What You Don’t Know About Oak Cliff (And Should)

The chalky bluff which rises out of the Trinity River bottom suggests something about one-third of our city. Oak Cliff, population 300,000. Oak Cliff stands boldly in a defensive position, like a bastion atop a bluff, peering out across the Trinity flood plain at Dallas. Although a half-do/en bridges link Oak Cliff to Dallas, tying us together as one city, Oak Cliff is still “over there,” across the river. The bridges serve as landmarks straddling the chasm which separates us, but in many ways the chasm is far more important. It marks a fundamental breach, one that has led “us” in Dallas to talk about “them” in Oak Cliff. Although corporately we are one. spiritually we are not.

“We” in Dallas tend to envision “them” in Oak Cliff as a different people, which they are, and quite proud to be so. Racially they are becoming increasingly black, economically they are predominantly blue collar and religiously they are so fundamental that First Baptist Church in Dallas joined in the fight to expel one of Oak Cliffs leading Baptist congregations, Beverly Hills, from the Dallas Baptist Association. At Beverly Hills they speak in tongues. In sedate “Dallas” Baptist Churches, such as First Baptist or Park Cities Baptist, they don’t.

Most east-of-the-river Dallasites have forgotten that but for a few votes Oak Cliff might have been looking down its nose at Dallas for the last 127 years. In 1850 the independent settlements of Dallas, Oak Cliff, and Cedar Springs vied for the official seat of Dallas County. Dallas received 181 votes, Oak Cliff 178 votes, while Cedar Springs (where Lemmon and the North Tollway now intersect) garnered 101 votes. In the run-off election Dallas prevailed over Oak Cliff, 244 to 216. To the victor went the spoils. Dallas won the county courthouse and has been winning ever since, seizing practically all of the goodies for its side of the river, keeping Oak Cliff residents constantly looking north and east to Dallas.

It seems that most of the traffic crossing those half-dozen bridges which link Oak Cliff and Dallas is generated by Oak Cliff people commuting to Dallas instead of Dallas people visiting Oak Cliff. The only place of community-wide interest in Oak Cliff is Marsalis Zoo, although once Burnett Field was there, just barely across the levee. Even the spectators sat with their backs to Oak Cliff, staring over the outfield fence toward Dallas. Practically everything else wound up in Dallas-east-of-the-Trinity.

Downtown is there, as is Fair Park, Love Field, SMU, White Rock Lake and nearly every major restaurant or entertainment spot worth noting.

Dallas also won the population race, which began on both sides of the river in the early 1840s. For some reason growth on the Dallas side exceeded that in Oak Cliff both in quality and in quantity. The most interesting development west of the Trinity occured in the 1850s when a group of several hundred Europeans, mostly French, founded a Utopian colony in what now is West Dallas. It was named La Reunion, but collapsed within a few years. Afterward many of the immigrant artisans crossed the river and settled in Dallas. Local historian A.C. Greene credits the settlers of La Reunion with giving Dallas a cultural breadth it might not have acquired for decades without the Frenchmen’s influence.

Oak Cliff’s first ambitious development was laid out in the 1890s by T.L. Marsalis and J.S. Armstrong, the men who probably popularized the name “Oak Cliff.” (For 50 years the area had been known as Hord’s Ridge, named for a local landowner.) Marsalis and Armstrong split soon after the development opened. Ultimately Marsalis failed in his Oak Cliff venture while Armstrong later succeeded with his sons-in-law in developing Highland Park. Prestigious developments like Highland Park, University Park and Munger Place grew on North Dallas’ waxy blackland prairie while Oak Cliff struggled along on a beautifully hilly tern in across the Trinity, an obstacle which wasn’t permanertly spanned until the Houston Street Viaduct opened in 1912, forever linking Oak Cliff and Dallas.

Although other formerly independent cities such as East Dallas and West Dallas have merged smoothly into Dallas, Oak Cliff has not. Even though Oak Cliff residents voted to join the City of Dallas in 1904,Oak Cliff still bears signs, both physical and spiritual, that it remain a city unto itself.

The basic cause of Oak Cliffs independence is the Trinity. Although many areas of Oak Cliff are actually closer to downtown than are parts of North Dallas, Oak C iff seems more distant because to get to them, you must cross the river an act which constantly reminds us that Oak Cliff is on the other side. There’s another aspect of crossing the river that implies a dramatic change. With the exception of R.L. Thornton Freeway and Corinth Street, every street flowing from Dallas west across the Trinity changes its name. Houston becomes Zang, Commerce changes into Fort Worth Avenue, Continental into Singleton, Wydiff into Sylvan and Inwood into Hampton. (Several of these actually cross into West Dallas, which is also west of the Trinity, and by some is mistakenly considered a part of Oak Cliff.) Once you arrive in Oak Cliff more differences become apparent. In the heart of Oak Ciff, there art streets named 8th Street, 10th Street and so on, a numbering system which implies that Oak Cliff really is a separate city.

Perhaps the biggest single image problem Oak Cliff fights is its location, wedged between West Dallas on the north, and South Dallas to the east. West Dallas has never quite recovered from the days when many of its inhabitants lived in refrigerator crates and hovels. Today it is burdened with the city’s infamous West Dallas housing projects For many years South Dallas was the section of town where the city’s blacks were bottled up. When housing opened up in the Sixties and blacks’ earning power increased, thousands poured into East Oak Cliff from South Dallas, into a community of inexpensive frame houses. The vast area east of South R.L. Thornton Freeway is now heavily black. Not long ago blacks began moving west across Thornton Freeway.

Oak Cliff leaders groan when the racial situation is brought up, but nevertheless, it is the major question facing the future of the community. Many Oak Cliff neigh-borhooc leaders have responded positively to the black immigration, displaying a determination to make racially mixed neighborhoods work, instead of resorting to the old patterns of white flight. But not all of Oak Cliff leadership has adjusted so well. One Oak Cliff bank has gone well out of its way to see that no blacks appear in photographs or film footage shot in the bank’s lobby, an unfortunate reac-tion considering that the prosperity of Oak Cliff’s banks depends upon the health and harmony of Oak Cliff as a community. Bigotry exists in North Dallas as well as Oak Cliff, but North Dallas doesn’t yet have to adjust to black immigration. Oak Cliff does.

As a whole, Oak Cliff residents find themselves in a lower economic bracket than most North Dallas residents. The results are clear – Oak Cliff entertainment pales beside the offerings in North Dallas. In Oak Cliff when someone says he is going to the country club, unmistakably that means one place – the Oak Cliff Country Club. In North Dallas it could mean Brook Hollow, Dallas Country Club, Glen Lakes, Northwood, Spring Valley, Preston Trail, Bent Tree, Brookhaven, the Columbian or a handful of others which are close to North Dallas.

There are really three Oak Cliffs. The first, east of R.L. Thornton, is black. The second, west of R.L. Thornton, is blue collar. The third, also west of Thornton, is middle and upper class white, a group of people that live in some of the most beautiful neighborhoods in Dallas. The most stunning of these is the Kessler Park-Stevens Park area in north Oak Cliff, nudged up against the Dallas-Fort Worth Turnpike. Many of the area’s homes are the equal of those in Highland Park, and often sell for half the price of a Highland Park home. In Kessler Park, for instance, a two-bedroom, one-bath bungalow sells for approximately $22,000. A similar home in Highland Park sells for at least $40,000 and sometimes as much as $65,000. North Oak Cliff is also prettier than the Park Cities – the area is built on a series of cuestas – huge beds of rock protruding out of the ground at an angle, forming hills with gentle slopes on one side and steep cliffs on the other. Oak Cliff’s other stunning neighborhood, Wynnewood Hills, surrounds the Oak Cliff Country Club.

One of the most peculiar aspects of Oak Cliff is its housing patterns. Quite often by driving a single block a visitor can go from a strikingly beautiful neighborhood to a dumpy one. There are few smooth transitions from glamorous to gauche. This phenomenon has provided Oak Cliff with a brand of politics which makes the North Dallas political scene seem a bore. With one hand Oak Cliff sends Rose Renfroe to city council, while with the other it dispatches Paul Ragsdale to Austin. Renfroe and Ragsdale have about as much in common as George Wallace and Jesse Jackson.

This mixed bag of politicians arises from Oak Cliffs amazingly different neighborhoods, a marked contrast to North Dallas’ mile-after-mile of three and four-bedroom brick homes. Draw the political lines any way you wish in North Dallas and there won’t be a dime’s worth of difference in who’s elected. In Oak Cliff, the lines have been drawn (many by Dan Weiser) to carve out constituencies of unique character. Black Oak Cliff has Paul Ragsdale, Eddie Bernice Johnson, Lucy Patterson and Emmett Conrad. The affluent areas of West Oak Cliff produced Bill Nicol, Chris Semos and Sarah Haskins.Unlike North Dallas, Oak Cliff is usually primed for a fight in the primary election. North Dallas is solid Republican, and there’s little chance that the Republicans will pit two candidates of any contrast against each other. In Oak Cliff, which is as Democratic as North Dallas is Republican, there are two wings of the party, making for some great fights in districts which have a reasonable balance between blacks and whites. Normally blacks and liberal whites team up to take on the conservative whites – a coalition which has kept Oak Cliff State Senator Oscar Mauzy in office for years. Already Oak Cliff is buzzing about the possibility of Representative Eddie Bernice Johnson’s taking on Senator Mauzy in 1978, so she can have a hand in the Congressional redistricting of 1981, perhaps carving out her own seat in Congress, much as Barbara Jordan did from the Texas Senate. They also talk about the probability that Rose Renfroe will challenge County Commissioner Roy Orr in 1978, which could easily develop into the knock-down drag-out political fight of the decade.

What Oak Cliff needs as much as anything else is civic clout, the kind that comes with the managerial class which lives in North Dallas. North Dallas gets things done because it knows how to get things done. Part of the reason that the managerial class is absent from Oak Cliff is quite simple – most of the powerful corporations reside in downtown or North Dallas. To be sure, there are some exceptions. Oak Cliff is home to Dixico, a very successful bread wrapper manufacturer, and to Vernon & James Smith Company, a construction firm which has had an enormous influence on Oak Cliff’s development. But there are many businesses which sprang up in Oak Cliff, prospered there, then later moved their headquarters across the river into Dallas. Among them are Republic National Life, First Texas Savings (Oak Cliff Savings & Loan), the Southland Corporation (7-Eleven) and Wyatt Cafeterias.

Oak Cliffs tenure in the Dallas mayor’s chair also underscores Oak Cliff’s shortage of influence. Only two mayors have hailed from Oak Cliff. They are the late George Sprague (1937-39) and Jimmy Temple (1947-49). Today Temple lives in North Dallas, as does Sprague’s prominent son, Dr. Charles Sprague, president of the UT Health Science Center.

One of the most interesting studies of Oak Cliff was completed in 1963 by a local public opinion survey firm, Belden Associates. Belden asked people all over Dallas what features they associated with Oak Cliff. The two most commonly mentioned were that Oak Cliff was dry and that it was very religious. These two images are very much entwined, dating back to 1956 when a group of Baptist ministers led a bitter fight to prohibit sale of alcoholic beverages in Oak Cliff. They won, 17,000 to 15,000, in a campaign directed against a pack of sleazy bars, most of which fronted Davis Avenue. Today Oak Cliff remains bone dry, as does practically all of Dallas, but Oak Cliff somehow retains a stigma because of its dryness.

Quite often the dry issue is given as the reason why Oak Cliff doesn’t have first class restaurants, which may betrue in part, but drinks are available at several Oak Cliff restaurant “private clubs.” The situation isn’t that simple. Oak Cliff lacks a strong contingent of young singles, young married couples and the affluent, which are the groups usually making up restaurant clientele. The restaurant shortage is attributable to more than just a simple wet-dry issue; it is attributable to the absence from Oak Cliff of a certain lifestyle. There is however, a resurgence of young people moving into the nicer areas of Oak Cliff, which might provide not only a livelier atmosphere, but also the basis of a new leadership class which might grow up in Oak Cliff and stay there.

Perhaps the most thorough analysis of why Oak Cliff remains such a well defined entity apart from the other two-thirds of Dallas was written in 1972 by Oak Cliff Chamber urban planner Jack Luby. Luby pointed out that Oak Cliff in many ways has made a concerted effort to perpetuate its image as a separate city. Luby opened the Dallas telephone book and found that 137 Oak Cliff organizations used “Oak Cliff in their names, while only 34 North Dallas organizations used “North Dallas” in their names. He also pointed out that Oak Cliff has its own magazine, Oak Cliff, which is published by the Oak Cliff Chamber of Commerce, and its own newspaper, The Oak Cliff Tribune. Today there is a second Oak Cliff newspaper, The Oak Cliff Press.

Luby noted that the Oak Cliff Chamber of Commerce, which is 57 years old, has done much to promote the idea of Oak Cliff as a separate entity.

He also observed a certain attitude among Oak Cliff residents, sort of a self-fulfilling prophecy that Oak Cliff would never secure any first class developments and that much of life is “too high class” for Oak Cliff. What Oak Cliff needs to shatter that attitude, and indeed to wipe out its complex, is a major developer to produce a first class project for Oak Cliff. Southwest Oak Cliff’s Red Bird Mall is a step in that direction.

What Oak Cliff now needs is a major development at its northern edge, preferably a major project on the west bank of the Trinity, which would blend nicely with the proposed Town Lake. Town Lake, which could be formed by damming the Trinity just south of downtown, would smooth over the chasm which separates Dallas and Oak Cliff. A major west bank development could spur redevelopment of all Northeast Oak Cliff. If it included high-rise buildings, the development would complement the high-rise structures across the river in downtown Dallas.

No matter what happens, it is unlikely that Oak Cliff will ever fade into thebackground of Dallas. It is too big, tooold and too proud to bow to Dallas, thestate’s second largest city. Oak Cliff, after all, is Texas’ sixth largest city. Whoever heard of a city that size fadingaway?


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