To Ellum and Back

In ever-changing Deep Ellum, Dallas’ most eclectic neighborhood, no two days are alike.

In Dallas, a few years is a lifetime for a trendy neighborhood. Remember the rise and fall of Lower Greenville? That’s what makes Deep Ellum, the commercial district just east of downtown, so intriguing. More than a dozen years after the first painters and poets took over its empty warehouses, it continues to be the city’s dominant alternative cultural scene—a magnet for everyone from punkish teens to stylish professionals to straitened suburbanites. Where else in Texas can you find an inner-city atmosphere so varied and unconventional? Far from being a fleeting fad, Deep Ellum is very much in its prime.

Never has there been so much to see or do there: cafes, nightclubs, coffeehouses, boutiques, galleries. While many of the newer establishments are tony and sophisticated, with valet parking and Park Cities patrons, the four-block stretch of Elm, Main, Commerce, and Crowdus streets has managed to retain a jangly, slightly discordant atmosphere. By day, it has a stark, stripped-down look, with brick warehouses set against a backdrop of skyscrapers. By night, there’s an edgy, amorphous street life that sputters along like an arrhythmic heartbeat, jostling strangers together in a way that is completely foreign to the rest of the city.

This unpredictability, this absolute lack of a governing plan or pattern, is one of the quieter pleasures of Deep Ellum. Wandering around the neighborhood, you can find a furniture store on the ground floor of a former Frito-Lay factory, a puppet theater on the same block as a uniform company, a juggler who lives across from a police storefront that is next door to an African clothing boutique.

Deep Ellum got its start in the 1860's as a railroad crossing. Its first residents were the black laborers who lived and worked along the tracks. The name “Deep Ellum” comes from the Southern drawled-out way of pronouncing “Elm,” then and now the neighborhood’s main thoroughfare. In the twenties, Dallas had a flourishing blues scene, and major record labels came to Deep Ellum looking for talent. Blind Lemon Jefferson, who went on to become the best-selling blues artist of his day, was discovered there, reportedly with a tin cup in his hand, by a Paramount scout. In the thirties, Deep Ellum was a center for small business, light industry, pawnshops, and dry-goods stores, many run by Jewish merchants from South Dallas. But the completion of Central Expressway in the forties severed the area from downtown, and the neighborhood slipped into decline.

It remained that way until the late seventies, when artists came around, carving out cheap studio spaces in and among the manufacturing plants, the carburetor shops, and the Harley dealers. Slowly, cafes, restaurants, and nightclubs followed. Within a decade, Deep Ellum had become an offbeat entertainment district, with peripatetic street poets, graffiti artists, and other oddities of street life. The clubs and coffeehouses kept coming, providing fertile ground for emerging musicians. On the edges, a Gulf Oil distribution center became the Hickory Street Annex, home to architects and other design professionals. A warehouse once part of the Continental Gin Company complex was taken over by artists in an area that some have half-seriously named SoBay, for South of Baylor. “I wouldn’t have a studio anywhere else,” says sculptor Frances Bagley, who has been there since 1980. “The energy is right.”

Not surprisingly, a few traces of the old Deep Ellum remain. The graceful stone-ornamented brick building known as the Muleshoe still stands on Elm; once a mule stable, it is about to become an annex to the furniture store next door. Farther down the block, surrounded by upscale eateries and gift shops selling trinkets, is the brick building owned by wobbly old C. A. Spain, who repairs shoes in the musty storefront where he has worked for fifty years. A widower since 1940, Spain still parks his olive-green 1972 Chevy in front of the shop every morning, repairs shoes all day, and makes sure to leave by four-thirty in the afternoon, long before the night scene reawakens. Two doors down is Manek Okowita, an emigrant from wartime Poland who has run his sheet-metal business in the same spot since 1951. Okowita has stoutly resisted a stream of offers to buy his building. “Where am I gonna go?” he says, shrugging. “I’m not a rabbi. I’m not a doctor. I’m not a lawyer. I’m just a sheet-metal man.”

Yet all around him, the neighborhood is changing. Two years ago, the city spent $3.2 million to renovate and landscape eight blocks of Main Street. Undermain Theatre, shut down five years ago for code violations, has returned to its old home in a former warehouse and is once again—true to its name—under Main. After a three-year absence, clothing designer Sandra Garratt has just opened a retail store on Main, near a new toy store. And at either end of Deep Ellum is new residential space: On Main at Walton, a developer has constructed what look like New England saltboxes on top of a former cap-and-emblem manufacturing company; on Florence Street, a paint-and-body shop is being converted to eight lofts that will be ready next month.

As always, the entertainment scene is in flux. An Elm Street clothing boutique called Chiaroscuro has been transformed into a fashionable Italian cafe called Scuro. Partners Jeff Swaney and Jeffrey Yarbrough have bought the landmark Prophet Bar and are turning it into a new cafe. Five months ago, Dallas restaurateur Eduardo Greene opened a new restaurant and bar called Aca y Alla. Since no one seems able to pronounce the name, it is known as Eduardo’s, and like Rick’s Cafe in Casablanca, it has become the one place where everyone in town seems destined to make an appearance. But the hottest attraction this summer is at Club Clearview, where patrons can pay $6 to wear a funny-looking helmet and enter the computer-driven visual fantasy world of “virtual reality.”

Lately it has become commonplace to hear grousing about the “sell-out” of Deep Ellum. Artists can no longer afford to live

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