Deep Ellum has soul. You can feel it in the bones of its old buildings and in the spirit that thrives today just as it has since its founding in 1873. Deep Ellum’s grit and character are hard-earned. The neighborhood wasn’t designed on a computer and dropped into place or “master planned” by committees of developers and bankers. Deep Ellum was born of the sweat and toil of musicians and artists and entrepreneurs who came to roll the dice and take their chances, win or lose.
Deep Ellum isn’t obsessed with being hip or trendy. It doesn’t care what kind of car you drive or how important you think you are. Deep Ellum asks you to come and be yourself and to let others do the same. The streets of Deep Ellum are a melting pot, ever changing.
Much of that is because of its history. Deep Ellum started as a refuge for freed slaves and other outcasts of Dallas society. Jewish merchants eventually came and set up shops, selling to both African-Americans and whites, who otherwise couldn’t easily mix. Musicians have flocked to Deep Ellum since the blues heyday of the 1920s, birthing a world-famous music scene. Other artists eventually found the neighborhood as well, and over time it became Dallas’ truest cultural crossroads.
Deep Ellum is a place where things are made, not just consumed. In galleries, studios, and on muraled walls, artists continually invent new ways to express themselves. Comedians and actors not only perform here, they train here. Musicians don’t just play the neighborhood’s great venues, they also practice and record here. Some even set up on street corners for the sheer joy of making music (and maybe a few tips)
Our “maker” culture is exploding, and it is exciting to witness. Deep Ellum has bakers, book publishers, brewers, butchers, candle-makers, cheese-makers, dress-makers, furniture-makers, jewelry-makers, rubber stamp-makers, soap-makers, T-shirt makers and more. Rather than generic chain restaurants and stores, Deep Ellum is filled with “mom and pop” cafes and shops started by folks who have gone all-in on their dream.
But Deep Ellum is more than an entertainment district or retail center — it’s also a tight-knit community. Folks who live in Deep Ellum love it. This is a genuine walking neighborhood. You can walk your dog to the Bark Park, ride your bike, and generally get by without a car. Exploring on foot is fun. Making friends is easy. You can get to know the owners of your favorite neighborhood places.
The Deep Ellum “community” is itself untraditional. It includes anyone who is willing to help keep it alive, no matter where they live. And, like a big family, the residents of Deep Ellum share in the joys and sadness that come with life’s ups and downs.
A couple of years ago the community came together to build the amazing Deep Ellum Urban Garden. Some of our most active volunteers and donors didn’t even live or work here, yet they came out to help make this wonderful project happen. Many worked through 100-degree summer days, all for the love of Deep Ellum. I could give dozens of similar examples.
There is a rhythm to Deep Ellum life. Every week the neighborhood swells with activity and anticipation as the weekend approaches, when throngs of people come to see their favorite band or art show, queue up for barbecue or brunch, or pop in for an impromptu jazz parade or “zombie walk.” You never know what you are going to get here, what old friends you might come across, or what craziness you might get swept up in. Then Sunday arrives, and Deep Ellum exhales, relaxes, and readies to do it all over again.
The neighborhood has had its ups and downs, sure. But, like the mythological phoenix, Deep Ellum endlessly remakes itself, even as its soul remains intact. And that’s why I love it.
Sean Fitzgerald is president of the Deep Ellum Community Association and has lived in the neighborhood since 2002.