Roots of the North/South Rivalry.

THE FAMILY RIVALRY between Dallas North of the River and Dallas South of the River is nothing new. In recent years, it may have been aggravated by a monolithic northward-looking view by those on the north and a sulking, you-did-it-to-us attitude by those on the south. But with few exceptions in its history, the two sections of the city have been separate entities in character and spirit. Even the founders’ views were different from the start.

“This John Neely Bryan character that started the city was a real Dallas businessman. He was a speculator, town planner, promoter. He came to Dallas with the express idea of building a city and was hellbent to do it. Any book will give you a blow-by-blow account of Bryan’s life. But not so much was written about Thomas Hord (founder of Hord’s Ridge); his settlement was only a farming community,” explains Alan Mason, an urban planning consultant who studied northern Oak Cliff for the Texas Historical Commission and the Old Oak Cliff Conservation League.

The northerly direction of commercial growth was determined to a great extent in 1850 when the site of the courthouse was selected by voters. In a hotly contested runoff election, Hord’s Ridge lost by a handful of votes. The true loss, though, was on a larger scale for the future of Oak Cliff: As is the pattern with most cities, government and commerce grew hand in hand.

Even when a P.T. Barnum-style promoter/developer set his sites on Oak Cliff in the 1880s, his view of development was more in terms of residential subdivisions and recreational facilities -not commerce. But it is these residential areas, and those built later by Miller Stemmons, that have been the pride of Oak Cliff. With partner John S. Armstrong, Thomas Mar-salis created a community for the rich. For a time, Oak Cliff was the place to live.

“The forerunner of Highland Park was Oak Cliff. After Marsalis and Armstrong had a little disagreement, Armstrong went on and developed Highland Park,” says Mason. “That’s really how they envisioned Oak Cliff-very exclusive.”

The river in those days was a very real partition. When it flooded, passage between the two areas came to a halt. Marsalis answered the problem with an elevated rail system into downtown. That critical boundary between the two areas was broken down early in the city’s history.

The pattern of development in Oak Cliff, however, was set. William L. McDonald, in Dallas Rediscovered, writes, “Oak Cliff had established itself as a bedroom community satellite, albeit a very desirable and exclusive one. . . .” Oak Cliff, however, didn’t see itself as a satellite.

“Oak Cliff was a separate city until 1903 when it was brought into Dallas under most controversial circumstances by just a few votes -less than twenty-five,” says Ray Zauber, publisher of The Oak Cliff Tribune.

“Just three or four months before the vote [for annexation], the people of Oak Cliff had a vote to decide if they wanted to come in. It was overwhelmingly defeated,” says Zauber. “The reason that they didn’t get the turnout the second time is that they were told by whoever was the leadership in Dallas that it was illegal to call a second election on the same subject twice within a year’s time. Some people didn’t vote.”

Thus arises a deeply ingrained “theydid-it-to-us” attitude that’s still evident in Oak Cliff.

“For about a year [after annexation],” says Zauber, “the City of Dallas tried to establish government out here and the government of Oak Cliff continued to function. People finally got tired of getting two tax statements and having two sets of police, two sets of schools. In 1904, they met in the river bottom and had a peace-pipe session.”

On paper, Oak Cliff was part of Dallas. But in spirit, it clung to its tenacious separatism.

Like its leadership, the image of Oak Cliff has been alternately good and bad. The Forties were good times. By then, the population had spread farther south and west. And, as with any sizable area, Oak Cliff had become more heterogeneous. The middle class, the blue-collar workers, had come to stay.

“Oak Cliff has these strong neighborhood identities. Every neighborhood had its own grocery. There used to be cobblers on every corner. It was the ideal place to live in the Forties and Fifties because of the tremendous solidarity, partly brought about by these little shops,” says Mathis.

But, as Mathis points out, it was these little shops that didn’t survive when the population shifted and the great exodus to the malls took place.

There has been a lot of hand-wringing in Oak Cliff since those days. One tour through the older areas of the community tells you that stagnation set in. Some say it was the creation of massive malls that bled the shops – and thus the neighborhoods – dry. Some say it was the election of 1958 in which Oak Cliff was voted dry. The Race issue – always written with a capital “R”- was the reason Oak Cliff came to a virtual standstill, according to many residents. With white flight came accusations that North Dallas real estate agents were steering away growth. After integration, the school system became the whipping boy. The city also takes its licks when the accusations are being hurled.

“Twice there have been city installations that were put on the other side of the river that should have been put over here from a cost, access and parking point,” says Zauber. “One is the Justice Center at Industrial and Commerce, one of the most dangerous intersections in Texas. The other is Reunion Arena. It’s jammed in. It is inexcusable. They could have had thirty-seven acres for $3 million less over here.”

Still the stepchild.

Zauber may take time to bemoan the past; but an hour later, chances are, he’ll be sitting in on the signing of a major development agreement for the area. Hand-wringing is slowly turning to action.

“The new leadership that’s emerging down there is the opposite of the old-guard view – that feeling that they’ve been treated as second-class citizens because they haven’t partaken in the dynamic growth of the rest of the city,” says Ray Stanland of the city’s planning department. “It’s trying to capitalize on the more positive aspects of Oak Cliff.”

But there’s one change that is yet to come: the reversal of an image, one that goes back to the roots of the city’s development.


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