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Deep Ellu: The Last Best Hope For Funk

Dallas, this most proper of cities, has a hard time handling funky. Look what it did to Oak Lawn. The moment they learned that Oak Lawn was a fun, unpredictable, devil-may-care neighborhood deserving of ap- preciative funk-seekers’ atten- tion, the developers went wild. Funk went in search of another place to call home.

Now Dallas’s hope for funk | seems to have settled on that old freedman’s town known as Deep Ellum, that area east of down- town Dallas along Elm, Main, Pacific, and Commerce streets.

Deep Ellum is, in short, a mess. A vital, lively mess that has resisted-so far-the Dallas tendency to flatten funky in favor of fortune. In fact, in 1984, a vie- tory of sorts was won for Deep Ellum. The city plan commis- sion created the Near East Side Planned Development District i (PD178) that, among other things, agreed to zoning that would allow mixed-use development: i residential alongside retail, com- mercial, and light industrial.

[ But at the same time that Deep Ellura activists were successful in getting zoning changes to allow for the mixed uses that : make the area unique, rents for some buildings doubled and tripled when property owners read gushing tributes to Deep Ellum in the newspapers and believed them. Artists who came to Deep Ellum in search of huge, cheap spaces in which to work and live cried foul.

Traditionally, artists, merchants, and property owners have as much interest in working together as three two-year-olds with new toys. But in 1982, the Deep Elm Neighborhood Association (DENA) was formed, with four officers and three standing committees: artists, merchants, and property owners. Joe Biggs, an electrical mechan- ic, was voted president, and his i wife Sandra was elected head of the artists’ committee. Sandra says she is a sculptor, but no one seems ever to have seen her work.

Everything went well as long as DENA didn’t do too much, Few people attended the meet- ings, which Joe Biggs ran with a firm parliamentarian hand. But then came problems.

The trouble all began over Art- Walk, which the Biggses and several other neighborhood i faithfuls put together in 1985. Many participating artists were j irritated that people who did not work or live in Deep Ellum were allowed during ArtWalk to rent space to show their work. ; Several artists simply up and left in the middle of the weekend.

Then, money problems. Joe i and Sandra Biggs say some pro- i ceeds were used to pay for the rent on a three-line phone system used by DENA for neighbor- : hood concerns and to put together ArtWalk. Some say the phone bill was run up by the Biggses on another project that had nothing to do with Deep Ellum.

The situation worsened when Deep Ellum became the home of the Bunkhaus, a dormitory where labor pool workers could grab a bed and a blanket for a few bucks a night. A group upset over the Bunkhaus went to DENA, asking it to lodge a protest at City Hall. The Biggses refused. Despite an appearance at a council meeting by Ellum-nites protesting the Bunkhaus, the city refused to close it down, citing the mixed-use zoning once so coveted and pointing out that under the PD, the dormitory was a legal use. In September 1985, a group was formed called Near East Side Concerned Citizens to raise money for legal fees to fight the Bunkhaus. The city’s decision is being appealed.

And the neighborhood rift has widened. Last fall, opponents of Joe and Sandra Biggs called a meeting of DENA with the stated objective of voting them out of office. Joe Biggs outmaneuvered them, using parliamentary procedure to declare the meeting i illegal. The Biggses are still of- ficers in DENA, and their oppo- nents have started the Deep Ellum/Fair Park Neighborhood Association (DEFPNA).

DENA again sponsored Art- Walk this spring. Many membeis of DEFPNA boycotted the event. Some did not pay the required fee but opened their doors anyway, eliciting a threat (voiced by i Sandra Biggs in The Dallas Morning News) to sic the police ; on them. The police declined to get involved.

But if most EHumnites, sick of the bickering, are washing their hands of DENA and DEFPNA, the problems caused by mixed- use zoning may be just begin- ning. In December, the Video Bar opened on Elm Street. A dark, somewhat pretentious late- night spot for the punkish, the bar is flanked on both sides by people who live in their spaces-and sometimes try to go to bed before the music stops.

And residents have reported other problems: the sheet metal worker who starts banging on tin at 7:30 a.m.; the woodworker who uses smelly chemicals.

Though Deep Ellum has prob- lems, it looks as though funky may win out-at least for now. One reason is the plague of va- cant space affecting many other Dallas commercial real estate owners today. Artists who were getting priced out of the market are seeing landlords take a more reasonable approach. And de-sign guidelines hammered out by the Dallas city planners and yet another group, the Deep Ellum/ Near East Side Property Owners Association, offer some protec-tion (in the form of density re-quirements and height limits) from the invasion of tall glass boxes. But when the price is right, when developers need new projects, when land with easy access to downtown is gone, will Dallas’s last, best hope for funk survive?

-Glenna Whitley


Freshly washed clothes flap in the back yard breeze, hanging plants adorn sagging porches in need of paint, and chickens peck and cluck in the yards. The quiet Ledbetter area seems far from Dallas and even farther from the “crime and poverty” stereotypes with which other parts of West Dallas have been saddled. Led-better resembles a separate small town-and that can either be a blessing or a curse at Dallas City Hall.

The leisurely paced neighborhood is home to 6.600 residents, 85 percent of them Hispanic, according to the most recent census. Generally, they are blue-collar workers, homeowners, moms and dads. But in recent months, they have also been community activists in the race of growth problems and zoning cases that threaten their rural identity.

Sister Mary Walz sums it up succinctly: “Zoning is a zoo here.” She’s the administrator of the Marillac Social Center, a Catholic church outreach facility that provides day care, counseling, and social services to local families. In her ten years at the Ledbelter site, Sister Mary has seen the neighborhood become more and more attractive to developers and land speculators eyeing its prime location. Just north of 1-30, just east of Loop 12, and just across Loop 12 from a massive industrial park, Ledbetter is convenient to both Irving and downtown Dallas.

“Many of the Ledbetter houses sit on land that has been zoned for industrial use for years,” she explains, “and now, the citizens want some assurance from City Hall that their homes are not in jeopardy.”

Ironically, the case that brought their concerns to the forefront has nothing to do with encroaching industrial development. Instead, it was the Bernal Street Flea Market-a mix of Old World tradition and modem headaches-that threatened to divide the neighborhood. Known toLedbetter residents as “La Bernal,” or simply the “mer-cado,” the open-air market sprawled across both sides of Bernal Drive every weekend. More than one hundred vendors, their wares perched on truck beds, rickety card tables, or on the ground, bargained with sev-eral thousand customers. The scene was reminiscent of a bus-tling town square in Mexico- except that it was right in the middle of a residential area, and it flourished without benefit of the city’s required special use permit.

; “Improve it or move it” was i the demand of the fledgling Ledbetter Neighborhood Associ-alion, fed up with the traffic, parking, and trash-dumping problems associated with La Bernal. Sporadic attempts by the non-resident property owner to clean and pave parts of the market site did little to alleviate their concerns. After a particularly tense meeting between homeowners, vendors, outside land owners, and city planners called in to mediate the dispute, some mysterious criminal acts- an arson and the beheading of one neighbor’s pet goat-left the angry homeowners in stunned silence. Was this how their request for help would be answered?

By the time the controversy landed in the laps of Dallas City Council members, it had even i acquired racial overtones. La Bernal was seen as just another i example of the city’s indifference i to West Dallas, a complaint that dates back to the Fifties, when ; thearea known as “Eagle Ford” was home to thousands of poor minority residents who lived without such basic city services i as water, sewers, and paved ! streets.

The council was in a bind: clearly, the flea market was operating illegally, but at the same time, it served important ethnic and consumer needs in an area otherwise almost devoid of merchants. And the Ledbetter homeowners tossed another issue into the already boiling pot, asking the city to back-zone their whole neighborhood from industrial to residential, to fend off any future commercial use plans. Their cause has been championed in part by their District 2 council member, Lori Palmer. “The neighborhood is just starting to organize itself and have a sense of community identity,” Palmer says. “They feel vulner- able, and they need our support.”

Vendors agreed to hold their weekly flea market half a mile from Bernal Drive, on a new Sin- gleton Boulevard site chosen by the city planning staff. And the Ledbetter Neighborhood Associ- ation has gotten most of the i residential back-zoning it sought.

“We’re not trying to turn back ;the clock,” says Sister Mary iWalz. “We know we can’t be !isolationists. In fact, the resi- dents would welcome the right ikinds of controlled, compatible development.” That includes in- ifill housing; already, a few moderately priced homes have been built or moved onto once- ivacant lots. More retail and serv- ice outlets are sorely needed. ;There’s not a gas station or all- night convenience store within three miles; no laundromat, no pharmacy. Storm drains and road improvements are also on the i”wish list.”

Sister Mary describes a city plan commission meeting she at- tended during the flea market controversy. “A developer re- ferred to us in his statement as “a depressed area,” she says, shak- ing her head. “Well, we don’t see it that way. The people here are working and raising families, The median income may be low, but Ledbetter is not an area without hopes and dreams.”

-Chris Thomas

Neighborhoods we were sadTO SEE GO:

Little Mexico: One of our most culturally rich neighborhoods died at the hands of the Hi Hines-McKinnon couplet rampant rezoning.

Buckingham: The offer of millions from a developer finally got all but four of the sixty-four families nestled in this tiny neighborhood surrounded by Richardson. The rest sold out lock, stock, and barrel.

The “Mall” Neighborhood: RIP, the homes of those poor shopping addicts between Valley View and the Galleria now rezoned for high-rise commercial development.


For the residents of Melshire Estates, located just east of Inwood and north of Forest Lane, the Revolution never ended. The battle continues with : two 4th of July parades. We’re not talking about the American Revolution, but the neighborhood’s own private rift that started six years ago when resident Joe Barta, a powerful zoning lobbyist, helped the owners of some nearby properly get a multi-family zoning permit. The two parades (the Barta side versus the apartment-haters, led by Kathy Coffman) will head, from separate directions, to the neighborhood park, where they will play separate soflball games and enjoy separate but equal hot dogs and soft drinks.


The Cat Lady: Clo Salisbury of University Park drives her beat-up blue car around the neighbor- hood into the wee hours of the morning, stopping in dark alleys and setting down bowls of food for cats.

The Dog Lady: Mary Packwood of Pleasant Grove has been i known to trail a stray dog for miles, running stop signs and blowing her horn, until the bewildered animal finally relents and allows the woman to gather it in her arms.

The Animal Man: Chief John Toney of the Dallas County Sheriffs department is renowned for picking up anything that looks like a stray and trying to find it a home.


Pinocehio, Snow White, Dwarfs Circle, and Elfland Circle in the North Dallas area.


The Raymond Nasher Museum: Also known as his yard on Strait Lane, which is full of the stuff the DMA couldn’t afford.

The Wfflard “Texas Kid” Watson Museum: Deer antlers, bathtubs, a stuffed gorilla riding a rocking horse, an elephant taking a bath, etc., adorn this artist’s yard in Northwest Dallas.

Our Lady of the Bathtub: A construction worker in East Dallas, Silvestre Lopez, decided one day (hat he didn’t exhibit his religious faith as he should. So he cut a bathtub in half, painted it aqua blue, stuck it in his front yard, and then put a statue of the Virgin Mary inside.


South Dallas, specifically the area southeast of downtown that led the city in 1985 in murders (ninety-nine), rapes (124), and robberies (589). Far North Dallas (north of LBJ) was the leader in burglaries with 1,428 in 1985. Lisbon (in the southern part of Dallas) logged 1,288; East Dallas (south of Lakewood to 1-30) had 1,224: and the Love Field area (west of the Park Cities to Harry Hines), had 1,078 homes violated. The purse-snatching capita] is East Dallas, with 101, and the pickpocket’s haven is the Central Business District, with fifty-eight such complaints in 1985. The grand theft auto award goes to Vickery (the apartment labyrinth north of Northwest Highway), which claimed a city-high 710 auto thefts in 1985.


Mountain Creek in the southwest corner of Dallas reported just 691 crimes last year, but it is also one of the least populated parts of the county. Richland, in far northeast Dallas (east of I-35 and north of LBJ Freeway), also also qualifies with only two homicides in 1985. The neighborhoods of Lakewood and White Rock (East Dallas), Park Forest (northwest Dallas), Bru-ton (southeast Dallas), and Ferguson (tar East Dallas) had just four each. Park Forest reported six rapes, as did South Central (far southern Dallas, in a mostly underdeveloped area). Hillcrest (north central Dallas) had nine; and Mountain Creek and White Rock had ten. As for burglaries, South Central reported twenty-eight, followed by Mountain Creek with 141, White Rock with 288, and Elam with 289.

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