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Newcomer’s Guide to Dallas

Why I Love North Oak Cliff

Look beyond the neighborhood's hipster clichés.
By Peter Simek |
Photography by Kristi and Scott Redman

Nearly every weekday morning at 8 a.m. you can find me at Davis Street Coffee, the storefront run by the proprietors of Oak Cliff Coffee Roasters. Along with me there are always a dozen or so familiar faces: the marketing exec, the former art director, the red-haired priest, a prominent property owner, the music venue boss, and others. Sometimes one of the roasters, who also plays in a local alt-folk band, wanders up from the back to chat with the owner, who also happens to be a neighbor and whose kids occasionally chase my own up and down our tree-lined street of 1920s bungalows.

In many ways, Davis Street Coffee is the quintessential North Oak Cliff establishment. It boasts a refined yet homespun aesthetic and fosters a close-knit clientele. At a cursory glance, you might even describe the place as a cliché. Its dark, reclaimed wood-lined interior is hollowed out of a former Latino-run mechanic shop. Its success is underwritten by the area’s changing demographics, by the young people and young families moving into the neighborhood who are clued into the trend — both in Dallas and nationally — towards a more intentional brand of lifestyle: “craft”-this or “local”-that.

From the outside the neighborhood’s community consciousness may look precious or pretentious. North Oak Cliff has been called, somewhat pejoratively, Dallas’ Brooklyn or Portland — the place where the hipsters live. But what you miss if your knowledge of Oak Cliff only began with landing on the island of Hattie’s restaurant is just how this particular sensibility came about.

In 1992, when Texas Monthly’s Grover Lewis wrote “Farewell to Cracker Eden,” his seminal portrait of the Oak Cliff of the 1950s and 1960s, the neighborhood had largely emptied of its white, working-class population, who had fled to the suburbs. That paved the way for two transformative forces: the urban pioneers and new Latino immigrants. The pioneers embraced the neighborhood’s history by creating the Winnetka Heights Historic District, transforming a former trolley stop into the Bishop Arts District, and reclaiming the Texas Theatre, among other revitalization projects. The Hispanic community simply made North Oak Cliff their own.

On weekends, parks and public spaces are bustling with life: karaoke in the pavilions of Lake Cliff, soccer tournaments on the fields of Kiest Park, barbecuing and fishing in Kidd Springs. Jefferson Boulevard is the most successful urban corridor in Dallas, an unbroken string of boutique shops that is the main street of the city’s Hispanic community. There is nothing quite as North Oak Cliff as wandering through a street festival on Jefferson eating a paleta from Frutitas to the sound of live mariachi and ogling a Chevy pickup low-rider pimped-out in Dallas Cowboys blue and silver with suicide doors flung open.

Despite all the excitement over the neighborhood’s recent success, the three best things that ever happened to North Oak Cliff remain Hispanic immigration, the Trinity River, and crime. The river ensured that the area always felt a little far-flung. That physical barrier became a mental and metaphoric one over the years, as news reporters who couldn’t tell Kidd Springs from Kiestwood started saying just about every crime that occurred south of the river happened in Oak Cliff. There was never as much crime in North Oak Cliff as the rest of Dallas presumed, though the reputation helped scare away opportunistic investors and preserve a distinctive sense of place.

While bad press — and some real challenges — caused the rest of Dallas to coin the phrase “Oh, Oak Cliff,” when reacting to the unthinkable option of living south of the Trinity, these very things drew neighbors together. That’s what’s lost when we talk about our quaint ideals of urban life, or when developers try to bottle the feeling of living in a city in the form of cookie-cutter apartment blocks. The vitality and vibrancy of city life is born, in part, from unpredictability and vulnerability and the way these elements breed mutual reliance and community.

But the real secret of North Oak Cliff is that there is no North Oak Cliff. The area is a collection of many neighborhoods, each with its distinctive character, sensibility, networks of families and friends, and sense of pride and place. Still, if you really wanted to say what unites all these places, it would be that North Oak Cliff’s particular demographics, geography, and history have helped to create a place that has embraced contradiction and diversity like nowhere else in Dallas. It is a place that has had to fight for its businesses, fight for city services, and fight to retain its history and protect its small victories. The result of all that fighting is a defined and resilient sense of self.

To the outsider, this tight-knit sense of community might look like a hodgepodge. What does a bare-bones hipster coffee shop have to do with a 30-person-deep line outside the elotes stand at El Si Hay? These things might look like competing forces in a neighborhood undergoing rapid change. It might look like all these things don’t fit together. But they do; they always have. Because this is North Oak Cliff.

Peter Simek, arts editor of D Magazine, first moved to North Oak Cliff in 2002.

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