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Dallas History

What We Really Lose When Highways Destroy Historic Neighborhoods

A few old news reports about Deep Ellum in the late 1960s unintentionally document the huge costs of highway-driven demolition.
By Peter Simek |
AIA Dallas

Last week, developer and incremental growth enthusiast Nathaniel Barrett posted a couple old newspaper clippings to Twitter. They are both reports on Deep Ellum, one from 1966 and another from 1971, and they are about the same thing: the death of the neighborhood.

The timing of the articles is curious. In between 1966 and 1971, much of Deep Ellum was leveled to make way for what one of the stories describes as a “10-lane freeway leg,” which we know today as I-345—or that little stretch of concrete that separates Deep Ellum from downtown about which we have made such a fuss over the years. These two old news stories help explain the fuss.

In fact, taken together, the articles offer a unique and valuable historical document. They don’t merely capture the look and feel of the neighborhood during this pivotal – and fateful – stretch of its history, they also reflect some of the attitudes and mentalities that surrounded the tumultuous construction of the highway. Reading them, one thing stands out: this city’s almost immediate obliviousness toward the violence and devastation wreaked upon its historic neighborhoods by highway construction.

A Highway Comes to ‘The Street’

Deep Ellum c. 1937

Let’s start with the 1966 story. In it, Dallas Morning News reporter Kent Biffle heads down to the end of Elm Street to find out how the residents and shop owners in the neighborhood are dealing with the imminent arrival of the highway. Biffle finds Ed Kay, the 43-year-old operator of Mo-Jo Bag Shop at 2410 Elm who is preparing for the road by spraying some sort of “dejinxing” solution all over his property.

“Progress is freeways and Jinx Remover that comes in spray cans,” Biffle writes. “He hopes it’ll make his store safe from freeways.”

Kay’s shop lies directly in the path of the proposed freeway, and, sadly, we all know his last-ditch effort to use magic to stop the road doesn’t work. But Kay’s story helps introduce the characters who inhabited Deep Ellum at a time when it was also known simply as “The Street.”

We go on to meet the owner of a grocery store that caters to low-income customers and a café that serves meals for a quarter. There’s a Polish immigrant cobbler and a Holocaust survivor running a shoe shop. And there is, of course, Ruby Goldstein, better known as “Honest Joe,” the owner of a famous pawn shop that survived the demolition but lived out its last days in the shadow of I-345.

“There will never be another Street just like there will never be another Bowery,” Honest Joe Goldstein tells Biffle. “It’s the end of Deep Elm.”

The theme running through the story is the awareness that I-345 will strike a death blow to The Street. Biffle attempts to capture an image of the place before it is gone. He describes it as “a fabled, down-at-the-heels strip center of pawnshops, shoeshine parlors, secondhand stores, and walk-up hotels.” By the late 1960s, Deep Ellum is already in the late stages of a slow decline that began, Biffle writes, after the old Central Track was ripped up to make way for North Central Expressway and Deep Ellum ceased to be a railroad station hub. The neighborhood’s slow death, you can argue, was inflicted by two freeway projects.

“When the freeway comes,” Biffle says. “It will cut the heart out of the district.”

Biffle’s depiction of the neighborhood strikes a mixed tone. He describes a derelict den of inequity and blight, employing more than a whiff of condescension that, given Deep Ellum’s historic role as the cultural heart of Dallas’ Black community, smacks of racism. After he gets through with his minstrel-esque parade of caricatures, one can imagine North Dallas subscribers reading the story about the road and the dying neighborhood and thinking “good riddance.”

Nobody Knows Why Deep Ellum is Dead

Honest Joe’s

Let’s jump ahead to the second story from 1971, which is framed as another adventure down into the depths of Deep Ellum to plumb its demise. But in this story, reporter Roy Hamric is completely baffled by the mysterious cause of the neighborhood’s hard fortunes, despite the looming presence of brand new I-345.

“Nobody knows exactly when the robust surge of life that was “Deep Ellum” left – or exactly why – but traces of what was once “the Street” remain today,” Hamric writes, before dismissing the road as the cause. “Deep Elm Street was dead long before the dark shadow of an elevated freeway fell over its pawnshops, clothing stores, and other bizarre offerings.”

If Hamric had dug through his paper’s own archives, he might have found Biffle’s story from five years earlier, which documented how the road chased the remaining denizens of Deep Ellum from their shops and hotels. But that connection is already lost on Hamric.

Content with the mystery, he then embarks on a history tour, describing the “Bowery of the South” as a lost world where Yiddish mixed with southern drawls, and the singing chorus lines in Black-only vaudeville theater spilled out into streets where preachers shouted from corners and legends like Lead Belly, Blind Lemon Jefferson, and Lightnin’ Hopkins strummed their guitars. We learn there was a style of switchblade named after the neighborhood—the “Deep Ellum Special”— and hear plenty of old stories about shootings, muggings, and drunken brawls. By 1971, that’s all gone—all gone, except for Honest Joe, who misses the mischief and the mayhem of the old days.

“You could stand out in the street any morning now and shoot a 30-30 in any direction and not hit anyone,” Honest Joe Goldstein tells Hamric.

Lost in this nostalgic traipsing through the lost neighborhood, however, is one stark omission. Deep Ellum in 1971 isn’t the Deep Ellum of the 1930s—but it also isn’t the Deep Ellum of 1966.  Despite Hamric’s insistence that I-345 only played a cameo in the story of Deep Ellum’s demise, it is clear that the post-road neighborhood is vacated of all the panicked shopkeepers Biffle found only a few years earlier. The juxtaposition of the two stories proves that the life and character of the old Deep Ellum, while perhaps not what it used to be, was stomped out by the construction of the freeway.

How did Dallas forget this so quickly? How did the city become so oblivious to the role the road played in destroying one of its most historic and vibrant neighborhoods?

Caught Underfoot the March of Progress

Perhaps the answer is provided in the first word of Biffle’s story: progress. These news clippings are snapshots in time, but they are also pieces of a narrative being shaped by a wider civic context. The period covered in these stories is the era of former Mayor J. Erik Jonsson’s Goals For Dallas campaign, the citywide mobilization that remade the face of the city in the aftermath of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. Dallas in the late 1960s was an emerging metropolis beating its drum to the steady march of progress, a city driven by a civic gusto hellbent on making itself new by washing out the stains of an ugly past.

It is important to see the reporters’ piquant depictions of Deep Ellum as a violent den of crime within this broader context. Their stories didn’t simply recall the past – they offered a thinly veiled justification for its demolition. The new freeway was providing two services at once: a path for progress and historical erasure.

Lost in this narrative is a question both stories address but leave unanswered: was Deep Ellum already dying by 1966, and was its complete death by 1971 really inevitable?

When I reached out to Barrett to see if he could share the two clips, he included a third in his response, a piece from 1968. The article, “Demolition Leveling Once-Noisy Deep Ellum,” offers a bridge between pre- and post-freeway Deep Ellum, a snapshot taken as the wrecking balls descended on the The Street. It focuses on the fate of one of the neighborhood’s architectural gems, the old Grand Central Station Hotel. This was once a fashionable haunt after it was built in the 1890s, but was demolished to make way for I-345. Reporter Doug Domeier speaks to people who remember the hotel in its heyday, and he also interviews numerous other Deep Ellum shopkeepers and residents. He finds that the neighborhood isn’t dead, only frantically emptying itself to make way for the road.

“Under threat of the wrecking ball, Deep Elm today is a conglomerate of gutted hotels and offices, but still-open pawn shops and cut-rate stores,” Domeier reports. “’It’s too quiet,’ one pawnbroker noted recently. The ‘two-bit, walk-up’ hotels have closed and the area’s inhabitants, sometimes called ‘characters,’ took off elsewhere.”

The story captures how the construction of I-345 served as an accelerant for its vacating, and its historical reminiscing—the juxtaposition of Belle Époque stories of the glory days of the Grand Central Station Hotel and those so-called “two-bit” hotels that pockmarked The Street by the 1960s—also tell another important story about the lifecycles of urban neighborhoods. In The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jane Jacobs writes about how neighborhood vibrancy is partially a byproduct of how city neighborhoods first prosper and then decline. Rather than view these changes as decay, as they are depicted in the News stories, Jacobs sees them as one way in which urban space is recycled and readied for new generations and future growth.

“Time makes the high building costs of one generation the bargains of a following generation,” Jacobs writes. “Time pays off original capital costs, and this depreciation can be reflected on the yields required from a building. Time makes certain structures obsolete for some enterprises, and they become available to others. Time can make the space efficiencies of one generation the space luxuries of another generation.”

This is precisely what appears to be happening in Deep Ellum in the late-1960s. The grand hotels of the 1890s had become the two-bit hotels of the 1960s. The gambling halls and saloons of the 1930s become the cobblers and pawn shops of the 1970s. What the old News reports miss is that this isn’t evidence of a neighborhood that is dying; it is a neighborhood in chrysalis. But then, I-345 violently interrupts this lifecycle. Deep Ellum never gets the chance to complete its regenerative process.

It is difficult to read these old stories and not wonder what Deep Ellum could have become had the freeway not leveled it.

Postcard from around 1910. Looking north on Bowery between Grand and Broome Streets. Published by the Valentine & Sons Publishing Co. in New York.

The Life and Death of the ‘Bowery of the South’

Perhaps there’s an answer to this question in the history of another fabled urban neighborhood that was once called Deep Ellum’s northern sister: New York’s Bowery. In the 1960s, the Bowery was one of several Manhattan neighborhoods threatened by plans to build the Lower Manhattan Expressway. The road project was defeated by grassroots neighborhood activists led, in part, by Jane Jacobs.

The Bowery was a rough place in the 1960s, and had it been lost to the expressway construction, its story would have sounded a lot like Deep Ellum’s. It was a once-respectable, upper middle-class neighborhood in the mid-19th century that slid into ill-repute by the turn of the century. It became New York’s Skid Row, a legendary haunt for boozers and prostitutes. Had the expressway been built, the story would have stopped there. Instead, in the 1970s, the down-and-out Bowery became fertile ground for the breading of new artistic life, from punk rock to No Wave.

Deep Ellum had its own artistic boom in the 1980s, owing to the economic conditions of what was left of the neighborhood by that time: empty shells of turn-of-the-century warehouses and low-rent vacant storefronts that were easily and cheaply converted to galleries, clubs, and studios. But what was lost when the freeway chased most of the remaining inhabitants of old Deep Ellum was a sense of continuity, a collective neighborhood memory that connected the old world of The Street with the Deep Ellum that incubated bands like Edie Brickell & New Bohemians and The Flaming Lips.

That loss cannot be underestimated. Many of the people interviewed in the News stories remembered the very old Deep Ellum—some had seen the notorious saloon bar fights and heard the blues legends busk on the streets. If they had not been chased away by I-345, some of them may have still been around when places like the Theatre Gallery or the Undermain Theatre first opened.

The artists and musicians of Deep Ellum’s 1980s renaissance could have rubbed shoulders and traded tales with people who had watched variety shows at the Harlem Theater or chewed the fat with Lead Belly. But by the 1980s, Deep Ellum’s history was no longer a lived reality; it had become a symbol, a brand. Any tangible, personal connection to that history had been rooted out. The continuity was broken. When The Street’s “characters” left, the old neighborhood went with them.

That is why these three forgotten old News stories about Deep Ellum are so important. Almost unintentionally, they document what was really lost when I-345 was built. Sure, the neighborhood lost shops, hotels, and historic buildings. But the most significant loss was something more intangible. Call it memory, or character, or spirit. Call it a continuity of shared experience, or sense of identity shaped by the ebbs and flows of prosperity and decline.

Whatever you call it, that intangible quality is the real ingredient that makes cities and neighborhoods great. You can’t plan it or build it. You can’t fund it through philanthropy or market it in a tourism brochure. It isn’t “walkability” or “urbanism.” It takes generations to take shape. If you’re lucky, you capture it by carefully preserving all the beautifully ugly conditions that feed it life.

But if you lose it, it’s gone forever.

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