so-called “job killer” tats. Those don’t matter much to self-employed mavericks. Closing down the Stockyards shop meant even more independence.
“It freed me up where I can spend more time with my kids,” he said. “I’m not down there [in the Stockyards] all the time, late nights. It’s been a huge blessing to be back out in the country. This is home. If I never had to go back to Fort Worth again, I probably wouldn’t lose too much sleep. I’ve got everything I need out here.”
The way Kirk describes Camp CSC sounds as if he’s creating a wonderful world where hope flourishes without fail and families live, work, and play together while growing tighter than vines.
“I’m an idiot, a nut who believes he can make a difference in this world, so I’m trying,” he said.
Earlier this summer, I showed up at Big John’s place on a Saturday as he and Kirk were preparing a huge stack of waffles for a passel of energetic, noisy kids. Three large dogs scampered through the house, including a French Mastiff that weighed more than 100 pounds and was scary looking but, like all the dogs, turned out to be sweet as maple syrup. I sat in the living room playing a piano while Big John and Kirk prepared breakfast. After a few minutes, Clovis and a large Doberman approached me slowly, watching, listening.
“Is that a Doberman?” I asked Clovis.
“No – her a dog!” he said in his little voice. “Her name is Belle.”
The kids in the kitchen talked excitedly about riding mini-bikes once they finished breakfast. The dogs wrestled, Big John clanked on cookware, Kirk passed out paper plates, and the clamor kept growing.
“We’ll get some Eggos going, then y’all can ride some dirt bikes before the rain comes in,” Kirk said.
After breakfast, Kirk and I walked down a hill to look at a fresh-cut motorcycle trail. Before long, one of his boys, Henry, pushed a bike toward us with a dejected look on his face.
“Dad, this one’s got a flat tire,” the boy said.
“We need to put an inner tube in it,” Kirk said. “We need to get it up there to the shop and pull that tire off. I’ll show you how to change it. One of your older brothers could probably show you, too. They’ve got it figured out.”
We began walking toward the shop, slowly, allowing time for Henry to push the bike up a hill. Part of the concept of Camp CSC, Kirk said, is to teach the kids useful skills and instill a DIY mentality.
“These little dudes – I like to think they’ve got it made,” Kirk said. “Waffles. Dirt bikes. Bicycles. Mud to play in. It’s kind of like a dream scene.”
Five minutes later, Kirk was working on the flat tire when one of his other young boys, Jed, walked up complaining that his brother wasn’t sharing.
“I was going to ride the dirt bike, and George just stole it,” Jed said.
“He didn’t steal nothing,” Kirk said. “It ain’t your dirt bike.”
“You said every dirt bike is all of ours,” Jed countered.
“It is,” Kirk said. “All of them are all of yours, and you can ride them whenever you want, but you have to be cool or you won’t ride them at all. No fussing about it.”
Big John’s son, James, rode up on his mini-bike.
“James, can you let Jed ride that one a minute?” Kirk said.
“Yes,” James said, hopping off the bike and leaning it toward Jed.
“Jed, try not to hog it,” Kirk said. “Bring it back to him, that way you can rotate on it. Thank you, James.”
Kirk and Henry started back to work on the flat tire.
“These little guys get to learn,” Kirk continued. “We’re teaching them at a young age, righty tighty, lefty loosey. They got their little dirt bikes, and they’re figuring out how to work on them.”
He pointed to a mini-bike nearby.
“That one had a broken shifter cog in it,” he said. “They helped put it back together. They said, ‘I did this! I fixed this!’ That’s important.
“It’s hard juggling all of them,” he continued. “My wife, I don’t know how she does it. She is with these guys all day every day, home-schooling them, trying to keep them from killing each other. They’re all boy. They like to fight and wrestle and scream and yell, but they’re all such good kids. They have good manners. They are loving and kind to each other. I’m not trying to raise a bunch of jerks. I’m trying to raise people who care about other people.”
His thoughts turned to his wife as they often do during our conversations.
“She is amazing,” he said. “I sure do love her. I wish she wasn’t mad at me.”
A few days ago, I called Kirk to say my story was about to be published. He spoke with excitement about an event that he and Big John were hosting at Camp CSC in a week. Bikers from far and wide were convening at Big John’s place before launching on a trip to Raton, New Mexico.
“We’ll kick it off here with a concert and a hangout,” Kirk said.
I asked whether he and his wife had reunited.
“My wife is completely over me and has moved on,” he said. “She just thinks it’s all too much, too crazy, it will never work, that I’m chasing dreams.”
What does he think?
“Everything is still moving forward,” he said.