I’m worried about the crime in Deep Ellum, but my concerns have nothing to do with public safety. Rather, I’m worried that Dallas is falling into an old habit that views crowds as threats, pedestrians as unruly, and vibrancy as something that needs to be managed, cleaned up, and tamped down.
Yesterday, Shawn and Matt reported on a community meeting held in response to a perceived spike in crime in Deep Ellum. Cops described a need to “deploy more drastic strategies to ensure public safety.” They are worried about a wave of “crimes of opportunity, robberies and assaults” in the entertainment district. There’s talk of using the controversial curfew law—which has been shown to disproportionately target people of color—to crackdown on the neighborhood’s crowds.
To me this all sounds like it has been pretty busy in Deep Ellum lately and that has people freaked out. There are stories of dealers drugging innocent partiers and robbing them. A police helicopter was dispatched to help break up crowds. Philip Honoré, the Deep Ellum Foundation’s public safety manager, reported rumors that some of the surge in the crowd this past weekend came as a result of the closing of Jim’s Car Wash, a South Dallas institution whose saga Jim Schutze has written about for years. Let me briefly translate what that means: there were black people hanging out in Deep Ellum parking lots this past weekend, and it scared people.
Geez. Can we tap the brakes on the fear mongering, take a breath, and try to look at the situation with a little bit of perspective?
First, let’s acknowledge that we’ve been here before. A decade ago, as one of Deep Ellum’s boom and bust cycles saw bars and clubs evolve into joints that attracted a largely African-American clientele, crackdowns on permitting and policing helped stamp out a few clubs and send the neighborhood back into one of its periodic episodes of dormancy. That episode is worth remembering because in these conversations around entertainment districts, crowds, and public safety, there are some pretty ugly biases still floating around out there and people who can’t imagine successful city districts that also include congregating people of color.
But we don’t have to make these latest fears about public safety and Deep Ellum about race in order to see how ridiculous they are. Let’s start with a simpler observation. There were a lot of people hanging out in a 7-Eleven parking lot on a Saturday in the center of a major American city. I don’t know about you, but when I travel to other cities and look for places to hang out on a Saturday night, rarely do I gravitate to 7-Eleven parking lots. The presence of crowds there don’t indicate safety concerns, they point to a streets problem.
Deep Ellum has become so popular on the weekends that its sidewalks can’t contain the crowds. Even though Elm Street has enjoyed a recent sidewalk upgrade, the sidewalks are still not large enough to keep people from squeezing together or spilling onto the street. Forget K2 and opportunistic purse snatchers—overcrowded sidewalks push people into busy streets clogged with Ubers and buzzed drivers. There’s your public safety concern right there.
The most encouraging thing about Shawn and Matt’s report on the public safety skittishness was that police are considering shutting down Main and/or Elm Streets on the weekends. My only question is why are they only considering it? The streets probably should have been shut down months ago. Shut down the streets. Turn Elm and Main into pedestrian promenades. Allow the crowds to thin-out, meander, and migrate through the district. Deep Ellum will begin to feel less clogged and tense, it will become more enjoyable to head down there on the weekends, and it will start to attract organic, ancillary entertainment, like street musicians, performers, and fabulous people watching. Make Deep Ellum’s streets feel like the giant party it is becoming. Deal with the entertainment district crowd problem the same way every other city deals with it.
Austin’s Sixth Street offers a good example of how turning streets into pedestrian plazas helps keep them safe. It also shows how one-off crimes can spark unfounded panic. Austin has dealt with some shootings along Sixth Street recently, both in 2016 as well as early this year. That’s scary stuff, but what the Austin-American Statesman found is that, rumors and reputation aside, police actually do a pretty good job keeping the peace in the rowdy district by barricading the street, keeping an active patrol, breaking up bar fights, and helping drunks get to the hospital. In fact, even as safety fears intensified, requests for police assistance along Sixth Street have dropped 14 percent since 2015, according to Statesman.
It bothers me that the conversation around Deep Ellum’s crowds is shrouded with a tone of threat. The reality is Deep Ellum is booming, and Dallas is on the verge of having the kind of walkable, vibrant district that it has never really had, even though it tried to manufacture it in the West End. Closing Elm and Main in Deep Ellum on the weekends will also solve other problems, including concern about ride share clogging.
Let’s get this on the table: we don’t want Deep Ellum to become Sixth Street, just as Austinites don’t want Sixth Street to become Bourbon Street. The good news is Deep Ellum likely won’t. The neighborhood is starting out with a better diversity of businesses, a less rooted reputation for tourist-driven debauchery, and Dallas doesn’t have SXSW and other major events to deal with. Instead, we have a thriving district that has simply outgrown its sidewalks. So let’s forget the racist curfew laws and the rumor mongering around closed South Dallas car washes. There’s a simple solution: shut the streets down, take a breath, and everything will be just fine.