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How Deep Ellum Is Placing Its History Alongside Its Present

A new initiative places banners of historical images near their present-day locations.
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Deep Ellum Foundation

Deep Ellum is no longer just the collection of circa-1950s and ’60s warehouses and storefronts that fostered one of the state’s most vibrant music and arts scenes. Its early history as a melting pot for previously enslaved people and European immigrants was literally torn down and replaced with a highway. As the neighborhood welcomes new chain concepts, office space, and luxury apartments, its many eras can be difficult to see represented among all the new activity.

Photographers Steven Reeves, Sam Bortnick, and Justin Terveen are working to place its history alongside its present. A partnership with the Deep Ellum Foundation and the Dallas Public Library has hung banners of their work alongside historic photos of the neighborhood. Thirteen banners are spread across the district: five from the early 20th century, two from the early 2000s, and six from the present decade.

You can see the Knights of Pythias Temple, which is today the boutique Kimpton Pittman Hotel, as it was in the 1920s. Another image features the Continental Gin building’s water tower, now office space but once the country’s largest producer of cotton gins. A banner near the Adam Hats Lofts shows the building’s former life as a Ford plant. Another shot of Elm Street depicts Model Ts rolling alongside a streetcar line, framed next to the present-day view of the downtown skyscrapers a few blocks away.

The photos serve as a reminder of the fading narratives.

“We have side-by-side images dating back a century ago, next to current-day images that photographers went out and took for us,” says Stephanie Keller-Hudiberg, the executive director of the Deep Ellum Foundation. “Deep Ellum is really at an important point of growth and change. Even if somebody’s coming down for a new restaurant, or, you know, to see a show, they have some of that history at their fingertips.” 

For longtime residents like Joanne Gardner, standing witness to the history of Deep Ellum feels like a full-circle moment. She says the image series has helped her to gain perspective to see how the neighborhood changed over time. Central Expressway and I-345 was once Central Track, the beating heart of Black Dallas a century ago.  

“For our community specifically, there were quite a few Black businesses down there,” Gardner says. “They had cafes and places you could go and eat, and all that stuff.”

Cathryn Colcer, one of the curators for the series, tied the presentation to the history of Deep Ellum with the residents’ current understanding. Colcer helped curate the photographers and cross-compared their work with Deep Ellum’s rich history.

“I think that diversity is essential to those things and part of that gift that keeps on giving. It kind of sparks innovations and cultural advancement as far as music and art,” Colcer says. “When you look at people covering our neighborhood, they tend to grip onto the negative things instead of the positive things.”

It’s an extension of how the Deep Ellum Foundation sought to commemorate the neighborhood’s 150th birthday last year—programming festivals, tours, and other ways to pull people back to the neighborhood. Now, the foundation is trying to center its history.

“Just like with train tracks, where there’s friction, you can gain traction. Intersections and people mixing can be challenging. But that’s how we work through that and not just shy away, but dig into our history anyway,” Hudiburg says. “The diversity of entrepreneurs and immigrants mixing with African- American merchants, and musicians have been essential to what Deep Ellum is. So how do we continue to make space for that and uplift that? Those are some things that we’re working on.”

All that history is just a walk away.

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